Meet the 2021 Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation Champions at the National Horse Show

Stephanie Fernandez and Tropic Star. Photo by Shawn McMillen Photography

Edited Press Release

The penultimate day of the opening week of the 2021 National Horse Show (NHS) kicked off Saturday morning in the Alltech Arena of the Kentucky Horse Park. Throughout opening week, age group equitation divisions for both amateur and junior athletes took center ring, welcoming a competitive field of riders to the oldest indoor horse show in America for its 138th annual event. In the Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 16-17 division, Claire Simic stood out in the field of 32 entries in Section A, and Stephanie Fernandez bested the 33 horse-and-rider pairs in Section B to garner the championship honors at the conclusion of Saturday’s competition. 

In Section A, Simic dominated the field throughout the two days of Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 16-17 division classes. The Californian athlete and her own 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding, Diatoon, executed a seamless first-round course Friday afternoon, rising to the occasion over Bobby Murphy’s (USA) track that challenged athletes and their horses to be ambidextrous by matching their pace, rhythm and stride throughout the mirrored course. Simic replicated her winning techniques in Saturday’s over fences class, expertly navigating the 10-effort track with her trusty partner. In the under saddle, Simic demonstrated correct position and style through the walk, trot, sitting trot, canter and extended canter, to claim her third and final win of the division. Simic’s clean sweep guaranteed her the championship tricolor in the Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 16-17 division. Simic was thrilled with the result and looks forward to competing in the Hamel Foundation NHS 3’3” Equitation Championship Sunday, October 31.

The reserve champion honors for Section A of the Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 16-17 division were awarded to Sarah Gould and Catching Fire. Gould and Erika Zirkelbach’s 14-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare were in top form Friday afternoon, placing second behind Simic in the first over fences class. While the pair would not ribbon in Saturday’s over fences, a top-five finish on the flat would secure the reserve champion honors for her and Catching Fire. 

Wrapping up the day of top sport, Section B athletes had their shot at the championship tricolors. Of the competitive 33 horse field, Fernandez and Tropic Star shone the brightest. She and the 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding wowed the judges during the first day of competition, placing second for their effortless trip. Fernandez came into Saturday’s competition with confidence, successfully replicating her second-place finish over the second-round course. In the under saddle, Tropic Star and Fernandez strutted their way to a top-five finish, placing the pair atop the leaderboard for the championship honors.

Sharing the reserve champion honors for their consistency throughout the two days of competition was Izabel Fugman and Alexandra Lynn Willner. Fugman and Cabadbaran S, Rachel Sagalyn’s 11-year-old Holsteiner gelding, got a strong start to the division, taking the top spot in Friday’s over fences class. Willner and Boca’s Instyle, Ponies & Palms Show Stables LLC’s 8-year-old Warmblood mare, claimed a win in the second over fences round to slide into the co-reserve championship position at the end of day two. 

Combined 84 horse-and-rider combinations in two sections of the Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 14-15, presented by Cindi Pérez & Anne Bennett, tried their hand over one final course set forth by Kentucky’s very own Bobby Murphy (USA). In the end, it was Caroline Olsen who claimed the championship title in Section A, while Julia Brown took home reserve champion after winning the over fences class on the final day of the competition. Section B saw the final 42 horse-and-rider combinations, crowning Ariana Marnell champion at the conclusion, while Ella Witt and Quinn Van Cara took home co-reserve champion.

Olsen once again proved to be a strong competitor in Section A of the 14-15 age group equitation on the final day of the division, laying down a beautiful final round and securing herself valuable points that helped to ensure her the championship title. Olsen and Handsome DD, a 9-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, came into day two of competition with the confidence they needed after making a clean sweep of the division Friday, taking back-to-back wins in the over fences and under saddle class. Close competitor Brown and her mount G-Star, a 10-year-old Warmblood gelding owned by Kathleen Schmeler, was not far behind Olsen after claiming the red ribbon in Friday’s over fences class and winning Saturday’s final round of the division.

Caroline Olsen and Handsome DD.

Marnell made a splash in the 14-15 age group equitation division Section B during day one of competition aboard Coltino, an 11-year-old Holsteiner gelding owned by Katherine Dewar. She was awarded second over fences and second in the under saddle out of a competitive group of 42 junior riders during day one of the division. Marnell came into day two of competition Saturday on top of the division and was awarded for her precision, grace and form throughout the entirety of the division, placing first in the final over fences round and securing her the championship title. Competitors Witt and Van Cara ultimately tied for reserve champion with a total of 10 points. Witt and Chambertino, 10-year-old Oldenburg gelding owned by Cassandra Orpen, claimed the blue ribbon in the first over fences class Friday, which put them in a good position on day two of competition. Van Cara and her mount Carry Away, a 12-year-old gelding owned by Kobi Rhodes, captured the yellow ribbon in Friday’s over fences class and third in the final round of competition Saturday to help secure them the co-reserve champion title.

Earlier in the day, Conway once again proved to be a force to reckon with in the Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation Over Fences 14 & Under division after winning the final over fences class and claiming the championship title aboard her longtime mount Crossbow, her own 16-year-old Warmblood gelding. The dynamic pair came into day two of competition in the overall lead after claiming second and third place in the over fences and undersaddle Friday. Vivienne Wood and Alant, her 14-year-old Holsteiner gelding, were awarded the reserve champion honors after placing third in the over fences and second on the flat Friday. They came into day two of competition right on Conway’s heels, but were just a few points shy of champion after placing fifth in the over fences class Saturday.

Claire Simic – Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 16-17 Section A champion

On her horse, Diatoon:
“I have had him for a little over a year now and he was the first horse that we purchased. He is a big equitation horse and we bought him in California. We have been competing in California. This is our first time showing on the East Coast and we really appreciate the age group equitation. It is great to be able to [ride at] indoors and it is really fun to be here.” 

On the courses in the division:
“I liked the courses both yesterday and today. I thought that they gave equal opportunity and tested both leads and they were very symmetrical. The courses did not favor one type of horse over another. I had a lot of fun and it prepared us really well for the [Hamel Family Foundational NHS 3’3” Equitation Championship]. My horse got to get his nerves out and I was able to get mine out too.” 

On her plan for her rounds:
“I wanted to have a smooth round and get around and follow the plan that my trainer gave me.” 

On showing at the National Horse Show: 
“I love it so much here! It is so different from California with the grass and the hills. I live in Southern California and we have not competed in many places other than the shows there like The Oaks and Desert International Horse Park.” 

On competing in the Hamel Foundational NHS 3’3” Equitation Championship: 
“I am super excited to compete in the Hamel for the first time. I am going to have the same plan and have smooth rounds and do my best and have fun!”

Stephanie Fernandez – Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation 16-17 Section B champion

On Tropic Star: 
“He is amazing and has a giant personality. He is always there for me. When I first met him there was a connection right away and I really appreciate all of his hard work. He is the best horse I could ask for.” 

On courses: 
“We were trying to keep our plan as simple as possible, just getting through my corners and keeping my pace. We executed it beautifully and I was just really happy with how it all went.” 

On lessons from Friday’s round: 
“Just keeping him in the corners, it really helped a lot today.” 

On Hamel Plan: 
“Probably the same plan as I had today. Just really keeping him in the corners and keeping a consistent pace. I am really excited about the class.”

On National Horse Show: 
“It is so amazing to be here. This is my first year here and it has just been a great experience so far.” 

On future plans: 
“I am hoping to do the Junior 3’6” Hunters and continue doing the 3’6” Equitation medals. I hope to ride in college after my junior years as well.” 

Thank you: 
“I really appreciate my trainers Pat Dawson and Keith Hastings.” 

Caroline Olsen – Champion of Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation Over Fences 14-15 Section A

On Handsome DD:
“His name is Handsome and we got him two years ago. He is by Charisma. He is very sweet in the barn and has a big personality. He is perfect.”

On courses:
“I won both rounds yesterday and I was really nervous coming into day two of competition. I feel like I put in a really solid round today to secure champion.”

On winning round from Friday:
“Yesterday I was really calm going into the ring and was not very nervous. My trainer told me to go in and have fun and do the best that I can. I thought my round yesterday was great.”

On National Horse Show:
“This is probably my favorite horse show of the year. I love the ring. It is my favorite ring to show in during Indoors and the environment is great.”

On future plans:
“I hope to do the Medal, Maclay, WIHS Equitation Finals and USET Finals. I hope to just be really consistent in the 3’6” medal classes next year.”

On Hamel NHS Equitation Championship:
“I am really excited for the class. I think I am really prepared and ready to do well.”

Ariana Marnell – Champion of Pérez & Bennett Open Equitation Over Fences 14-15 Section B

On Coltino:
“My horse Coltino we got recently at the beginning of this year. He always tries so hard and he is a great partner. We always really trust each other and I think that is why we work well together.”

On her over fences rounds:
“My round today was really nice. I got to watch a lot [because] I went late [in the order], so I got to formulate a plan with my trainer that we thought would work best for my horse. The track was really nice and it was very symmetrical. Everything was just nice and out of the turns, and the jumps were beautiful and the ring rode great. My round yesterday was good – I liked it. I didn’t think it was as good as I could be, so going into today I made sure that I made those corrections. My horse was perfect today and yesterday.”

On competing in the Hamel Foundation NHS 3’3” Equitation Championship:
“I feel pretty good going into tomorrow. I trust Coltino, my horse, and I trust myself, so I am just going to try to stick to our plan. We have a routine we are in that works really well, and I trust my trainer and my team and I think it will go well – I hope so!”

On her plans for the future:
“In the future, for my junior years, I would like to win at least one of the medal finals and Prix des States, and maybe get on some of the jumper teams. In the future I’d like to ride on [Nations Cup] teams like Kent [Farrington].”

Previous articleMaddie Tosh and Storyteller Take the Lead in the WIHS Pony Equitation Finals
Next articleTaylor Land and Get Go Prove Invincible in WEC- Wilmington Fall $50,000 Grand Prix Finale