Hatchimals dominated Christmas in 2016. For those of us who don’t remember, Hatchimals are interactive eggs that hatch into toys after you care for them. For many kids, this might do. But not for Braylee Duckworth of Blair, Nebraska. She dreamed of caring for and connecting with something a little more real, something a little more magical.
So, in 2016, at 8-years-old, Braylee’s parents gave her a different kind of gift for Christmas, one that would change her life forever.
“We were tired of all of the nonsense gifts that just get played with for a few weeks and then eventually get thrown away,” says Braylee’s mother, Traci Duckworth. Instead, Traci and her husband Cory, gifted Braylee riding lessons. Two days later, Braylee found herself in the saddle and learning the ropes of Western riding with a feisty pony named Squirt.
Fast forward to spring 2019 when Traci and 11-year-old Braylee got a pony named Simba. The gelding needed some training and the family connected with Carine Stava.
Carine took Simba that summer and Braylee started working at her farm one day a week in exchange for lessons. Soon enough, once a week turned into daily trips to the barn. Braylee rode Simba, mucked stalls, helped feed, and groomed. That’s when she met Harry Potter, a 12-year-old, 13.3-hand “Western cow-bred” pony.
“One day, she saw Harry Potter in the field and asked if she could ride him,” Carine says. “And the rest, as it goes, is history.”
“Next thing I knew, I was receiving a picture of Braylee jumping a horse in the indoor arena,” Traci recalls. “I started laughing because I had no clue my daughter had secretly been riding and jumping Carine's horse.”
Braylee had spent the summer learning and loving Simba, but Harry had taught her to fly. It didn’t take long for Braylee to start schooling cross country with Harry and Carine.
Cross country schooling fees help support RIDERS, a program Carine developed in conjunction with North Hills Hunt to promote foxhunting and provide financial assistance to kids who otherwise might not be able to afford it.
“The riders pay half their membership, RIDERS pays the other half,” Carine explains. “They take lessons during the week and on hunt days they come early and stay after to help with chores. At Christmas they help make cookies we deliver to our landowners.”
After relishing in the rush of riding and jumping across the country at numerous RIDERS events, Braylee told her mother all about foxhunting. She had earned her way into the world of foxhunting with the help of Carine, Harry, and RIDERS. So, Traci did what any mother unfamiliar with the sport would do – she Googled it. “I thought, sure we’ll try it,” she says. She actually didn’t think Braylee would like it, but her daughter would soon prove her wrong.
Labor Day weekend in September 2019, they loaded Harry into a trailer and headed to North Hills Hunt in Burwell, Nebraska, for a workday and an early season hunt with some of the young hounds. “I was clueless,” Traci admits, “but in awe at the same time as to what this sport was.”
It was Braylee’s first real hunt. On the first day, she and Harry rode with the gate group. On the second day, they followed Carine in first flight. They took to it like seasoned pros and never looked back.
“I loved running fast through the fields and flying over coops," says Braylee.
“They are really perfect for each other,” says Carine of Braylee and Harry. “Burwell can be challenging. Steep ravines, big gallops across rolling hills—the coops are around 2’6” to 3’. We can go 10 to 17 miles in a day. Braylee is so great to the coops that some of our adult riders like to follow behind her to get a good lead.”
While Harry had shown Braylee the magic of foxhunting, underneath it all, there had always been a subtle bitterness to the sweetness she grew to love. Harry was for sale and when offers came, so did her tears.
“So, my husband, mom, and myself talked and decided that she had to have Harry Potter,” Traci says. “We talked to Carine and told her we would love to buy him but needed to get some things in place first. Carine, being the amazing person she is, said she would wait and work with us. She knew that Harry and Bray belonged together.”
For Christmas this past year, exactly three years after her first lesson, Harry Potter appeared under Braylee’s tree. Beyond experiencing the magic of galloping across open fields and flying over coops in first flight, Harry gave Braylee the gift of confidence by caring for and connecting with something real. For Traci and Cory, the gift was, and has been, Carine and her RIDERS program, which carved the path for Braylee to find herself in Harry and foxhunting.
“The RIDERS Program is an absolute blessing for us,” Traci says. “Because of this program, we are able to afford the sport. The club members are very welcoming to us as parents and are so nice to Bray. If it weren't for this club, Bray would never have been able to learn about foxhunting. She has gained so much confidence through this program and has also found a group of friends and family that truly understand her passion for horses.”
While Braylee plans to continue hunting for the foreseeable future, as well as aiming for Local Day at the Burlington Capital International at the Omaha Equestrian Center in April, she will always remember her roots. “Now that I have Harry,” she said, “we will start working on Western Pleasure together.”