(first printed in the April 2011 Equiery)
by Katherine O. Rizzo
Watching & Learning
Mary Ballew grew up like many other horse-crazy little girls who played with horse toys and begged her parents, William and Debra Ballew, for riding lessons. By eight years old, she was signed up and on her way to eventually becoming The Equiery’s 2010 Perpetual Eventing Award winner with her horse, General MacArthur.
Mary’s parents first bought her a series of lessons at nearby Full Moon Farm in Finksburg as a Christmas present. The idea was to see if she liked riding enough to sign up and stick with it. And boy, did riding stick! “She always liked horses, always liked riding. She picked it up pretty quickly and was very comfortable around horses,” said William.
Soon after her first lessons with FMF trainer Michelle Benczkowski, the Ballews bought a pony named Sweetie when Mary was 10 years old. “Sweetie was a lesson pony that was leased to Full Moon and when I heard she was going to be sold, Karen [Fulton, FMF owner and trainer,] helped me convince my parents to buy her,” Mary explained. Mary began working at FMF, helping out wherever she could, all the while watching and learning from the other riders and from the FMF trainers.
With Sweetie, Mary joined one of FMF’s many equitation teams and started to compete in hunt seat equitation. Although she was quite good at it, Mary was also watching other riders school over FMF’s cross-country course and go off to events. “Cross-country just looked so cool and like so much fun,” she said. She soon decided she wanted to try that too. William commented that Mary has always been very focused on goals and “once she makes up her mind, it is hard to change it.”
Around this time, Mary had also outgrown Sweetie and was looking at horses to move on with. Horses that she could event. Along came General MacArthur, or more commonly known as Mac.
The Right Partner
Mary and Karen went horse shopping at a variety of barns but in the end, Mary wound up buying a young horse bred by the Fultons. Mac is a half brother to FMF Manila Bay (aka Thunder), who won this award in 2009 with owner Stephen Fulton. Mac was only four years old at the time and Mary first rode him in a few lessons before committing to buying him.
Mary’s parents were not at all worried about their young daughter riding a young horse. “We thought it would be good to grow up with a horse instead of [riding] a made one or push-button horse. Karen is good at matching riders with horses,” William commented.
“He has a great personality, is really smart and personable,” Mary stated on why she likes the horse so much. Mac is a Thoroughbred- Percheron cross that trainers, parents and Mary also describe as “very stubborn,” but somehow Mary has found ways to break through that stubbornness and demand the best from him.
“Mary is really dedicated and really stubborn, just like Mac. She never gives up and can be really focused,” said Michelle. Through the years, Mary has worked with both Michelle and Karen on finding ways to better communicate with Mac. “He likes to argue, so she is learning to make him think everything they do was his idea. He’s his own littler person. He’s opinionated and she does a good job with him,” Michelle added.
With Mac, Mary achieved her goal of moving into the eventing world. She did her first event at Old Hope Farm in 2005. From there, she steadily moved up the eventing ladder from schooling shows to recognized events, from Elementary to Preliminary. In 2008, she and Mac qualified for the American Eventing Championships at Novice. The event was held in Illinois and after dropping a rail in show jumping, the pair placed 20th overall. The following year, Mary and Mac headed to the AECs in Illinois once again, this time at Training level where they placed just inside the ribbons in 12th.
After more than one successful eventing season with Mac, all Mary’s hard work continued to pay off in 2010 as Mary set her sights on The Equiery Bowl.
The Road to The Equiery Bowl
In 2009, Mary and Mac narrowly missed winning this award, which went to Stephen and Thunder. Thus, in 2010, Mary was even more determined to win the award. She said, “I did want to win this, and also wanted to move up to Preliminary.” So after a successfully move up to Preliminary in June, Mary reassessed the rest of her season. “I noticed that I already had a lot of good scores at Maryland events so decided to back down to Training for the rest of the season,” she said.
By the end of the season, Mary had completed 12 events, nine of them in Maryland. She won four times in 2010 and placed in the top 10 at all completed events. Mary and Mac did have a bobble on cross-country at The Maryland Horse Trials at Loch Moy Farm II in July where they fell on course. The fall didn’t seem to faze either of them as they headed to Olney Farm two weeks later and won their division.
Other wins for 2010 included Waredaca and Loch Moy in October and Rubicon Farm in June. Mary said the highlights of the season for her were moving up to Preliminary and finishing in the ribbons at the 2010 AECs. Her Preliminary move up was at Surefire in June where the pair only dropped one rail in show jumping, jumped clean cross-country and placed third overall.
In September, Mary traveled with the FMF crew down to Georgia for the AECs. This time, the pair had many Training and a few Preliminary events under their belts/girths and were more than ready to compete against the best eventers in the country. The pair scored a 38.3 in dressage, jumped clean and fast on cross-country day and then put in a flawless show jumping round to finish ninth in the Junior Training Championship division. “AECs were a lot of fun!” Mary stated.
Mary ended the 2010 season placing fourth at the Area II Training Championships that were held at the Virginia Horse Trials in October.
Her 2010 success not only earned her The Equiery Bowl, but several other local and national awards. On the local level, Mary won the Red Shutters Trophy for Junior Training level riders from the Maryland Combined Training Association. Mac was also named MCTA’s Junior Training and Up Horse of the Year.
Nationally, Mary finished out the season with 46 points and was ranked the second place Junior Training Rider with the U.S. Eventing Association. Through the USEA, Mary was also a Blue Ribbon Award recipient for earning at least three first-place ribbons at the same level in a single season.
From her first horse trials almost six years ago at Olde Hope Farm, to multiple championship placings, one might wonder what is next for this young rider. A move back up to Preliminary is one plan for 2011 and college is the other. Mary is heading to Stevenson University this fall to pursue a bachelors degree in chemistry. Ultimately, Mary wants to get a masters in forensic science and work in a crime lab.
Before college life takes hold, Mary would like to do a one-star. With a full college course load in store for her, the realistic side of Mary does not see herself having the time to train properly for any levels above Preliminary.
In the meantime, Mary continues to train out of FMF and is very much a part of the FMF family. She helps the younger riders, she jumps in for the equitation teams when someone is injured and she shares her grooming secrets with anyone willing to listen. She can’t thank Karen and Michelle enough for all the training they have given her through the years.
“[Mary and Mac] are both incredibly talented and dedicated and it really shows. We are so proud of her,” Michelle said. “Mary is an exceptionally talented rider whose work ethic and hard-headedness is only matched by that of her horse,” added Karen.
And what advice do William and Debra give parents of other horse-crazy little girls? “Run away while you can! Just kidding. Be ready for a big commitment. Let them take it as far as they can go. Just like life,” William said.