At 4 years old, Ashlynn Meuchel had a hard time controlling her pony. So when Snowflake, her trusty but hungry horse, spotted an enticing patch of weeds, her little arms couldn’t steer the animal away from lunchtime.
Ashlynn yanked so hard on the reigns that she pulled herself out of the saddle and slid down Snowflake’s neck. Now she is 12 years old, strong enough to control a thoroughbred gelding and ready for The Event at Kalispell’s Rebecca Farm.
“I’m excited,” she said.
The Event, July 26-29, is one of 18 World Cup-qualifying “eventing” competitions in the world, and one of only four in the U.S. Eventing is basically an “equestrian triathlon.” Competitors participate in dressage, cross-country and show jumping. This year’s Event has more than 500 competitors, the most in the competition’s four-year history and enough to require a fourth day, instead of the usual three. Ashlynn will compete at the novice level, while her big sister is one step above at the training level.
Ashlynn is almost certainly the youngest competitor at The Event, as she is in most horse riding competitions, though officials couldn’t say for sure. She started riding when she was 4 years old after watching her big sister Brynn, who is three years older.
“We put them on a horse,” said their mother, Kelli. “And off they went.”
Now she and her sister get a shot at the biggest event of their young careers.
Brynn, 15, was signed up last year for The Event. The day before the competition, however, her horse got sick. A full year more of preparing has eliminated her nervousness. Ashlynn doesn’t have such a clear explanation for her lack of fear. Sally Rohletter, the Meuchels’ trainer, said that’s simply her nature.
“She doesn’t get rattled,” she said. “Nervous isn’t really something she does.”
Ashlynn moved up from a pony to a horse less than two months ago. Rohletter said it’s preferable to ride a horse for at least a year before entering events. She’s not too worried, though, because Ashlynn has transitioned so gracefully.
“She always amazes me,” Rohletter said of Ashlynn. “She’s the calm within the storm. She keeps herself centered and focused. She’s really gifted.”
Despite her natural abilities, Ashlynn said the transition still has been difficult because it requires her to “learn a completely different animal” in a matter of weeks. And a horse person knows this means more than just riding aspects – it means learning a whole new horse personality.
Rohletter said this has never been a problem.
“She has a personality that works well with horses,” Rohletter said. “It makes my job easier.”
Maddie, Ashlynn’s new horse, is a strong-willed thoroughbred gelding who keeps Ashlynn, five years younger than he is, on her toes.
“He’s got a big personality,” Ashlynn said. “He puts on a big grumpy face, but he’s nice.”
When the sisters first started training, they switched trainers multiple times. Then they lived in England between 2001 and 2003 for their father’s job and once again had a different trainer. When they returned to Kalispell, they switched to Rohletter and have been with her since. Rohletter introduced the sisters to eventing.
“We didn’t even know eventing existed until we met Sally,” Kelli said.
Rohletter said Ashlynn is beginning to not only realize her potential but also what she could do with it. She still rides for fun like any young girl, Rohletter said, though she now understands that her talent may have future ramifications.
“The biggest change I’ve seen in her the past year,” Rohletter said, “is her seeing more of a plan of what she wants to do.”
The girls struggle to recall their most memorable equestrian moments. There was that time Ashlynn got launched off her horse and then nearly stepped on. There was Brynn’s first show when she also flew off her horse. Their mother definitely remembers these incidents.
“I remember all the accidents,” she said. “They have a little vest and a helmet and they’re both riding 1,200-pound animals at a gallop. It’s scary to watch.”
Ashlynn usually has two private lessons and one group training session per week with Rohletter throughout the year. They train at the Meuchels’ Ashley Creek Stable, or simply “The Barn.” But for about the past month, she and her sister have practiced six days a week to prepare for The Event. On Saturday, their one day off, they often help their mother with chores. Cleaning up manure is common.
“They love that,” Kelli said.