From Junior Riders to Show Jumping Superstars: Past WIHS Equitation Winners Share Their Memories

By Lauren Fisher for Jennifer Wood Media, Inc

Reprinted from the October Indoors Issue of The Plaid Horse Magazine

Many of North America’s top show jumpers got their start in the equitation ranks. Riders compete all year in order to qualify for the major finals, and only the very best are able to mark their place in history by taking one of the prestigious titles. For many of the United States’ best grand prix show jumpers, winning the WIHS Equitation Final is a memory that will always stand out. Those wins have served as stepping-stones on the road to unmatched professional careers, and WIHS proudly remembers all of its great winners.

The 57th annual Washington International Horse Show will be held this year from October 20-25, 2015, during which the 23rd winner of the WIHS Equitation Finals will be crowned at Verizon Center in downtown Washington, D.C. Leading up to that week, WIHS had the opportunity to speak with a few of its most successful winning alumni.

MCLAIN WARD – 1993 WIHS Equitation Final Winner riding Polar Bear
Trainer: Paul Valliere

Mclain Ward-1993-eq-jumping

McLain Ward & Polar Bear. Photo by Al Cook

Two-time Olympic gold medalist and 2015 Pan American champion McLain Ward got his start at WIHS as a junior and has since gone on to become one of the world’s best show jumpers. Ward is a four-time winner of the prestigious WIHS President’s Cup Grand Prix. He returns in 2015 to defend his title as last year’s champion. Ward won the WIHS Equitation Finals in 1993 and still credits his background in equitation for where he is today. Here are his memories of that win over 20 years ago:

Horse: “I had a really nice horse called Polar Bear. It was a gray horse – very quiet. My father leased him for my last equitation year and he was fourth in the medal final that year and second in the Maclay. He was a known horse and suited me great. He was a really wonderful character. He came from Eddie Horowitz originally, and my wife (Lauren) actually ended up managing Eddie’s stable to put herself through college a few years later, so it’s a small world.”

Trainer: “I was 17 then. I had actually already gone to work in Europe for a year and came back and wanted to try one more time to win the equitation finals, and so I was able to win a few at least. Paul Valliere helped me since I was around seven years old. The jumpers I did with my father, and Paul helped me in the equitation mostly.”

Win at WIHS: “I always liked that class because it had the jumper phase, which suited my program and riding. If I could stay close in the hunter phase, I knew I had an advantage in the jumper phase. It was absolutely a big, exciting win for me. It was something that we had focused on. We won the regionals that year, and we were a little disappointed at the medal finals. That was a goal we had. The Maclay final still to this day irks me a little bit because I think we should have won it, but that’s judging and that’s how it goes. You have to let it go at some point in 25 years!”

Importance of Equitation: I think the equitation helped me a tremendous amount, and I am very grateful for having the opportunity to do it. I think every young rider should do equitation at the high levels. I think it helps you in your discipline, it helps you in your riding style, and it helps you in your thought process. All of that is going to eventually apply to the sport if you choose to go on and do this professionally or at a higher level.”

WIHS: “I love Washington. I love the fact that it is downtown. There are logistical problems that come with that, but it is like the old show at Madison Square Garden; you know what the logistics are before you arrive. I think you get a great atmosphere. It is a really cool part of the city, and I really look forward to it every year.”

Judging: “I think I have judged the WIHS Equitation Finals twice now. It is definitely a different perspective. I enjoy judging the equitation. I have judged the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search, WIHS, and the (ASPCA) Maclay Finals now, and I have enjoyed all three experiences. I am not looking to be a career judge, but I really think highly of the equitation and how it influences riders. I think it is important that people like myself get the opportunity to be involved with that because we bring not only really fresh and fair and neutral sense to the table, but we also bring what we see happening at the highest levels of Olympic Show Jumping sport. I think to be able to influence that is a great honor, and I really love to do it.”

CHRISTINE (TRIBBLE) MCCREA – 1996 WIHS Equitation Final Winner riding Schroeder
Trainer: Leslie Howard

0with Romantovich Take One at the 2009 WIHS, copyright Jennifer Wood Media, Inc.

Christine Tribble McCrea with Romantovich Take One at the 2009 WIHS. Photo by Jennifer Wood Media, Inc.

In 1996, a young Christine Tribble (who later married Irish Show Jumper Jonathan McCrea) finished out her last junior year with a very exciting win. She took her horse, Schroeder, into the WIHS Equitation Finals and landed a major victory. What the rider remembers most about that win is the incredible camaraderie between riders and trainers throughout this important competition. She has gone on to major accomplishments, such as double gold medals at the 2011 Pan American Games, but at WIHS McCrea still counts winning the equitation finals as her greatest moment.

Memories: “It was a long time ago now. I remember I went in the hunter phase, and I had a really great round. My horse could really be a hunter or an equitation horse, so I think I lucked out with that because he already went ‘huntery.’ I don’t remember where I finished, but I think I was in the top ten. I had a good round in the jumper phase, and then all of a sudden it was like a whirlwind and everybody had to change horses for the final work-off. I switched with Hillary Schlusemeyer. Her horse was Pik Trump, and that horse had already won everything with Lauren Hough and Hillary. It was such a great horse, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to get to switch onto that horse.”

Schroeder: “In the first two phases, I rode a horse named Schroeder that we owned. He was a super nice horse, but he could be a little bit difficult, so it was really exceptional that I got to switch on to such a nice horse at the end. I was not necessarily used to one that was so easy to ride. Schroeder got sold the end of that year because I was going to be an amateur. He went out to California. Karen Healey bought him with a client of hers, and it was two sisters that went on to do a lot of good things with him, so that was nice. He came from South Carolina and he had done a lot before I had gotten him, but I think I had him in his peak years. I was lucky to have him, and I was fortunate that my parents were able to buy him for me.”

Work-off: “I just remember that everybody was really trying to help each other out. Hillary was helping me with her horse, and I tried to help her with my horse. I went into the final phase, and I was like, ‘This horse is incredible. How lucky am I? I am on a machine!’ He went around and I had a good round, but I had no idea if I would move up enough to win because I didn’t get to see how everyone else did. We were back in the schooling area and you don’t get to watch a lot. Then you got back on your horse and went in the ring to see how you did. I was just standing there, and I had no idea. It was down to four and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I could be fourth, this is awesome!’ Then it was down to three, and then it was two of us, and when they announced who was second, I knew that I had won and I was in total shock. It was a really special moment. It is a lot of hard work to get there and then to have that result is totally gratifying.”

Trainer: “I was training with Leslie Howard at the time and Molly Ashe was also the next in line behind Leslie, so between the two of them I had a lot of help and I give them a lot of credit because I definitely didn’t do it all on my own. That was a special day. Those equitation classes are always long days because there are so many in it and to come out with a win was really exciting.”

Importance of Equitation: “I really think the formula that makes up the WIHS Equitation Finals is special because you have to be able to be that hunter rider, and you have to also be able to be that equitation/jumper rider. The time allowed comes into it in the second round. Yes, you are riding in the equitation, but it is a little closer to a jumper ride. You have to learn how to ride two different ways. You learn how to ride a jumper round and make it inside the time allowed and then you also have to be able to ride a hunter round that is more flowing and needs a softer ride. It teaches you both things, and it helps you to really understand your horse. I am riding a horse in the grand prix right now, for example, that is kind of like a hunter. He doesn’t have a huge gearbox; he is a one-gear kind of guy, and you have to make it work. You have to stay inside the time allowed and that is tricky because I have to make tight turns. I feel like the equitation in general has also helped me down the road because you learn how to control your body. I think it is a great final, and it gives you a lot of confidence going forward.”

Greatest WIHS memory: “To be honest, there is nothing that surpasses that day for me as of yet. That is the best thing that has ever happened to me at Washington. Maybe if I won the President’s Cup. I have been close a few times, but I have never won. I do enjoy the President’s Cup Grand Prix because a lot of spectators come to that class.”

Working together: “The biggest thing I remember about that that day is how much everyone helped each other when we switched horses. You watch these horses go with other riders, but you don’t really know them. You don’t know how it feels. There is a lot of stress just jumping on somebody else’s horse. As a junior, to jump those jumps and that kind of a course is a lot, and I just really remember everybody pulling for each other. It wasn’t cutthroat. The whole feeling in the schooling area was that everybody was trying to help each other, and that was key, because when it goes to the other end of the spectrum it isn’t very nice. At the end of the day, you want to win and you want to win against people doing as well as they can do, not that they screwed up so you won. You want to be the best of the best, so I will never forget that.”

KENT FARRINGTON – 1999 WIHS Equitation Final Winner riding Ginger
Trainer: Andre Dignelli

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Kent Farrington & Ginger. Photo by Al Cook

Kent Farrington is currently the top ranked U.S. rider in the world and got a fantastic start to his career with major equitation victories. Farrington won the Pessoa/AHSA National Hunter Seat Equitation Medal Finals in 1998 and then topped the WIHS Equitation Finals in 1999, his last year as a junior. Farrington is also a winner of the coveted WIHS President’s Cup Grand Prix, among his many accolades worldwide.

Memories: “I was so keen on being a professional rider that I was already sort of thinking in my head what I was going to do next, but I thought that those were good practice events to have pressure situations where you had to perform well. I liked that final at Washington in particular because you had to trade horses, and as a junior rider that was one of my strengths. I used to catch ride a lot of horses. I had a lot of experience riding difficult horses, or hopping on one that I had never seen before and going right into the ring, so I really looked forward to that at the event.”

Trainer: “I had a couple trainers. I had Nancy Whitehead from Chicago, who trained me for most of my junior years, and then I had Andre Dignelli, who helped me in all of the equitation. He was there with me for all of the big finals.”

Horse: “I rode a horse named Ginger there. I had a different horse for each final. Andre was very good at making sure that I always had a nice horse to ride for the finals. It was a horse that was in his stable, owned by one of his clients that probably had more than one equitation horse, and they were generous enough to give me that one to ride. All of the horses from Andre were great.

They were all very well schooled and he knew what he was doing to have the horses ready to go on an important day and have us ready as kids. We practiced a lot of equitation type courses and different things, so we were very well schooled leading up to the event.”

Win: “I remember afterwards, Andre said, ‘You know, I am really proud of you.’ Because my question to him was always, ‘Are you sure I have to keep doing this equitation stuff?’ I really didn’t like it. I just wanted to do the jumpers and he said that it was good for my career and a good way to get my name out there. He said that it would help me in the future to build my business and make a career for myself, and he was really right about that, so that was a good lesson from him. He obviously has one of the most successful training businesses in the horse world, so I think that was very good advice. After the finals, he said to me, ‘Okay, you don’t have to do this anymore. You won two of them, so you proved that you can do it and that it wasn’t just luck, so we’re good.’”

Favorite WIHS Memory: “I would say my favorite memory was going there as a professional. It might have even been my first time riding there as a professional and I won the grand prix and I think I won one other class and was second in another one. I was also leading rider of the show. That was pretty cool.”

First trip to WIHS: “As a junior when I first came to Washington, I didn’t come for the equitation, I just came for the junior jumpers. I remember I went in and I turned to my trainer at the time, who was Nancy Whitehead, and I said, ‘I don’t belong at this show.’ I had never been to a bigger show, and it was all the kids on the east coast and it was really intimidating. That was a huge deal for me at the time, being at the Washington show, and so many riders that I looked up to were there and all of these well-known junior riders were there. I remember my first experience there being a little intimidating, and Nancy said, ‘Well, you do belong at this show and you are going to go in there and we are going to win stuff anyway.’ So that is what we did. That was a good memory for me.”

HARDIN TOWELL – 2006 WIHS Equitation Final Winner riding Littlefoot
Trainer: Missy Clark and John Brennan

Hardin Towell and Littlefoot Photo by Diana DeRosa

Hardin Towell & Littlefoot. Photo by Diana DeRosa.

Hardin Towell is the most recent WIHS Equitation Final winner we caught up with, and like his counterparts, Towell has since kickstarted a successful international show jumping career. Towell has not competed at WIHS since his win at the end of his junior career in 2006 and now looks forward to returning to compete on a whole new level. He has had a fantastic 2015 season, including his first appearance in the Longines FEI World Cup Finals and a CSI 5* win at Spruce Meadows. Here are his memories of winning at WIHS:

Memories: “It meant a lot to me because my position is not the best and even now I am still working on it. A lot of people thought that I was a little too sloppy for the equitation, so it was nice that my last junior year, I could put it together and win one of the finals.”

Trainer: “I trained with Missy Clark and John Brennan. They were great. I learned a lot from Missy, and she really helped me with my equitation. Some of things that she taught me, I still think about to this day when I’m jumping a big grand prix.”

Horse: “I rode a horse named Littlefoot that was owned by Missy and John. He was a great horse, and I was lucky to ride him. He could do it all, and he was very easy. When we switched for the final round, it ended up being Jessica Springsteen’s horse that she won a lot on, Papillon 136. He was very easy to ride too. Sloane Coles rode him there, and he was lovely. I went last. I came into the last round winning and then it was just a very easy horse to ride and I had a great round. That was a fantastic horse.”

Rounds: “I remember the first round I was second and that was the hunter round. That was always more difficult for me because it was based more on the style. I think Haylie Jayne won that phase. Then the jumper round, I remember that I had very high scores. I had a 94 and a 95 I think, so I felt very confident with that. I was just determined. It was something that I really wanted to win, so it was nice to get it done. They brought everyone in the ring and announced it in reverse order, so I walked in and I was waiting. I had a pretty good feeling going in. I came into the final work-off with a pretty big lead, so it was not all that much suspense, which was nice.”

This year: “I haven’t shown at Washington since then and I am coming back this year, so nine years later it will be nice to return. I am taking one horse. I am really striving to qualify for the Longines FEI World Cup Finals again this year. I have done one qualifying event already and have some nice points. It will be a pretty light week, but it will be nice to get back there and show in that ring. It is always a nice time.”

Moving from juniors to grand prix: “It took a long time. I was actually talking to some younger kids recently, and I told them it takes a while. You have to ride a lot of 1.10m horses and a lot of different ones to get there. I have been lucky that Jennifer Gates has been very supportive of me and my career. I have had nice horses and they have given me a good opportunity, so it is nice that I have been able to take advantage of that.”

Looking back: “It was just fun. I think when you are a junior you look at things in a totally different perspective than you do now. Back then, when I won WIHS finals, it was the biggest thing. It was great. Now when I look back, I think it was a great stepping stone. It is nice looking back and knowing that I won it, but more than anything, I think the experience and the discipline that I learned in that has helped me in the jumper ring and made me a better rider.”

The Washington International Horse Show returns to Verizon Center in the heart of Washington, D.C. October 20-25, 2015. The WIHS Equitation hunter phase will be held on Friday, October 24, and the jumper phase and final work-off will be featured on Saturday, October 25. Come out to see the nation’s top young riders compete for one of the most coveted junior championships! For more information and a complete schedule of events, please visit www.wihs.org.