Best of JN: Catch Riding with Olivia Darnell

By contributor Melissa Collins.

Sixteen-year-old Olivia Darnell can be seen at shows all around the Midwest in all three rings, though more frequently in the equitation ring. Her accomplishments include competing in the Maclay finals in 2016 and winning the 2016 $10,000 Junior Equitation Challenge at WEC.

Darnell didn’t come from an affluent background where she could buy or lease a top equitation or junior horse, so in order for her to show at top shows and be competitive, she would have to catch ride a myriad of different horses.

What is Catch Riding?

Catch riding is showing a horse for the owner, usually because the horse is up for sale or lease.  This benefits the owner by getting the horse shown and seen by many different people with hopes that it will sell.  It is also beneficial to the rider if they cannot afford to own a top quality horse.

While each catch-riding agreement is unique, typically the owner of the horse will foot the entire bill besides the show tab, giving the rider the opportunity to show a horse they couldn’t normally afford at a significantly discounted rate. It also helps the rider build their personal horse show resume at a much more affordable price.  At first glance, this sounds like a dream for the rider, but this isn’t always the case. Catch riding can also come with a lot of frustration, heartache and disappointment.

Olivia Darnell and Lux. Photo by Elaine Schott.

The Highs and Lows of Catch Riding

“I wouldn’t be the rider and person I am today without my experience as a catch rider,” says Darnell. “I have to learn to adjust and to adapt to every different horse I ride. I’ve made so many lifelong connections and friendships in the equine industry; I will never forget how fortunate I am to ride such talented horses and be a part of so many different teams.”

Darnell spent many years catch riding for Elaine and Callie Schott of River Mountain Farm in Lexington Kentucky.  Riding “Lux,” a horse owned by Schott, Darnell was able to qualify for Maclay Regionals. Despite the fact she had only been riding Lux for a month, they had a fantastic round at Regionals placing 18th which qualified them for finals when Darnell was only 12 years old.  The celebration of her success at Regionals was short-lived, however, when Lux was leased out immediately after, leaving her with no horse for Maclay Finals.

Olivia Darnell and Casino 71. Photo by Elaine Schott.

“As every catch rider knows, it’s devastating to fall in love with a mount and then see the horse get sold or leased immediately after you find success” recalls Darnell.  Through relentless searching and fortunate connections, Darnell was able to partner with Connie Stevens’ “Casino 71” just a month before Maclay Finals.  “In just a week Casino and I were already a team, and he gave me one of the best rides of my life at Maclay Finals. It’s horses like Lux and Casino that really changed my perspective on catch riding and my future as a catch rider”.

But it isn’t always easy continuously catch riding. “While I always feel like I establish a good relationship with my rides and we are a partnership, the majority of the juniors I compete against typically own or lease their horse, leaving me at a disadvantage in competition,” says Darnell.  “I believe catch riding has given me more than my fair share of falls and heartache in the equine world, but the victories and friendships I have made along the way are so refreshing.  Each relationship I have with a horse teaches me something. I can only hope I can continue to develop as a person and a rider as I continue catch riding in the future.”

Olivia Darnell catch riding at Brownland Farms. Photo by Elaine Schott.

The Future

Olivia hopes to possibly go pro in the future and knows that catch riding is setting her up for the necessary foundation to see that dream through. “I hope that all the horses I have learned to ride, from the fancy horses to the difficult ones, will help me in my professional aspirations,” stated Darnell.

“As I grow in this business I hope I can encourage young riders to continue catch riding. While catch riding comes with lots of frustrations and letdowns, it also is so beneficial and has really given me the opportunity to become a true rider and horseman. It has taught me to respect everyone, and to be patient.  You never know who your next ride or opportunity could come from!”

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