North Salem, N.Y. -During the 2017 Adequan®/FEI North American Youth Championships presented by Gotham North (NAYC), Region 4’s Tillie Jones and Apachi, the 13-year-old KWPN gelding she owns with her mom Tish Jones, overcame pre-competition adversity to win the 2017 United States Dressage Federation (USDF) North American Junior Rider Dressage Freestyle Championship. In addition, they anchored the Region 4 team to a bronze medal finish. They return this year as members of the Region 4/7 Young Rider combined team. The 17-year-old has been very busy over the past year. In addition to preparing for the NAYC with Apachi, she has spent the summer working as a shift leader at Dairy Queen and volunteering with young kids who want to learn how to ride. She took time after the NAYC young rider horse inspection to answer a few questions.
Q: What have you and Apachi been focusing on over the past year?
A: Since we [competed] in the Junior division last year, it has been a huge switch from the Junior to Young Rider division. I do not think some people understand how big of jump that is in a year. [Originally], I got him at third level, and he is doing changes already. In a couple years, I trained him from third level to PSG [Prix. St. Georges]. He is green with PSG still, but he is doing really well and catching on fast. We have really been focusing on [executing] a clean test, that he is listening to my aids, and our partnership because I have only had him two years. Everything is solid, and we hit our high point before the [NAYC], so we are excited.
Q: What does competing at the NAYC mean to you as an athlete?
A: It is a huge accomplishment! I am from Nebraska, and there has not been many people who have [participated]. It is been so cool because I won the Individual Freestyle [as a junior], and it was just so rewarding. You meet all these new people; I met my best friend at Dressage Seat Medal Finals when I was 10-years-old, and seven years later, here we are. She is doing juniors for the first time, so being here you get to see all your friends, meet new ones. It is a great experience. Even if it does not go well, you are just happy that you are here.
Q: What do you like about the NAYC competition atmosphere?
A: I love the [crowd]. There are many people that do not do well under pressure, but I feed from the pressure; I love it! In the past, I have usually been the anchor, so all the pressure has been on me, but that is when I shine the most, because then I want to be like “This is what I got; this is my horse, this is me, and this is what I can do.” I like to entertain people.
Q: This is your third year at NAYC. Does it get any easier?
A: It is still a lot of anxiety. Last night, my horse arrived at 5:30 p.m., and the vet inspection ended at 6:00 p.m., so it was high stress – get the horse [unloaded], get him a drink of water, go pick up the passport and his [entry] number – it’s a lot of stress. Things happen fast, but it is important to enjoy the moment because we are only here once a year and you do not know if you will get here the following year. It does not get a ton easier, but it is a lot of fun and good experience.
Q: How then, do you prepare mentally?
A: When I am going through my test at home, I imagine myself going into the ring at NAYC and all the people. I close my eyes for a second before going into the arena. I just have to imagine I am in the spotlight at home even though there is no one watching. I also meditate right before going to sleep.
Q: What is the biggest advice your trainer, Jami Kment, gave you before arriving at NAYC?
A: It is definitely hard going from winning a medal [as a junior] then expecting to do great things as a young rider because it is such a big jump. Some of the advice she gave me is that [NAYC] is going to be a great experience no matter what. It is going to be great, you are going to see your friends, and you are going to have international judges who give you great feedback. No matter what, I am going to ride the best test I can.
Q: How are you building camaraderie with a relatively new team?
A: I have never competed on a combined team before. I competed with Jenna [Upchurch] as a junior in 2015 and competed against Christian [Simonson] a couple times, and just met Annika [Tedlund]. We all get along and have great horses, and I think we are going to do really well. I am excited for the combined team.
Q: As last year’s USDF North American Junior Rider Dressage Freestyle Champion, are you changing up this year’s routine? What can people expect?
A: I did not change up the music; it is just too special. It fits my horse perfectly. If I know I ride well to it, why change something that is already great? We went with [dressage freestyle choreographer] Karen Robinson, who changed up the choreography. The trot choreography is mostly the same, but the canter and walk work are different.
Check out the live stream of the NAYC on USEF Network through Sunday, August 5.
View the NAYC schedule and results.