Nicole Donovan is making room on her bedroom wall to hang more ribbons, after her history making ride at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. On the weekend, the 16-year-old became the first junior rider to compete at the world-class indoor horse show on a stallion.

“I was very nervous going into the event. All eyes were on us to see if a junior rider was capable of handling a stallion.” Donovan explained. “Not only was he very well behaved; we were competitive.” The new team placed in every class.

Donovan rode in the pony jumper division on Janet Rowe’s six-year-old Connemara pony stallion, Fiontar Mac Tire. “I am so proud of him. He exceeded our expectations at the Royal,” Rowe beamed. “This is his first year jumping and he is young. We were not expecting to do as well as he did.”

Earlier this year, Equestrian Canada changed the rules allowing junior riders over the age of 15 to compete on stallions in the jumper divisions. Previously, only adults had been allowed to ride them at rated shows.

Donovan is coached by Erin Amos, who operates Top of the Hill Farm near Orillia. Even though Fiontar Mac Tire and Donovan were consistently placing in every show without problems, there were still “neigh-sayers” who thought they should not compete at the Royal. Amos explained that some people were concerned about a stallion being so close to other junior riders and their horses in the restricted confines of an indoor show. “We made sure he was under control the entire time. I hope we proved that he deserved to be here,” Amos concluded.

In their first class on Saturday, the duo decided to take a conservative approach to the course. “I wanted to give him a nice safe relaxed ride,” Donovan explained. “It is really intimidating for the ponies walking into the Ricoh Coliseum the first time.” Eight of the 16 ponies in the division were clear in the first round. When that group came back for a timed jump off, Donovan and Fiontar Mac Tire again left all the jumps up. They finished in 4th place.

First thing Sunday morning, the pair was back in the ring for the second class of the division. “This time we were in it to win it,” smiled Donovan. After going clear in the first round, they had the strategic advantage of riding last in the jump off. “We got to watch all the other rounds. One of our competitors laid down a very fast time. I knew I had to pull out the stops to win.” They did and were two tenths of a second faster than anyone. Unluckily, a knock down at the second last fence dropped them to 6th place.

In their final class later that night, a light rub brought down a jump in the first round. Again, they posted the fastest pace. They placed 8th but the rookies were learning why winning the Royal takes it all working. It was a lesson more valuable than red ribbon. “I was overjoyed,” Donovan said, wiping back a tear. “I could have ridden a little better tonight, but I could not have asked for a better pony.”

Fiontar Mac Tire will go home for a few days before heading back to the Royal next weekend to compete in the sport-pony classes.

Watch a clip from the Royal below: