Game Day Surprise and Sharee Schwartzenberger at the RAM Freestyle Invitational.
Sharee Schwartzenberger gave an Elton John-inspired winning performance. Photo by Performance Horse Photography

Game Day Surprise, Rider Get Wings, Take Flight — Finally — at RAM Invitational

After riding Game Day Surprise to finish in the “bridesmaid” position three times — 2014, 2015 and 2018 — Sharee Schwartzenberger of Longmont, Colorado, and the 2008 buckskin gelding took home top honors in 2020 at the RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining in Denver. 

The pair scored a 226 to claim the championship and $6,750 in prize money.

Although this year’s competition was not Schwartenberger and the gelding’s “first rodeo” by any means, this year’s performance was the first time the pair performed their Elton John routine — ridden to the song “I’m Still Standing” from the film “Rocketman.”

“Actually, I just came up with [the routine] a week and a half before the show,” Schwartzenberger said. “ I had a different one planned, but when I heard that everyone else was doing slow routines, I was wanting to do something faster and a little more entertaining — something that would appeal to the crowd a little more. I think a little variety makes it a little more entertaining to watch.” 

Game Day Surprise (Hang Ten Surprize x Dunit N Continental x Hollywood Dun It) was bred by John Deer of Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is owned by Bernetha Kurth of Keensesburg, Colorado.

Admittedly, Schwartzenberger said a week and a half was not much time to come up with a routine. It is important to choose a routine with varied tempo — one that is not so fast that the horse runs out of gas, but one that has a good mix in tempo, she said.

“Luckily, I found a song that had a slow start and then sped up with a dramatic and entertaining finish. It really fit him well,” she said.

Coming up with the perfect routine was just part of the equation. Schwartzenberger, a professional trainer whose Equi-Stat record totaled $170,283 at the end of 2019, said the hardest part was coming up with just the right costume. 

“I was able to order the bodysuit online and got that pretty quick, but the wings were kind of a challenge because they took awhile to get here and they weren’t really what I was looking for,” Schwartzenberger said.

Schwartzenberger and her mom, Dori, a National Reining Horse Association judge, had watched “Rocketman” and they thought the wings were really a dramatic and big part of Elton John’s costume.

 “So that’s what I was wanting, but the wings I [received] were a cheaper version of angel wings. My mom was still working on them Sunday morning before the show — trying to get them so they would stay up and stay on.”

Although Schwartzenberger usually comes up with her routines on her own, she said she does run a new routine idea by her mother.

“She looks at it from a judge’s standpoint,” Schwartzenberger explained. “She also helps me as far as pattern placement — making sure I utilize the whole arena, she helps me a lot there.”

Schwartenberger’s mother isn’t the only family member Schwartenberger gets advice from. Also available are her sister, Shevin Haverty, who has also shown freestyle reining horses, and her father, Steve, a professional trainer and veteran freestyle reining participant, who rode Hollywoodmagicmike to third place in this year’s RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining class.

Steve started Game Day Surprise as a 2-year-old and trained and showed the gelding during his limited-age event years. Schwartzenberg said she started showing the horse in freestyle competition when he was 5. The gelding, whose Equi-Stat record totaled $42,946 at the end of 2019, is owned by one of Schwartzenberger’s clients and good friends.

What is the most difficult part of competing in freestyle reining?

“I think it’s coming up with a creative idea — whether it’s the right song or right costume. The really memorable [routines] are hard. It’s hard to find the right music, the right costume, the right horse — it all has to be special.”

Schwartzenberger said she was excited to do this year’s routine.

“I didn’t know if it would win, but I thought it was one that was going to be fun and that people were going to like. I think if you are enjoying [the music and routine] and it’s one that means something, it makes a difference in the performance. I think people can tell that.”

Don Magnum (Magnum Chic Dream x Chex By Dunit x Hollywood Dun It) and native-born Australian trainer Dan James placed second in the RAM Invitational Freestyle Reining with a 224.5.