January 2015 - Horse People: Angela Cricelli

Young rider and a young horse buck conventional wisdom.

by Kim F. Miller

Pairing a young horse with a young rider contradicts conventional matchmaking wisdom, but 16-year-old Angela Cricelli and 6-year-old Sunsprite’s Cali have debunked that idea. After pairing up in the summer of 2013, the hard working, horse-savvy rider and her talented horse are off to a fantastic start. They finished as Area VI Junior Novice Champions and are poised for more success on the West Coast eventing scene this year.

Angela and her trainer Sabrina Miller, of The Riding Academy in Salinas, had their eye on “Cali” while Debbie Rosen campaigned the youngster for his breeders, Sunsprite Warmbloods. The adorable, energetic bay is the son of the late Thoroughbred Coconut Grove and out of Sunsprite foundation mare, the Hanoverian Econda, by Espiri. Athleticism was never an issue for the youngster. “He jumped the moon and was so fancy in dressage the judges loved him,” recalls Debbie.

Angela and Cali with trainer Debbie Rosen, who worked with Cali before Angela purchased him, and Don Trotter of Sunsprite. photo: Gary Dangerfield Photography

While Angela recognized Cali as the perfect match on their first test ride, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. His good nature, a Sunsprite’s trademark, came with some quirks, Sabrina notes. A sensitive poll made him tricky to bridle and he hates having his mane pulled. With Sabrina’s guidance, Angela has applied patient horsemanship to work through those issues.

First, they discovered the root of Cali’s poll sensitivity: a calcification around a ligament that made any pressure in that area painful. He was reluctant to be touched in that area, let alone bridled, or have his mane pulled or braided. Angela rode him in a halter for the first few months as she and Sabrina sought solutions. What eventually worked best, at least for jumping and cross-country, was removing the browband from Cali’s bridle and setting the crown behind the sensitive spot on his poll. Then they roached his mane to eliminate the issues with braiding and pulling. The unconventional solutions may raise a few eyebrows, but they are easy ways to make Cali happy and that’s what counts.

“It goes to show her fortitude and willingness to think about things from the horse’s perspective,” Sabrina notes. “She’s very driven and a pretty exceptional kid for her age to always put the horse first.”

Angela in her “other life” as an accomplished dance competitor.

Bringing out Cali’s considerable athletic potential has always been a matter of building up his confidence, Angela explains. In their first cross-country forays, at Shepard Ranch and Twin Rivers, Angela encouraged Cali with frequent pats on the neck. “I always want him to know that he’s doing the right thing,” she explains. Their trust-based partnership has propelled Cali through each new challenge. “Once we can show him the proper way to do something, he always does it.”

He’s a relatively little horse, 15.2 or 15.3 hh, but he has a big gallop, jump to spare and ample energy. Angela bets that cross-country is Cali’s favorite phase. “He likes to get out and gallop and be more free,” she says. “But, he also has the incredible movement in dressage and I’m pretty sure he enjoys strutting his stuff there!”

Angela is grateful and a bit in awe of the opportunities Cali has brought her way. “I was incredibly shocked to be the first kid to have a Sunsprite!” she shares. “Everybody else that rides Sunsprites are these incredibly famous riders and I’m a little girl in high school. It’s an honor and a little intimidating.” She has soaked up everything Sunsprite principals Don Trotter and Pam Duffy told her about Cali’s early years. “What they told me about his past has helped me improve him in the present.” She also studied YouTube videos of Cali’s sire and of Cali’s rounds under Debbie Rosen. She recognizes the solid foundation Debbie put on Cali and appreciated two early lessons with her, plus ongoing encouragement and advice.

photo: Gary Dangerfield Photography

As Angela’s trainer for 11 years and counting, Sabrina has given her student the rock-solid horsemanship foundation necessary to bring along a young horse. It has served her well already and perhaps will more so in the future. “When it’s time for another horse, she won’t have to go buy a ready-made mount,” Sabrina notes. “She’ll know how to make one.”

Riding lesson horses and leased mounts, Angela grew into an effective equestrian with a feel born of hard work and natural empathy for the horse. During their early months together, Angela was waiting for Cali’s custom saddle to arrive and they hadn’t yet solved the bridle issue, but Sabrina didn’t let that stand in the way of their progress. “She had me jump a grid of small fences, bareback and in a halter, with my hands outstretched,” Angela recalls. “I think stuff like that is very fun and it makes you learn to carry your own balance.”

Sabrina’s Riding Academy is the perfect place to learn and grow with horses and friends, Angela reports. The stable is home to about 60 horses and a core of 20 or so kids who campaign on the eventing circuit. “It’s a big enough group that we can go to events together, and a small enough group that we each get individual attention. We work very hard and Sabrina is always finding different things to help build our muscles and working it into our lessons.” Skill-building exercises over low fences are a component of most lessons. “That way we can build our skills without wasting our horse’s stamina and legs,” Angela notes.

Angela with barn buddies.

Sue and Tony Cricelli have been “super supportive parents” since the get-go. Angela is well aware the sport’s time and dollar demands and says, “I am really grateful that they let me do this.”

Angela’s equestrian accomplishments are all the more impressive because she juggles riding with competitive dance. The high school sophomore competes with the Carmel Academy of Performing Arts Team in ballet, jazz, tap and contemporary styles. “I have my double life,” she laughs. “My ballerina side and my riding side.”

The balancing act is tough time-wise, but beneficial. “Dancing gives me a lot of muscle control and balance and a good sense of rhythm.” She loves both activities, but says it’s a no-brainer which would go if she ever has to choose. “Riding is not budging! The only way that’s going is up!”

More schooling and another cross-country run at the Novice level are the plans through the winter. If all goes well, the pair will tackle Training Level in the spring. “I’m so grateful for what we have already accomplished and it would be incredible if we can keep placing well,” says Angela. “Honestly, I just feel lucky for whatever it is that we get to do.”