Post Derby Finals Interview With Amateur Rider Mindy Cortez

by Michelle Drum August 23, 2016 16 min read

Mindy Cortez at USHJA International Derby Finals


Saturday night I watched the USHJA Hunter Derby Finals handy round on live stream. I feel like dozens, maybe hundreds of us who couldn't be in Kentucky did the same thing. As luck - and mother nature - would have it I planned my evening perfectly and got to watch both the Section B & the Section A riders contest the handy course. I watched 40 riders on some of the countries most beautiful horses take a turn on Bob Murphy's course in the Rolex Arena. However one rider really stood out to me. An amateur rider out of Oklahoma, not the one who went home with the biggest check, the biggest trophy or the bluest ribbon. 


Mindy Cortez & Happy Hour obviously have a very special connection, which became very clear when they exited the ring after their handy round. Sure mistakes were made, that's why we are amateurs right? But the pats, hugs and treats when she came out of the ring really left an impression on me. So I set to work tracking her down for an interview. She may not have gone home with a ribbon for her efforts, but she showed us there is so much more to being an amateur than winning. 


How long have you had Happy Hour AKA Ernie & how did you know he was ‘the one’ when you were looking for a new horse? (age, breed, favorite treat, his bit, lucky charms, random weird things you keep in your trunk etc)

431 days. 62 weeks. 14 months. However you look at it, that’s the span of time I’ve been the human lucky enough to be Ernie’s. It’s always exciting to get a new horse and in their own way, each of them is so very special, but little did I know on June 18, 2015, that I was acquiring one who would quickly become my horse of a lifetime.

Last June, my trainer, Libby Barrow, was off showing at the Spring Spectacular at Lamplight with a barn full of clients. As my family was spending some time in Colorado for the summer, my sister and I elected to instead spend June competing our horses at Summer in the Rockies in Parker, Colorado. That way we’d be more easily able to enjoy both horses and family time. In order to make this sport a bit more sustainable, I have taken on purchasing, making up/giving mileage to and reselling horses and ponies in the last few years. At the time, I had several resale horses on the road with me. While Harriett Bunker took on training duties, my days were quite full as I was handling all the riding on the horses my sister and I brought with us. Without my normal trainer there and with full days and horses I needed to sell already, I certainly was not looking for a new horse.

Then I saw Ernie. The first time I saw him, he came out of a turn to a simple 2’6” vertical, stopped about 5 strides back, and stared down at the flowers, snorting, with genuine concern. When he jumped it a few minutes later, he did so with the most beautiful, natural round jump, and landed playful in a way that depicted how proud he was of his great effort. I was in love immediately. We scheduled a trial, which was kind of silly. In most cases, you try a horse and much of the decision is based upon whether or not it’s a good match. My mind was made up, and I was going to be willing to go to the ends of the earth to learn how to ride my new flea-bitten friend. I jumped several jumps in a schooling ring and got off, beaming. The farm he lived at was nearby and I was offered the chance to do another trial there where I could jump around a course. I declined, called Libby to inform her I’d found a horse I ‘had’ to have, and scheduled a vetting.

Ernie is a Dutch Warmblood Gelding by Argentinus out of Saskia. He is an unassuming little flea bitten grey, and not the first horse to catch your eye if you walk through my barn or past an arena of horses hacking around. He has these sweet questioning and very expressive eyes with white eyelashes and a couple little worried looking wrinkles over them. When food is present, they turn into the biggest, goofiest, cartoon-like eyes you’ve ever seen as he cranes his head and neck out and sideways demanding his share.

He has some funny quirks that took a little while to figure out. For example, walking straight into a grooming stall really stresses him out, but if you back him in, he’s the happiest horse in the world. He’s very perceptive and reactive to the emotions of people and horses around him, and you can generally gauge the nature of the environment he’s in by watching his behavior. When everything is calm and relaxed, so too is Ernie. When something is awry and stress is running through the barn, he is visibly restless.

I ride Ernie in a rubber D ring snaffle only because I’m required to have a bridle and a bit. In reality, a halter would probably be ideal. When he is bridled, it is with the nose band just tight enough to not wiggle around, but not tight enough to apply any pressure to his face. He doesn’t wear a martingale or ear plugs.

Ernie is kind of a food monger. I think that might be the first thing we had in common as I started getting to know him! He definitely thinks about his stomach all day, every day. In my tack trunk and ring-side backpack, you’ll find a healthy stash of things like sour gummy worms, lemon heads, sweet tarts, stud muffins, carrots, peppermints, and more. While all goodies that I, too, enjoy, the stash is in fact for Ernie. I think the only food I’ve found to date that I’ll eat and he won’t is seaweed. Of course, that doesn’t stop him from begging for it and then spitting it out upon realizing that it is not up his alley! I was recently showing in Santa Fe and reached down to give Ernie a cookie when I heard Dylan Harries call out from behind me, “That horse is going to have diabetes from today alone with the number of treats you’ve fed him!” I stuck to carrots and apples for the rest of the day on the theory that it would balance out.

I make a focused effort to avoid getting into the habit of having good luck charms. I went through a phase when I was very superstitious about almost everything, from what I was wearing to the way I shined my boots to the earring I put on first to the way I warmed up, and I realized how exhausting it was and have since tried to pay attention to anytime I feel myself start down some such path, and immediately changing it. For example, if I wake up in the morning and want to put on the same belt I wore yesterday since it served me well, I will quickly make myself wear a different one. I do give Ernie cookies before and after every single round no matter what, but that’s more of a thank you and apology for tolerating me than it is a superstition!


How many Derbies has he done, what do you normally show him in?

Did you plan to try to qualify for derby finals or did it just happen that way? Derby finals was Ernie’s 3 rd derby. Omg, that sounds even more terrifying when it’s written out like that. What was I thinking? Derby finals was absolutely positively in no way part of any plan that I had. About a year ago, I walked in for my first class on Ernie, a 3’ adult hunter class in Colorado. After getting rattled by traffic in the schooling arena and then twice stopping many strides before the first fence, I came out. I decided to go in again after he had a moment to let his adrenaline go down. This time, he jumped the first fence but in a way that was high and awkward and felt scared, so I gave him a pet, pulled up, and came out. We spent the next couple weeks slowly building our partnership through simple, unimpressive exercises. The next show I took him to, just a couple weeks later, was a spooky indoor arena and he jumped around like a champ, earning the championship.

My plan for Ernie this year was to do the 3’3” AOs while having a professional campaign him in the first year greens to give him some valuable and positive mileage in the 3’6” ring. Unfortunately, I had a bit of a freak accident in the fall that resulted in a broken back and I was out of the game for several months. I got back in the show ring at the beginning of WEF and he felt so good in the 3’3” AOs that I moved right up to the 3’6”. He won a class at WEF his first week in the division, and hasn’t been shown by a pro since early January. I’m telling you – he’s amazing!!!

In April, I was showing in Tyler, TX. The plan was to do Ernie in the AOs, but he felt so solid the first day of the division that we decided, sort of on a whim, to enter him in the derby the next day. It was a perfect set up because the AOs went in the same arena earlier in the day, so I did the first round of the AOs so he had a chance to jump around the ring and settle in but skipped the second class so as not to put too many jumps on his legs. When we walked the course, we planned a conservative track over all the low options with the exception of possibly jumping one high option near the end of the course if he was feeling good. As soon as I jumped the first jump, I knew I had a derby horse! We jumped 2 of the 4 high options and earned scores of 88+2 and 90+2 to take the win in the classic round. We went back last in the handy and I rode like a monkey which caused a bit of a slip-up. With a 73+3 and 88+3, we finished in 3 rd behind Courtney Calcagnini and Peter Pletcher.

At that point, I really still wasn’t thinking about Derby Finals until a friend sent me a list of qualified entries, which resulted in me thinking about the prospect of hitting some more derbies with Ernie in the coming months. I hoped to slowly step him up to bigger classes, back tracking to the AOs at the first sign he wasn’t absolutely loving the derbies. With plans to hit a 25k, 50k, and 100k class in the three months leading up to Derby finals in hopes of being able to determine if he was ready to take on finals, I had some things come up and my plans became a wash. I sent a Derby Finals entry anyway…just in case.

I was finally able to get back on track just a couple weeks before finals, and went to Santa Fe where Ernie and I contested the $10,000 International Derby on the beautiful grass field. He once again exceeded my every expectation and took the win in the first round. Pilot error, once again, relegated us to third overall following the handy.

With no previous derby experience myself, I had no idea if his two derby performances deemed him ready for finals (just 2 weeks away at this point), and I was aware of the long and accolade-filled resumes of most of the other horses headed to the final. I decided that I would take him to Kentucky and prepare through the week as though I was going to do the final, and walk the course and decide at that point if it was a good idea. I knew there was nothing that could be built that my horse wouldn’t try at, and that was my biggest source of concern. I didn’t know if I could trust myself not to put him in a position where he had to try too hard and scare or injure himself. “No” is not in his vocabulary; no matter the situation I get us into, he gets us out (and somehow never holds a grudge.)

Hunter derby horse jumping

hunter derby jumps
Morning hack in the Rolex Ring With The Sand Sculptures - According to USHJA it took 125 TONS of sand to create the sand sculpture jumps. 

What was your biggest concern when you walked the finals handy course?

Bobby Murphy is incredible. What a visionary for the hunter ring. The hunters jumped bigger that night than did the Grand Prix horses the following day. That’s exciting. The course was big, it was beautiful, it asked all the right questions, and it offered every opportunity for horse and rider to show off what they were good at.My biggest concern when I walked had nothing to do with the course itself and everything to do with my decisions leading up to that point.

The first day, in the classic round, I had one of my least favorite rounds I’ve ever had on my horse. Ernie pulled out some incredible efforts that scored us just enough points to get us into the night class, but it was not a round that I’m proud of, and through it I learned a really valuable lesson. I spent the days leading up to the classic round watching, listening, observing, and talking to riders with tremendously more mileage than I have talking about how important it is to have horses quiet enough to take on the Rolex Stadium. Because of the huge space, the distracting flags and fountains, and the looming grandstand, horses had a hard time focusing on the job at hand and needed to be more quiet than they would be for a normal hunter class. It made enough sense. On a normal show day, I take Ernie out in the morning for about 10 minutes of loose trotting and maybe a couple canter laps. Low stress, just to get him out of his stall and let him have a chance to move around. 

In Kentucky on ‘normal’ days, I did this out in one of the cross country fields. On the morning of the classic round, I did my normal ride, and then let all the comments of the week go to my head and spent an extra 10 or 15 minutes cantering. It was certainly less work than I do on an ordinary hacking day working on his fitness, balance, etc, but it was 10 or 15 minutes more than I ever do to show. It was a mistake. While still perfect and delightful as he ever is, I had significantly less horse than I’m used to riding, and my trip suffered for it. I came out of several turns with not enough leg on and lost my canter, and then either felt like I had to pull and add an extra step, or get a little desperate and chase up to the jumps. It was certainly not a beautiful, flowing hunter trip. I left the ring full of pride and gratitude for my horse who had just jumped his 3 rd derby ever on such a big stage at derby finals, but infuriated with myself for changing the plan. That background brings us to the walk for the handy. My first big night class and Ernie’s first big night class. It was cold and rainy, and Ernie’s preparation for the day consisted of going out to hand graze two different times for 45 minutes, and a 25 minute walk ride from his stall to the Rolex stadium and back with just a 5 minute trot thrown in.

I was nervous that I made the wrong decision as I watched so many other horses throughout the day on their “get quiet” program, but I felt confident that I made the right choice for my horse and me. If the weather and the lights woke him up and he was jumping with extra exuberance and landing playful, I knew I would be comfortable riding that. If I cantered a few minutes too long and he was very quiet, I would be less comfortable. Even knowing this, though, didn’t keep me from feeling a little insecure as I walked the course in such astounding company.

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Which jump was the most intimidating / or the one you thought you would have the most trouble at?

The verticals set at 1.45 and 1.57 were the most intimidating for 5’ me to walk up to, but I didn’t anticipate trouble from my horse. He’s game and scopey and curls himself around even the most upright, unfriendly verticals. With Bobby Murphy’s generous brush ground lines, both verticals were set to produce beautiful jumping efforts despite their astounding size. I was a hair nervous about the first jump, the big hedge, being jumped directly towards the grandstand. The jump itself was quite friendly, but jumping directly into such an impressive barrier right off the bat could certainly pose an issue.


Which one was the most fun?

There were a couple of oxers (high options, even) that my horse cleared by at least a foot. It was the most incredible feeling and I wish I could relive it all the time!

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Where you able to stick to the plan you mapped out when you walked the course. If not what changes did you have to make once you got in the ring.

In the classic round, I had jumped 3 high options and Ernie did it with ease. I was tentatively planning on jumping most of the high options in the handy round, too. When I cantered in, I had a lot more horse than the day before. I was thrilled because I’m so comfortable riding him that way. I decided on the low option at jump 1 which I think was a good idea – he stared pretty hard into the grandstand and jumped up extra high there despite being on the low side. As he settled in, I decided on the high option at jump 4. In the wet footing and with his extra exuberance, he almost tried too hard, so I decided to stay conservative after that. I kept my turns wide and sweeping, and finished up over the low options.

*According to the commentators, the last high option fence on the course was a 5'1" wall 


As an adult amateur, how did it feel to walk into the ring Saturday evening?

I was really excited and I knew I could count on my horse, but I definitely felt the pressure of being under the lights in such an important class. I spent a lot of time leading up to the finals wondering if I should have a professional do my horse so he was more likely to get the ride he deserved, and as I set foot out there I definitely questioned whether I really belonged. I was coming into Saturday having made some mistakes on Friday that were a bit embarrassing to say the least, and while I didn’t anticipate laying down a winning round on Saturday, I wanted to feel like a competitor; like I belonged out there. At the very least, I didn't want to walk out feeling embarrassed that I'd made big mistakes or put my horse in unfair positions. That’s an intimidating feeling, and it really put the pressure on.

That said, I was full of other emotions as well. I remember watching the very first Derby Finals, in 2009, from a wheelchair. I fell in love with Rumba and marveled at John French’s masterful ride. It was at a time in my life when I was unsure if my love of horses would be able to manifest itself as anything more than enjoying them as pets. At the time, I dreamed to one day watch the class in person, live from Kentucky. Not in my wildest dreams did I envision a day that I’d have the opportunity to compete. Standing at the gate of the Rolex stadium taking a look at the course from that view as I waited my turn really made me take a moment to realize just how lucky I was to even be there, and with such a remarkably special horse.


What did you think of the course design and any changes you might have made to how you rode it.

I loved the course design. I loved that there was a hand gallop jump, I loved that there were plenty of options. I wish I had ridden smarter to the first few fences and given Ernie more clear instructions on where we were going after the first. After making some mistakes early, I sort of rode with a “well, you already lost, just enjoy it!” attitude, and my ride improved drastically. It’s a frame of mind I struggle to get into but wish I’d started with.



What are your plans for your future with Ernie?

For now, I’m just going to continue appreciating every day that he is mine. I graduate from college in December and I’m not sure what the future holds for me, but the chapter of my life that has included Ernie has been a really special one. I really wish there was a way I could express my gratitude to him in plain English to be sure he ‘gets it,’ but even then I’m not sure I could come up with words strong enough to depict my gratitude. Every single horse in that class brings to the table a tremendous amount of talent and athleticism, but I don’t believe there’s another one with as much heart as mine has. He’s a really special soul and I feel so fortunate to get to know him. When I dismounted after the handy, I went to see my mom who had come to town to watch. By the time I got to her, I was sobbing. She didn’t understand why I was so upset following what was quite a great round despite a stupid error on my part that caused some lead issues. Through my tears, I told her “I just can’t believe that horse is mine. I can’t believe I get to be here. I will never understand how someone like me ends up with a horse like that.” They’re questions I ask myself every day and ones I’ll probably never have an answer to. Of course, being the realist that she is, she quickly jumped in to help me get a grip of myself “every single person in here right now thinks you’re being a spoiled brat crying like this after showing – get a grip!” We giggled and I (kind of) got ahold of myself (not before ugly-crying and embarrassing myself in front of countless people, though!), but I sat there grinning for the rest of the evening watching horse after amazing horse contest the same track I just had the privilege of jumping with Ernie.


Parting Thoughts?

This has been the coolest experience. I feel like I’ve created a lifetime of memories with Ernie, yet I think I’ve done a total of 12 shows with him. I feel like our partnership is so established in some ways, while in other ways I realize that we’ve really just gotten started. His improvement hasn’t come from week after week of jumping big classes. 90% of what Ernie’s life looks like is grazing in turnout with his best 4 legged friends and hacking in the grass field at our farm. It’s not a program (or lack thereof) that would work for every horse, but it certainly adds to how special he is. Libby and I were laughing the other day because we were able to count on one hand the number of times he has jumped at our farm at home. I know I sound like a broken record, but he is so special and I really feel so lucky to have him. 

Girl hugging horse



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