As Meg O’Mara circled for the last time, having jumped her third course, a hint of a smile played over her lips. She leaned forward and patted her horse. To the causal observer, it looked like she was cool, calm and assured of her success.
“It was just about the only time I breathed!” O’Mara quipped. “When they read the test to us, I started having a mental breakdown for like 30 seconds. I didn’t know what was going on. But I decided I just had to go out there and ride. I couldn’t freeze, because that’s usually what I do.”
O’Mara did anything but freeze. Over three tough rounds, she rode elegantly and beautifully to rise to the top ahead of 256 other riders in the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals. She hid her nerves very well, because when the judges explained why they picked her above all the others, Bill Moroney said: “Confidence.”
Geoff Teall elaborated with: “I would have said brilliance, which is the same thing, really. Her rounds just fell into place a bit nicer.”
While O’Mara has many junior hunter and jumper honors to her name, this was actually the first time she’d even been called back for the second round of Medal Finals. “I never thought that I’d be here. I was happy just getting back for Round 2. Being able to win it is just unbelievable,” she said.
Initially, the judges put O’Mara second in Round 1, after Lillie Keenan turned in a brilliant go over the first-round course. But over Round 2, they swapped places. O’Mara went out and attacked the second round in a trip that featured a brilliant hand gallop. Keenan was just a bit more conservative.
In the final test, O’Mara, Keenan, Hasbrouck Donovan and Sydney Shulman all rode a final round on their own horses that included two counter-cantered fences, a halt and back in the middle of a line, a trot fence, and a hand gallop. Donovan struggled with the first counter-canter to drop to fourth, while Shulman made some slick moves to claim third. Shulman got her horse, Eli, to land on the counter lead both times and held it effortlessly.
“I was hoping that if I tried, it would work, so I just tried, and it worked! He’s young, so he’s learning, but we work on it a lot,” she said.
Keenan landed on the counter lead once, but then had to do a flying change to get the counter lead the second time. Preparing for and executing the flying change caused her to shape the turn awkwardly, but the rest of the round was flawless.
“When you go to a horse show with Lillie, you know you have a chance. She’s got it all going on,” said Keenan’s trainer, Andre Dignelli. “That’s an awesome horse, but I think today he just needed a touch more mileage. I don’t think she made any riding errors, I think the horse was just a little bit impressed and a little bit frozen. She held his hand very well and did it just exactly right. A more experienced pair edged us out. We’ll go on and fight a bit harder next time.”
Keenan’s ride, Clearway, is just 7, but the judges awarded him the Doris H. Clark Memorial Perpetual Trophy for the best equitation horse.
O’Mara had a little bit of breathing room, but she didn’t need it. She turned in a gorgeous test round, with a brilliant hand gallop to the first fence and landing on both the counter leads. Her trainer, Don Stewart, acknowledged that he has to soothe O’Mara’s nerves sometimes. “But it works for her, too, because she usually chews the nails up, spits them out and gets back to business. She’s a fighter for sure,” he said.
All four of the testing riders were mounted on younger horses. O’Mara’s and Keenan’s were the youngest, at 7, while Shulman’s is 8 and Donovan’s 9. “The younger horses, if they have the right direction, it seems to work in their favor,” Stewart said.
Not Soft At All
The top four prevailed over a day filled with interesting events. When the course opened at 6:15 a.m., everyone’s eyebrows raised a bit. Teall and Moroney had set a deceptively simple course, with simple hunter-type jumps. “When I walked it, I thought it was way too soft,” Stewart said. The only jumps out of the ordinary to a hunter course were a hogsback filled with brush and a narrow white gate, but it had an inviting ground line and was set in between two other jumps, so it had wings.
A few rounds into the day, trainers realized they had underestimated the technical questions of the day. “Don’t tell anybody, but I think I might have been wrong,” Stewart continued. (Note that he very much whispered the word “wrong;” Stewart is not known for his humility!)
“I thought it was soft, too,” Dignelli said. “I was clearly wrong. The first line really was a test, and most of the kids couldn’t answer it. It was all about whether you could find the line to the fences, and the majority could not.”
The line to which Dignelli referred was from No. 2 to No. 3 to No. 4, a line of two oxers set out of the corner at a forward four strides to a bending five-stride line to the narrow white gate. Riders had trouble riding an accurate and balanced track to the gate.
“What made the kids who ended up getting a ribbon and being at the top stand out was that they figured out what the questions were,” Moroney said. “They didn’t just say ‘Oh, it’s a simple Medal course. It’s not as much color and not as many jumper jumps.’ They actually went in and said: ‘This line rides a little difficult; I’ll have to come out on the turn to the gate to meet it better.’ ”
Round 2 also asked some sophisticated questions that separated the field even further. Moroney pointed to the triple combination, set out of the corner, as a telling spot on course. “It was interesting the ones who realized that it was a short one-stride to a long one [stride] and banked the turn and rode in well, and others who just didn’t pay that much attention to it,” he said.
“Sometimes they just jump A of a combination and do it,” Teal said. “They don’t realize that maybe they have to shorten or lengthen within the combination. A lot of them just didn’t get the C element done well enough.”
Read all of the Chronicle’s online coverage of the Pennsylvania National.
Read lots more about the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals in the Oct. 19 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse!