Thursday, Jun. 6, 2024

Cool Focus And A Short Memory

Equitation finals aren’t the Olympic Games, but try telling that to the average junior rider. The teenagers who trotted into the ring at the ASPCA Maclay Finals (see p. 82) understood that they had been groomed since their first up-down lessons for that exact moment when the course was at its hardest and the judges and many onlookers at their most critical.
   

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Equitation finals aren’t the Olympic Games, but try telling that to the average junior rider. The teenagers who trotted into the ring at the ASPCA Maclay Finals (see p. 82) understood that they had been groomed since their first up-down lessons for that exact moment when the course was at its hardest and the judges and many onlookers at their most critical.
   
Jessica Springsteen knew this as well as anyone. Last year in the second round of Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals she went for brilliance, striking up a blazing gallop to a single oxer. But her horse slammed on the brakes, sending her sprawling up her horse’s neck in front of everyone who mattered. It was the stuff of debilitating nightmares for most junior riders. But not for Jessica.
   
When she came back to the Medal Finals this year and it came time to hand-gallop, Jessica struck up last year’s pace, and this time she nailed the forward distance. She didn’t win the class, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a smile as wide as hers on the way to that trot jump.
   
Two weeks later at Maclay Finals, Jessica was called back on top, and she made the risky decision to land the counter lead rather than opting for a simple change like everyone else. She knew that her mount could easily swap off but that if she pulled it off she was assured of the win.
   
A solid—but not brilliant—test probably would have given Jessica blue. Jessica’s trainer, Stacia Madden, admitted had she been at her student’s side she probably wouldn’t have recommended the move. But Jessica took the chance to show everyone why she deserved to have her name on the trophy: because she was willing to risk it all to get it.
   
Jessica’s comeback this fall reminded me of another rider who erased failure from his mind to return to the show ring with the cool focus and short memory necessary to excel at the sport.
   
The staffers at the Chronicle who didn’t go to Hong Kong ignored our deadlines and crowded round the biggest computer we could find to watch the individual show jumping competition during the Olympic Games. I can still see the disappointment on McLain Ward’s face after he gunned Sapphire at the final fence in the jump-off for the individual bronze medal, only to crash through and send a storm of colored blocks flying.
   
Ward didn’t point Sapphire at another jump until the qualifier for the $100,000 President’s Cup CSI-W at the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.). He put aside his last performance to give Sapphire a brilliant ride and win the President’s Cup over a tough course in good company.
   
When the stakes are high, riders have to take big risks, and the truth is, no matter how well-prepared the competitor, sometimes those risks backfire. The riders who can take chances and fail, then regroup and continue to ride bravely, find their way to the top. For better or worse, the list of past Maclay winners includes just as many Olympians and professionals as it does talented kids who let their U.S. Equestrian Federation memberships lapse. But I’d like to think that Jessica has the cool focus, short memory and no-holds-barred bravada it takes to follow the same path of this year’s President’s Cup winner.

Mollie Bailey, Editorial Staff

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