Canadian junior rider and equitation extraordinaire Sam Walker added to his list of impressive accomplishments on Saturday, October 26, when he claimed the championship title in the 2019 Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation Final. Previously the winner of the ASPCA Maclay Championships at the National Horse Show in 2018, Walker has also taken top three finishes in all of the other big equitation finals, leaving a top ranking in the WIHS Equitation Final as the last goal to achieve on his bucket list. Walker’s textbook rides consistently put 90’s on the scoreboard throughout the course of the weekend, making his dream a reality when he led the victory gallop around the Capital One Arena.
How does it feel to be the champion of the WIHS Equitation Final?
It feels amazing! I am honestly just really happy with how everything went down, how my horses were and how I handled the pressure. I am so thrilled with the result and I am really proud of myself.
How did you prepare for the hunter phase?
The schooling ring at WIHS is quite small so it can be challenging. My focus was really on picking up one pace and keeping it the same throughout the whole course so that it was as consistent as possible. My horse Waldo is very good at that so when I went in the ring I picked up the canter and tried to stay on that the whole way around.
How did it feel to win that first phase?
I was really excited. To win any phase in the WIHS Equitation Finals is a dream and a goal for so many people, especially me. Winning the hunter phase set me up nicely for the next phase. It was nice to know that I had a strong start and that I just needed to keep calm.
How did you prepare for the jumper phase? What was different from the hunter phase?
Honestly, it wasn’t much different. Like I said I just tried to get a nice pace for first jump and keep it throughout. The first line was quite forward in the jumper phase so in the schooling ring I tried to practice moving forward and getting my pace for that first jump. That way, when I went in the ring, I could keep that consistent pace and pick up a good gallop right off the bat to nail the first line because it was difficult if you didn’t get the correct jump in.
Were you concerned at all with the time allowed?
I was concerned with the time-allowed. In the last two years of WIHS Equitation Finals I have had time faults in the jumper phase, so not having any was a goal of mine this year. I just went in, picked up a good pace and was sure to take the inside track everywhere because the time-allowed was tight. Making it not seem rushed though was also a big goal. Waldo is very good at lengthening his stride so I just stayed neat in my position. When I watched the first couple of people go I realized the time-allowed was something I would need to be concerned with.
How did it feel to stay so consistent in the jumper phase as well, keeping your scores in the 90s?
It felt great! It is always great to come and do well at WIHS Finals. Scoring in the 90s the first day was amazing but then coming back and scoring a pair of 92s in the jumper phase to finish in second behind my barn mate Ava Stearns on Acer K was amazing. She had a spectacular round and I am so happy for her. I have to say, the course was tough enough so I am really proud of myself and my teammates, especially everyone at North Run.
What is your partnership like with Waldo?
This is Waldo and I’s third equitation finals season together. We have two top-three placings in the USEF Dover Hunter Seat Medal Finals and we won Maclay finals last year. We have a top three placing in the WIHS Equitation Final and now a win in that as well. He has been a spectacular horse for me so I can’t thank Missy Clark and John Brennan enough for letting me show Waldo these past years. He does everything that I ask and is just a real pleasure to ride. I have so much respect for the training Missy has put into Waldo –
he has taken me to places I never thought I could go. I am so appreciative for that.
What do you think his best qualities were in his performances over the two days?
The biggest one was his stride. His stride is so big and smooth that I can usually make a long line look normal, and then when we do a short line he can come right back together. He is elastic with his canter and he can stretch all the way out and then come all the way in, so if I don’t mess it up then we are good! He is extremely rideable but at the same time, he is very careful, which is very rare in an equitation horse. He naturally does not want to touch the jumps and he is nice and careful but in the best way possible. It is very rare that he will knock a jump – he is amazing.
How did you remain so calm throughout the high-pressure moments?
I think my biggest thing is keeping everything in perspective. Honestly, this isn’t my last junior year and I thought to myself ‘Whatever happens, happens. If I am meant to win I will win and if something happens, it wasn’t my day.’ I think going in and staying relaxed is key, not putting the cart before the horse if you will. I know that when I think I am going to do very well I usually don’t do very well, it is a bit of reverse psychology. Sometimes I just have to put things into perspective and know that I have had fantastic schools all week. I am already so proud of myself and my horse, and this is the fun part, so let’s just go see what we can do!
Was there anything, in particular, you knew you needed to focus on when you switched to Acer K?
Acer K is an extremely nice horse. He is only an 8-year-old and this is his first year at the equitation finals but Ava Stearns has done an exceptional job with him – she was reserve champion at USET Finals. I was thrilled to get to ride him in the work-off and I am sure she was glad she was riding Waldo! She has done such a good job of training him in such a short period of time because he only started doing the equitation in January of this year. I focused in the schooling ring on figuring him out again because it has been a while since I have ridden him. He is a super careful horse and I think I just focused on getting used to his canter. I am so used to Waldo’s canter so I needed to see how much I needed to continue up the first line. Once we were up the first line I knew where we were at. He has a huge stride and jumps in perfect form, he is one of the best horses in the classes, for sure. Waldo is a little bit taller and longer but they are very similar. I am sure Missy and John are very proud of their horse and riders, as they should be. I have the best interest at heart for Ava and I knew she would do great things on Waldo.
What is one piece of training advice that you carried with you throughout the courses?
The biggest thing that my parents have told me is to start with more canter than you think you need. Starting with almost too much canter is much better than starting too slow and not having enough pace to work with. When I forget to do that my rounds don’t go as well! So, two things were with me and it was that and to keep my nerves down. It is easy to say that when you aren’t in the moment because when you are in the moment you have to keep everything in perspective. We are so lucky to be able to show at such a prestigious show. I think the first step is to keep calm and just take things one step at a time. Focus on one picture at a time rather than looking at the whole picture and becoming overwhelmed.
Is there anything you would have changed about your rides Saturday? If so, what?
In the jumper phase, my last jump I asked my horse to land the left lead on the backside of the jump too soon and I had a swap-off right on takeoff. So, I think if I could repeat one thing it would be that jump. Other than that, there isn’t much I would change!
What are your plans moving forward?
This week I will be jumping the Canadian Show Jumping Championships at the Royal Winter Fair. Unfortunately, I will be missing the National Horse Show but I will be fulfilling one of my lifelong goals. Then, on Sunday, I will be in Kentucky to commentate the second round of the Maclay Championships. I will go back to Canada on Monday to show in the Royal Winter Fair for the second week.
What is one thing you want everyone to know about you following your win in the WIHS Equitation Final?
I am just really proud of myself, especially being the first Canadian to win the WIHS Equitation finals. That is something that I am proud of and I hope it inspires other kids and juniors in my country to compete in the equitation. It is such a good experience.
What is it like to compete in the United States Equitation as a Canadian?
It is very cool! It is definitely different than in Canada because we have equitation but it isn’t on the same scale as it is in the United States, primarily because of the sheer number of horses and people that compete. I have to say, it is very cool and pretty much all of my close friends are in the U.S. so we all get to compete together and support one another. It is really nice and I am so lucky that I get to go to American and Canadian shows!