Lexington, Ky.—Aug. 10
"Heels down, eyes up" was the mantra of Taylor St. Jacques as she headed into the Pony Medal Final on the last day of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Pony Finals, held Aug. 4-10. She concentrated on the basics and was rewarded with a victory, which she celebrated with her friend, second-placed Alexandra Pielet. The two were beside themselves with excitement as they celebrated each other's success.
In the first round, St. Jacques, 15, took every inside track possible on the twisting course, nailed the simple lead change required between fences 5 and 6, an oxer to a vertical in a direct line, and was one of four competitors called back twice. 20 riders competed in the first call back, which included a hand gallop fence followed by a trot fence, then the top four came back for a challenging flat class involving no-stirrup work at each gait.
"I try not to let [nerves] get to me and just kind of think, 'Im going in again for another trip, just to be judged again.' " said St. Jacques. "Because when I start overthinking, I really start overthinking and it goes bad. I'm really excited. This is my second year at Medal Finals and I wasn't expecting it to go as well as it did."
But St. Jacques was as prepared as she could have been, crediting coach Bill Schaub for all the no-stirrup work they practice. She started training with Schaub two and a half years ago, and his emphasis on a solid, basic foundation paid off in the big Medal class with 169 entries.
"Pony Finals isn't something you can really practice for," said Schaub. "You've got to learn all your skills so when you're thrown out there, you can do whatever task they ask. We really emphasize keeping the basics strong and working on exercises, and then it all makes everything kind of fit together. I'm very proud of her; she's worked hard and learned a lot."
Schaub, of Sanford, Fla., had trained students to second place in the Pony Medal in the past, but not a win, so St. Jacques' top performance marked a milestone for him, too. "At my age, there aren't many firsts of anything!" he joked.
St. Jacques lives in Glen Allen, Va., over an hour from Schaub's summer base in Virginia, so she practices the most in the summer and typically rides seven horses a day. Lily Ezrow owns Happy Feet, or "Happy," whom she lent to popular catch-rider St. Jacques to contest the Pony Medal Finals.
"I leased [the pony] for Lily. Lily doesn't get to show much, so [St. Jacques has] been showing a lot to help keep the points up," Schaub explained. "It's awfully kind [of Lily]."
I'm Ready, I'm Ready!
The first thing Pielet did after capturing the Pony Medal Final silver aboard her small pony, Secret Love, was run up to her good friend Ericka Koscinski, who took the third spot, and envelop her in a big hug. She then waited patiently for the crowd of fans surrounding St. Jacques to die down before congratulating the gold medalist in the same fashion. Soon, all three top finishers and longtime friends were huddled together, squealing with excitement over their accomplishments.
“My closest friends were in the top three with me!” said Pielet. “It’s so cool. I’m so happy.”
Pielet, 13, of Highland Park, Ill., conquered a bout of nerves in the three rounds of the Pony Medal to end up standing next to her friends on the podium.
The first round tested the riders by requiring them to halt their ponies just steps before the in-gate after completing their jumping course, when their mounts were the most anxious to exit the ring. Pielet found that aspect of the round to be the toughest because 8-year-old Secret Love is still relatively green.
“My first course was really good,” said Pielet. “I was nervous because [Secret Love] kept wanting to go faster as he got closer to home. I was really nervous about that with the halt coming up at the end. The halt was good, though, and I was like, ‘whew,’ and he just breathed with me.
“He got all of his energy out of his system [in the first round], and then it was a lot quieter and smoother the second one, thankfully,” she continued.
Pielet had also gained a bit of confidence after her successful first trip, and had no problem steering the gelding around the technical and twisty second course.
“I was just so concerned about making [the second round], and going in I was still nervous because of all the people watching [in the stands], and I was the last to go out of everyone,” said Pielet. “But once I was in the ring, then I just relaxed and was like, ‘I’m almost there!’ ”
In the third and final phase, the top four riders were tested at the walk, trot and canter before dropping their stirrups for the canter and posting trot. They were then asked to halt and back up four steps, a change from last year’s format, where the riders had to complete a turn on the haunches.
“I wasn’t really expecting the no stirrups, but I know that’s something [judge] Stacia [Madden] does in training,” said Pielet. “I’m not that great at no stirrups; I’m a little bouncy and I kept slipping, but it was good.
“When they said halt, I was like, ‘Oh we’re going to do a turn on the haunches; I’m ready, I’m ready,’ because I was expecting what they did last year, so I’ve been practicing that a lot,” she continued. “Then they said to back four steps, and I was like, ‘OK, I can actually do that better!’ ”