Jessica Springsteen isn’t just a beautiful rider; she’s also a master strategist.
Sitting in third before the final test of the Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals, Springsteen didn’t take any unnecessary risks in her test ride. She simply put in a solid round—her third of the day—and put all of the pressure on the two riders on top, Samantha Schaefer and Zazou Hoffman.
The gamble paid off with the win on Oct. 11 at the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg, Pa. She’ll add that title to her 2008 ASPCA Maclay Finals win and her second place in this year’s USEF Talent Search Finals-East (N.J.).
To win the Maclay Finals last year, where she led from start to finish, Springsteen made a bold move in her final ride—asking her Papillion 136 to land on the counter lead over a jump, rather than waiting until after he landed to change to it. This time, she played it safe in her final test ride.
“She has a really great ability to be able to think clearly in the ring, and she makes very savvy, educated decisions,” said trainer Stacia Madden. “When she’s in a test like that and I can’t help her, I can’t tell you what she’s going to do.
“If I’d had to guess, I would have said that at [last year’s Maclay Finals], when she was on top, she would have played it safe, and she didn’t. But this time, when you needed to put a little pressure on, I would have guessed that she would have gone all-out, but she just has this sixth sense about what needs to be done to win these classes. It always seems that she comes up with the right solution.”
Judge Leo Conroy agreed. “She made deciding the winner easy for us,” said Conroy, who judged the class alongside Ellen Raidt-Lordi. “Every time Jessica tests, she rises to the occasion.”
Just Say Whoa
After riding 51st in the initial order of go, Springsteen was called back fourth for Round 2. Madden was happy to send Springsteen into the ring first thing in the morning.
“I didn’t really have many worries for Jessie’s particular horse. He’s very elastic on his left lead, and he’s got a huge stride. There were a lot of left-lead options on the first course, so I was excited to send this horse-rider combination into the ring over this course, because it was very suited for them,” Madden said.
Hoffman—who had gone just three riders after Springsteen in the first round—led Round 1.
In Round 2, Schaefer moved up into the lead, while Hoffman dropped to second and Springsteen lurked in third. “It’s less nerve-wracking to not be on top!” Springsteen said.
Conroy and Raidt-Lordi called those three and Tina DiLandri back for further testing. The final test involved a tight rollback at the counter-canter, and DiLandri lost the counter lead for a stride.
Springsteen, Colts Neck, N.J., chose to play it safe.
“I thought about asking him to land on the counter lead and hold it, but I didn’t want to risk it,” she said. “That turn back to the fan jump [on the counter lead] was really tricky. So, I really just planned on sticking to my plan.”
The test also called for a halt in the middle of a six-stride bending line, then cantering the final oxer directly. Springsteen made the crowd gasp as Papillion dropped to a perfect halt within a stride or two of landing off the first oxer.
“If you take your leg off, he kind of just stops,” Springsteen said with a laugh.
The canter-halt transition is one that’s an integral part of Papillion’s routine. “It’s something that helps him get supple,” Madden said. “He can tend to start out a little bit upside down, but he can go in a beautiful frame. He was actually so quiet that he did the halt a little bit quicker than I’m guessing Jessie anticipated. His favorite word has always been whoa.”
Hoffman, in second before the test, found a long distance to an in-and-out after hand-galloping the first fence. She also had a sticky flying change to the counter-canter and swung wide on the rollback in counter-canter to the fan jump.
Schaefer, who had moved up from third to first after a gorgeous, flowing ride in Round 2, couldn’t quite get a rhythm in the test. She hand-galloped the first jump and had the front rail down after a deep distance. She then also knocked the blocks off the top of a narrow, wingless wall.
Hoffman and Schaefer dropped to second and fourth, respectively, and DiLandri moved up to third. Springsteen’s conservative choices made her the clear winner.
“All four of them were very soft, which I like. They all had a classic style; you could picture any one of them on a nice hunter,” said Conroy.
Prepared For What Happened
Hoffman was thrilled with her second place—she was seventh last year and fifth in 2006. She also was third in last year’s ASPCA Maclay Finals.
Hoffman’s quiet, smooth style caught the judges’ attention enough to put her on top of Round 1.
“I liked the first course because everyone did it their own way. You had to have some sort of plan, but you had to be able to react and change it according to what happened out there with you and your horse in the moment,” she said.
“I went in with a totally different plan than what I ended up actually doing, which is fun, because it makes you ride more. I thought I would do the six strides to the triple combination, but I saw the five and went with it and it worked out. I kind of went in knowing that things might change and that I should be prepared to go with whatever happened.’’
Hoffman admitted it was nerve-wracking being called back on top. “But it’s also nice to know that the judges like your riding enough to put you there. It makes you a little more confident,” she said.
But the course for Round 2 didn’t play on the strengths of Hoffman’s horse, Ivy.
“The course was mostly jumped off the right lead, and Ivy really prefers jumping off the left lead. He wouldn’t land [on the right lead] at all in the schooling ring, so that definitely made it more difficult,” Hoffman said.
She was the only rider to have to squeeze a flying change into a tight rollback turn in Round 2.
“I had to let him land left in all those right bending lines. I felt like it made it a little more rushed, and I probably could have done one more stride in a few places and just settled down a little.
I was happy with it, though,” she said.
Hoffman’s test kept her firmly in second place; a long distance to the in-and-out and a rail there were the only problems.
“Jessie was beautiful, and I did the best I could,” Hoffman said. “I really should have done one more stride after the hand gallop, and one more stride to the in-and-out where I had the rail, but there’s always something you would change in hindsight.”
Hoffman, 17, hails from Santa Monica, Calif., where she rode with Meredith Bullock, but she’s spent most of this year on the East Coast as a working student for trainer Missy Clark at her North Run in Warren, Vt. She balances work in the barn with showing.