Clarke County’s Lauren Gibson, a fourth grader at Boyce Elementary School has won the 9th Annual Junior North American Field Hunter Championship “Hill Topper” division. This year’s event was held at Clover Hill Farm in Warrenton, Virginia and drew young hunters from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region including Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Lauren’s accomplishment is particularly notable because the nine-year-old was competing with riders as old as eighteen.
“I was stunned when I heard my name announced as the champion” said Lauren from the stables of Clay Hill Farm in Millwood, Virginia where she trains with her pony partner Landmark Cracker Jack – whom Lauren calls “Jack” for short.
“I was thinking to myself ‘I wonder if I’ll place’ as I was waiting for the announcement. It was really thrilling to win. I was pretty nervous as they were giving out the ribbons.”
Lauren’s championship performance may come as no surprise given her family’s love of horsemanship. Michele Gibson, Lauren’s mother, said that riding runs in the Gibson family. Lauren first sat on a pony when she was only six months old and her eight-year-old brother, Jared, also rides and hunts.
“I have been riding for over 25 years and Lauren has been riding at Clay Hill Farm since she was a baby” said Gibson.
Lauren’s riding coach at Clay Hill Farm, Iona Pillion, owns Cracker Jack and has known Lauren since she was born.
Michele Gibson says that riding is not only a fun activity for children, it also builds important character traits that will be important later on in life.
“Riding helps young people develop and mature by giving them a sense of responsibility” Gibson said. “Iona’s riders must present themselves with their hair properly braided and their horse saddled correctly. Not only do they have responsibility for themselves, they also have responsibility for their horse. Iona does an excellent job of teaching riding skills, but also manners and responsibility.”
Approximately 62 young riders qualified to compete in this year’s Junior North American Field Hunter Championships which is designed for junior riders from 8 years to 18 years mounted on fox hunting ponies or hunting horses. Contestants participate in either the hill-topping division for non-jumpers or the jumping division.
Lauren, who says that while she loves riding, also said that there can be some scary moments as well.
“At last year’s competition two kids fell after a jump and everyone was worried until we found out that they weren’t hurt” Lauren said. “I’ve fallen plenty of times. As you fall you always wonder if you’re going to be OK or whether the pony might fall on you or step on you.”
Lauren’s journey to this year’s championship required that she demonstrate her riding prowess at several junior hunting meets in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania before qualifying she actually qualified for the championship. After formally qualifying at hunts in New Market and Middletown, Maryland Lauren was awarded a silver rosette pin that she wore at future meets so that the judges would recognize that she had already been picked as a final contestant.
On the day of the championship – Sunday, November 6th which also just happened to be her brother’s 8th birthday who was there cheering her on – Lauren began the competition on a hunt with judges riding along in the rear. After almost an hour of hunting through the countryside and woods, the field of riders then competed in an open field by demonstrating walking, trotting and cantering.
Afterward, Lauren was one of only ten riders were picked to continue competing. The remaining ten contestants demonstrated additional riding skills by guiding their horses through a field and over a ditch, an optional jump and a final canter back to the judges with a final “ whoa”. Riders were also required to dismount in front of the judges followed by putting their stirrups up before leading their pony through a jump safely from the ground.
But other parts of the competition weren’t as straight forward said Lauren.
“As all of the hill toppers were riding along in the competition you couldn’t really tell who the judges were always” Lauren said. “They kind of blended in with everyone else so you never knew exactly when they were judging you.”
“Two kids fell off during the hunting phase in the beginning which was kind of scary” Lauren recounted. “We were practically cantering the whole time which was thrilling and fun. I was a little worried that Jack might trip because it was pretty muddy but he did fine.”
According to its website, the Junior North American Field Hunter Championships stress the junior rider and their pony or horse; “The fox hunting mount and its proper turnout is important, but their suitability for the young rider is foremost. We hope the children, the future of our hunts, will come out for hopefully a great day of hunting, meet new friends, see new country, and realize how important our countryside is.”
Lauren says that her recent victory is a day that she will always remember.
“It was a lot of work but it made me so happy to win” Lauren said. “I guess that I should have been tired by the time that I finished but I was too happy to be tired.”