An Unforgettable Night for Sabine Close and Off To Neverland in R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship

Sabine Close and Off To Neverland. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Edited Press Release

Sabine Close described her night in the R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship, sponsored by Hayutin, as the “best possible outcome.” It’s to be expected that the best possible outcome is a win, but Close made it even better, overcoming the odds after suffering a bit of an injury, and rising to the prestigious title aboard just an 8-year-old horse.

Over a month before the class, which took place under the lights during Desert Circuit 9, presented by Kubota, Close suffered a broken collar bone from a fall, and had to go through a bit of physical therapy and about five weeks off of riding. She made the return to the show ring only two weeks before Saturday night’s class, and her confidence was back in full swing.

Close was one of 45 young athletes to head into round one over a technical track designed by Skip Bailey. The course included elements like trot poles, halt, counter canter, and a network of fences set 3’6” in height. Close went eighth in the order of go and scored a total of 179 in round one from the judges, Connie Tram Hunt and Don Stewart, putting her just one point shy of the lead.

“I think actually the trot poles are what I was most conscious of,” Close said of what was perhaps the trickiest part of the course for her. “I wanted to halt and use that to take a breath and give my horse some time to breathe as well. I wanted to show off there because the counter canter was coming afterwards and I thought it would be a good way to lead into that.”

Round two featured a new course, the addition of Dayton Gorsline and Lisa Carlsen to the judging panels, and an added element of time allowed, encouraging riders to attack the course as a jumper challenge. This round was new to Close, who competed last year in the class, but it didn’t discourage her from giving her all.

“I did this class last year, but I did not make the second round,” Close, 18, explained. “I had a feel for how to do the course walks from the Talent Search Finals, but being completely by yourself in the warmup is a challenge but it’s really unique to this class which I think makes it more interesting.”

The format of the class makes it one of a kind; riders have to conduct themselves through the entire championship without help from a trainer of any sort. They must walk the course, formulate a plan, warm up, and execute the plan by themselves. Close admits that the year prior, she made a mistake in her warm-up that she knew exactly how to fix for this year’s edition.

“Last year I had a couple rails, which I attributed to not jumping big enough in my warmup, so that was my main goal to improve from there,” she explained of how she adapted from her experience last year. “I tried to jump a little bigger so he wasn’t as surprised when he went in there. But I think both of us have grown so much from the past year. It was our first 3’6” final last year, so it was a really good start to the season, and moving onto this year it was a perfect end to [Desert Circuit] too.”

Sabine Close and Off To Neverland in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Training under Olivia Dawson-Grove, Close has a toolkit from the years she has under her belt learning the ropes of equitation. “I have three main steps I go through in my head before I go in which is pace, straightness and impulsion,” she shared. “I try to think of those things the most when I go in and it seems to pay off the most when I’m focusing on that. Establishing a pace in the beginning and having short reins and keep going on that pace is the most important for me. That way you can adjust.”

Close’s mount, Off To Neverland, was awarded Best Equitation Horse as well. He’s only 8 years old, but their partnership has proven that age is just a number.

“He’s perfect,” she shared. Close does quite a bit of catch riding, so having a horse to call her own is extra special. “We got him when he was 7 so he was a bit green and hadn’t done the equitation before. We had to work a lot on the flat and from there that just developed well into jumping. He’s the best in-barn personality and he always steps up to the plate in the ring he always tries his hardest. I love him. He’s my favorite thing in the entire world.”

Close has big plans to graduate and move on to ride in college, having already committed to the University of California, Davis. She enjoys participating in school science fairs and looks forward to having more opportunities to explore academically while riding on the school’s equestrian team.

“I have always loved the academic side as well so it was something I personally really wanted to pursue,” she shared of wanting to get a college degree. “It just opens so many doors and windows of opportunity for anything you want to do in life.”

Close isn’t done with her equitation career, however, as she plans to keep working towards medal finals in the fall on the East Coast. She’s attended several big medal finals before, but aiming for higher finishes to cap off her junior equitation career. Ultimately, Close believes in the importance of equitation as a foundational skill that sets riders up for whatever they choose to do next.

“I think it’s great because it incorporates everything from all three divisions,” she said of the equitation. “You want to have the turnout of the hunter ring, the courses are more jumper style with the track, and you have to get so good at doing it. It’s maybe at a little slower pace than the jumpers, but it sets you up to pick up the pace and go faster over bigger jumps. I think it’s just a good foundation for that. To teach you how to ride properly and efficiently.”

Close also knows the value of a strong team, which she has behind her, whether they can help her train or just have to sit back and watch on nights like these.

“They’re amazing; they’re all so helpful,” she said of the team behind her. “From the barn presence and organization, to how they warm you up and keep you updated on the schedule. Out of the ring, on bad and good days it makes a huge difference to have a team supporting you no matter what.”

Lily Grosz captured second place and Camilla Jerng was third, with her horse, Fallon V’Gas also winning Best Turned Out Horse.

Injury or no injury, Close proved her ultimate toughness in Saturday evening’s R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship, making it a night she’ll remember for a very long time.