By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Callie Jones is a first-generation rider who has charmed the dressage community with her humble attitude and hardworking spirit. Even with her collection of North American Youth Championship medals, her national titles and her name gracing top FEI rankings, Callie will never forget her small-town roots.
The 22-year-old rising superstar grew up in Henderson, Kentucky, a river town nestled between rolling hills and the Ohio River. Callie enjoyed an active childhood, spending time outdoors and playing sports.
“We spent lots of time at my mamaw and papaw’s cabin on Lake Barkley, swimming and riding jet skis,” she said. “For my seventh birthday, my parents took me to a local farm to go on a trail ride. I was able to take one of my best friends with me and we had the best time — I instantly fell in love with horses.” She spent the following weeks begging her parents for lessons and she hasn’t looked back since.
“My dad was around Standardbreds when he was young, but my parents don’t ride so I’m a first-generation rider,” she said. “They’ve always been very supportive of my riding.”
Callie got her start in jumping while training with Stacy Denton at Blue Moon Stables.
“I loved jumping and honestly thought I would be a jumper for my entire riding career,” she said. “My horse, Barkley, and I were going to shows every chance we had and were very competitive in the jumper ring. We were jumping 3’6”–3’9” when Barkley was injured in a pasture accident, ending his jumping career — and mine too.”
Setting the Bar High
When Callie was still jumping Barkley, she would haul to Rhine River Farm to train with Angela Jackson, who had a very successful show jumping career in Germany. After Barkley was injured, Callie’s parents purchased Fabiola, a jumping prospect, from Angela’s father.
“Angela was giving a clinic at my home barn, Blue Moon Stables, so of course I signed up. After the first session with Fabiola, Angela said that I had a great feel for dressage and invited me to come train with her. I was so excited — I honestly thought I would still be jumping, but little did I know she had other plans for me!” Callie laughed.
As a goal-oriented person, Callie worked with Angela to craft a plan to attend the North American Youth Championships in the Juniors division. Callie set the bar high and never backed down, even when Fabiola faced some health issues.
“I felt defeated,” Callie said, “I had a goal of making an NAYC team and I wanted to reach that goal more than anything.”
Angela tirelessly sought out a mount for Callie, and finally recommended a lease with Holly, a hunter-jumper mare owned by Susan Summers.
“Holly had been in the field for several months, so Angela knew it was a long shot. But she also knew the talent the mare had,” Callie said. “Holly taught me how to ride a flying change, how to do a canter half-pass — basically everything that I needed for the Junior tests. She wasn’t an easy horse, so she also taught me to not let my guard down.”
Though the pair didn’t make the team in 2015, the journey lit a fire in Callie’s heart. She knew it was time to find her own horse. While Angela was in Germany to visit family, she tried a few horses, including Don Phillipo, a Hanoverian gelding trained to Third Level.
“My parents purchased Phil for me four months prior to attending my first NAYC,” Callie said. “Phil and I were still getting used to each other, but we placed sixth as a team, 12th individually and sixth in the freestyle. Being part of the Region 2 NAYC Team was an awesome experience that I will never forget.”
Go Big or Go Home
As Callie has now aged out of the Young Rider division, she often reflects on her journey. In the time since her first NAYC, Callie and Phil have climbed the ranks, acquiring higher placings each year.
When she first started, Callie sometimes felt like a small fish in a big pond, but she’s taken advantage of the room to grow. She went down centerline at her final NAYC in 2019, capturing individual and freestyle gold.
“The first time I attended NAYC was honestly very overwhelming,” she admitted. “I was fairly new to the dressage world at that caliber, was on a new horse and was even a bit star-struck after seeing all of the talented combinations that I would be competing against. I definitely was not as confident a rider back then and remember going down centerline for the team test and thinking, Just don’t fall off.”
“My last NAYC experience was a complete 180 from my experience in 2016 as a junior,” Callie continued. “Phil and I had created a strong bond and had won individual gold and freestyle bronze the previous year, so I knew we would be competitive if we had a clean test, and we did!”
Callie commends programs like the NAYC for developing young riders into future athletes. “It really feels like a ‘mini Olympics’ and gives the youth a taste of what it’s like to compete internationally.”
And competing internationally has been something Callie has gotten used to. Through the Emerging Athletes Program, she was selected twice to compete overseas on the European Young Rider Tour for 2018 and 2019.
“Competing in Europe was incredible, and being able to watch some of the top young riders in the world compete was a wonderful learning experience,” she said. “Watching them really opened my eyes to the fact that even they make mistakes, but they make up for it by taking risks and riding ‘outside the box.’ This carried over to my riding and I started taking more risks in my test, which really paid off for me.”
Callie and Phil have spent the past four years developing their bond under the scrupulous eye of United States Youth Coach George Williams. “I was fortunate enough to be George’s working student for the 2017–18 winter season in Florida, which is when I competed in my first CDI. He has always been so supportive of Phil and I, and I really value the relationship that I have with George.”
Over the 2019–20 winter season, Callie returned to Florida with Angela, competing in CDIs and participating in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Week.
“I’ve met so many people while competing in Florida who are now lifelong friends,” she said. “The atmosphere is so much fun and everyone is very supportive.”
Though Callie has ridden the waves of success, the triumphs don’t come without challenges. In November 2018, Callie was met with a challenge that tested her resiliency like nothing she’d ever faced before. Phil underwent colic surgery, spending several weeks at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington.
“That was, without a doubt, one of the hardest things that I’ve endured,” she said. When Phil was cleared to come home, he was stall-bound with only hand-walking for four months.
“It was devastating to see him in pain and walking through the unknown,” Callie said. “All of this happened so quickly, but I made a promise to myself and Phil that I wasn’t going to push him beyond what he could do. I knew the goals that I had for us that year, but it honestly didn’t matter anymore. If NAYC or Europe wasn’t going to happen, then it wasn’t going to happen and that was fine.”
Despite the grim outlook for the year, Phil was enthusiastically awaiting his time back in the spotlight.
“Every day it was like he was saying ‘C’mon mom, I am fine, can we please go back to work?’” Callie said. “When it was time to for him to go back to work, he came back better than ever.”
Just a month after he was cleared for full work, the pair competed in their first CDI of the season, ready to take on the rest of the year.
“During that tough time, I had such an amazing support system with me through the whole process, which really pulled me through. As I look back, I’m so grateful for all the opportunities I had, the places I’ve been and people who helped me along the way. I had lots of success, but also numerous setbacks,” she said. “I learned that this sport takes hard work and dedication to be successful.”
School, Family and the Future
Along with Callie’s success in the show ring, she has managed to juggle her remarkable youth career with traditional school experiences. Since her barns were close to home, Callie was able to attend public high school and take lessons after school.
“College was harder to juggle because I was going to Murray State University, which is two hours from Henderson, and I couldn’t ride every day like I wanted to,” she said. “I came home every weekend to ride and get lessons. I was also fortunate enough to have professors who were very understanding and were willing to work with me when I needed to miss a day or two of class for shows.”
Recently graduating with a degree in agribusiness, Callie is thankful to have experienced college life. “I know college isn’t for everyone, but I think it is important to get an education, so you have a backup plan if you need it.”
Callie has been accepted into graduate school at Murray State University to pursue a masters of agribusiness economics, which she’ll complete online so she can pursue her goal of qualifying for the Brentina Cup with Phil in 2021.
With the coronavirus pandemic putting things on hold, Callie hopes to spend more time with her friends and family outside of the barn, but she will be ready to jump back in the game soon. Angela is helping Callie prepare for the U25 Grand Prix, another trip to Europe and goals of making the U25 Nations Cup Team in Florida.
“Having the support of great trainers like Angela and George has definitely gotten me through some tough times when I doubted myself as a rider,” she said. “Angela has brought me from a shy 14-year-old riding Training Level to a confident rider where the sky is the limit.”
And the sky is the limit for Callie.
“I’ve learned not to give up when times are tough,” she said, “because those are the moments that mean the most once you reach your goal.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise