Southern Regional Junior and New Jersey Equestrian of the Year Has Passion to Help Horses Rediscover Their Purpose

By DAVID BIGGY | Mar 27, 2019
Photo by: David Biggy NO MORE BOUNDARIES: State Equestrian of the Year Riley Chenoweth-Hafner and her adoptee, Rocky, began working together three years ago. ‘He didn’t trust anybody,’ says Riley, who won over the ex-racehorse.

For nearly six months, Riley Chenoweth-Hafner patiently waited for her new friend to realize she was his friend, that he had no reason to feel threatened or that she was there to steal his food.

“It took me about four months of just sitting with Rocky and letting him get used to me to get him going in a positive direction,” said the 17-year-old from Manahawkin. “He needed that one home,where he realized he was loved and respected, but he needed time to realize I wasn’t a threat to him.”

A thoroughbred whose previous experience had been racing at Monmouth Park, Rocky eventually ended up with a rescue group and three years ago was acquired by Riley with the help of Mike Kelly’s Horse Farm in Barnegat, where she grew up riding and caring for horses. An aggressive horse with a hard past, Rocky needed a lot of work to gain a trust of humans. So it was Riley to the rescue, in a different sense.

“We don’t know everything about his situation, but he apparently had a very negative experience on the racetrack,” she said. “But he just wasn’t a racehorse. He was scared of people and protective of his food. He didn’t really show a personality. He was more robotic and machine than horse, and he didn’t trust anybody.”

For months, Riley simply spent time every day sitting in his field enclosure at the farm, allowing him to roam and eat without restriction, but always where he could see her. As time went on, she’d get a little closer every time she was there. Eventually, “it was like a switch was flipped.”

“I was talking over the fence to a friend, who was working in the next field, and Rocky came up behind me and started playing with the zipper on my jacket,” she said. “That was his breakthrough moment, when he approached me for the first time. I almost cried. He had these boundaries around him, and he finally showed that he was ready to move on.”

Rocky’s rehabilitation process during the past couple of years has included gradually working him back to being in front of crowds, teaching him how to slow down a bit when clearing obstacles – rather than racing at full speed and potentially injuring himself – and proving to him that humans really can be loving and caring. Under Riley’s compassionate, patient and attentive touch, Rocky seemed to rediscover the personality that had been buried behind a mountain of distrust.

“He had to figure out exactly what his purpose was, and he developed from there,” she said. “When I had him at his first barn show, he loved it. We found out how much he loved having people around and being able to show off his abilities. We were wondering if anything would trigger a negative experience, but nothing seemed to bother him, and he didn’t have one misstep. Since then, he’s done really well at shows, and he’s been so good and willing to do what I’ve asked.”

Fortunately, Riley, who started riding lessons at 8 years old, had some previous experience with other challenging horses – ones that didn’t like being touched, were easily spooked, among other issues – as well as a rescue pony named Dante, and her desire to gently but firmly work with them helped develop her skills to the point where she could manage with the power and aggression of Rocky.

“Horses are very in tune with human emotion, and they feed off your emotion when training them,” she said. “You have to be able to keep your emotions steady. It’s best to be happy and positive because they respond better to that. And you need a lot of patience because they’re like toddlers. You can’t force anything on a horse. You have to work things slowly and consistently. You can do something with a horse a million times, but one day the horse just doesn’t want to do it, and you can’t show him your frustration. Sometimes you have to step back and then show them again that this is how we do things.”

Of course, with all her experience with horses, Riley not only has learned a lot but has been able to educate others through 4-H. She’s been Ocean County Equestrian of the Year for each of the last four years and has been involved in the 4-H Horse Program since age 9. She’s also been part of the national 4-H Roundup Communications and Horse Judging teams, as well as a judge for the New England Regional Communications competition and at the American Quarter Horse Congress. She is president of the Equine Science 4-H Club of Ocean County.

In January, Riley received her biggest accolade yet when the state Department of Agriculture’s Equine Advisory Board selected her as the 2019 New Jersey Equestrian of the Year. Earlier that month, she took part in the Equestrian of the Year competition, during which she had to answer a lot of questions relating to the equine industry and give a speech on best practices to increase sportsmanship in the equine field.

“I was in competition against a lot of people I had known for a long time,” she said. “Some of them are close friends, and I know how good they are with horses and the experiences they’ve had, so I had a lot of tough competition. So when it was announced I was Equestrian of the Year, it caught me off guard a bit. It took a minute for it to sink in that they announced my name. I was shocked, but it was amazing.”

As Equestrian of the Year, Riley now has ample opportunities to represent the state at various equine functions, during which she can further be an ambassador for the industry and a role model for youngsters interested in getting involved with it. This summer, Riley will have the opportunity to attend the 4-H Leadership of Life Conference in Ireland as well.

“It’s a great opportunity to help educate a lot of people about something I’m really passionate about,” she said. “For 10 years, my life has been about horses, and it’s an honor to be able to represent New Jersey in this way.”

Not surprising is the fact Riley also is an excellent student. The Southern Regional High School junior recently was inducted into the World Language Honor Society and the National Honor Society. Her plan, upon graduation next year, is to attend Stockton University and begin a path toward a career in veterinary medicine – through which she ultimately wants to be able to help rescue groups.

“So many rescues need all the help they can get, and I just want to be able to help animals of all kinds live happy, healthy lives,” she said. “Rocky is never going to have to worry about how he’s going to get his food. He knows he’s going to be loved and cared for, and that he has a home. Some animals aren’t as fortunate.”

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