Monday, Feb. 26, 2024

NorCal Medal Finals Mean More Than Victory For Verges


The junior rider takes a last-minute catch ride to the blue.


Winning the NorCal Junior Medal Finals was sweet for Sophie Verges, but something more simple truly made her weekend.
   
“It was nice to come back home and do a local show. It was still competitive, but it was nice to see familiar faces,” she said of the competition, held Oct. 10-14 at the Brookside Equestrian Park in Elk Grove, Calif.
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The junior rider takes a last-minute catch ride to the blue.

Winning the NorCal Junior Medal Finals was sweet for Sophie Verges, but something more simple truly made her weekend.
   
“It was nice to come back home and do a local show. It was still competitive, but it was nice to see familiar faces,” she said of the competition, held Oct. 10-14 at the Brookside Equestrian Park in Elk Grove, Calif.

Verges had just returned to her home in Berkeley, Calif., after her first trip to the East Coast to compete at the Capital Challenge (Md.).

The NorCal Medal Finals was her first experience with new equitation partner, Take Off. Their instant chemistry reaped rewards.

“I actually wasn’t even planning to ride in the medal class,” admitted Verges, who went to the show to catch ride a hunter for a friend.

While most 16-year-olds would have been nervous hopping on a relatively young horse like Take Off, a 7-year-old, Dutch Warmblood gelding, for the first time before a big competition she didn’t even plan to ride in, Verges didn’t expect much and thus put her nerves to rest.

“I felt like it was just up in the air. I didn’t experience the pressure of having a bar set because it was such a last-minute decision,” she said.

Verges’ friend, Lauren Kardel, wasn’t able to ride Take Off in the senior medal division—and since Verges has had her eye on Take Off since first seeing him last year at Pebble Beach (Calif.) and this year in Thermal (Calif.)—she gratefully accepted the ride when Kardel offered.

It only took a few moments in the saddle for Verges to discover their compatibility. “He’s just my type. He’s very comfortable, got a great jump and is brave,” she said. “He’s not super big. So he’s light, but he’s got a huge step and a lot of heart.”

Verges stood third after the first round, 1 point behind first-placed Jenna Huang and less than .75 points behind second-placed Katherine Civian.

“Almost everyone rode conservatively the first day because it poured rain the night before,” Verges explained.

Most riders opted for more straight lines rather than risk a mistake in sloppy footing. Verges saw the inside turn to the final line, however, and went for it.

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“I think that helped me stand out in the first round,” she said.

In Round 2, Verges topped the class, earning two scores of 86 and an 88 from the three judges, which came as a surprise to her.

“I didn’t get to the ring quickly enough after my morning lesson to walk the course,” she explained. “Luckily, I was able to watch other competitors, and parts of the course were similar to what I saw at Capital Challenge.”

Trainer Benson Carroll told Verges to “walk into the ring like you’re the winner” before the work-off. After she soundly claimed victory, she realized that that poise and confidence helped her rise to the top. She also realized she’d just found a new partner.

“[Take Off] was for sale, so it turned into a lease for six months with an option to buy,” she said. “So I’ll be able to have him for the upcoming season at least through summer.”

Learning To Excel

On top of talent, Verges knows how to set definite goals and intends to reach all of them. She plans to contest the major equitation finals in the future and finish among the top four before her junior career is up.

“Equitation is a challenge, but I really like how it’s never the same,” she said. “I like trying to figure out new ways to tackle the questions.”

She qualified for the USEF Medal Finals (Pa.) and the Capital Challenge last year, but her equitation horse, Salenero, and her junior jumper, Gundawindi, were out with suspensory injuries.

In hindsight, however, Verges admitted it might have been for the best. “My parents also felt like it was too soon for me and thought I might be a little bit overwhelmed. But I think they were right,” she said.

With both horses recovering throughout 2007, Verges spent most of her time catch riding and expanding her knowledge and experience.

“I got to mature a lot as a rider being able to ride so many different horses,” she said. “Now I definitely feel like I’m ready to go [east].”

She said she counted on her mother, Cynthia Verges, for support every step of the way this year.

“My parents divorced early last fall, and that was hard because I’m an only child, and I’m also adopted,” Verges shared. “I was fearing that the support I got from my parents would change, but it really hasn’t. My mom has been amazing. This year really wouldn’t have been possible without her support.”

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Even beyond competing, Sophie said horses were her therapy.

“I didn’t have to worry about the world; I could just be in the moment with my horse. Just having that bond was so important,” said Verges. “My mom rides too, so she can really understand how important riding can be.”

It Can’t Rain All The Time
Melissa Miller finally escaped the black cloud that seemed to follow her to past NorCal Medal Finals. For the past three years, she’s been haunted by falls and stops in the ring. But this year her picturesque ride took top honors in a close battle for blue in the NorCal Senior Medal Finals.

At the moment, however, Miller, 21, doesn’t have a horse of her own to compete. “Alfie,” her previous horse, is in recovery in Montana after an injury, and the likelihood of him competing again is slim. But Miller’s trainers Marian Nelson and Meredith Herman came through for her at the finals.

Herman offered Miller Perlano, a 9-year-old, Belgian Warmblood gelding. Sarah Hagburg, of Bon Cheval Stables, rides for Herman and owns and competes Perlano as a jumper. He came from Europe where he jumped in 1.45-meter classes and competed in European Young Rider competitions.

“He just did his first grand prix a couple of weeks ago,” Miller revealed. “He’s a big jumper, and he’ll jump anything. So I knew he’d have no problem with the 3’6″ fences. I was just kind of nervous of making a mistake myself.

“It also made me a little nervous that it rained, and the footing was soft the first day. Plus, I’d only ridden that horse three times before so I didn’t know him that well,” she continued. “I’ve always had this dark cloud over the NorCal Finals, and I just wanted to do well this year.”

Miller placed second in Round 1, so she decided to take her time for Round 2. She warmed up early and remained calm and poised. After the class leader stopped at a fence and fell out of contention, Miller’s average scores put her in the final work-off in first place.

“You know how it sometimes gets really quiet before the last round and everyone is really focusing in? I hate that,” she said with a laugh. “So I was just sitting there waiting because I went last. Everyone had a pretty good work-off too, so I had no idea how it was going to turn out.”

While two other riders took a more difficult option in the work-off (a short track to the first line off the left lead), Miller focused on presenting a “flowy” round, rather than taking a risk with a relatively unfamiliar horse.

She said someone once told her that the NorCal Medal test rides more like a hunter round than a jumper course. Heeding that advice paid off. Her elegant round ended her three-year curse.

Miller is currently pursuing English and psychology majors at Sacramento State University (Calif.). “I definitely want to con-tinue competing,” she said, “but it’s just when I have the time or anyone wants to offer a horse to ride. Going to college is expensive enough.”

Joshua A. Walker

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