Had 2020 functioned like any regular year, Ellen Halle would have never found herself horse showing—let alone at Capital Challenge in Wilmington, Ohio. As the daughter of two horse lovers, she always had an equine outlet, whether it was steeplechasers, foxhunting or showing on the circuit. But since the final salute of her junior years, her show record was sparse for 10 years as she navigated college as an NCAA lacrosse player, living in New York City and working for the World Bank in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Really since my last junior year, I have [only] been riding when I’m home for the holidays,” said Halle, who grew up in Maryland. “When I moved back to the U.S. for grad school, I really wanted to ride again—even just have a project horse or do something simple, not really show. If you’d asked me in February if I was going to be showing at all this year, let alone showing in NAL Finals, I would have said that you were crazy.”
The MBA and Master’s in Public Administration student at the joint Wharton School (Pennsylvania) and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government (Massachusetts) program crept back into riding when her father gave her an ex-hurdle horse to work with. But unfortunately, the Thoroughbred didn’t stay sound. As a replacement, Halle’s trainer Troy Hendricks gave her Iggy Pop to half lease and compete in the adult jumpers. By August, Halle purchased the gelding, and when COVID-19 led to the easing of qualifications for many year-end championships, she took a shot in the dark and entered the NAL Adult Jumper Finals.
“I decided to enter Capital Challenge the first week of September; I was a last-minute entry,” said Halle. “I was super happy to be accepted. I think it was a little bit of a strange year in terms of how the qualifying works—it worked to my advantage because I probably only showed the horse seven or eight times before Capital Challenge.”
But the last-minute plan led to Halle and Iggy Pop taking the NAL Adult Jumper Final.
“Having the opportunity to jump off was a total win in my book and then the win was just the cherry on top,” said Halle. “It’s such a silver lining, and I feel so lucky that, knock on wood, I’ve been fairly unaffected personally by COVID with the exception of the normal life destructions. I feel really lucky to be able to spend time outside with the horses and get to build a relationship with Iggy because that never would have happened if this year had gone as it was supposed to go.”
Get to know your NAL champion:
1. How is your family connected to horses?
My mom ran the polo program at Garrison Forest School (Maryland) for a really long time and plays polo. And my dad whips in for the Green Spring Valley Hounds (Maryland). I’m lucky to be part of a horsey family, so I always have something to ride, just for fun. I didn’t compete [again] until really this year.
I grew up showing but also foxhunting, also galloping out steeplechase horses in the summers. I evented a little bit. I kind of did a little bit of everything. Then towards the end of my junior years, I was much more focused on the hunters and the eq and the occasional jumper as well—more on the showing side of things.
2. What led you to live abroad for a few years?
I was living and working in New York after college and wanted to do some work abroad. I had studied global health in undergrad, so I wanted to put that to use. I actually planned on going to Kenya for maybe six months, and then I just really enjoyed the experience and all of the adventures of being an ex-pat in a totally different setting. I ended up staying almost four years, which was longer than I planned.
I actually started riding again when I was living abroad because it was more accessible and affordable, and there was a racetrack there, and I bought a little mare off the track and brought her through the eventing and show jumping ranks there.
3. What was that like competing and having a horse in Kenya? What did it teach you?
Being in a different context, you kind of go back to the love of the horse; it was much more about the process and bringing her along. I taught her how to jump and brought her through the 1.20-meter there. It’s interesting because it’s also very British because Kenya was a British colony, which has a lot of negative implications that are not related to riding. But as a vestige of that, there’s a number of British people who are still there, and they are the ones who spearhead the riding and the racetrack. I never expected it when I moved there. I didn’t know that there was riding available. I’d say the biggest thing [I took away] is just kind of going back to the love of the horse, the love of the process. There are not that many competitions, and it’s not that serious, so it’s much more about making the right decision for you and your horse on that day. Also getting it done and not necessarily worrying about being super beautiful. Just making sure the horse is healthy and happy, and you’re making the right training decisions without kind of any of the glitz and glamour of the U.S. show world.
4. What are you hoping to do after grad school?
I’m doing a joint Master of Business Administration and Master of Public Administration, which is like a public policy degree. It’s sort of targeted towards people who either want to work on economic development and private sector development in emerging markets or in less developed countries. There are a lot of applications for the degree, but that’s kind of my focus—global health and development but also involving the business side of things in that. So [I’m] looking to create thriving economies in places where they’re still in a developing country context.
What I’m interested in now is working from a U.S. base but kind of applying the lessons I’ve learned in sub-Saharan Africa to some of the other markets, which is really when it comes to creating a thriving economy, creating opportunities for small businesses and things like that. A lot of the organizations that I would work for, including the World Bank, are headquartered in the U.S., and so I think it’s really important to have people who really understand and have lived in some of these places working in the D.C. offices to kind of direct some of the strategy.
5. What has quarantine and COVID taught you?
I think just leaning into the current moment and being grateful for the relationships that you have and trying to just not plan everything because it’s impossible to plan right now.
I feel really lucky to have the opportunities that I’ve had and taken advantage of taking calculated risks and having them pay off. I think in terms of goals, I’m just trying to enjoy, because of COVID and everything, it kind of brings the focus back to the present. I’ve always been such a planner, but I’m trying to be a little bit more in the moment. And part of that has been taking advantage of this year to show because I don’t know when that opportunity will arise again, and I don’t know when I’ll have the opportunity to ride a horse like Iggy again. My goals in near term is just kind of roll with the punches and go with the flow a little bit more than I typically have. We’ll see where the world takes me next.
Meet the rest of the NAL winners from Capital Challenge:
Luke Rinehart started things up this week with a fist pump after he won the NAL Children’s Hunter Final aboard Taylor Johnson’s Cavalli. The 13-year-old, son of trainers Richard and Catherine Rinehart of Rinehart Farm in Westfield, Indiana, devoted his year and quarantine training to competing at Capital Challenge and in the Washington International Horse Show Children’s Hunter Final, and boy did it pay off.
“This was my first Capital Challenge. I was very excited and nervous. I spent a lot of my time riding at home practicing for [Capital Challenge] and soon to be Washington,” said Luke. “It feels fantastic. I did not think coming in that I would be first, but I thought I’d get more like top 12, maybe sixth or seventh, so I was very excited how it turned out.”
Dominic Gibbs traveled to Capital Challenge from Colorado Springs knowing that no matter how it ended, this would be the end of his time with Douwe. He’s ridden the 12-year-old warmblood gelding since early last year, and after the NAL Low Junior/Amateur/Amateur-Owner Jumper Finals, Gibbs’ sister, Jordan Gibbs, will take the reins. But the pair made the final round a memorable one by capturing the top spot.
“This was my last show with him, so it was a great note to end on. He’s really one of the most incredible horses I’ve ever gotten to know,” said Dominic. “What do I like best about riding? A better question would be what don’t I like. I love the competition, and I love the horses. But even more I love feeling the relationship come along throughout the time I’m with the horse. With this horse he’s come such a long way, and so have I, in the time we’ve been together.”
Kendall Meijer had competed several times in the NAL Adult Hunter Finals—always close, but she never managed to win. But this year she cemented the top spot on Elliot, besting a field of 28 entries.
“I’ve done this class the last maybe 10 years, and it was always a bridesmaid; I made the top 12 a few times but to really get a win on my 7-year-old was really special,” said Meijer, Grand Rapids, Michigan. “He’s definitely a kick ride. He’s very quiet, which always works for me. I like a horse that’s quiet and easy-going, and he’s just those things. We joke in the barn that he’s 7 going on 17.”
Coming into Capital Challenge as the national leader for the NAL Children’s Jumper rankings, Leigh Nanda had high hopes. And her practice paid off as she and El Casper bested the 21-horse jump-off, taking the Leading Children’s Jumper Rider award along the way.
“I remember I was about to jump the first jump, and I was telling Casper, ‘Please do this for me. Please don’t get a rail!’ ” said Nanda, 15, of Wilmette, Illinois. “He’s really careful in the warm-up rings, and sometimes he’s not in the show ring. I just wanted to win really bad.”