When Isabella David walks into the ring, her trainer’s advice rings through her head. “You want to be the pressure for everyone who goes after you,” says Stacia Madden, who coaches David along with the rest of the Beacon Hill team. That’s exactly what David, 18, did this fall equitation season on 8-year-old Oldenburg Castlefield Spartacus.
David, Holmdel, N.J., and “Sparty” kicked off their final junior equitation season by finishing as reserve champions in the Palm Beach International North American Junior Equitation Championship (Maryland), then went on to take fifth at the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East (New Jersey), fourth at the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals (Pennsylvania)—where Sparty also won the Doris H. Clark Memorial Perpetual Trophy for best equitation horse—and fifth at the ASPCA Maclay Championships (Kentucky).
We caught up with David for a few questions as she was getting back to the University of Georgia, where she competes on the NCEA riding team.
You brought home impressive results from all the equitation finals this year. Tell me about it.
I was a little nervous going into indoors as this was the first time I wasn’t able to ride my horses every day since I was at school. But after having a great Capital Challenge [Maryland], I was feeling confident going into [Talent Search] finals. My goals for all four indoors were to put in consistent rounds that I was proud of.
How did it feel to get those results?
I am so beyond thankful to my incredible horse and trainers for everything they’ve done for me. I started the equitation later than most people, when I was almost 16, so never thought I’d be able to ribbon at a final, let alone test. I’m also thankful to my parents for always supporting me throughout my junior career.
I think the biggest thing indoors gave me this year was more confidence. I felt like every final I went to this year I was less and less nervous. I think the only way to get better in these high-pressure situations is by being in them. I’m so happy with how my junior career ended and am excited for the next four years at University of Georgia and everything that comes after.
How does it feel to have just finished your junior career?
It’s definitely bittersweet. I think I was really lucky to have a great end to my junior season, and now I’m at the University of Georgia on their equestrian team, so it’s a lot different, but I’m really excited. Just to have a change of pace, too, I think is cool.
Do you have more free time now that you’re focusing on college riding?
I think it’s a different type of intense. We’re still doing a lot, and it’s not the same type of pressure we feel through all of the indoors, but it’s still a lot of pressure because you want to do well for the team and put your best foot forward.
What’s one thing that you feel like is harder about riding in college?
It’s definitely a lot different. The horses are different. They’re not the same as the ones we’re used to riding, and getting on a horse and only having two jumps to figure it out can be kind of difficult, but it’s still really exciting and a change of pace is just so cool. I think the experience you get from getting on a different horse every practice is just so valuable. You learn how to ride so many different horses, even if it might not be exactly your typical ride. So I think that’s just such a great experience before maybe going into the professional world or whatever’s going to come next.
It’s hard not being on one horse and getting to build that relationship with the horse because I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve had some incredible horses for my junior years, and it’s kind of sad not to have my own horse anymore.
Do you want to go pro after college? What are your plans?
I think it’s still a little up in the air, but I would love to become a trainer once I graduate and work with the horses and the riders. I think riding is such a big part of my life, and I definitely want it to be a part of my life forever.
How long have you been riding?
I started riding when I was 6 or 7 years old, I think. I started because I actually saw a billboard for a summer camp that had horses, it just kind of escalated from there.
Did you end up going to the summer riding camp?
Yeah, so I started at a local barn called Baymar Farms, and I went to their summer camp for a couple years. I took lessons throughout the years, and I would show at more local shows. I actually didn’t move to Beacon Hill until I was 15 years old. I moved there, and I had only been jumping 3′. I was doing the children’s hunters, so I started the equitation a lot later than other people, but I got really lucky with horses, and I had great training, so I was able to progress pretty quickly.
Did you lease a pony or did you have one of your own?
I think I got my first pony when I was about maybe 10 or 11. I went to [USEF Pony Finals (Kentucky)] one time, and that was such a cool experience for me. I went with my old barn, so it was new for me, and it was a new thing for my trainers too.
After that I moved to Beacon Hill, and that was definitely a huge transition because it’s just so different. But I think starting at a local barn like that has taught me so much and how to take care of a horse too, and I feel like that side of it is so important.
Before you went to college, did you do most of your school online?
I did my last two and a half years of high school online through George Washington University Online High School. Because with traveling and everything, it’s definitely really hard to be in real school and not have that many absences.
What are the two things that you learned during your junior years that you want to take with you while you’re in college and riding?
I think just having a different level of confidence when you walk into the ring can make the absolute biggest difference. Even if you’re not feeling confident, I feel like you have to walk in the ring like you own it. I think it just sets apart the whole round. First impressions are just so important.
Also, I was able to learn so much about time management from riding at this level, and doing online school. You have to be so organized if you want to get all your schoolwork done. Being on time is so important and always being prepared with everything.
How would your trainer and friends describe you?
I think my trainers would probably describe me as hardworking. I think even when I don’t have that many horses to ride, I usually spend most of the day at the barn, and I’ll help out setting jumps for lessons. I think even if you don’t have enough horses to be jumping every day, you can still learn from watching other people jump. And especially someone like Stacia, I learn so much when I see her teach; it’s just such a valuable lesson. I would hope they describe me as someone who’s helpful. I feel like I do try and go out of my way to help my friends whenever I can.
What’s a favorite memory you have from riding?
OK, this is recent, and it’s a little embarrassing, but I’ll say it. When we were at Medal Finals, I was testing in the top four, and I’ve never been so nervous in my life. This was something I wasn’t expecting, and I was so nervous. So we get to the test, and I’m talking to my fellow riders in the test trying to figure it out. And then I was testing first, and I decided to do a flying change to the counter-canter, and I thought I didn’t get it.
So four strides away from the jump, I come down to the trot and do a simple change because I was just trying to get the test done; I was just proud to have made it to the test. And I come out to talk with Stacia afterwards, and she told me how it’s too bad that I broke to the trot. And I was like, “What are you talking about? I did a simple change! I was trying to just complete the test!” She said, “Isabella, you did a perfect lead change before!” I was so nervous that I had absolutely no idea that I’d actually done the lead change. It was pretty funny.
Did you use any lucky charms?
Yes, I have a lucky bracelet, and I got it when I was riding Clover this winter because it has clovers and horseshoes on it, and I wear it every time I show because I’m very superstitious.
I have a show shirt too that I’ll always wear it on the last day of the final or the most important day because I’m convinced it’s lucky also. My mom does not believe in it, but I’m convinced.
What is something you have struggled with in your riding?
For me, this kind of happened when we’d be in one place for so long like [the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida)], being there for three months competing against the same people over and over again. It can just be so frustrating not doing as well as you might have hoped. That’s something I would get so in my head about. I think it could kind of lead to things going more downhill than they would’ve been if I could have just taken a deep breath and accepted it. It’s always been like, well, there’s still another week. I think WEF is so cool. And it’s one of my favorite shows. I love being in the same place for such a long time, but at the same time, I think it’s kind of a blessing and a curse because it’s the same thing happening over and over again.
Tell me a little bit more about that. You said, ‘Everything went downhill.’ What did that look like for you?
Yeah, I think being there, that’s kind of the place to get [points toward the Washington International Equitation Final] when there’s so many people there, and the points add up so quickly. And I remember my first lesson, I was hoping to get some Washington points, and it seemed like I could just never get it to go my way. Something would happen; I’d have the round of my life with one bad jump, and it seemed like it was happening every week.
I would see the same people getting points again and again. And you just get so hard on yourself because [you think,] “Why can’t I do that? Why do I keep messing up?” I think once you get away from it for a couple weeks, it makes it so much easier to go back to it.
Do you think getting points is one of the majors causes of stress at your level of the sport?
I think there are a lot of difficulties with the sport. For me, I just wanted to go to the Washington Final so bad, and I know that’s not really a set number of points. You can’t really go point chasing to get all your Washington points. It was like you need to be at the big shows, and you need to do well at the big shows. I think it puts that type of pressure on; it almost feels like you want to have a finals-worthy round there just to get enough points to make it to finals.
I’d like to ask you a USHJA Horsemanship Quiz question. Name three different types of jumps.
This is a good one. A vertical, an oxer, a Swedish oxer.