Harrisburg, Pa.—Oct. 12
Why did Spencer Smith win the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals? If you ask the judges, like we did, they’ll say because of his consistency, his confidence and his connection. “From the get-go, from the first round to the final round, he always kept a rhythm and a great connection. I don’t judge a lot and I do a lot of clinics around the country. One thing that he did so well that really stood out was that he kept connected with his horse, on every round,. He just stayed the same every time he rode,” said grand prix rider Candice King, who judged the final alongside Cynthia Hankins.
“That’s what we saw a lot weakness in some riders today—lack of lower base and keeping the connection. We built the course to have a nice flow and not be tricky or trappy, and Spencer did it quite well,” she continued.
If you ask Smith why he won, he’ll be a lot less descriptive. “This is my third year here. The first two years, I was a little off here and there—the first year very off!” he said. “This year just came together; I had a better mindset, and with a really good horse like [Beau van het Keyershof] you have a lot of confidence. I had a great team helping me.”
If you ask Don Stewart, who was part of the training team that guided Smith to the blue, he’ll joke about it. “He won because I gave him a lucky tie,” Stewart said, laughing.
“We were thinking he was going to deliver,” said Stewart, who has worked with Smith alongside his parents, Ken and Emily Smith, and Geoff Teall, for four years. “He’s always a perfect gentleman to everyone, except maybe to his parents, like any teenager.”
And why did Michael Hughes, who was leading the class after the first round, not win? Because his horse spooked dramatically at a sign for the class title sponsor, Pessoa, set in the course for Round 2. Hughes landed off the curved brush fence—the third fence in Round 2, and was set to ride a direct version of the bending line to the next oxer, but his horse sighted in on the Pessoa sign and spun, so Hughes had to circle and regroup. The mistake dropped him out of the ribbons.
“He just landed and spooked. It was a fair test, but that’s horses. What can you do,” said Missy Clark, who trained Hughes. “It was too bad because to lose it because of a decoration is heartbreaking. He was riding so well.”
“We had to put the Pessoa sign in the ring, and it was a nice tool for us because we wanted an island there,” said Cynthia Hankins, who judged alongside King.
“We wanted them to stay connected and in a nice rhythm,” King said. “But once one rider goes and does a certain number of strides, it seems like everybody follows suit. Especially if there’s a horse that’s spooky, we’d rather see a rider bend the line out. We used the Pessoa sign where it was to let people know to bend out and use the track and not the inside line.”
Once Hughes dropped lout of the running in Round 2, Mackayla Langemeier moved up to the top of the callback for the test—Smith was called back in second. Smith’s test was flawless, while Langemeier had rough transitions to the walk and the counter-canter. “Mackayla was very good, but there were just a few minor things that made the difference,” said King. “It wasn’t lack of riding ability that made the difference, it was more having that little extra bit of confidence to go in there and give us what we wanted to see.”
“Spencer showed that maturity and confidence,” Hankins said. “It’s the art of doing nothing, and it’s hard work to make that look happen.”
Smith, 17, has been riding his whole life as the son of two successful trainers. And while his equitation rounds showed a smoothness and flow that are ideal for the hunter ring, his heart lies in the jumpers. “He’s just better focused now,” Stewart said. “He certainly has the tools to do it, it was a matter of getting him to calm it all down. He’s probably more comfortable on the jumpers. He likes to go at a good pace, and it’s hard to get him to take a breath in this ring.”
Langemeier, 13, ended up second in her third attempt at the Medal Finals. “I’m truly honored to be reserve champion. It’s been a dream of mine to test in the medal. I’m so excited and thankful to be second here,” she said. She trains with her mother, professional trainer Linda Langemeier, and Clark.
Ali Tritschler, who is a noted pony hunter catch rider and trains with Timmy Kees, placed third.
To read more about the winners at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show, check out the October 27 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse print magazine.