Wellington, Fla. – March 22, 2019 – Forty of the nation’s best equitation riders came together Friday evening at the Winter Equestrian Festival (WEF) to vie for top honors in the 12th Annual George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship, and it was ultimately 2018 ASPCA Maclay National Championship winners Sam Walker and Waldo who walked away with another win to add to their already impressive resume.
In order to qualify for the prestigious class, riders had to have won a blue ribbon in a 3’6” equitation class during WEF. Riders have been vying for a spot in the class throughout the past eleven weeks of the circuit with the help of their trainers, but the format of this championship is unique in that it encourages riders to compete independently. The class challenged riders to be fully responsible for walking the course, schooling and preparing themselves and their mounts without any outside help. The class prohibits any form of outside communication, and each rider is mandated to hand in their cell phones prior to the start of competition.
Held in the International Ring, the location of the class also added an extra element of difficulty, as the equitation classes have typically been held in the smaller Ring 6 and Ring 9 throughout the season. Horses had to overcome the unfamiliarity of the new venue as well as a nighttime atmosphere as the class continued throughout the evening, presenting some riders with an added obstacle to overcome.
The two judging panels consisted of Ralph Caristo and Chris Kappler on one end of the arena, while Jimmy Torano and Lauren Hough sat on the other side of the International Ring as an additional judging panel. Another innovative facet of the class,riders also received a “schooling score” after both the first and second rounds of warm-up ranging from -2 to +2 points from judge Eric Straus, who is designated by the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) as a Licensed Level 3 Chief Steward in Show Jumping and Reining. The schooling score, which was based on time management, efficiency and any questionable practices or procedures, was added or subtracted, depending on score, to the combined total of the two panels’ tallies and then split in half to determine the round’s overall average score.
Renowned course designers Steve Stephens and Nick Granat created a 13-fence course for the first round of competition, which included rollbacks and tight turns that came up fast and kept riders thinking throughout their ride. Following round one, the second phase invited back fifteen of the highest-ranked pairs to tackle another similarly challenging course in reverse order of the standings. The track consisted of eleven fences with a trot jump at fence six going towards the in-gate, and riders had to change leads through the walk between fences eight and nine.
Following the first round of competition, Emma Fletcher in the irons aboard Ashland Farms’ Consierge, who she rode for the first time on Friday morning, sat in fourth position. Despite the new partnership, the two judging panels deemed their rounds worthy of scores of 85.5 and 87 for a total of 172.5. Sophee Steckbeck piloted Redfield Farm’s Crossbow to third position in the standings following the first two rounds. Steckbeck was awarded with scores of 84 and 89.25 in the first and second rounds, respectively, for a total of 173.25.
Second-to-last to ride in phase two, Sam Walker and Waldo, owned by Missy Clark and North Run, were hot on the heels of the leaders, Elli Yeager and Copperfield 39, and made up ground with an impressive score of 86.25 attached to their names. Though Yeager and her longtime mount Copperfield 39 topped the leaderboard after their stellar first round performance that received a score of 87.75, and added to it with a 88.50 to finish on a cumulative 176.25 points. Walker would bump Yeager into second place following the second round as the young rider’s talents earned him a 91.5 for a total tally of 177.75 points.
These top four riders were invited back for additional testing. The ride-off required riders to walk out of the line, canter fence 9, counter-canter fence 10, hand gallop fence 11, jump fence 1 to 2 in six strides, halt, counter-canter fence 3 and return to the group at the walk.
Fletcher left the group and put forth an excellent test, followed by Steckbeck. In contention for first place throughout the class, Yeager and Walker would battle it out as the final two to test their skills. Yeager demonstrated a stellar test and, with the pressure mounting, Walker aimed to also execute a safe, but correct test with his horse.
Ultimately, it was Walker who was awarded with the championship honors in the class thanks to his consistent riding, followed by Yeager in second place. Steckbeck earned third place while Fletcher rounded out the top four placings. Steckbeck’s mount, Crossbow, was further honored with the Best Equitation Horse award. Dominic Gibbs’ mount, Cent 15, was awarded the Best Turned Out Horse award.
Walker rides with Missy Clark, John Brennan and the rest of the team at North Run. He has been training with them for four years and his parents, Scott and Dee Walker, also share a passion for horses as they own and operate Forest Hill Farm in their native Ontario, Canada.
For many of these equitation riders, the weekend is just heating up. Sunday will feature more equitation competition with the ASPCA Maclay taking place in Ring 9 at 8 a.m., followed by the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal.
FROM THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Sam Walker – 2019 George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship winner
On his plan:
“My plan going in tonight was to have consistent rounds and hopefully get a shot at being in the ride-off. Then, after that I think my plan was based on how I was going to make my decisions. Waldo and I have been in this class before. Last year, there were a couple of pilot errors that held me from doing a little better but I came back this year and it was much better.”
On the second round:
“For the second round, I thought one of the more difficult things was after the trot jump you did a left turn and out of that short turn you had a forward five strides to those two fan jumps. You don’t see a fan jump very often in the ring, so I think it caught a couple of people off guard in the course walk. People quickly caught on that it wasn’t too big of a deal. I definitely think landing the left lead and walking gave you an advantage over landing the right lead. It was a difficult part of the course because all of our horses are trained that when they land on the off lead to pop the lead change. To be able to get them to wait and then walk is a full-on change of pace for them. It can confuse a few horses but I think pretty much everyone handled it really well tonight.”
On his preparation:
“At home, I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but my preparation with the help of Missy Clark and John Brennan and the whole North Run team was fantastic. I couldn’t have done this without them. We did a lot of bending lines and a lot of things you might see in a test, like a hand gallop to a halt, leaving the strides out, adding strides in, forward lines to short lines. It’s pretty standard stuff but I think we practiced it a little more than we usually would and I definitely think the “practice makes perfect” rule makes sense. Missy is very diligent on “It’s not done until it’s right and a job done right is a job done right.”
On his trainers’ advice:
“My trainers told me to ride smart. Having done the class a couple times before, I’ve studied the rules and those things, so I think I was pretty prepared going in about all that stuff. The biggest thing about equitation classes is handling the mental pressure and the pressure of being under the lights, the people watching, the loud crowds, the shadows, I could go on all day. The mental preparation and also just good decision making [is important]. For example, in the test after seeing everyone go around the bush, I thought ‘Okay, I’m on top right now so I’m just going to try and play it safe and go around like everyone else did, rather than try to cut in front; if you’re already ahead don’t try to be a hero.’ That’s the biggest thing that everyone says, I’m really grateful for their advice. My parents are also trainers from Canada so I’m just really grateful for them.”
Elli Yeager – 2019 George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship second place
On the work-off:
“In the work-off, I thought the steady six[-stride line] was a little challenging since the five stride line was already steady in the first round, especially after a hand gallop.”
Sophee Steckbeck – 2019 George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship third place
On the second round:
“In the second round after the trot jump, getting back up to pace was hard, especially to the fan jump. You don’t see that very often.”
Emma Fletcher – 2019 George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship fourth place
On the course:
“I definitely think during the course walk there was a lot of attention paid to the seven [strides]- what turned into the seven – to the five [strides]. A lot of people were struggling with whether it was going to be eight or seven [strides], and it became pretty clear after the first horse it was a seven. I think that was the main focus on course, and then from the Equiline skinny to the oxer people were struggling, even at the end, if they should do seven or eight [strides] and everyone did eight.”
On the second round:
“I don’t know my horse. I rode him for the first time this morning. I was told that it was going to be fine so I pretended I knew him and it would all be ok. It was a catch ride, but I haven’t ridden in two weeks so this morning I got on for the first time and I was really lucky because Ken and Emily Smith of Ashland Farms lent me their horse, so it was a lucky catch ride. He’s an awesome horse. I was just in Thailand for two weeks. It was really nice school trip. I was lucky the fight landed last night. I have a lot of jet lag but we’re just cruising along.”
2019 George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship:
Place / Horse / Rider / Owner / R1 / R2 / Total
1. Waldo / Sam Walker / Missy Clark and North Run / 86.25 / 91.50 / 177.75
2. Copperfield 39 / Elli Yeager / Elli Yeager / 87.75 / 88.50 / 176.25
3. Crossbow / Sophee Steckbeck / Redfield Farm / 84 / 89.25 / 173.25
4. Consierge / Emma Fletcher / Ashland Farms / 85.5 / 87 / 172.50
5. Lambada / Ashley Vogel / Kate Abajian / 84 / 85.75 / 169.75
6. Class Action / Sophie Gochman / Gochman Sport Horses LLC / 82.62 / 86.5 / 169.12
7. Lolita / Jordan Allen / Ashland Farms / 81.50 / 83 / 164.50
8. Blurred Lines / Paige Matthies / Barbara Smith / 83.25 / 78.50 / 161.75
9. Loquattro / Austin Krawitt / Ashland Farms / 81.50 / 75.50 / 157
10. Kaskade / Mimi Gochman / Gochman Sport Horses LLC / 77.75 / 71 / 148.75
11. Colando / Ava Stearns / North Run and Nevergreen Farm LLC / 81.87 / 146.87
12. Itteville / Chloe White / Redfield Farm / 78.50 / 67.50 / 146