At the 2023 International Friesian Horse Show Association (IFSHA) Grand National, there was a group of young riders who stood out. They could be seen competing in-hand and under saddle, supporting each other on the rail and sharing enthusiastic hugs in the warm-up ring after a successful class, even when they were competing against each other. None of these youth equestrians had competed at this level before, and their inspiring journey to the championship was the talk of the show.
These riders are students at the Benestar Ranch, a riding academy in Clover, S.C., and competing at the Grand National was a lofty goal they set for themselves at the start of the season. When IFSHA announced that the 2023 Grand National would be held at the nearby Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina, the possibility of competing there suddenly seemed closer than ever. That’s when trainer Courtney Milledge, her students, and their families decided they would use some creativity and resourcefulness to make the dream of competing at their breed’s national championship a reality.
Fundraising for Nationals
“When they announced the Tryon show, I already had my wheels turning,” said Milledge. “I was thinking, ‘We’re only an hour and a half away from the Tryon grounds, so it would be insane for us to not take at least a couple of our horses there.’ And then I started thinking about the kids. I was looking through the class list of the previous [Grand National] show and I thought, ‘There are some classes that these kids can do on these horses, and I think it would just be an incredible opportunity.’”
Early in 2023, Milledge got the riders’ parents together and pitched the idea of fundraising their way to nationals. The group brainstormed some ideas, taking inspiration from other youth sports teams and turning to the community.
“We had a lot of support from local businesses like The Divine Horse, which is a tack shop in York, S.C.,” said Milledge. “They let us do a Krispy Kreme fundraiser. They let us come do car washes. They held online 50/50 raffles like a lot of cheerleading squads do. This is a sport. A lot of that gets lost on people, but it definitely is. You see football teams, cheerleading teams, bands, choirs—they’re always fundraising because they need extra funds to take these kids to competitions. There’s no difference between us and them.”
The riders and their parents came up with additional fundraising ideas, including successful car washes at the local Tractor Supply Co. They recruited donations from The Divine Horse and other local businesses. Some of the riders came up with their own creative ideas, like selling handmade equestrian-style belts.
“It was definitely a team effort,” said Milledge.
The team of youth riders from The Benestar Ranch, which consisted of 11 girls between the ages of 8 and 15, had primarily competed at local, open shows, and the IFSHA Grand National was their first experience competing against other Friesians and part-Friesians from other barns. The experience was overwhelmingly positive thanks to the welcoming community.
“The staff there made it so easy for them. Initially, they were nervous, but the more they talked to the staff, the more they felt like they were more than welcome to be there,” Milledge said, adding that some of the breed’s most prominent exhibitors also went out of their way to welcome the Benestar group. “I think it helped the girls tremendously to see the Griffins [of Griffin Sport Horses]. They were so intimidated at first because they saw Janae [Griffin] and all of their beautiful horses and all of the ribbons. But if one of my girls had a problem and I couldn’t get there right away, it was either Bruce [Griffin] or Janae running over there to help. I think that really opened their eyes to see that just because we’re going in the ring to compete doesn’t mean you can’t cheer on your competition and help them.”
The experience was not only fun and educational for the young riders, but it was successful, too. The Benestar Ranch left the Grand National with an impressive collection of ribbons, including 13 Grand Championships and 11 Reserve Grand Championships.
Milledge opened her lesson program in 2020 after moving from Oklahoma, where she had a small Friesian breeding operation, to a bigger facility in Clover, S.C.
“This was the first time we’ve really been able to open up to a broad group of experienced to beginner level riders of adult and youth ages, so we decided to start sharing our Friesians with everybody that we could,” said Milledge. “We would give lessons on our stallion [Hertog Jan v.d. Paddensteeg], because he’s probably the safest horse I’ve had in decades. I could put anyone at any level on him. We started giving lessons again and it really grew into a pretty large riding academy. It’s mostly made of local kids. Some have never had horse experience before they came to me. Sometimes they’re moving barns because they’re looking for something different.”
While the farm has a few older Quarter Horses for riders who are initially intimidated by the Friesians’ size, the majority of Milledge’s lesson horses are Friesians and part-Friesians. For her, the combination of the breed’s excellent temperament and striking appearance is ideal.
“One of the main reasons I decided to use them as lesson horses is not only are they just fantastic, but they take everything in stride,” she said. “They’re generally easygoing. They’re tolerant. They’re very loving and affectionate horses. Even though their size can be initially intimidating, once the kids allow themselves to relax a little bit and give them some treats, they realize that this gigantic creature is actually super cool. It kind of teaches them that the size isn't really what’s important; it’s more about understanding horsemanship.
“Another big part of this was wanting to share a breed that not a lot of people get the experience to even be around, much less ride,” said Milledge. “I really wanted to be able to let these kids and their families enjoy the breed and hopefully open the door to seeing that Friesians and Friesian crosses can be accessible. Just giving them the opportunity to ride these horses is a way of giving back, because young Courtney would have died to ride a Friesian when she was their age.”
The Lasting Impact
The experience at the Grand National was inspiring not just for the riders who competed, but also for The Benestar Ranch’s extended barn family. While Milledge says the program will continue to focus on the fun of horsemanship and riding with a competition-optional environment, they are looking ahead to qualifying for, fundraising, and competing in the 2024 IFSHA Grand National.
“We got back on Sunday night, and I already had girls on Tuesday begging to come out,” said Milledge. “They wanted to get back into the riding. They want to start practicing new things.”
Milledge had help at this year’s show from her intern, Sophie Beck, and a couple of boarders who came to help out. Her husband, Josh, assisted with the logistics. But with a big group of kids and horses, there’s always a need for more help. That’s where the barn family comes in.
“Some of the moms have said that they want to take some lessons specifically on [show preparation],” said Milledge. “They’ve all learned how to do the basics here while their kids are riding, but I think they realized that this showed what they don’t know. And for the moms and kids who are super dedicated, I think this year I’m going to see a lot more of them wanting to learn things. So next year, not only will I have the willingness to help, but I’ll have a little bit more knowledge behind it, too.
“I talked to a lot of the girls after the show and asked them what they thought of it, and every one of them was just so grateful for the experience,” said Milledge. “They made me a card, and it moved me to tears because it was all these girls thanking me for pushing them to believe in themselves, and that even if they didn’t do well, they were still awesome. The fact that they want to show again and get back in that environment shows that we did something right. The big show world can be tough, so the fact that they didn’t get that vibe at all speaks volumes about the people who put on the show and the competitors who were there. If there was ever a show I would push them to go to again, it would definitely be this one.”