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AQHA Novice (Level 1) Championships


Article & photos by Allison Armstrong Rehnborg

In 2012, the AQHA Show Committee sought to recognize the novice and amateur exhibitors by creating a pair of championship shows just for them: the Smartpak West Novice Championships, held in Las Vegas, Nevada; and the Nutrena East Novice Championships, held in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The shows were conceived as part of AQHA’s leveling plan, an innovative handicapping system that assigns exhibitors and horses to different competition levels, based on points and awards earned. The leveling program ensures that riders of similar experience levels compete against one another. That plan met with roaring success at the inaugural championships in 2012, and the trend for success continued with the 2014 Nutrena East Level 1 (formerly Novice) Championships, held September 30 - October 5 at the Tennessee Miller Coliseum in Murfreesboro, TN.

The Coliseum was bursting at the seams with exhibitors, horses, trainers, and spectators during the run of the show. AQHA grounds staff had to install four tents’ worth of temporary stalls and temporary water lines on the grounds to accommodate the extra growth. With more than six hundred exhibitors, the show office recorded two thousand entries over six days of competition. Judges for the championships included Charlene Carter of Goodlettsville, TN; April Devitt of Waddy, Kentucky; Casey Devitt of Waddy, Kentucky; Michael Jung of Farmington, Utah; Robbin Jung of Farmington, Utah; and Michelle Tidwell, of Madisonville, Texas.

The event also experienced several changes this year, including a name change.

“This is a transition year for the show,” said Sarah Davisson, Senior Manager of Publicity and Special Events at AQHA. “The Nutrena East AQHA Level 1 Championship Show is for our Level 1 and Rookie exhibitors who have qualified to compete here. Level 1 used to be called Novice, and next year, the event will be fully transitioned with new levels: Rookie, Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3. You’ll see the changes, including Level 2 and 3, in the 2015 shows. We’ve been listening to our exhibitors and trying to get a feel for what they want, and it’s been pushing it more in that direction.”
By separating riders and horses into more levels, based on their show accomplishments, AQHA hopes to continue recognizing the skills and abilities of their Novice and Amateur riders and encouraging them to compete.

“With these new levels, I think the exhibitors needed a little more level playing field – a way to separate the divisions even more, so that beginners could truly compete against people on the same level as them,” Davisson explained. “Personally, I love this show because it takes me back to why I started showing in the first place. When you hear what the exhibitors are saying [as they are] coming out of the gate, it’s so encouraging. They’re just happy to have a good ride.”

Another new change this year involved the addition of Rookie classes, which cater to beginner exhibitors and horses. “Our biggest class was the Level 1 Horsemanship, with 144 entries,” Davisson said. “This was the first year for the Rookie classes, so they’re a bit smaller, but I have the feeling they’re going to be big next year. The Ranch Horse Pleasure class was added this year and it was huge for the Level 1, Youth, Amateur, and the Rookies. That’s definitely a class everybody enjoys.”

As in previous years, exhibitors came from all over the eastern United States to attend the Nutrena East Level 1 Championships. Novice Amateur competitor Brandy Barniak drove fourteen hours from Watertown, New York, to compete in the championships with her six-year-old American Quarter Horse, All Rites Reserved, or “Norman.”
“We’ve had maybe 21 hours of sleep in the past five days,” Barniak said on the fifth day of the competition. “That’s an average of 4 hours of sleep a night, if that! But it’s fun, and nerve-wracking. You try so hard – and the competition is so good! I really like it.”

It was Barniak and Norman’s first time at the Level 1 Championships, and the pair overcame a lot of hurdles to show at the event – including a broken leg for Barniak and a troubled past for Norman.

“Norman was a really troubled horse when we got him,” Barniak said. “He was two, and he was abused before we got him. Came off the trailer crazy, with no halter. He was very scared – you couldn’t even go in the stall without him running into the back. But he just needed time, and the right people to find him and love him. He’s one of the most loving horses now. He always has his chin on your shoulder. A lot of people can’t do what I do with him, and that’s because he trusts me so much.”

As a six year old, Norman now competes regularly in the all-around classes, putting his “big stride” to good use in the English classes.

“We’re going to get into the trail and Western riding next year,” Barniak said proudly. “For now, we do the equitation classes, showmanship, hunter under saddle, horsemanship, and the halter. We’re currently leading the Novice Amateur Showmanship honor roll. That’s his top class.”

The pair qualified for the 2013 Nutrena East Novice Championships last year, and would have been there with bells on, had it not been for Barniak’s love of recreational soccer.

“I started in Quarter Horse shows last year, and I planned to come to this show last year, too, but I broke my leg playing soccer. So that derailed everything,” Barniak said with a laugh. “I was playing in the indoor co-ed league and my foot got stuck in the turf, and there it was. I remember crying, ‘I can’t show anymore!’ But it all worked out.”

While Barniak was grounded, her trainers, Jill and Danny Bergstresser of JD Performance Horses, worked with Norman to keep him in shape.

“I was in my cast a long time – maybe three or four months,” Barniak remembered. “Then, two weeks after I got out of my walking cast, I started riding again and said, “OK, let’s do a show!’ We went to the Region 5 AQHA show and got the all-around award, and that’s what qualified me for last year. My trainers worked with Norman the whole time I was in the cast, and then they worked on me.”

Barniak also credits the Bergstressers as being instrumental in helping Norman overcome his fears as a young horse.
“They worked so well with him,” Barniak said. “They adjusted their program to him and helped him a lot. You’ve just got to let him trust you. We’ve learned over time that you’ve got to take it easy with him and you can’t push him too hard. The best horses come when you take your time.”

During the course of the show, Barniak and Norman placed in several classes and earned third place – out of more than a hundred entries – in the Level 1 Amateur Hunt Seat Equitation on October 1.

“I was riding in the equitation, and I cried before each pattern,” Barniak said. “I kept wondering, ‘What if we win?’ Then we had the rail work, and then we were standing in the line-up. I was chatting with the girl next to me about where she was from, and then they called her out and I was just sitting there. Then they announced third place, and they say this back number. I look around, wondering, ‘Who is it?’ Then they say my name, and I go, ‘Oh, my geez! Sorry, guys!’ I was so shocked that I didn’t even have time to cry. It was really cool.”

For more information on the AQHA leveling program, check out For extensive show coverage of the East and West Level 1 Championships, please visit

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