Thermal, Calif.—March 14
During the R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship, riders face two complex courses of fences after walking their courses and warming up without their trainers. But in the class, held in the huge International ring at the HITS Desert Circuit showgrounds in Thermal, Calif., they’re dealing with one additional variable: darkness. Sydney Callaway has learned—the hard way—what a darkened ring can do to a horse, and she now uses that experience to her advantage.
“Last year I had a stop at the trot fence, so this year it felt really good to win this one! It’s not an easy class; under the lights it’s really spooky. But my horse is super brave, so I knew that would be fine,” said Callaway, 17.
“Last week I fell off my jumper when the class was going really late, and it was getting dark,” she added. “That day I had an idea of how the course should be ridden, and that idea was totally wrong for the conditions. I definitely learned my lesson! So this time I knew I wanted to keep my leg there and just be really confident because I knew that would rub off on my horse.”
Callaway, riding her own Callaway Stables LLC’s Van Radjah, came out on top in the first round with scores of 89 and 87 from the two judging panels, plus 2 points from the warm-up judge. But before she went in for her first course, second-to-last to go of the 27 entries, the track was causing some issues.
Two riders were eliminated for three refusals, and two more came unseated after refusals, also resulting in elimination. Rails were falling, and horses were stopping as they grappled with the new shadows in the big ring and a course that included a bounce to a one-stride and a fence with trot poles in front. But Callaway knew her plan, and she tried to stick with it.
"I was trying not to watch other people, because that can really psych you out," she said. "I watched the first couple go, and I knew what I wanted to do with my horse. In the warm-up, we started with oxers, and then did a taller vertical before we went in. I also practiced the trot poles, and he was perfect for those in the ring."
The top 10 returned for the second round, which featured a bending line to a two-stride and another one-stride on course. During the second course, riders were required to demonstrate a flying change and a simple change.
Last to go in the second round, Callaway just tried to put in a smooth trip. Callaway’s simple change went to plan, but her flying change scenario didn’t quite go perfectly. Her mount landed on the right lead, meaning Callaway would have to swap to the left lead and then hold the counter-canter around a tight turn and to the final fence.
“He was a little more up and fresh in the second round, but I just rode through it,” said Callaway, of San Diego. “I don’t think I was quite as solid in my second round. But I knew if I stayed calm, it would channel to my horse and fall into place. When I went to the jump before the flying change, I definitely didn’t want to land on that lead. But I just went for it after we landed. It all worked out.”
Her scores of 81 and 85.5, for a total average score of 86.125, earned her the win over Nina Vogel (84.875).
Callaway, who’s trained with Lori DeRosa at Newmarket Farms since she was 8, and Van Radjah, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Radjah Z—Noblesse) gelding, have been a team for a little more than two years now. The pair contested some of the major medal finals last season. They’ll take another crack at them all again this year, Callaway’s last junior season, if qualified.
“It’s nice to do this stuff throughout the year, so we know what we have to work on before the major medal finals," she said. "I wish there were more classes like this on the West Coast. It’s a great class.”
The R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship is held in Thermal, Calif., and there’s an East Coast version in Ocala, Fla., as well. Riders are sequestered before and during the class, and they must warm themselves up with only the assistance of a groom. Their warm-up is judged, and the riders can either receive up to 2 points or have 2 points subtracted from their scores by the warm-up judge. After the two rounds, judges can decide to test riders further, but they didn’t think tonight’s class warranted that.
Full results available online.