Though she’s evented for decades, Bunnie Sexton wrote off the idea of competing at the three-star level many years ago.
“It seemed like a realm I just shouldn’t play in,” said Sexton. “I’d always thought of myself as the coach and instructor, and that I’d help bring horses along to the two-star level. I just never gave myself the option to go higher than advanced horse trials.”
But with the help of the right horse, a Thoroughbred gelding named Rise Against, along with Sexton’s family and trainers, the 51-year-old moved up to the three-star level this spring. After suffering a fall on cross-country at the Jersey Fresh CCI***, she re-routed to the Volvo Bromont CCI***, June 5-9 in Quebec, and finished sixth.
“Now that I’ve done it, it seems like, ‘Why did I wait so long?’ It’s still about taking it one fence at a time and paying attention to everything your horse does to make sure he’s sound and happy and ready for the challenge,” she said.
Sexton found Rise Against (Far Out East—April Betty, Distant Land), who’d gone to the CIC** level with Ruben Arce-Ibarra, about two years ago. The horse’s jumping record was well established, but his dressage was still a work in progress.
“He didn’t have any walk when I got him, and the flying changes sent him flying through the air and across the arena,” she said. “I only rode him for 45 minutes, but I felt an instant connection.”
After a few preliminary level events together, Sexton and “Ecko” moved up to intermediate and then advanced. She sought help with the horse’s flatwork from Jan Ebeling and Bea di Grazia, and that phase slowly started coming around, though she admitted the horse didn’t have his best tests at his East Coast events. Ecko's only cross-country jumping penalties came from one particular jump at Galway Downs (Calif.).
“They have a painted orca in one of the waters, and he’s always been scared to death of it. One of my students bought a plastic orca, and he jumped it all over the property. He always jumps it the second time but very fearfully. In the CIC*** this spring, he finally decided he was over it,” said Sexton.
Sexton, who’s based at Shepherd Ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., with her husband, Ken, came east earlier in the spring to contest Jersey Fresh. After placing 17th after dressage on 67.7 penalties, Ecko was making quick work of the cross-country, but Bunnie looked down at fence 8 and realized the gelding had lost both front shoes.
“When it came to the drop log at fence 22, he sort of slid over it and then tripped on landing and couldn’t recover his footing and went down,” said Bunnie. “He’d done ¾ of the course, and it was really tough, and we were on our minute markers the whole time.”
Both Bunnie and Ecko were fine, so she took a few days to reassess her plans. She’d stayed at Buck Davidson’s Riegelsville, Pa., farm before Jersey Fresh, and she took Ecko back there. After evaluating the horse, both Davidson and di Grazia thought she should go to Canada. Bunnie flew Tayler Ravenscroft (daughter of her sponsors, Bob and Debi Ravenscroft of Ride On Video) out to help groom, and Bunnie’s daughter Madeline also came out to assist.
“It was a lot to ask for my husband to tolerate me being gone so long, especially when he has 30 horses to take care off and a horse trials to organize and run,” said Bunnie. “I missed his 50th birthday, which was really hard. It was a huge commitment for my family to say, ‘Yes, go for it.’ ”
After Bunnie saw Derek di Grazia’s three-star course at Bromont, she wondered if she’d made the right decision.
“I was intimidated; I’m not going to lie,” said Bunnie. “What I like about Derek’s courses is they’re forgiving for the horses, but they get a ton of runouts. I thought at worst I’d have runouts, and at best my horse really likes figuring out puzzles and so do I. We’re so green at this level that I believe in being intimidated by everything, because then I ride really hard. I’ll figure I’ll have a healthy respect for everything, and then we’ll be safe.”
While the challenges on the Bromont course came fast and often, Ecko cruised around with the third-fastest time of the division.
“I was very pleased with how [the course] ended up riding,” said Bunnie. “The first five fences were tough because he was pulling so hard, but I brought him really deep to the fifth table and made him rock back, and then he was much more polite and going well. I didn’t feel I had any right to ask for speed, so I just refused to look at my watch. At Jersey I was ahead of my minute markers and look what happened. When I looked down on the homestretch, and we were only at 9 minutes and something, I couldn’t believe it. I really thought my watch was wrong.”
The next day, Ecko pulled one rail to move up two places to sixth. They’d started the weekend in 22nd after dressage.
“It’s been intense for me, because there have been times I’ve thought I was crazy,” said Bunnie. But now she's got an even bigger goal in mind: her first four-star.
“I’d love to do Rolex [Kentucky],” she said. “I’d gone advanced before I had kids, and then I said, ‘This is too dangerous. I’m not going to be able to do this.’ When I got Ecko, I knew I wanted to do something with him, but I couldn’t dream I’d get to do this. If he’s sound and willing, I’d love to do it.”
In the meantime, she’ll keep bringing horses along and teaching students in California. She especially enjoys rehabilitating quirky horses.
“My first advanced horse, Hark, was flipping in starting gates, and it turned out he was blind in one eye. He did go advanced blind in one eye,” she said. “I think a lot of really cool horses are thrown away because they have little issues that need worked out.”