By Lyssette Williams
Portraits by Kristie Nichols
For grand-prix rider Chenoa McElvain, developing horses to their highest potential is a long-standing family tradition. It all started with her grandparents, Tim and Betty McElvain, who were both avid riders. Betty developed an interest in dressage and after a trip to Europe, Tim and Betty decided to import a Holsteiner stallion and some mares, which would set the McElvain family on a multigenerational journey in New Mexico.
“My grandmother loved classical dressage and rode with Nuni Oliveira for a long time, though she never competed,” Chenoa said. “My father, Guy McElvain, worked on my grandparents’ ranch, Rancho La Querencia, starting and riding the young horses. Both my parents are athletic, competitive people, but they weren’t interested in the dressage world. So, they branched out and bought a property adjacent to Rancho La Querencia to focus on developing the Holsteiners for show jumping.”
Horses in the Blood
Chenoa was at the barn before she knew how to walk. “Instead of a babysitter, I would get strapped into a basket saddle on JoPo, a Quarter Horse my parents bought for my first birthday,” Chenoa said. “I’d sit parked on her in the arena while my parents rode. The first time I was scared to be up there, so I cried my eyes out. After that, though, I would cry because I didn’t want to get off!”
Though growing up on horseback was the norm for Chenoa and her brother, Clayton, playing games and riding across their conjoining family property, Chenoa wouldn’t start competing until age 6. “My first pony, Dixie, was a blue roan Navajo pony I showed in the hunters. She wasn’t fancy but she was an incredible pony to learn on,” Chenoa said. “During my first season of showing, we traveled to the old Indio horse show to compete. Gloria Knight was training me back in the pony ring, which was far from the barn. To save time, we rode back double. Gloria saw a loose horse and pulled Dixie up so she could catch it. Turns out it was the stallion Contefino! He reared and struck Gloria down before coming after Dixie! Growing up on a breeding farm, I knew to bail and get out of the way. Poor Dixie was chased around for 45 minutes until show workers finally caught Cortefino. Although Gloria and Contefino were fine, Dixie always bolted at shows after that.” That hair-raising experience would have scared many young riders away from horses and competing, but for Chenoa, it helped her develop grit.
“My next pony was an Indian range pony that we purchased as a green 5-year-old,” Chenoa said. “I trained him up and eventually competed him in the Pony Prix at Spruce Meadows. He’s still in the sport — my brother had him after me and currently he teaches little kids to ride at Invicta Farms in Santa Fe.”
Despite being from a long line of horse people — or because of it — Chenoa was never handed the reins of pleasant, easy horses. “My family has always been very supportive of me in the sport,” Chenoa said, “helping provide me with amazing opportunities, but they have always made me work for what I want. I always had tough horses, horses with issues, horses that we traded for horse trailers or treadmills or other things the ranch needed.”
These horses taught Chenoa resiliency and dedication to not only the sport but to the horses themselves. “They helped me appreciate what it means to be a horsewoman,” Chenoa said. “I became a better communicator and developed a passion for showing off their talents and training up their weaknesses.” Her hard work paid off and by the age of 13, Chenoa was competing in the grand prix and in the North American Young and Junior Rider Championships four years in a row. On the show circuit, other professionals noticed her work ethic and zeal and began offering their help along the way.
“It takes a whole village to get you to your goals, especially if they’re big,” Chenoa said. “For me the community really came together to get me where I am at today. My mentor for the last three years has been Jenny Martin McAllister; she’s helped take my riding from national level grand prix to FEI level. John Pearce coached me at my first World Cup qualifier, and I spent two years working with Richard Spooner after the opportunity came up to partner on a horse with him. It’s been an amazing ride!”
Five years ago, the HIPICO Santa Fe Horse Park in New Mexico came up for sale. “The facility needed a lot of work — but my parents and their business partners, Brian and Phyllis Gonzales, were dedicated to rebuilding the equestrian community in Santa Fe,” Chenoa said. “They wanted to create a boutique specialty horse show series — with main-event classes on the grass and exhibitor galas on the weekend. Something that not only exhibitors could enjoy but that spectators could as well.”
Dreaming up the Santa Fe Summer Series and what HIPICO Santa Fe could be was the easy part, but there were daunting tasks ahead. “Our biggest project was footing,” Chenoa said. “Everyone has an opinion about footing, and it took a lot of trial and error figuring out proper maintenance.” With the footing figured out, sponsorships in hand and marketing out in the world, HIPICO Santa Fe’s popularity and show attendance blossomed.
“The grand prix gets the most spectators,” Chenoa said. “Another fan favorite class was inspired by an incident during our first year of horse shows. Someone had taken all the flags down at the facility and replaced them with the Texas state flag. Coincidentally, that was the day the Governor of New Mexico, Susana Martinez, was visiting. We scrambled trying to take them down before she arrived!”
From that mad flag dash, the class “Battle of the Flags” was born. “It’s a state team challenge — head to head competition with each clear round winning a point for the team,” Chenoa said. “We hang the winning state’s flag from our center field for the remainder of the year.”
While Chenoa enjoys competing and training her clients at the horse shows, she’s also deeply involved in community initiatives HIPICO Santa Fe is undertaking. “Because the riding community has given me so much, I want to give back in return,” Chenoa said. “Through the HIPICO Santa Fe Horse Park, we’re developing initiatives to promote others. We’ve launched the Learning and Practice series, which hosts six to 10 clinics a year across every discipline. Some clinicians we’ve had include Richard Spooner, George Morris and Charmayne James.”
The Horse Park also puts on community shows, which are flexible, with a pressure-free environment for riders to practice show courses and school on the grass. “One year, we replicated the AIG $1 Million Grand Prix and let people school it at every height level,” Chenoa said. “We love doing innovative things like that, to keep things fresh and inspire people.”
Another new program dreamed up by Chenoa and becoming a reality through her stable, Rancho Corazon and HIPICO Santa Fe, was the sponsored rider program. “I started the program in conjunction with HIPICO Santa Fe because there wasn’t an avenue for young professionals to learn the business side of running a show barn,” Chenoa said. “They receive training from me, and we cover all their costs including show entries and training fees. I want to develop mentor-like relationships like the ones I had.”
Rising to the Challenge
While her heart and business are firmly rooted in the New Mexico countryside, Chenoa’s eyes and dreams are set on the future. “Right now, I’m campaigning my grand prix horse, a 12-year-old Swedish Warmblood, Wallstreet RC,” Chenoa said. “I’ve had him since he was 5. He has a keen sense of humor and is the most intelligent horse I’ve ever worked with. This makes him a bit quirky and tough, but I know he’s my horse of a lifetime!”
Riding her wonder horse, Walle, Chenoa has won several Welcome Stakes and grand prix this year. “Every day I’m chipping away at my goals,” Chenoa said. “We’re aiming for my third World Cup qualifier at the Columbus International. I’d love to compete for Team USA at any of the international events: World Cup, Pan Am Games and of course the Olympics. I also have several younger horses that I want to continue to train to reach the top levels of the sport. My youngest prospects include a full brother to Richard Spooner’s Quirado RC, named Qui Largo RC, and a super-talented mare, Marbella de Muse RC. Her jump is incredibly powerful!”
While it takes time to build a dream from scratch, Chenoa jumped into the deep end and continues to persevere. “I feel lucky to have a team of people who support my dream and the journey we have been on together,” she said.
For more information, visit www.ranchocorazon.com
Photos by Kristie Nichols, moonfyrephotography.com, unless noted otherwise