By Britney Grover
Not many 10-year-olds — or adults, for that matter — are on a 20-year career plan, but Kat Fuqua knows what she wants. Born to USDF gold medalist grand prix dressage riders Jeff and Shereen Fuqua, it was only a matter of time before Kat’s interest in riding surfaced. What couldn’t have been predicted was her special blend of passion, maturity, talent and determination that have her on the road to achieving her dreams.
“My goals for riding are to one day get a champion ribbon at Pony Finals, and my really, really, really, really, really long-term plan is to make it to the Olympics,” Kat shared. Having turned 10 just before Pony Finals this year, Kat’s resume already proves she’s got what it takes. In 2017 alone, she has a wealth of tri-color ribbons from Atlanta A and AA shows; earned multiple ribbons at Devon; was WEF Circuit Champion for green pony hunter and 11 & under equitation, as well as Champion in the medium pony division; won the $5,000 USHJA Pony Hunter Derby in week 9 at WEF followed by the $10,000 USHJA Jr/Amateur National Hunter Derby the next day; and finished fifth of 174 competitors in the Marshall & Sterling USEF Pony Medal Final. Kat is currently the USHJA’s most winning Pony Derby Rider in the country.
A Strong Foundation
Kat’s first ride was during her first birthday on a miniature named Buttercup. She grew up watching her parents train at their family barn, Collecting Gaits Farm in Atlanta, Georgia, where she got her first exposure to Olympians. Top dressage riders were often brought in for clinics or private lessons, including Steffen Peters, Michelle Gibson, Lars Peterson and more. Kat graduated from leadline and began showing hunters at 5 years old, and her parents knew they needed to build a solid foundation for her riding.
“As a dressage rider, I was afraid of hunter-jumpers and their two-point, and I thought she would get hurt,” Shereen remembered. “So she flatted on some ponies, but then when I thought it was starting to get dangerous with the wrong pony to learn jumping, I reached out and got in contact with Mindy Darst, whom I was told was a top pony trainer and judge in the country. At the time, I didn’t know any of Mindy’s history or have any knowledge of hunter-jumpers in general.”
Shereen knew she wanted the best for Kat, and the best is what she got in Mindy: As a nationally known trainer, Mindy’s students won tri-color ribbons at top shows including indoors and Pony Finals. She was a USEF “R” judge and highly sought-after clinician, ran her own Lochmoor Stables and dedicated countless hours to the sport volunteering for positions with the USHJA and other key organizations. When they met her in November 2013, what the Fuquas didn’t know was that Mindy’s seven-year battle with cancer was nearly over.
Shereen and 6-year-old Kat flew from Atlanta to Ohio for the weekend when Mindy had a gap in her schedule. “When we went to meet her and she put Kat on a pony,” Shereen recalled, “Mindy got so excited and pulled out another pony and gave her another lesson, then put her on another — she ended up having so much fun training Kat that by Sunday she said, ‘Well I don’t really know how to help you get the right pony, but if you’re interested, I go to Wellington for the season and I’ve cleared my calendar of judging: I can train your daughter on my daughter’s top pony.’”
Learning To Win
Shereen knew it was an opportunity too good to pass up, so they spent the winter with Mindy at WEF. Kat rode Hillcrest Blue Gemstone, showing in crossrails and learning the foundations of jumping. “Mindy would always say, ‘Your heels are the wheels of your airplane,’” Kat remembered. “World’s Best Heels — I always hear that in my mind, her saying that to me. I have to put my heels down, and then the horse can go forward and jump high.”
And jump high they did — Kat and Gem were champion twice and reserve champion once in Kat’s opening season. During the last week, Kat even made the jump to short stirrup — literally. “My favorite memory of Mindy was when she made me jump 2’6” to earn moving up from crossrails to short stirrup,” Kat remembered with a smile. “I was a little nervous at first to jump it, because I had only been jumping 2’3” and the little crossrails in the show ring. But after I jumped it, she threw her arms up in the air and said I could do the short stirrup!”
In her first-ever short-stirrup class — during her first-ever jumping season — Kat earned sixth place. But Mindy knew Kat had potential for much better. She was known to say, “You save your energy for the good ones,” and her experience let her see Kat’s raw talent, even at 6 years old. She outlined a plan for furthering Kat’s showing career after WEF, and returned to Ohio. Kat began showing in Kentucky with Mindy’s business partner Patty Rogers, and the Fuquas soon learned the reality of Mindy’s situation.
“Mindy basically called me and told me she didn’t have much time left, and talked to me about how much she loved training the children,” Shereen said. The following week, Kat and Shereen flew out to Ohio for another weekend. “All of her students were there, and all day Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Mindy and Patty just taught the kids.” The Fuquas even arranged for a hot air balloon to pick Mindy and her family up from their home to see her beloved horse farm from the sky at sunrise. Sunday night, Kat thanked Mindy with a big hug as she left for the airport. The following day, Monday, June 2, Mindy passed away.
“I think Mindy knew that she wasn’t going to get the opportunity to teach a whole lot of additional kids, and I think she was very proud of the fact that one of her last students was really interested in learning. I think it was really good for her,” said Mindy’s husband, Greg. “It gave Mindy some excitement to have a young kid who just really wanted to do it right. And honestly, her parents were pretty much adamant that they wanted Kat to do it right. So I think it was a good fit at that time for both Mindy’s life and, I think, for Kat’s life.”
Winning & Learning
Armed with a treasured T-shirt proclaiming “Refuse 2 Lose” that Mindy had gifted her, Kat continued to develop her riding skills. Striving to keep Collecting Gaits Farm in Atlanta their home base was difficult as they searched the country for top trainers. Kat spent regular time learning from Olympic bronze dressage medalist Michelle Gibson, developing her equitation — which played a role in Kat earning Reserve Circuit Champion 11 & Under Equitation at WEF 2016, and taking the championship the following year in addition to winning numerous other tri-color ribbons, derbies and indoor ribbons.
And all the while, Shereen made sure to give credit where it was due. “Every time Kat wins something big, I call Greg Darst and thank him for sharing his wife with us,” she said. Beginning in 2016, Collecting Gaits Farm became the first Presenting Sponsor of the USEF Pony Finals “in honor of Mindy and her love for the ponies, the kids, and the sport,” Shereen said.
Following this year’s winter season, the Fuquas finally found a trainer also based near Atlanta to help in Kat’s goal of winning championships — Jenny Darst. Unbeknownst to them at the time, Jenny is Mindy’s step-daughter, who trained with Mindy from age 4. Kat and Jenny hit it off. “Kat’s awesome,” Jenny said — exactly what Kat had to say about her. “She is smart, witty, funny and wise beyond her years. I might not be anywhere close to her age but can have as much fun with her as I do most of my friends! Kat’s work ethic on everything she does is very impressive. It’s not often you can look at a 9-year-old and give them an instruction and it not only happens but it sticks.”
Though she only had several weeks to train Kat for Devon and a few months for Pony Finals, it didn’t faze Jenny. With Mindy’s same technical approach, she trained Kat to a blue ribbon over fences at Devon on one pony with a fourth and sixth place on another. Since Jenny and Kat teamed up, they have earned over 30 championships and 10 reserve championships at rated shows. At the USEF Pony Finals in August, Kat earn fifth place in the Pony Medal and eighth place overall large green ponies. “This was my fourth year showing at Pony Finals,” Kat said excitedly, “and the first year I’ve ever gotten ribbons. So I was extremely happy about that. I got eighth this year. I wasn’t even really close to getting a ribbon before.”
Girl With a Dream
But ribbons still aren’t Kat’s favorite part of Pony Finals. “The hotel we stay is where all the pony kids stay, so I don’t think we’re really supposed to but at night after everyone shows, we go down to the lobby and we use the furniture as foot jumps,” Kat divulged, her true 10-year-old side shining through her precocious demeanor. “Everyone at the show comes to foot jump, and it’s really, really fun.”
In fact, when Kat’s not at school or riding, she can usually be found jumping anything she can find on foot — including in the house. Her heart truly is in jumping — and with her ponies. Though she can be shy, all one needs to do is get Kat talking about her ponies to see that she’s still a little girl who truly loves her ponies — and has a mature determination to ride them to the best of her ability. “I own four ponies and a horse,” she said. “High Noon 3E, Captain America, Goldhill’s Arresting Charm, Chic In Time and Finesse RF. Charm is the sweetest — he loves to cuddle.
“Hippo is the horse, High Noon 3E. He’s really sweet and he takes care of me,” she continued. “He doesn’t really know how big he is. I do the children’s hunters with him. Nacho is Captain America, and he is very brave — except when it comes to plants. One time a plant fell over in the ring and he just had a temper tantrum. He ran off sideways and I came off the other side because I wasn’t expecting it. They let me re-do the round, since it was interference in the ring, and I came back and got champion with him — so I forgave him for doing that,” Kat said with a fond smile.
With their eyes on the future, Kat and Jenny hope to see each of Kat’s ponies win a national title even as Kat begins to ride in the junior hunters and big eq. She recently acquired RS Levitation, a Dutch Warmblood gelding she will show this fall in the 3’6” junior hunters. Kat has already qualified at least two ponies for indoors, and is currently working on earning points towards Devon with the determination and drive to win that Mindy instilled in her.
“Wow. It’s hard to describe the feeling,” Jenny said of the opportunity to teach Kat. “Mindy absolutely loved teaching; she was so detailed and honestly better at starting a foundation of great basics than anyone I’ve ever known. Teaching a child that had a passion and a real talent was what she treasured most, ‘the good ones.’ To be able to have the chance to continue helping a student after Mindy’s started them is nothing other than a true gift. Mindy was thrilled to have Kat as a student, and to be able to give what she knew was her last ‘unicorn’ her absolute best. Now, years later, I am the lucky one who gets to help Kat build on the solid foundation that Mindy started.”