Harrisburg, Pa.—Oct. 15
Taylor St. Jacques landed off the last fence, and cantered a few strides. Then she cantered a few more. Then, almost into the corner of the ring, she halted. Into a perfect, square, quiet halt. Her mount, Charisma, stood for a few moments, then they walked back to the in-gate.
The crowd wondered—the judges for the Dover Saddlery/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal Final had called for a halt after the last fence, but St. Jacques had taken quite a bit of time to get that done.
The answer to why she made that choice shows just why judges Tammy Provost and Jack Towell chose St. Jacques as the winner of the class.
St. Jacques joked that she took so long to halt because, “I like to make [trainer André Dignelli] nervous.” But in reality, she was making a very smart decision based on her knowledge of her horse’s strengths. “I didn’t want to make anything rough. He’s a bit of a sensitive horse, so I didn’t want to really get into him,” she said.
“He wasn’t expecting that [halt] to come; he knows that when he lands left, he does a lead change. So I took my time and said, ‘Whoa,’ and melted him back. I just took my time and tried to let it happen instead of being prompt and having a rough ending.”
St. Jacques’ final test was just about as foot-perfect as her other two rounds. Provost and Towell put her on top after her first round, when she went 73rd in the order out of 253. And she stayed on top all day long. Her second round was just as flawless as the first, and when the judges called four riders back to test without stirrups, St. Jacques smiled to herself. “I was very excited when they said no stirrups because that’s a strong suit of mine,” she said. “I’ve come back on top a few times at smaller shows, and I think that’s really prepared me for this big class. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be, honestly.”
This was the first big equitation win for St. Jacques, who’s known for being a very successful junior hunter catch-rider. “This is really a dream come true; I’ve always wanted to win a final,” she said.
While St. Jacques led the way all day, there was quite a bit of shuffling in the placings further down. But by the end of the day, the young Cooper Dean from Fayette, Ala., ended up in second place. Dean, 18, grew up riding with his mother, Jill, and then spent years as a working student for grand prix rider Aaron Vale. (Read more about Dean in “Hey World, Meet Cooper Dean.”)
This year, Dean hooked up with Dignelli and his Heritage farm staff and stepped up his game at the highest level. Dignelli gave him an 8-year-old owned by Heritage to show, Kori d’Oro. “Aaron put in so many years in me. [Aaron] put the polish on me—Andre just had to buff it out,” Dean said. “It’s really nice to have a nice horse to ride. I have thanked Andre every day for the past seven or eight months that I’ve been with him, but words don’t do it justice. I’m real grateful that he took me under his wing.”
St. Jacques, who hails from Glen Allen, Va., is another one who has benefitted from Dignelli’s assistance. “I needed help—I’m not a very wealthy kid and I need as much help as I can get,” she said. “Andre took me under his wing and he’s done wonders for me. I have a good feel for a horse, but he’s touched on everything there is. He’s improved my knowledge as a horsewoman and he’s setting me up for success in the future. He’s not just teaching me riding—he’s teaching me how to be successful in life. He’s been a great mentor. I’m very grateful for everything he’s done.”
The Canadian who claimed third place, Sam Walker, also connected with a top trainer to make his finals dream happen. Walker, from Nobleton, Ontario, caught the eye of Missy Clark in 2015 and has sent the last two years working with her to help work toward the finals. This was his first Medal Final. “When first showing in States about three years ago, I saw the other big equitation riders, and I thought that one day I wanted to do that and get to big equitation final like this,” he said. “One of my main focuses has been to become as strong as I can as a rider in the equitation ring and in the other rings as well.”
The riders all praised the courses Provost and Towell designed with the guidance of Steve Stephens. The courses were a distinct departure from recent Medal Final tracks filled with technical questions and testing scope questions. No horse struggled through the courses, and they were filled with flowing lines and natural fence materials. “We were thinking more like a hunter derby course, because it’s the hunt seat equitation final,” Provost said.
“In our mind, one of these kids will win the derby finals one day or the WCHR Professional Finals,” said Towell. “That’s what they’re supposed to do. We wanted to keep course nice, safe and comfortable. We judged more than the course did. We wanted to decide who the best rider was. We looked for the whole package—position, pace, everything, but keeping in mind hunter seat riding.”
Provost noted that they looked for riders with a soft feel and a light seat. “The inside turns were not what we were thinking in Round 1,” she said. “It didn’t hurt anybody for doing it, but they didn’t really get bonus points for it.”
Want to know more about what happened all throughout the Medal Final, including top-10 results and notes on the three rounds? Check out the COTH live blog from the day, with notes on each rider’s round.
Also, make sure to read the Nov. 6 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse magazine, which will have in-depth coverage including how Taylor St. Jacques found her way to Heritage, why André Dignelli helped her out, her connection with the horse Charisma, and more.