“She Didn’t Resemble the Rest”

SMU Mustang Augusta Iwasaki.

How Maclay Champion Augusta Iwasaki prevailed over criticism about her looks to blaze the trail for riders in the Big Eq—and beyond

By Piper Klemm and Rennie Dyball

Augusta Iwasaki won the ASPCA Maclay National Championship Sunday night, following up her recent wins in the WIHS Equitation Final and the USEF Talent Search-East Final, cementing her place in equestrian history. These were victories that professionals, fellow competitors, and fans alike saw coming—Iwasaki been knocking at the door for years. But her trio of historic “Big Eq” wins also stands in stark contrast to the criticism the young rider has faced as an Asian-American rider with a body that often didn’t match the sport’s narrow-minded “standard.”

“Oh, all the reasons people told her she couldn’t do the equitation. At five feet tall, her legs would never have the elegance of what historically wins medal finals. As a rider of Japanese-American descent, she didn’t resemble the rest—the several hundred riders contesting equitation finals each Fall,” Iwasaki’s mother and trainer, Liz Reilly, tells The Plaid Horse

“She has the athletic build we might associate with other sports, not necessarily our own. From other trainers ‘being helpful’ by mentioning these things, owners not offering catch rides in these divisions, and commentators commenting on her height, weight, and ethnicity, we heard it all from a young age.” 

While Iwasaki faced these challenges for not fitting the equitation mold, she was also blessed with a great foundation, thanks to her innate talent and her family’s knowledge and experience.

“Yes, she has a connection to every horse she gets on, and her spatial intelligence was incredibly off the charts at an age where most kids could barely count strides,” says Reilly. “But, most fundamentally in this sport, Augusta was well-mounted from day one.”

Iwasaki’s parents (Reilly and her husband and business partner Chris Iwasaki run Makoto Farm) supported their daughter’s every dream and goal. They stood behind her and they found the right ponies—easier first, and then increasingly with more quality and challenge—until, still with legs that barely came past the saddle, she could strike fear in any East Coast titan trying to win. 

When Iwasaki decided she wanted to do the equitation, there were some things to address. At the time, she rarely wore gloves, and by the end of a day showing a dozen animals, she might have an untucked shirt or ribbons falling out of her pigtails. “Those pieces of organization and discipline are a huge part of equitation, and she would need to put the work in,” says Reilly.

Fast forward to 2022. Augusta Iwasaki wins the 2022 Maclay National Championship, soon after winning the 2022 WIHS Equitation Finals and the USEF Talent Search East Finals. She wins the 2022 $75,000 WEC Ocala Hunter Derby Championship. She earns her second 5th place finish in the USEF Medal Finals. In the last five years, she has won Taylor Harris Insurance Services Medal Finals, the Hunterdon Cup, the $100,000 Platinum Performance Prix at HITS Saugerties, numerous USHJA International Hunter Derbies, Grand Junior Hunter Championships at all the majors shows (including Junior Hunter Finals), Best Child Rider on a Horse and on a Pony at all the major shows, Hunter Spectaculars… and at least a dozen coolers that The Plaid Horse has donated to various top shows.

But her storied junior career doesn’t even scratch the surface of the horsewoman Iwasaki has become. She has produced countless green horses and ponies into champions and she’s won more tricolors than could fit in any tack room—all while displaying a kindness, humility, and respect with every person she meets. While the rest of us might not have her incredible feel, we can all strive to emulate how she conducts herself at every show, whether she’s winning or learning on that particular day. 

While Iwasaki’s talent and work ethic are behind her incredible success, it’s worth noting that her wins correspond with a time in our sport when things are actually starting to change for the better—a more inclusive time where good riding is valued over everything else. Trailblazing riders, public discussions, and efforts by people in all corners of our industry have paved the way to make this a better sport for all.

“I think there were all different body types in there, all different sizes and shapes,” USEF Medal Finals judge Karen Healey recently said on The Plaidcast. “We’ve gotten away from that stick figure I think, that you have to have that to compete. If you’re in the correct position, if your hand is correct and your leg is correct, you can effectively communicate with your horse. We didn’t look at somebody and say, ‘That one is too short, or that one is too this.’ Each rider was judged [on their style and] their ability to execute the course, and that was all we were looking at.”

Most importantly, this equitation finals season saw historic diversity in so many latitudes in the top of each class. We applaud Iwasaki for her incredible career thus far, her huge wins this season, for ignoring the naysayers, and for helping to blaze the trail for a more inclusive and accepting sport for all.

Listen to Augusta on the Plaidcast here: