Sam Walker simply could not be beaten in the Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund WIHS Equitation Finals on Saturday. Walker, 17, and from Nobleton, ON, led the three-phase competition from start to finish riding Waldo, becoming the first Canadian rider to win the class.
A field of 40 started the competitive, year-end equitation final, which spanned two days. Riders started with a hunter phase held on Friday, then completed a jumper phase held on Saturday afternoon, and then 10 riders qualified for a final work-off held during Saturday night’s featured session. Riders’ average scores from the first two rounds were combined, with the 10 top-ranked competitors then swapping horses in the work-off. The highest combined total score won the class.
Walker joked that his preparation for this year’s win began immediately after the class last year. “I was 10th place here last year and third the year before, so I was a little bit hungry to get back in the ring here,” Walker said. “I just wanted to say thank you to the Lindsay Maxwell Charitable Fund for sponsoring this class and always making it a great event every year.”
Walker set the tone early with Waldo, a 12-year-old warmblood gelding owned by Missy Clark and North Run. The judges, Chance Arakelian, Laura Kraut, Timmy Kees, and Sue Ashe, scored him with a 93 in the hunter round, giving him the blue in that phase. In the jumper round, Walker finished second with a score of 92, but retained his lead in the overall standings with a 185 total. Ava Stearns, who won the jumper phase with a score of 93.5, was hot on his heels in the standings with a 182.5 total.
In the work-off, Walker and Stearns switched horses, with Walker getting on Stearns’ mount Acer K, an eight-year-old gelding also owned by Clark and North Run, and Stearns getting a leg up onto Waldo. Walker and Stearns both train with Clark, John Brennan, and their team at North Run, so they were familiar with each other’s horses.
“I think that knowing the person in your barn whose horse you’re swapping onto and seeing the horse every day is a big advantage,” Stearns said. “I watch [Waldo] go all the time, and Sam watches mine. I know that Sam has my best interests at heart, as I do for him, and he’s going to tell me what I need to know. They’re both such top-notch horses that you really couldn’t go wrong.”
Stearns put the pressure on Walker with a solid round with Waldo. It was a bit of redemption, as the year before, she had also switched horses with Walker and did not have as good a round, leaving her in ninth in the class.
Walker answered her challenge with a seamless round of his own as the last to go. The judges rewarded him with another score in the 90s, a 93. Stearns posted a score of 86.5 in the work-off, giving the win to Walker with a 278 total score and putting her in second place with a score of 269.5. For the win, Walker was presented with the WIHS Equitation Classic Trophy, donated by Mr. & Mrs. G. Ralph Ours, III, and, as the winning horse, Waldo was awarded the Lugano Memorial Trophy, donated by Stoney Hill.
“When the scores get as good as they got at the end, that’s so much fun to watch, and it’s a pleasure to judge,” said Kees.
“I’ve been very, very grateful to have the ride on the same horse each year,” said Walker. “I always look forward to coming to this horse show. It’s extremely well organized. It’s a great atmosphere. It’s a real show. In regard to my horse and preparation, we just kept it simple and tried to stick with the plan. I’m just really happy with how today went.”
Walker has had the ride on Waldo for three years, while Stearns, of Chilmark, MA, has just been showing Acer K since March. “These two are so well schooled, and in the whole scheme of things, veterans of equitation,” Clark said of the two riders. “I’m so proud of them. Ava’s horse is only eight years old; this was his first year doing [equitation finals], and Sam has helped develop Waldo, another horse that we also own. Waldo had never done equitation at this level until Sam started with him. It’s been fun working with both kids and both those horses.”
Judge Arakelian addressed Walker and Stearns after the class. “I’m a big fan of Sam’s,” he said. “I think he rides so forward and light with a great hand. Sam, your third round was absolutely beautiful. Ava, your second round was unbelievable as well. You’re a very strong rider, and you ride that horse beautifully.”
Finishing in third with a total score of was Dominic Gibbs, 16, of Colorado Springs, CO, riding Cent 15, an 11-year-old Hanoverian owned by Mountain King Ranch LLC. Gibbs is in his first year of the prestigious fall indoor equitation finals, and trains with Stacia Madden and the Beacon Hill team.