Thursday, May. 23, 2024

Intercollegiate Eventer Hayden Wathen Beats The Pros At Stable View



Going into cross-country day at the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship, 20-year-old Hayden Wathen knew she needed to get Contestor over the finish line under optimum time to stay at the top of the open intermediate leaderboard. Only a single point separated her from the second-place competitor, professional Waylon Roberts. 

“I had never made the time at the intermediate [or] three-star level,” said Wathen, who wasn’t sure she could pull it off. But when she saw the reaction of her Auburn University (Alabama) teammates at the end of the course, she knew she had done it. 

“They were all hugging, cheering, and crying,” Wathen said. “Almost the entire Auburn team and our support crew was at the finish, so it was a pretty awesome moment.” 

The intercollegiate championship was held within the open Stable View Local Charities Horse Trials, held May 4-5 in Aiken, South Carolina, so while Wathen’s scores were helping Auburn in that competition, she also was competing individually in an open division that included professionals and other non-collegiate riders.

Hayden Wathen and Contestor won the open intermediate division and helped Auburn University (Ala.) win its fourth USEA Intercollegiate Championship during the Stable View Local Charities Horse Trials, May 4-5, in Aiken, S.C. Sherwood Holmes For Liz Crawley Photography Photo

Finishing on her dressage score of 31.6 and emerging victorious out of a field of 17 riders was only the second-best moment of the day for Wathen. The sophomore also took top honors in the team competition as a member of Auburn University’s War Eagle team alongside junior Lara Roberts, freshman Sophia Hand and junior Alayna Backel. 

Auburn’s tightly knit eventing community has helped Wathen and “Cortez” (Contango—Jer’s Princess) overcome training challenges, particularly in the show jumping arena. Since matriculating at the university, Wathen has trained with Dani Busbee during the academic year. Together, Busbee and Wathen have worked on making the 17-year-old gelding as careful in the stadium arena as he is fearless in the cross-country phase.  

“He is very quick and efficient, which makes him very good at cross-country but trying to get him to use himself and be careful in show jumping has been insanely hard,” said Wathen. “Since working with Dani, we’ve actually produced more clear rounds than we’ve ever had at these higher levels. Her training has been life-changing.”

Cortez and Wathen have been partners for just over four years. Veteran Olympian Boyd Martin bought the Oldenburg as a young horse and campaigned him through the four-star level before selling him to then-16-year-old Wathen. At the time, the Louisville, Kentucky, native had only competed through training level. Aboard the chestnut gelding, Wathen successfully worked her way up to intermediate and the FEI levels, completing her first CCI3*-L with Cortez. 


“He’s never said no, and he will literally jump anything I point him at. Even if he had absolutely no idea how to get over it, he would make it to the other side,” said Wathen. “I am obsessed with him.”

Hayden Wathen gets a hug after her clean, fast cross-country round from Stephanie Lambert, who was president of the Auburn University (Ala.) eventing team until her graduation May 4, the first day of the championship. Photo Courtesy Of Hayden Wathen

Wathen is thankful to have such an honest, well-educated schoolmaster to learn from, and believes her experience with him is a gift that will keep on giving long after Cortez retires. 

“He’s taught me everything I know, which is perfect, because when he’s ready to step down, hopefully, I can take everything I’ve learned from him and keep moving with a different horse,” she said, adding emphatically:  “But I will never ever sell him! He will always be mine.” 

Wathen, a biomedical sciences and premed student, plans to attend medical school after graduating in two years. With a keen interest in anesthesiology, she hopes to follow in the medical footsteps of her dad, who is a dentist. She also wants to work toward financial independence. 

“I know how much this sport costs, and I definitely want to be able to support myself because I want to continue riding for the rest of my life,” she said.  

Between shadowing doctors this summer, working toward her goal of moving up to the advanced level with Cortez this fall, and taking the MCAT exam next spring, she doesn’t have a shortage of things to do in the near future.

“I work better when I don’t have a ton of free time. I like always being on the go, and I don’t really like sitting around too much,” she said. “I tend to get my work done when I only have just enough time to get it finished before I have to go do something else.” 

Though she is at the barn four hours a day and often has to miss class to compete, Wathen thinks her equestrian endeavors ultimately make her a better student. 


“You get so much more burnout in school when school is all you do,” she said. “When I come back from the barn, I’m ready to sit down and study for three or four hours. Horses give me an escape, something else to do, something else to focus on. Working towards goals other than becoming a doctor, having something else to drive me and motivate me than just school, I think is so beneficial.”

While at university, Wathen has found that being on a team is also a source of motivation. The intercollegiate eventing championship happened to fall at the end of Auburn’s final exam period, during graduation weekend. Nevertheless, Wathen said many students, parents and Alabama equestrians made the four-hour drive to support the 22 Auburn competitors at the championship. 

By Sunday afternoon at the championship, it became clear that Auburn’s bid for the national title depended on her teammate Hand’s show jumping round in the beginner novice division. The team and its supporters decided not to tell her, thinking she would ride better without the pressure. 

“We needed her to jump double clear, but she had absolutely no idea,” Wathen said. “The whole team, her parents, and the rest of the onlookers knew, but nobody told her that she could basically either win it or lose it for us.” 

The Auburn University (Ala.) crew (Hayden Wathen, second from right) gather around rider Sophia Hand and Fernhill The Wild Card after their double-clear show jumping round clinched the team’s fourth championship. USEA/Meagan DeLisle Photo

“When she actually jumped double clear, every single Auburn person, all the parents, all the teammates, all the onlookers just burst into tears. [Hand] was so excited, but confused. She said something like, ‘Thanks guys! I know this is a supportive team but, it’s not really like that huge a deal to go double clear?’ When we told her that she won the title for us, she started crying on her horse,” said Wathen. “It was the most magical, unreal moment of my riding career, with everyone there crying and hugging together.” 

It was a storybook ending to the school year, and marked Auburn’s fourth national championship in the eight-year history of the USEA Intercollegiate Eventing Championship.

“I love the team so much,” Wathen said. “And I could not think of a better way to celebrate the team than winning the title, so I was so glad we were able to do that for all of Auburn.” 



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