Thermal, Calif.—March 13
The R.W. “Ronnie” Mutch Equitation Championship isn’t an easy class to win.
For starters, there are the courses themselves, which often include choices between lines and stride numbers, with trot poles, combinations and skinny fences. There are the course directives, which are complicated, with counter-canter and flying changes and simple changes in the second round. Then, you have to consider that the light changes about halfway through the first round, with dusk and shadows transforming the massive Grand Prix ring at the HITS Desert Circuit into a spooky cavern. Finally, there’s the fact that riders have to walk the course alone and then warm themselves up—with the help of only a groom to set fences—and they’re judged on that warm-up.
But if you’re the the kind of rider who can win the class, all of those obstacles are just fun tests. Nina Vogel was that rider last night, and she topped the prestigious class on a final score of 336.
“It’s definitely a huge honor to win this,” said Vogel, who tacked up Michelle Kerivan’s Aquino 49 for her victory. “There were certain places [on the course] I was like, ‘OK, the horse I’m on might have an issue with this, or he might dive in this certain way.’ But I was able to be aware of how to tailor the course to work the best for my horse. I felt like it was a great course for my horse.
“I felt good about the ring,” she added. “I wanted to make sure my horse was on the same page as me. At the beginning, he had a little spook at a shadow. But I thought it was cute, and it just gave me more incentive to kick him forward, which is his better ride anyway. I thought the class was fun and exciting, and I liked the pressure. It’s good practice for me.”
In the first round, Vogel picked up scores of 82 and 83 from the two sets of judges, plus two bonus points from warm-up judge Lane Clarke. That put her into fourth heading into the second round, which turned out to be the final round, even though judges can ask for further testing.
“Earlier today we practiced with the groom I was going to be working with to make sure we were on the same page,” said Vogel, 16, who rides with the team at Far West Farms in Calabasas, Calif. “I feel like my trainers really prepared me well, so I tried to replicate what I do with them. I made sure I set some jumps that would make the horse think about them, maybe get some small rubs. I think it paid off; he was really good in the ring.”
Heading into the second round, Vogel decided to take a chance. For that course riders had to demonstrate counter-canter, a simple change and a flying change. There were specific requirements about landing on particular leads, and some riders struggled with that. A few also fell victim to the shadowy ring, picking up stops and rails.
“The inside turn after fence 2, I debated that very heavily,” Vogel said. “But I was sitting fourth, so I felt like I had not much to lose. I wanted to move up. The horse I’m doing, he’s a fabulous equitation horse, but he does have some jumper experience, so I knew he could make the turn.
“The counter-cantering, he’s gotten very responsive as I’ve done more equitation with him as for what lead to land on, and I was very forceful, ‘OK, we’re landing right here,’ and that plan came together,” she added.
Then she had to watch the top three execute their courses. Alexandra Ladove’s score of 332 nearly matched hers, but instead slotted that young rider into second. The top two after the first round, Grady Lyman and Emma Marlowe, both had issues that cost them points, and they dropped to third and fourth, respectively.
Though watching their students in the ring after not being able to help them in warm-up or during the course walk, is a nerve-wracking experience for many of the trainers, Jenny Karazissis wasn’t concerned. The class is always extra-special for her since she rode with Ronnie Mutch as a junior.
“We’ve had her as a student for five years, and she’s really bright and capable,” said Karazissis. “This class is custom-made for her. I had complete faith she’d be able to handle it. Last year was her first time doing it, and she was second. I have complete faith in the horse as well.”
Aquino 49, a 12-year-old Westphalian, has competed in the amateur-owner jumpers and 1.40-meter classes with his owner. He’s now for sale, so he’s been transitioned to equitation as well. Vogel first rode him last year at the Platinum Performance USET Show Jumping Talent Search-West (Calif.), and she reunited with the gelding during Week VI of this competition.
“He really does it all,” said Vogel. “We got right back into the flow of things this year. I really get along with him great. He’s such a cool horse. He makes me work for every step, and I learn so much from him.”
A version of this class is held on two coasts every year, and the East Coast one (called the HITS Equitation Championship) happens at HITS Ocala in Florida next week. See the full class specifications and qualifying information on the HITS website. You can also see full results.