There are over 800 ponies at the 2023 USEF Pony Finals presented by Honor Hill Farms, and they all have their own unique stories. One such pony is Star Wish, or “Toby.” A 15-year-old rescue pony making his third appearance in the pony jumper division at Pony Finals, Toby and his owner/rider Zahara Henderson of Longmont, Colo., are ready to show off their partnership this week.
Five years ago in New Mexico, Toby was rescued from slaughter as a 10-year-old unbroke pony and put into training with Julie Luzicka. Then, Dejah Valdez and her trainer Sydney Luzicka worked with Toby. After developing into a show pony, Toby made his first Pony Finals appearance with Valdez in 2021, resulting in a team bronze medal. In 2022, Toby was looking for his next partner, and along came Zahara.
After mainly focusing on the hunter discipline, Zahara wound up competing in jumper classes at a horse show due to a weekend scheduling conflict.
“She had done jumpers one day at one of the [Colorado Hunter Jumper Association] shows because we couldn't go on a Saturday to do the hunters, and she really liked it,” said Nicole Henderson, Zahara’s mother. “She just really wanted to do jumpers after that and really wanted to do Pony Finals. I was looking online and saw [Toby] for sale, and I was like, ‘Oh, he looks pretty cute.’”
The Hendersons went down to New Mexico to try Toby, and Zahara quickly took a liking to him.
“I felt a connection with him right when I saw him, because I really liked riding him,” said Zahara. “And I like that he's different. He's not an absolutely perfect pony.”
Since Toby was a rescue pony, he posed some challenges from his unknown and seemingly traumatic past.
“His ground manners were so bad that it took us three different vets and three different appointments to get a pre-purchase exam done on him,” said Nicole. “I was like, ‘Do we really want this much crazy?’”
Zahara’s trainer Jill Pelzel recognized that Toby was a difficult but very talented pony. Pelzel said that despite being spicy and quirky, Toby shines in the show ring.
“He's a little bit pushy on the ground and a little hard to handle,” said Pelzel. “But when [Zahara] gets on and goes in the ring, he converts all of that to a desire to go, and he is fast and clean.”
The Hendersons ended up buying Toby in May of 2022 and bringing him back home to Colorado. Curious to find out more details about him, Nicole did a DNA test, and the results were surprising.
“They said he is a Brazilian breed, Mangalarga Marchador, and Saddlebred,” said Nicole. “Which you can kind of see by the way he moves. He looks partially gaited, and he's pretty high-stepping.”
It is a mystery how Toby came to be and what the first 10 years of his life were like, though he may have been a U.S.-bred Mangalarga Marchador cross who slipped off people’s radars. Luckily, he was rescued at just the right time.
“He was starved and skinny and really wild. And the woman who rescued him was like, ‘I'm going to give that one a chance.’”
Despite his unknown past, his future as a pony jumper was certain. To develop their partnership, Zahara began working with Toby to gain his trust.
“Whenever I first got him, I tried connecting with him on the ground,” said Zahara. “And I think that helped the handling issues.”
Toby struggled standing for the farrier and getting baths, but over time, he settled into his new life. Having a set routine for Toby helped with his confidence in new situations and allowed him to be successful at shows.
“He gets really nervous; he is an anxious horse,” said Pelzel. “He likes his routine, and it's been really important for Zahara to develop a routine where he understands what's going to happen. As soon as we got to having a routine that works for him, he has been just awesome this summer.”
Part of the routine is making sure that Toby doesn’t feel alone. Pelzel said he likes to have a friend nearby at home and at shows.
“When they come for a lesson, they always bring another horse with him because he hates being alone,” said Pelzel. “And even in the barn, he is very attached to his friend. So you bring a friend out and he has to look to see if someone else is with him. He wants to have another animal with him.”
Zahara’s hunter pony, Harmony, came from the same barn in New Mexico as Toby, so they are like a bonded pair. Having a buddy helps ease Toby’s nerves, though his energy is something that Zahara sees as a positive trait.
“I really like his craziness. I think that might be my favorite thing about him,” said Zahara. “He's kind of spicy. He likes to talk a lot. He's super strong and fast, but he definitely saves me a lot.”
Pelzel agreed that Toby is looking out for Zahara in the pony jumper ring.
“He saves her all the time. He takes really good care of her at the jumps,” said Pelzel. “He lets her learn and make mistakes. He's amazing.”
Toby knows his job and is more than willing to jump anything in front of him. The Hendersons and Pelzel call his skill missile-locking on jumps.
“Once [Zahara] points him, she has to make sure she points him in the right place,” said Pelzel. “Because if you are pointed in the wrong place, that's where you're going.”
Despite Toby being a tough ride, Zahara has developed her riding skills with Toby’s help. Zahara initially rode Western before switching to English three years ago. Now, she is jumping courses up to 1.10 meters in height with Toby and competing on the hunter pony and equitation divisions this year at Pony Finals.
“He's definitely taught me a lot,” said Zahara. “He helped me learn how to find distances. I used to not be very good at them. Still not the best at them. But I think that I'm better, and whenever I do mess up, he helps me.”
Nicole noted that Zahara’s confidence as a rider has increased with Toby’s help. Pelzel pointed out that Toby has taught Zahara patience as well.
“Some days, he is just tough. Some days if we have a hard time just getting into the in-gate if he's anxious. He has taught her to be patient with him,” said Pelzel. “She doesn't ever get upset. He has taught her to be very even keeled because you can't react. No emotion with horses like that.”
The Hendersons and Pelzel are big fans of Toby and all the characteristics and traits that come along with him.
“He’s not for everybody, that’s for sure. But he’s pretty cool,” said Nicole. “He’s got a lot of personality, and he just has a lot of quirks.”
“And he's not your typical pony that you see. He’s just different,” said Pelzel. “He's got a little bit of a spark. You can tell he's had to fight. He's a fighter.”