Voting for the photo that would grace the August 2020 cover of The Equiery was certainly a difficult challenge with over 200 images to choose from. With many of the entries being what we would consider “cover worthy”, the images were narrowed down to a portrait of a gray pony by Bridgette Daugherty and an action shot of a young ballerina jumping off her pony into the Potomac River by Barbara Kirchner Magrogan.

In the end, it was Daugherty’s photo entitled “Mercury” that was named this year’s Equiery Photo Contest Grand Champion. After the image was selected as the winner and the August Equiery was printed, we reached out to Daugherty to find out more about the handsome gray steed.

Please note, the judging committee for our annual photo contest does not have any information about the photographs except for the actual images. Each image is processed by our Editor-In-Chief and judges only have a file number as reference. Our judges did not know the story below… and what a story it is!

About The Photographer
Bridgette Daugherty has been a hobbyist photographer for most of her life but only recently has turned photography into a business through her Blaze Horse Photography company. Currently a middle school English teacher in Washington County, Daugherty spends her free time creating equine portraits, as well as action shots. “I find that there are not a lot of photographers out there that are specifically equine photographers,” she said. “I got my official business license last June and the plan was that 2020 would be my big launch.” But then, COVID-19 hit, slowing down her plans.

Even though business is slower this year than she would have hoped, Daugherty continues to donate her skills to certain animal rescue associations. “I was the manager of the Humane Society for Wicomico County several years ago and have a real soft spot for animal causes,” she explained. Daugherty first learned of the Appalachian Trainer Face Off through Facebook and reached out through friends to participating trainer Erin O’Neill.

Daugherty and O’Neill first met in 2019 when Daugherty offered to take photos of her 2019 Face Off mount, a big grey gaited horse named Whistler. “Erin is a very grounded person and has this incredible gift. A real horse whisper,” Daugherty stated. These photos were posted by O’Neill on her Facebook page so that fans of the Appalachian Trainer Face Off program could follow Whistler’s progress leading up to the big finale.

Daugherty kept in touch with O’Neill and began photographing her 2020 Face Off entry pretty much as soon as Mercury arrived in Maryland. This particular photo of Mercury was taken this past June at Daugherty’s third photo shoot with O’Neill. “It was raining that day and I almost didn’t go but Erin said come on by and we would see what we could get,” Daugherty explained.

Mercury was all tacked up and for this shot, was let loose in the arena. “He was walking around and then just stopped in that perfect light spot,” Daugherty said. “He is the sweetest thing and always has an eye or ear on Erin.”

Daugherty plans on attending the Face Off finals later this month. Look for more of her photos to be posted on our Facebook page!

About The Horse
According to the Appalachian Trainer Face Off website, Mercury is a 14.1 hand, eight-year-old Quarter Horse/Arabian gelding. But to O’Neill, “he’s a registered good boy” overcoming a troubled past. O’Neill pointed out that most of the horses that come through the Face Off program have a troubled past but Mercury’s previous experiences were quite severe.

Mercury was impounded and sent to the Heart of Phoenix Equine Rescue, West Virginia’s only certified horse rescue organization, a year ago. He was put into the 2019 Face Off and was adopted by a Heart of Phoenix volunteer.  The volunteer then sent him to a trainer in Texas where he stayed for several months. “He was severely beaten while with that trainer, and I use the word trainer loosely,” O’Neill explained. “When the volunteer finally got him back, his nose was broken in two places and he was just completely dead in his eyes. He was broken.”

To top it off, Mercury was also very explosive when saddled up. “He would be fairly easy to handle on the ground but then a light would switch and he would just lash out,” O’Neill added. Mercury was put back into the Face Off program with hopes that a new trainer could get him back to where he was before his Texas experience.

“Honestly, he was not my first choice. And after seeing the way he bucked, I had crossed him off my list completely,” O’Neill said. The day before trainers get to pick their Face Off horses, each horse is evaluated and Mercury was deemed needing “professional” training only. The Face Off program is also open to Amateur trainers.

As luck of the draw would have it, O’Neill ended up being the last of 60+ trainers to select their horse for the 100-day challenge. “There were only two horses left. Mercury and a strange looking cross-bred so I went with the lesser of two evils,” she said. O’Neill had previously broken her hand severely and was advised to take things easy in order to prevent further damage. “I tend to steer away from the ones that buck because of this.”

O’Neill took Mercury to The Sevens Ranch in Frederick and began working on ways to get through to Mercury. “I really think he has PTSD,” she said adding, “He really wants to trust people but then everything just gets piled up inside him ’til he bursts. After the first two weeks, we were going to pull him from the contest because of his behavior.” Thankfully, over the past few months, Mercury has learned to trust O’Neill and the two have truly bonded.

“This has been a really rewarding journey. At the end of the day, he just needs a friend,” she said. After the Face Off Finale this month, each horse will be auctioned off to pre-approved adopters. O’Neill explained that she hopes Mercury is adopted by someone “who is going to invest just as much time in building a bond as they do in riding him.” She added that he is quite fancy on the flat and a tidy little jumper. “In time, I think he will make a great kid’s pony but he needs more training to get there,” she stated.

About The Trainer
Erin O’Neill was born in Frederick but spent her early life in West Virginia. “My father died when I was eight and I moved in with my grandmother who lived in Frederick,” she said. No one else in her family rode horses and the first time she sat on a horse she said, “I thought people were crazy to get on those big animals!”

Another few rides and O’Neill was hooked on horses. She got her first pony when she was around 14 years old and boarded at The Sevens Ranch where she did farm work in exchange for board. It was at The Sevens Ranch where she met trainer David Beard and first felt the desire to train horses.

“I saw him work a horse one day and just watched the conversation between them. It was a conversation only they knew and I thought ‘I want to know how to do that!’” she said. “I just knew in that moment that I wanted to spend my life working with horses and become a trainer.”

O’Neill now runs her own Legacy Sport Horses, which is primarily based in Frederick. “I travel all over the area and help a lot in West Virginia with Heart of Phoenix,” she said. “I watched the first year of the Face Off and thought it would be cool to get involved.”

O’Neill was drawn to the people involved with the Face Off more than the actual competition its self saying, “What really resonated with me was the type of need they had. They are the only rescue in West Virginia and the fact that most of the horses they rescue have been abandoned on mining lands really drew me in.”

She went on to explain that in West Virginia, mining companies are required to put into preservation five acres of land for every acre they mine. It is one of the reasons much of West Virginia is considered “wild and wonderful” as the state’s slogan reads. “Many people who end up in financial trouble just let their horses loose in these wild areas,” she stated. “Out there, it’s a true need and a group of good people doing things for the right reasons. That’s why I’m so involved,” she added.

O’Neill has participated in the Face Off for the past three years and won the Amateur division last year with Whistler. This year she is in the Professional division and said, “I’ve know for a while that we won’t win but we will give them a run for their money!” O’Neill says that Mercury might not be the biggest and fanciest horse in the competition and at this point in his training, is not performing as complicated things as some of the other horses. “I really want to show the trust he has developed. Show the second chances he is getting,” she concluded.

The 2020 Appalachian Trainer Face Off will be broadcast live through the website  where fans and interested viewers can watch and learn more about the horses and trainers.