In the dirt center ring of Scottsdale’s Equidome Arena, suited ringmasters wait for the in gate to open. Seated amongst friends and family of the day’s competitors, Tristen Wikel looks for her brother to ride in on the Arabian horse, Personality. She is excited for her “I told you so moment” when he wins his class.
“You’ve got to shout when he comes in, it’s tradition” 16-year-old Tristen instructs. This is a Native Costume class and her brother, Trent, will be wearing a tan cape with red, blue and yellow illustrations on the sleeves over a loose blue body suit, which Tristen calls the “oompa loompa” outfit.
The attire at the American Cup Championship Arabian Horse Show ranges from the heavy cape on her brother, to American Western outfits, to three-piece suits with bowler hats—the horses’ saddles decorated to match. Native Costume, however, is Tristen’s favorite.
“Trent says he doesn’t like this event but I can tell he loves it,” Tristen says. She used to ride Personality in the same event but passed the chestnut beauty onto her brother.
Wikel herself has won four halter national championships in the last two years. Events like this will qualify her and her brother, who is 13, for regional competitions.
The Wikels, specifically Tristen, Trent and their grandparents Dean and Terri brought several of their horses from Ohio to compete between Nov. 10 and 12. They all come from Pegasus Arabians, the family’s breeding company. She explains that as a business, they’re saving money on each of the 200 to 300 horses they own, as each one is Pegasus bred.
“When you see national championships, you see Pegasus breedings. That’s our breeding. That’s our national championships,” Tristen explains. “You can go out here and buy the best horse in this class, and that would be easy” her grandfather Dean adds, “But to breed that horse…” “That’s special, that’s not easy,” Tristen finishes her grandfather’s thought. “seeing how upright their neck is, how long their neck is how thin, how short the body is or how long it is” Tristen calls Arabian horses a “firecracker breed,” because no matter how much she works them, “they still want to run run run.”
Though a teenager, Tristen speaks with confidence about the breeding process and gauging what classes a horse can compete in. She wants to become a veterinarian in the breeding field. “I’m homeschooled, because I’m dedicated to the horses,” she says. On whether she’ll run Pegasus someday, her grandfather thinks she could do it now. “I was going to keep explaining how it works,” he says. “But she pretty much has it covered. She lives in the barn.”
Tristen competes with six or seven Arabians and half Arabians. She struggles to pick a favorite, but Sombra might get special attention. “He’s a pure-bred Arabian, he’s the sweetest horse, he knows how you feel,” Tristen says, “it’s hard to describe it.”
Before Trent’s class in the stables, Sombra rests his nose on Tristen’s forehead while she brags about him and pets the white streak and white flecks that cover his face. Tristen is in full makeup with her hair drawn back in a tight blond bun. Still wearing royal blue riding pants and black boots from an earlier class (she won), she replaced the formal blazer with a highlight- yellow tank top that reads “Good Vibes,” both “Os” replaced with sunglass-wearing pineapples. She has another event later, in which she’ll win first place again.
While a public event, the show feels like a family affair. Tristen knows everyone from competing across the country, chatting with different riders she walks by. She sees one of her trainers on her way to a class and they share a joke. While Tristen leafing through a wall of halters, all slightly different for different competitions, a woman comes up to praise her, calling her a “kind heart and true champion” who can ride any horse “with grace and style.”
Back in the Equidome, the announcer calls for the gate to open and Personality comes bounding in, Trent bouncing on top. He keeps Personality’s neck tall and face inward. As he passes, Trent calls out about Personality’s speed before his sister shushes him. Tristen whoops and cheers for her brother, while acoustic strings play chase music overheard, a departure from the earlier playlist of “Benny and the Jets,” “We Are Young,” “Hey Soul Sister” and “Hotel California.”
Trent slows Personality on cue, turns and Tristen leans up to see if he can get the horse’s right leg to lead. “I always get worried about getting the wrong lead, then it gets in my head and I get the wrong lead,” she explains modestly. Three years ago, in Tristen’s first competition, “grandpa put me in to either sink or swim. That very first class I went in, I got second place in. It made my entire year.”
Trent gets Personality to cooperate and Tristen claps, cheering again. She knows his competitor, another friend of hers. She watches her brother take Personality through all the announcer’s instructions, walk, trot, canter, back to trot. Eventually the two contestants ride to the center of the ring and line up. They tie for first and Tristen jumps for both of them, hustling to the prep area to give Trent pointers and help him dissemble the elaborate costume.
Walking back to Sombra, Tristen points out how complex her world can be, and how explaining it can be difficult. “If you want to be in horses, you have to be involved in it,” Tristen says. “It’s hard to explain to someone how serious it is.” She grabs a peppermint and lets Sombra nibble it from her hand before he gently nibbles on her fingers. Tristen smiles.
“It’s the best sport, nothing can go wrong with a horse for your best friend,” Tristen say. “I’d choose horses over people every time.”