Stephanie Williams and her half-Arabian horse Garcia returned victorious from the 2017 Sport Horse Nationals in Raleigh, North Carolina after earning first place in the Half-Arabian/Arabian Sport Horse Show Hack Amateur to Ride Championship final on Sept. 10. After the five-day competition, Stephanie and Garcia proudly took home the ribbon and garland among a field of 70 competitors. Stephanie is a Killingworth resident who trains at Baldwin Stables in Deep River.
There were many suspenseful moments leading up to the announcement that declared victory for Stephanie and Garcia, whose show name is One More Saturday Nyte +/. Stephanie felt pleased with their performance regardless of the result, but she says winning the championship put her over the moon.
“I was ecstatic. I was so happy with the ride. There was nothing that would top the ride,” says Stephanie, 27. “They called [the reserve champion for second place], and I thought, ‘Great for her,’ and didn’t think much of it. When they called Garcia and I as a national champions, it was one of the most unreal moments. I remember hearing my trainer screaming out of the crowd. I was on the verge of tears with excitement.”
However, Stephanie and her trainer Karen Baldwin weren’t the only ones who reveled in the moment. Stephanie says that Garcia seemed to enjoy getting some attention for a job well done.
“You do the victory pass, and they announce again. Then you do the action photos,” Stephanie says. “He definitely knew he won and did well. He was proud of himself as we walked out of the ring.”
Stephanie and Garcia trained for months at Baldwin Stables to prepare for the competition. There were long hours of hard work for both of them, but throughout the entire process, Stephanie made sure to remember the reason why she rides.
“I was preparing the whole year. It probably took about five months of getting up before work, getting a ride in, and making each ride count for what it was worth, but trying to never lose sight that we do this for fun,” Stephanie says. “It’s always the ride that counts. The ride is what matters.”
Stephanie has been riding horses for as long as she can remember, starting dressage when she was in middle school. Dressage is a skilled type of riding in which the horse and its rider perform a sequence of predetermined movements.
“My parents put my brother and I on a pony before we could even talk,” says Stephanie. “Competing in dressage, it’s been about 14 years.”
Stephanie became serious about competing when she and her mother, Audrey Teofilo, decided to approach Baldwin for training.
“My mom and I would go up to West Springfield to watch the Arabian shows...We would see Karen, and she always had a kind nature. My mom had seen her grow up on the sidelines,” Stephanie says. “We bought a young half-Arabian, and I wanted to show with the Arabians...One day we got up the courage to call Karen for lessons, and that’s where it kind of took off.”
Baldwin was also integral in helping Stephanie unite with Garcia. After Stephanie’s horse passed away, Baldwin happened to be looking for a young horse for another client. When Baldwin worked with Garcia, she knew that he and Stephanie would make a great match.
“She looked at him and just fell in love with him,” says Baldwin. “He’s a very talented, very strong horse. He needs a really confident and fearless rider, and that’s Stephanie. She rides him all over the place. He’s the kind of horse that needs to be stimulated in lot of different ways. She’ll go riding on the trails and galloping on the beach. He’d scare the tar out of most people, and he doesn’t scare her at all.”
Stephanie describes Garcia as a particular horse. She says the relationship between a horse and rider has to be fostered through trust building and requires a great deal of patience.
“There’s definitely a huge level of trust you end up building with the horse. I know with Garcia, he’s truly a one-person type horse. When I first got him, we had to work on being a team together,” Stephanie says. “It took bonding together, grooming, trail riding. There are times where you have to push the training and that trust level to the limit. Sometimes you end up falling off, and you have to know when to stop. You have to listen to your horse’s body language and what they’re telling you.”
Stephanie compares a dressage routine to that of a pair of dancers. Like the dancers, Stephanie and Garcia each have their own strengths. For example, when Stephanie get anxious before competing, Garcia helps her stay calm. Stephanie does the same for him when they are out in the ring.
“I like to think dressage is a dance number. You have to work together to pull off these movements. You have to be in sync,” she says. “It’s mentally tolling. It’s easy for a horse or a rider to become frustrated. Before I step into a ring, I get show jitters. Garcia is a showman. He keeps his calm. He helps me work through that. In the ring, sometimes I have to keep him tamped down, so he doesn’t get too excited or hot showing off.”
With their big win on the national stage in the books, Stephanie and Garcia are looking ahead to 2019, when the nationals come back to the East Coast after a year out west. Stephanie plans to keep training with Garcia and trying more advanced techniques with the help of Baldwin and her other trainer, Ann Guptill, from Fox Ledge Farm in East Haddam.
“Were aiming to go again in 2019,” says Stephanie. “As for now, we’re working on advancing in dressage and finding upper-level dressage shows that we can compete in and make new goals for ourselves. The sky’s the limit.”