Meet the NRHA Professionals and horses that finished at the top in 2019.
By Megan Arszman and Kaycie Timm
NRHA Professionals from around the globe competed throughout the 2019 season, hauling their mounts over endless miles to vie for NRHA World Champion titles. Here are the competitors who rose to the top of the ranks.
Open World Champion: Morey Fisk and Chicks Smokingun
Every world title holds significance, but according to 2019 NRHA Open World Champion Morey Fisk, it brings double the satisfaction when it’s two years in the making. After narrowly missing the 2018 title and ending the year in reserve, Fisk and 2008 stallion Chicks Smokingun (Gunner x Dun It By Chick; owned by Sabine Schmid) took a new approach for the 2019 season.
“In 2018, we ran pretty hard for the title and missed it because of my mistake at one of the shows,” Fisk explained. “I knew if I hit all the shows again [in 2019], I wouldn’t have enough horse left for the [Elementa Masters Premiere] come late fall. I changed my strategy and just believed in my horse. I knew I needed to hold him back and just school him a little so we could be as good as we could be at Elementa. I put all my chips on that one show, and I didn’t go to as many shows leading up to that.”
That strategy paid off—literally—when Fisk and “Blue” brought home a check worth over $27,730 for their win at the Elementa Masters Premiere last November. That hefty payout, combined with earnings from a handful of other events, solidified their claim on the Open world title.
“Elementa was a rewarding show for me because it all worked out like I hoped,” Fisk revealed. “I know Blue, so I knew he could be ready to go hard. Being at the show was pretty easy, actually, because we were ready, and all I had to do was just get him tuned. I know what he needs and doesn’t need to prepare to show. Most of the time it’s just a matter of making sure he’s quiet and relaxed. He knows his job.”
Fisk has had the horse in his barn since 2015, when Schmid purchased Blue as a non pro horse for herself. After showing him selectively, Schmid passed him off to Fisk, and the rest is history. Since then, the pair have found success at shows across Europe and built a close bond in the process.
“This horse is special in every way,” Fisk shared. “He’s a real gentleman. He’s so consistent and sound, there’s not really anything to worry about. He’s an overall good package. Blue has taught me so much, and it’s just been a great ride.”
With a world title added to his impressive list of accolades, Blue went home to enjoy a well-deserved break with his owner—and start the next phase of his career as a breeding stallion.
Meanwhile, Fisk dove into preparations for the 2020 season, but not before taking a moment to reflect on his success in 2019.
“I really appreciate this title; it absolutely takes a team,” Fisk commented. “I really have to say thank you to the owner, Sabine, for believing in me, trusting me, and letting me be part of Blue’s life. She’s always been great to work with.” —KT
Intermediate Open World Champion: Klaus Lechner and Cody Rooster Delmaso
When Klaus Lechner began planning his 2019 World Championship campaign, he built on previous experiences aiming for year-end titles to perfect his strategy. Lechner knew he wanted to aim his 2005 stallion Cody Rooster Delmaso for early paychecks and hit the main European shows, including both Americana in September and the Elementa Masters Premiere in November.
“I didn’t want to make the mistake of missing the title by just one paycheck this time,” he said, referring to a previous attempt at year-end recognition.
However, at the end of the 2019 show season, it still came down to one paycheck for Lechner and “Rooster.”
At the Elementa Masters Premiere, the three horses ranked at the top of the Intermediate Open standings had all acquired earnings within $200 of each other. Lechner’s draw at the key event gave him the advantage, but also increased the pressure.
“I drew almost last in the class, but it was really nerve-wracking watching it all,” Lechner shared. “As the score was announced, I
just felt all the weight come off my shoulders because I knew we made it.”
Lechner’s father, Franz, originally purchased Rooster as a 3-year-old, allowing his son to ride the horse in non pro classes. In 2011, Lechner’s now-wife, Julia Gaupmann-Lechner, purchased the horse for herself. Lechner gave up his non pro status in 2015 and continued showing Rooster in open classes.
“[Julia] has shown him in all the major non pro events in Europe, and we’ve shared him since 2013,” Lechner revealed.
Rooster has led a dual career in recent years, breeding in the winter and hitting the show circuit in the summer. His oldest foals are now 3-year-olds, and Lechner plans to concentrate on Rooster’s progeny for the 2020 futurities; however, that won’t stop Lechner from showing the 15-year-old stallion at some of the larger European shows this year.
“He’s in amazing shape. He’s still very sound and has such a good mind,” Lechner shared. “When I ride him, he feels like he’s still 6.”
Lechner’s wife and young daughter continue to support the young professional’s pursuits in the arena from behind the scenes.
“My wife has been supportive of me throughout the years, making sure the organization in the background is perfect,” Lechner revealed. “She managed Rooster’s wellbeing and mine as well.”—MA
Limited Open World Champion: Marco Formentin and CC Plain Vanilla
For Marco Formentin and CC Plain Vanilla (Wimpys Little Step x Sheza Bonita Whiz), a world title wasn’t in the plans for 2019. But when shoulder surgery forced the 2010 gelding’s owner, Audrey Kidd, to take some time out of the saddle, her trainer decided to take “Ice” for a spin in the open division.
“I started showing him at the beginning of the year at some smaller horse shows, without much of a plan, and it kept going better and better,” Formentin recalled. “Around the middle of the summer, Audrey noticed we were in the top 10, and she said, ‘What about running for the world title?’”
Formentin and Ice stepped up to the challenge, going to several shows back to back to rack up the extra earnings needed to clinch the title. The pair’s consistent success and determination culminated in limited open year-end earnings of more than $2,960 and the Limited Open World Championship.
“I’ve never won a world champion title, and I ended up top 10 in the open and the intermediate this year, too,” Formentin said. “It was a really great year.”
It takes a special horse to endure long hours on the road and in the show pen. Ice, who’s been in Formentin’s barn for three years, made the transition from Rookie mount to open horse well—despite some spoiling from both Kidd and Formentin’s wife, Emily.
“He’s very looky when you get into the show pen. He’ll kind of fake you a little bit, like he’s going to spook, but he won’t spook at anything—it’s just his personality,” Formentin revealed. “He’s a great circler and a great stopper. Overall, he’s very solid and very simple. He’s easy and trustworthy, and he was really good for me all year.”
Ice stayed strong throughout the season, fighting through a minor soundness issue mid-season and returning to the arena even better than before. Formentin credited his success to the help of his team, including his farrier, Dale DePriest, and veterinarian, Michael Caruso, as well as a few other key individuals.
“I need to thank the owners, Audrey and Tedd [Kidd], and my wife, Emily,” Formentin shared. “My wife is everything to me. She’s done more work than I have—I was just the rider.”
This year, Ice will be back in the show pen with Kidd to compete in the Rookie division. However, after winning a world title without planning to try, there’s no telling what the future might hold for Formentin.
“If she wanted me to, I’d jump back on him and do it again,” Formentin laughed. “He ended up doing better by the end [of the 2019 season] than he did at the beginning, so I’m sure he could do it again.”—KT
Rookie Professional World Champion: Cody Garrison and Bombshell Banjo
Some horses know they’re meant for the show pen. After a year off, Bombshell Banjo (Banjo Whiz x Bob Acre Badgerlina) practically begged to be back in her stall at owner Brogan Lee’s Indiana farm.
“‘Banjo’ hated being a pasture horse,” said Lee’s boyfriend and trainer, Cody Garrison. “She likes the pampered life, so that’s the main reason we brought her back.”
Banjo’s comeback year started with the goal of Lee qualifying for the Rookie class at the 2019 Run for a Million and resulted in a trip to Las Vegas, a win for Garrison at the Adequan® North American Affiliate Championship Show, and the 2019 NRHA Rookie Professional World Championship.
“It’s been a pretty darn good year,” Garrison laughed.
The original plan was for Garrison to school Banjo in the Rookie Professional because he was eligible for the level by about $50. Once Lee realized that Garrison and her mare were in the lead, she told her boyfriend to go for the title.
“Brogan called me while I was on my way to St. Paul in July and said that I needed to school Banjo the best I could, but I also needed to show her to win,” Garrison recalled.
The 12-year-old mare is a warhorse with a cushy job. While Garrison currently trains out of Iowa, Lee cares for Banjo at the couple’s home in Indiana.
“She’s a fun horse for my girlfriend to ride at home,” Garrison revealed. “She’ll get her out, long-trot and lope her, and just play around on the farm. You don’t have to train the maneuvers with her hardly at all. I basically catch-ride her when she gets to the show.”
During her year off, Banjo had a colt by Gunners Tinseltown that Garrison plans to start this year and aim for the 2021 NRHA Futurity.
“I picked Gunners Tinseltown because he’s a really nice horse,” Garrison shared. “I have a lot of respect for that horse. He complements where Banjo is weak. The baby is really cool and looks like he’s going to be talented. Time will tell.”
Garrison hopes Banjo passed on her work ethic to the colt.
“She’s one of those horses that truly loves her job,” he said. “She’s been shown her whole life, yet she doesn’t go into the pen sour or pushy, nor does she anticipate maneuvers. She’s just super-honest with tons of heart.”
That heart was on display in Oklahoma City when Garrison tied for the win in the Adequan® NAAC Rookie Professional. While the other horse had some rest before the runoff, Banjo had just four horses to catch her breath—but that didn’t keep her from winning the runoff to take the championship.
“We walked around the makeup pen for a minute, then went back in,” Garrison recalled. “She didn’t quit me and never acted tired. She’s one of those lifetime horses.”—MA
Novice Horse Open Level 1/Level 2 World Champion: Loris Epis and Tink Me Off
When Loris Epis set out to find a new horse for his wife, Amy, the last thing on his mind was an NRHA World Championship. However, Tink Me Off (Tinker With Guns x Kolohe Paniolo) has become much more than Amy’s horse. “Tink” and Epis finished the 2019 season at the top of Novice Horse Open Levels 1 and 2.
“We purchased him for my wife at the end of 2018 from Story Book Stables through my good friend Marco Ricotta,” Epis recalled. “At the beginning of the 2019 season, I wanted to add another derby horse to my string. My wife handed me Tink’s reins and said, ‘I think he’s got enough in him to work for you.’ I had been training him for her, but when I started getting him ready for me, he stepped it up.”
In early June, the pair swept Novice Horse Open Levels 1 and 2 at the CNYRHA Ride & Slide in Syracuse, New York. After those wins, Amy encouraged her husband to continue showing Tink through the rest of the season.
“I’ve been in the top five a few times in the past, but I never went for a World Championship,” Epis revealed. “It was my wife’s idea to keep going. She’s the one who believed in the horse from the beginning. She kept pushing me, and here we are!”
Not only has the 2014 gelding proven his ability as an open competitor, he’s also found his way into the heart of another member of the family.
“My 4-year-old daughter, Abriella, does lead line on him. She’s in love with him,” Epis shared. “He’s super-sweet, super-easy, and willing to please. He has a fantastic brain, and his heart is huge.”
Tink and Epis shared many victories through the year—but their success didn’t come easily. After a mid-season stint out of the arena while he recovered from a hairline fracture on his knee, Tink made a triumphant return to the show pen at the CNYRHA Fall Classic where he won the Novice Horse Level 1 and Level 2 classes. With those two wins under their belt, Epis knew they’d secured both the Level 1 and Level 2 Novice Horse World Champion titles.
“This is the first time I’ve won a World Championship.” Epis noted. “Going for the titles was a big deal. It’s a long journey. You don’t have to show every weekend, but you have to keep going. My whole team—our vet, Dr. Meghan Waller, our farrier, Jason Thomson, and our sponsors Brooks Feeds, Baileys Saddlery, and Equinety—all had a big part in Tink’s success, as well as everybody in Ontario that supported us. I also need to thank Marco and Jenny Ricotta. We’ve always been good friends, and they made this happen for us.”
In 2020, Epis plans to show Tink in several open derbies before returning the World Champion to Amy for the following show season.
“I really want my wife to enjoy him, too,” Epis revealed. “She’s the brains of this operation, and she wants me to keep showing while he’s doing great, then she’ll take over. My daughter will keep showing him, too.” —KT
Open Reserve World Champion: Ann Fonck and Spook N Perla
Ann Fonck set lofty goals for the 2019 show season, including reaching Million Dollar Rider status—which she achieved at the NRHA European Affiliate Championship. She also hit the road with two horses, Spook N Perla and Made In Walla, aiming for a world title, all while riding her string of aged-event horses.
“It was a very demanding year,” Fonck admitted. “When you run for the title, you’re gone all the time. Sometimes you need to drive 20 hours to get to a show, then you’re there for a week, and you drive 20 hours home. Bernard [Fonck, her husband] and my assistants really had to train my younger horses, and I’d just hop on and show. Everyone else did the important things behind the scenes.”
Although she narrowly missed winning the Open World title, Fonck had a record year, racking up more earnings in one season than ever before. As for the horse, Spook N Perla (Smart Spook x Shine On Ruff; owned by Golden Paint Ranch) was the perfect partner.
“‘Smarty’ has been with us since she was a 2-year-old,” Fonck shared. “She’s a very good show horse. She’s funny because she’s very attached to her grooms and me. If you put her into somebody’s hands who she doesn’t know, she gets nervous.” —KT
Intermediate Open Reserve World Champion: Nimroid Vannietvelt and Gunnerlicious
Ending your youth career and starting your professional career chasing an NRHA World Championship is one way to make a name for yourself. When 19-year-old Nimroid Vannietvelt of Melsele, Belgium, hit the road with Gunnerlicious, that’s exactly what he did—and the pair finished the season with the Intermediate Open reserve world champion title.
Gunnerlicious, a 2010 stallion by NRHA Eleven Million Dollar Sire Gunner and out of the Mifillena mare Mifs Doll, started his career with NRHA Two Million Dollar Rider Bernard Fonck and his wife, NRHA Million Dollar Rider Ann Fonck. When Vannietvelt transitioned to competing as a professional, his parents, Steve Vannietvelt and Gina De Pauw, owners of SG Reining Horses, were able to provide the mounts he needed to succeed.
“SG Reining Horses owns Gunnerlicious, What A Wave, and Excalibur, and my parents have given me lots of opportunities to show them,” Vannietvelt said. “Thanks to them, I have been able to achieve this title and my dreams.”
In 2020, Vannietvelt will concentrate on showing his family’s futurity horses as a full-time professional. —MA
Limited Open Reserve World Champion: Cody Nordsiek and Ready To Playboy
When Rebecca Jeppesen Nurnberg purchased a plain, sorrel colt for $650 at the annual Cooper Quarter Horses sale in Strong City, Kansas, she didn’t know Ready To Playboy would become the 2019 NRHA Limited Open Reserve World Champion—but she had her suspicions.
“I really liked ‘Puncher,’” Nurnberg recalled. “When he was a 2-year-old, I took him to Cody [Nordsiek]. After about a month, Cody said, ‘This guy is special.’”
Two years later, the 2015 gelding proved Nurnberg’s intuition when he hit the show pen with Cody Nordsiek after recovering from an injury that kept him out of the arena most of his 3-year-old season.
“We knew he was nice, but you never know until you start showing,” Nordsiek revealed. “He stayed honest all year long, which is tough for a 4-year-old in his first show season. ”
By July, Puncher was holding his own in the standings, and Nurnberg gave the go-ahead to run for the title.
“This title is really special,” Nordsiek shared. “I’m thankful to Becky [Jeppesen Nurnberg], Cooper Quarter Horses, my family, and my girlfriend Anne Hutson. I’ve got a great group of clients at home who were really patient with me being gone. If not for that support, it never would have happened.”—KT
Rookie Professional Reserve World Champion: Tommi Clark and Diamonds Whiz Chex
It’s not often a hobbyist reiner competes as a professional—and wins an NRHA Reserve World Championship. But that’s exactly what hunter/jumper trainer Tommi Clark did aboard her 2013 gelding Diamonds Whiz Chex (Whizkey N Diamonds x Little Chex 499).
The Tryon, North Carolina-based trainer was inspired to try reining after cheering on Team USA at the World Equestrian Games with fellow hunter/jumper trainer Colleen McQuay and her husband, Tim, both NRHA Hall of Famers. After a few lessons, Clark’s main client came to watch his trainer ride and purchased the horse she’d been learning on as a birthday gift for Clark.
“I hadn’t spun a horse before, and I almost got spun off,” Clark laughed. “My client thought it was hilarious.”
After her first show, Clark found her name in the Rookie Professional Top 10 standings, and decided to balance her full load of hunter/jumper shows with her reining hobby to run for the title.
“I had no concept of everything NRHA had to offer, including the Affiliate Championships,” Clark said. “My goal for next year is to qualify for the Adequan® NAAC. If we win enough that I win a World Championship, that’ll be awesome, too.”—MA
Novice Horse Open Level 1 Reserve World Champion: Travis Wigen and Gee Whiz Ima Dunit
When NRHA Professional Travis Wigen and his wife, Melissa, started looking for a new horse for their daughter, Madison, they never expected to fall in love with a mare who wasn’t quite finished.
But after the Wigens brought home Gee Whiz Ima Dunit (MJG Morgans Dun It x Gee Whiz Im Smart), it didn’t take long for Travis to get the 2013 mare polished and ready to show. The pair’s first show of the 2019 season was the Sun Circuit, where they brought home their first paycheck. From there, Travis set a goal of finishing the year in the Novice Horse Open Level 1 top ten. The mare surpassed Travis’ expectations, proving herself to be a solid show horse and ending a successful show season with the Reserve World Champion title.
“As we got going through the year, she progressed in her ability in the show pen, and we found ourselves in the top two,” Wigen shared.
This year, Madison and Melissa will show Gee Whiz Ima Dunit in the Rookie and Novice Horse Non Pro classes, while Travis might make another run at a world title. —MA
Novice Horse Open Level 2 Reserve World Champion: Andrew Fox and Whos The Whiz Kid
A native of England, Andrew Fox grew up wanting to be a horse trainer. Although Fox worked under NRHA Professional Bryant Pace and has been training on his own for more than 10 years, he still considers himself a newcomer to the professional ranks.
When Les Woodgeard set out to find a trainer who could put money on his 2012 stallion Whos The Whiz Kid (Who Whiz It x Shirleys A Gunner), Fox accepted the challenge. However, the partnership took a bit of adjustment at the beginning.
“He’s so quick-footed and athletically able to do the maneuvers, but I wasn’t sure I could sit in the middle in the saddle,” Fox laughed.
But it didn’t take long for the pair to build trust, and now they’ve become a formidable team in the show pen.
“He is such a good-minded soul. When he started hitting his stride, he was super consistent. The fact that we finished up reserve, for me, was a huge bonus,” Fox revealed. “We didn’t originally set out to win a world title, or finish in the top three. We just wanted to win some money.”—MA