When Jacob Pope won the 2011 USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Final presented by Dover Saddlery, last November, he’d never even contested a jumper class. Now, almost one year later, Pope won the 2012 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East, one of the country’s most prestigious and challenging equitation finals.
"It's still unbelievable to me; I wasn't expecting it at all," said Pope. "The EAP helped me go from not riding at this level to training with Andre [Dignelli and Heritage Farm]. I hope this win will help me go up another level to go on and do other things."
Pope, 17, of Columbia, MD, led from start to finish in the four-round competition—flat, gymnastic, jumping and ride-off phases—held at the venerable USET Foundation Headquarters in Gladstone, NJ. Pope scored an impressive 92 in the jumping phase, where riders were tested over a triple bar, open water, liverpool double combination, and a triple combination. He maintained his lead throughout the ride-off phase, where the top four competitors ride one another’s mounts to determine the champion.
EAP Lead Clinician and Olympic show jumping gold medalist Peter Wylde had a premonition about Pope during the 2011 EAP Finals where Pope rose to the top with his solid score on the written test, exemplary skills in stable management and his horsemanship.
“Jacob has the whole package,” said Wylde. “We all were impressed with every aspect of Jacob on every day. I look at Jacob as someone who has a future as a top rider in the sport.”
Indeed, Pope proved Wylde correct. After his EAP Finals victory, Pope never stopped learning and improving. By virtue of his EAP title, Pope attended the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Clinic in Wellington, FL in January, where his riding ability was quickly noticed. Heritage Farm trainer Patricia Griffith and Grand Prix rider Kent Farrington recognized Pope's talent and recommended he begin training with Dignelli, for whom he became a working student.
"Jacob has tremendous feel and work ethic,” said Dignelli. “I’m not surprised he won this class. He's pretty much won a big class at every show we have been to since I started helping him. When I was able to purchase Uno I knew that this could be magic: a great rider on a great horse. Jacob has been very appreciative and hardworking, and that's why good things keep happening for him."
It’s been a whirlwind year for Pope after his EAP victory last fall. With support from his Maryland-based trainer Street Moore of the McDonogh School, Pope spent time with Dignelli over the summer and had the opportunity to ride and show many different horses. Dignelli matched Pope with his Talent Search-winning mount, Uno, last August.
"I have never owned a horse that can compete at this level," said Pope. "I’ve never had a steady ride. I think that really helped with the ride-off, because I’m used to riding anyone."
Talent Search Finals Judge Karen Healey, a member of the USHJA EAP Committee, was thrilled with Pope's performance.
"This is a tremendous outcome for that program," she said. "For this to happen gives me hope again. Jacob has beautiful style and great empathy for the horses. The horses all love him. Besides being stylish and accurate, he has tremendous feel for the horses."
Fellow judge and incoming U.S. Show Jumping Chef d'Equipe Robert Ridland said the quality of riding was great at the Finals.
“The final four put in great performances,” he said. “It's encouraging for me for the future of the sport. The top third was at a very high level. This is what Gladstone is all about. It doesn't get any better."
Pope used the EAP as a springboard to his Talent Search victory and said that he hopes to pursue a professional riding and training career. “The EAP victory [gave] me the will to go on and continue in the future,” he said.
The Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Program seeks to educate and test participants by encouraging Juniors and Young Riders to develop show jumping skills, thus laying the groundwork for future international successes. With Finals held each year on the East and West coasts, this program has produced some of the country's top jumping riders including McLain Ward, Richard Spooner, Lauren Hough, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum and Pope’s trainer, Andre Dignelli, who won the finals in 1985.