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Forging New Paths

Filed under: Current Articles,Featured |     

Hailey Smith and Heather Werkema-Smith with “Geoffrey.” Image courtesy of the Paint Horse Journal.

The mother-daughter relationship can be complex, but for the Smith family, their love for the horse conquers all – even one of the most daunting classes: pleasure driving.

By Delores Kuhlwein

Having horses with good minds enabled Hailey Smith to put her hands up and show off her horse’s talent in the Open Driving. Image courtesy of the Paint Horse Journal.

“In you, I see the best parts of me.”- unknown.

It’s not your everyday occurrence to behold a youth competing in an open driving class, but at this year’s APHA World Championship Show, Youth Hailey Smith and her mom, Amateur Heather Werkema-Smith, made history showing together in the Open Driving.

Why were they inspired to tackle such a feat?  “Honestly, we both love big, fancy hats,” quips Hailey, who piloted four-year-old Money On My Mind, aka “Geoffrey,” to a respectable 3,4,5,6 in a class of trainers – and (ahem) against her mom, who drove We Love Pie, aka “Pie.”

The well-known DIY family from Michigan, which includes Youth Marley Smith, who carved out her own APHA World Show record last year as World Champion Novice Youth Hunt Seat Equitation 13 & Under with Boot Scootn Sensation, boasts a great reputation for showing all-around, but driving was certainly a new venture, inspired by Geoffrey.

“After last year’s world show, we wanted to redirect him from the Hunter Under Saddle and the Equitation for a bit, so we decided to put a lead change on him and teach him how to drive!” explains Hailey.

Marley also showed Pie at the 2024 APHA World Show to wins in the over fence classes.

Heather, who learned to drive from the great Mary Luther, says after the 2023 APHA World Show, Geoffrey was treated to a well-deserved vacation, and after all the prep done in circles for his Hunt Seat classes, they’d wanted something fresh for his mind. “He was also slow to physically mature and I knew the driving could really help him build up some back and core muscles,” she says.

So with some tips from Mary Luther, they started line driving and adding PVC poles, then eventually the cart, says Hailey. “Geoffrey was the perfect horse to start because he is the best minded and most laid-back horse we’ve ever come across. Therefore not only did he become a fast learner, but he also allowed us to be quick learners and really built up our confidence and our trust in him. After Geoffrey learned so quickly, we decided Pie needed to learn it, too!”

Though both horses were different learners, they both picked it up quickly – Geoffrey won the Amateur driving with Heather in his fifth drive at the APHA Eastern National Championships, the first time he’d been shown, and Pie had his first trip in the cart in the show pen with her at the World Show.

The Mother-Daughter Bond

In addition to this remarkable accomplishment, the family is prominent for coaching and supporting each other at shows. Though enthusiasts of any sport understand it’s hard to coach your own loved ones, they set that notion on its head.

“I know it’s hard for a lot of kids to take advice and criticism from their parents,” explains Hailey, “but I trust in my mom’s ability to make me into a good rider and help me make a good horse. My mom is the best support system and personal trainer that I could ever ask for. We’ve both grown and learned so much in the last couple of years that we’re at a point where one of us is always on the rail helping while the other is in the ring.”

“I’m so proud of Hailey.  Not very many 18 and Under kids are showing Junior horses and even less of them are doing the majority of the training themselves,” Heather reveals. “I grew up showing with my grandparents hauling me to shows and coaching me along the way.  It’s so special to me to have been able to do the same with my girls.  Being largely DIY, it’s a hard life.  We are the ones cleaning the stalls, tending to wounds, doing the turnout, keeping up the barn and just the everyday care of the horses and farm, and we do all of that between work and school.”

It’s that daily grind, she explains, that makes them horsemen, however.

“Being able to say that I was able to coach both of my girls to their first World Champion titles means more than anything,” Heather continues. “I can’t imagine not hauling my girls all over the country, making all of our dreams come true.  It’s truly an honor and a blessing to do this with them. I appreciate Hailey’s willingness to work with her mother, since we all know that the mother/daughter-client/trainer relationship can be tumultuous.”

For the Smiths, it has worked well, and Heather instinctively knew when to place Hailey in the hands of others. “I can’t say thank you enough to those along the way that have been there to help us when we needed it.”

Their development as horsemen also enabled Hailey to tackle her longtime nemesis: Showmanship.  Since Geoffrey was purchased as a two-year-old, Hailey was the one who had to teach him.

Heather adds, “Showmanship has almost been a joke in our family because we have had a string of geldings that just had no interest in being good at it.  We finally have Geoffrey who actually has some talent and willingness to participate which makes all the difference.”

Face her nemesis she did, as Hailey earned a Bronze World Championship in the Novice Youth 18 & Under Showmanship, resulting in tears and sobs of joy for all. “It was my first time after three past world shows ever making the finals in the showmanship!” Hailey exclaims. “Getting a reward at the world show of all places is definitely a reassurance that I’m bringing him in the right direction and reassures me that I’m improving in a class I’ve always struggled in!”

Driving Encouragement

When asked whether driving at first is scary or fun, Heather says, “It’s definitely both!!  Stepping into that cart the first few times is literally terrifying.  You just NEVER know what could happen and let’s be real, we’ve all seen those cart wreck videos on the internet!  But, once you know you can trust your horse, it is so much fun!”

Hailey agrees it is definitely scary at first, but she says her horses’ good minds gave her the comfort and confidence she needed to put her hands up and show off their talent.

They found the right guidance, too – before entering Hailey into the Open Driving, Heather consulted with APHA President Kelly Chapman and Director of Judges Sandy Jirkovsky to make sure youth were allowed to drive, and they gave them the go-ahead. She also says that Trainer Teresa Pelton was a great encouragement to her last year at the Eastern National Championships. “She really made me feel welcomed into the “driving community.  I think it’s important to encourage some of the older youth and Amateurs to get involved in the driving.”

Since driving takes so many hands, they found having help and support is instrumental. “At minimum, you need one extra human per horse and driver, to help get all of the equipment to the show arena and attached to your horse.  Plus, you need someone to help you load and unload the carts from your truck or trailer.  If you’re walking by my trailer at just the right time, don’t be surprised if I don’t wrangle you into helping us!” Heather laughs.

Hailey says she knows driving has benefitted her horses’ toplines and movement and has provided a great change of scenery, and most of all, being a youth in the Open Pleasure Driving was simply fun! “If growing the pleasure driving world through youth showman is a step we can take, then it’s a step we should take!” she reasons.  “The driving is so unique and not exactly limited to certain horses. Geoffrey had the open driving at the world show on the same day as western pleasure and horsemanship!”

She encourages, “I feel like if you trust your horse enough, anybody can teach a horse to drive! I’m definitely biased but more youth need to teach young horses! Geoffrey and I know each other so well and he’s the best partner to teach. I’ve learned so much from him about what direction he needs to be taken in as well as the adjustments I have to make for his best interests. We definitely have trouble competing in the all around against talented broke horses, but it’s so much more rewarding knowing that I’m working with him every step of the way towards our goals. That makes every win mean so much more!”

Image courtesy of the Paint Horse Journal.

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