“I Did My Part”: Groom Katie Williams On What It’s Really Like Under the Bright Lights of the ASPCA Maclay Championship

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Photo © SEL Photography

BY KATIE WILLIAMS

“It takes a village” is a favorite Instagram platitude, usually shared alongside some stellar horse show results and a few glittering photos from the winner’s circle. But what does that expression truly mean? North Run’s Katie Williams was an unmistakable part of the team that helped Sam Walker & Waldo win the 2018 ASPCA Maclay Finals. Here, Katie shares what it’s like behind the scenes of America’s most coveted Big Eq championship—and why sometimes, being part of “the village” is a dream in itself. As told to Nina Fedrizzi.

At age 23, I finally accomplished my much younger-self’s dream. I won ASPCA Maclay Finals.

True, you won’t find my name on the list of past champions, but you will see me in the pictures. To be more accurate, I, myself, did not actually win the title of 2018 ASPCA Maclay Champion —Sam Walker did—but I was there, and I did my part.

I did the grooming, the lunging, the bathing, the tacking, and the untacking over the course of the week leading up to Sunday’s big class. I worked the 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. shifts, and was up and out of bed again for the 4:30 a.m. start time. I was there for the stall and tack cleaning, the magnetic blanket sessions, and everything in between—including, of course, the treat giving!

I was the lucky person who took care of North Run’s wonderful Waldo. At that time, Waldo and I had only a short history together: I had briefly cared for him during the 2018 George Morris Excellence in Equitation Championship, where we added ‘Best Turned Out Horse’ to our resumes. But I didn’t take over Waldo’s full care until just before the 2018 Hampton Classic.

From the beginning, I was excited. Sam and Waldo’s partnership was a match made in heaven. Like many horses, Waldo has his quirks, but on the ground, he is perfect to care for. He has the most mellow personality and is such an endearing horse. Waldo also has shivers, so backing up is not easy for him. But I learned early on that giving him the time he needs is key. I was humbled, one day, when I overheard Sam talking to Waldo, saying how happy he was that Waldo had me to look after him because I was patient with his shivers condition. I remember being so proud of the way I cared for this horse and so touched that Sam had noticed.

Waldo is missing one of his front teeth, so we tend to call him “Walter” around the barn. I’m not sure what missing a front tooth has to do with ‘Walter’, but it’s a thing. My most amazing accomplishment to date is training Waldo to poop in one corner of his stall. Okay, I can’t actually be sure if I trained him to do that, or if it was just my strategic placing of his haynet and water buckets in relation to his long body, which encourages him to poop in the opposite corner. But I’m choosing to take credit for it just the same.

Sam and Waldo had a great run in the Hamptons, where they won the Hunter Phase of the Washington International Horse Show (WIHS) Equitation qualifier and were second overall. It was really nice to see Sam so content on Waldo. He’d had a busy day in the jumper ring, and once he got on Waldo, all the stress went away. They melted around the hunter phase, and their experience together made it look like they were gliding around the course. When we arrived at Maclay Regionals at Old Salem Farm, Sam and Waldo again performed beautifully, ending up in 6th place.

Photo courtesy of Katie Williams

Along came Harrisburg, and Sam had a great first trip, and an even better second trip in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final, where he finished 9th. He was pleased with his rounds and his continued consistency with Waldo. I, personally, was over the moon—it was my first, official ribbon at Indoors!

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My family moved around a couple of times when I was young, and I actually started riding when I was six years old in The Netherlands. Although, in my early years, my time taking lessons wasn’t as consistent as I would’ve liked, I was lucky to have a range of riding experiences in lots of different places—from dressage lessons in California, to riding ponies in a tiny indoor at a dude ranch, and eventually, moving to a hunter/jumper barn in New York. One thing never changed: I’ve always been horse crazy.

In high school, I switched trainers and began helping around the barn, something I learned I really enjoyed. I tacked up horses for my trainer in exchange for rides, anywhere between two to four horses a day after school. I also went to a couple of local shows to help out, and very quickly, I was asked to groom at some bigger shows, including at Saratoga. It was there that I distinctly remember watching the talented Enjoy Louis conquer the grand prix course, and my boss at the time told me he, “loves that horse!” Six years later, I sent the same boss a picture of me, taking Enjoy Louis to the ring at the CSI5* Grand Prix in Deauville, France. Life is amazing sometimes!

I attended the University of Rhode Island (URI), thinking I wanted to pursue an Animal Science degree, with the idea of eventually becoming a vet. I was two years in when I decided I didn’t really want to be doing that for the rest of my life, and chose to focus on my business courses instead. I rode on and was eventually named captain of the URI Equestrian Team, and I continued to hone my grooming at a number of bigger shows around the country during summer and winter breaks from school.

After graduation, I was put into contact with North Run’s barn manager, and just like that, I was hired. It took about a month for me to settle into the routine of being a professional groom, but even so, I was on cloud nine. I wasn’t the fastest at cleaning stalls in the morning, and I didn’t know all the tricks to turning out a shiny horse, but I was learning.

I watched my North Run coworkers closely, many of whom had a natural ability to relax their horses. I learned to use the spa and laser, and I worked on my clipping skills (you learn this fast at a top show barn, let me tell you!). By the end of Lake Placid, I’d done well enough to be asked to go to Europe for North Run after a freelance groom fell through. There, I ended up taking care of two of Cat Tyree’s grand prix horses, and I came back to the U.S. with some FEI experience under my belt, feeling ready to hit the ground running.

A year and a half later, I’d accomplished more than I thought I would. I’d traveled ahead with a load of horses under my care to the Winter Equestrian Festival, and I’d worked at top show venues across North America and beyond. But I’d missed grooming through an Indoor season up north, and that was one goal I didn’t want to leave unfulfilled. I was only planning to work at North Run for a year following graduation, after which time, I planned to get a “real job”. But without experiencing Indoors, how could I leave? I decided to stay on for another year, and shortly after that, Waldo became “mine”.

I had watched Horse Power: Road to the Maclay as a kid (I was obsessed with it, actually), and now, I was finally here. It had taken a relatively short time at North Run to work my way up to caring for a (future) Maclay champion, but in reality, it was the culmination of 18 years of learning and hard work. And, of course, a dream.

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November 4, 2018 was one of the most amazing days of my life. After competing at Harrisburg and Washington, the staff and I were all looking forward to one more final, and then we were free to take a nice break. I was actually more free than the others, as this was to be my last show with North Run.

As Maclay weekend drew near, we were lucky that the weather was mild; I was even able to give Waldo a bath on Saturday so he would be fresh for Sunday. I continued taking extra special care of him, making sure he wore the magnetic blanket daily, keeping his stall well-bedded, and ensuring he had plenty of clean water all day. I’m happy to say that Waldo was feeling his best. He wasn’t grumpy, which is a good sign, and with a ready supply of hay cubes and a full haynet, he looked happy and healthy.

Photo courtesy of Katie Williams

As it turned out that week, I had not only one, but two special horses participating in the Maclay: Waldo and Cris van de Helle. “Cris” was meant to be a backup, but when Emma Kurtz needed another mount at the last minute, he stepped up to the plate. I spent Sunday morning getting both of my boys prepared, and fortunately, they were far apart in the order.

Waldo wore two coolers to the Alltech Arena that day, as it was such a chilly morning, and, being the Kentucky Horse Park, it was a long walk. The year before, I had watched from Florida on the livestream and, at the last fence, Sam had made a mistake. This year, Sam worked to displace any nervousness as we went over the course together in the Alltech warm-up ring. The Maclay track was very inviting, with a lot of related distances and interesting jumps. I encouraged Sam to do his best—I knew in my heart that Waldo was ready, and that Sam was ready too.

When the moment finally came for their trip, all my hopes were answered. Sam and Waldo LAID IT DOWN. It was beautiful, and I had tears in my eyes when they finished. Sam, Waldo, and I walked up to the small, tented ring after their round, where they began to cool out. After the end of the first phase, they were on top. Sam and I were over the moon!

While Waldo was back in his stall munching hay and relaxing, I repeated the routine with Emma and Cris, who also put down an amazing trip. I took a deep breath. I now had the top two horses in the Maclay after the second standby list. My day could have ended there, and I would have been happy.

We went back for the flat phase, where Cris and Emma performed well, and Sam and Waldo went around like old pros, their partnership truly shining through. Next came another round of jumping, and Sam and Emma were in top form once again. These kids are my role models—I love watching them ride and I learn so much from just being a part of their teams.

The top six were called back for the final test, and by that point, Sam was still sitting on top, with Emma in fourth. I couldn’t watch, but I had to watch. I crossed my fingers. Unfortunately, Emma made a mistake during the test’s change to the counter lead. I believe if Emma and Cris had known each other for longer than a day, they would’ve been in sync, but both did their very best all weekend and ended up 6th overall—a huge achievement!

Sam told me later that after watching others struggle with the counter-canter flying change, he was not going to attempt it, and he didn’t have to. He was still sitting on top, and all he wanted to do was execute the test with no mistakes. Once again, Sam and Waldo did just that.

As the riders came out of the ring, I slipped coolers over my horses, my heart pounding with excitement. We didn’t know yet if anyone else had outperformed Sam and Waldo in the judges’ eyes, but it was out of our hands now. I thanked Sam for making my last show the best ever, and for doing his best with Waldo. Now, we could only wait. We all went back into the ring for presentations, and they began to call out the awards.

Photo © Phelps Media Group

When it got down to the top two, Sam still hadn’t been called, and we were all anxious. The announcer said that the Reserve Champion was from Texas, and immediately, we knew that Sam had won. The North Run team was overcome with joy. I kissed Waldo, high-fived Sam, and hugged Missy Clark and all of the supporting trainers. We clapped for the runner-up, Brian Moggre, who had performed amazingly all year.

Photo courtesy of Katie Williams

When it was our turn for pictures, I smiled as the bulbs began to flash, but my head was somewhere else. I was in the winner’s circle with my Champion. I had done my part, and in my own way, I had won Maclay Finals.


P.S. Katie Williams left North Run last fall but decided to return in April and is currently traveling around Indoors on the East Coast with her beloved Waldo. Best of luck to all the riders competing this year at the 2019 ASPCA Maclay!

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