It was 1982, and I was 17 years old. I was one of the kids that could win the finals — one of the riders people threw out as a possible winner of the biggest equitation class on earth and quite possibly the single biggest class a junior rider could win. I was number 71 and riding my leased mare, Nightlife.
Buzzy, as we affectionately called her, was also my junior hunter and had won a class earlier in the week in Harrisburg. She had also been my USET Talent Search mount, where we had earned a finals ribbon (We were 9th). I’m not sure how this small horse kept going class after class, but she did, and I never expected any less. If she wasn’t sound for a class or two, I definitely wasn’t aware of it. She was always ready, always available.
Mason Phelps and Arthur Hawkins were the judges for the 1982 AHSA Medal Finals (now the USEF Medal finals), and they had designed a very difficult first round course for the 260 plus competitors (The finals always had big numbers in the 80′s). I watched the first 50 competitors go and realized that this was no joke; the course was a handful. I listened to the first standby, noted a couple of names of friends that I had recognized, and then I went to get on my mount.
The schooling area was outside in what now is home for Bevals, the show office, and the food court. We didn’t have the luxury of the new indoor warm up ring. If it was raining, you got wet. Luckily, on that day the weather was great.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, my trainers were Bill Cooney and Frank Madden. George Morris was the head honcho, but he remained in the stands by that point and only talked to us after our rounds. We went over our strategy and then entered the arena (which hasn’t changed very much in the years following, I might add).
We entered the ring and put in the trip of our lives. We were awesome! The sound of Bill and Frank’s whoops resounded throughout the Pennsylvania Farm Show complex. I remember the feeling even now. Bill said to me later, “If ever there was a (score of) 100, that was it!”
So up to that point it was the best day of my life.
The second standby list came about an hour and a half later. I was on top after the first 100 had gone, and I would remain in that spot throughout the entire first round. Notable riders that also made the stand by were future stars, including Peter Wylde, Greg Best, Louie Jacobs, Karen Mckelvy, James Benedetto, and Scott Stewart.
I sat in the stands watching for hours (in hindsight, I wish I had taken a nap). I listened to every standby and grew more excited with each passing moment. People were congratulating me on my performance and I was on top of the world. It seemed like the class went on forever. I was having fun…
…but suddenly the first round was over and it was time to walk the second round. They had called back 30 riders, so it wasn’t like I had been rushed. It was almost as if I was in shock that I would have to pull off another stellar round. I hadn’t psyched myself up for this. It was new territory; I had never been on top in a finals before! I guess I was nervous.
The second round was also a very difficult test, but it was not the course that was my undoing; it was my mind. I remember entering the ring for the last round, hearing the voice of famed announcer Peter Doubleday saying my name and reminding everybody that I was the last to go, and additional testing would follow. What I remember most was how quiet the place was! The phrase, “You could have heard a pin drop,” was never more true.
I started the course and was handling everything quite smoothly until my foot slid up in my stirrup a bit and I thought for a moment that I may lose it. The stirrup problem turned into a lapse in my concentration, and all of a sudden, I lost my way.
I went hot. I never felt so hot in my life. I went off course, lost my way, and jumped the wrong fence. In fact, it was a triple combination, and I jumped it backwards.
The crowd let out a collective moan, and somehow I made my way out, completely destroyed.
So far, it had been the worst moment in my life.
I ended up watching the award ceremony from the stands. I sat with my trainers and received condolence calls from my friends and fellow equitation riders. It was very hard to hold it together with my sisters and parents. I watched as my good friend Sandy Nielson won the finals, and Louie Jacobs, now father of Charlotte Jacobs, came in second. Sandy was trained by Nimrod farm and Timmy Keys, while Louie was trained by Geoff Teall. Don Stewart, who trained the 2012 USEF Medal Finals winner, Meg Omara, was at my finals with students as well, probably developing the jokes he would crack for another 3 decades.
In the years that followed, I never spoke much about that finals unless a friend (usually Jimmy Torano) brought it up. Only a few people have ever seen the video tape of those rounds, partly because I really don’t love reliving that moment and partly because it probably wouldn’t look as impressive as I or my contemporaries remember. Taken out of context, without the other 250-plus exhibitors taking a shot at that course, it looks normal, even commonplace. To everyone that was there, who was a part of that final, knows it was special. I struggle with the possibility of transferring the old video onto YouTube, though my students have begged to see it over the years.
Flash forward to 2012 — 30 years later — and I am now a veteran trainer of many finals.
Geoff Teall judged the final.
Louie Jacobs is a nervous father of one of the top kids.
Timmy Keys and Frank Madden are still on top as coaches.
Don Stewart is still as funny as ever.
Peter Wylde and Greg Best are Olympic medalists.
Scott Stewart is one of best hunter professionals, and he co-trains Tori Colvin, along with Ken Berkley and North Run.
Sandy Nielson lives a completely different life outside the horse world…
…and one of my riders, Liza Finsness, sat in tenth place after the first round of the USEF Medal finals.
Liza and I walked the second round with a calmness we didn’t quite expect. Last year Liza was called back 7th and we were both far more stressed. This year the course looked extremely favorable for her horse Fedelio, and that helped us relax.
We went over our strategy, and Liza executed the plan to near perfection. She finished in ninth place.
As the equitation ribbon recipients and their trainers were asked to come into the ring, I couldn’t help but relive so many memories of the class I had come to know so well. I competed in this very class, in this very ring, and it all eerily felt very much the same. The final was hard to win then, and it is hard to win now. Some of the competitors in the 2012 event will go on to earn Olympic medals, others will become our top hunter riders, others will become top trainers, and still others will live completely outside the horse show world. Some will become parents and watch nervously from the sidelines as their children compete someday.
I watched contently as Liza received her ribbon. I’m proud of her and all her hard work. She has accomplished a great deal in this sport. I’m not sure what lies in her future, but no matter what, she will have this and other special memories.
Perhaps in 30 years she will tell her children about this final and about her trainer who went off course in his last final as a junior rider but kept coming back as a trainer, year after year. She will say that his persistence paid off, and eventually, he got to stand out in the Pennsylvania National Horse Show arena and got that long-awaited ribbon. Finally.