Mere hours after McLain Ward (USA) was declared the world’s leading show jumper, he was bested by 23-year-old Haley Gassel of Lenore City, TN at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair. Gassel, riding Quite Dark 2, was the only rider to leave all the fences up in the $25,000 Open Jumper Devon Speed Challenge sponsored by the World Equestrian Center.

With faults converted to time, competitors had to not only be fast, but leave the jumps in the cups. Three other pairs were able to match Gassel’s time of 65.5, but she was the only one to leave all the rails up. Ward, riding HH Best Buy, was faster than Gassel, but the faults added to their time put them in second place on 67.279 in Friday night’s main event.

Gassel, competing at Devon for the second time, was naturally thrilled with her win, but she wasn’t entirely surprised by her horse’s success. Quite Dark 2 had already won two Grand Prix’s this year, in Ocala, FL and Tryon, NC. She said the 17.3h German gelding has a laid-back attitude in the barn but gets more fired up in the atmosphere of a show ring.

“QD is the kind of horse that likes rings like this—he likes big crowds,” she said. “He doesn’t need to come in the ring and school that much. He wins almost every horse show he goes to, even it’s just a warm-up class. He’s had a lot of wins.”

Gassel purchased Quite Dark 2 as a rising eight-year-old with the goal of competing at Young Riders. She’d had a talented mare, Espasia Z, whom she’d planned to do Young Riders with, but the mare developed neurological-type symptoms and had to be put down. It was discovered that she had a softball-sized tumor on her spine. Pushing past the devastating setback, Gassel found Quite Dark 2 on a horse shopping trip to Germany.

Together, they’ve seen plenty of success as their partnership has developed. With QD, Gassel was a member of the silver medal-winning Zone 4 team at the NAJYRC two years ago, when she was 21. While she had planned to sell the horse eventually, she said he’s now part of the family.

“He’s actually pretty lazy at home, so I have to wear giant spurs even out hacking,” said Gassel. “He’s a totally different horse when he steps in the ring—he’s totally game and always wants to win. Even if he’s tired he still tries his absolute hardest. He’s a lot of fun. Still, a lot of people say when I come out of the ring that they’re exhausted for me! He’s not a difficult ride but he’s a lot to try to package, and his head kind of goes everywhere. That’s just the way he’s been since I got him.”

An aspiring professional, Gassel has completed her college prerequisites but is taking the time now to focus on her riding. There are around 30 horses at her family’s farm, including about 15 boarders. Amanda Finger, the resident trainer, started Gassel as a child and brought her up to Grand Prix. Today, Gassel trains mainly with David Jenning, but she works with multiple trainers to get different viewpoints.

Last year, Gassel took part in the George Morris Horsemastership clinic in Gladstone, NJ. She’d done a couple of clinics with him previously but was a bit nervous going into the Horsemastership session.

“At the clinics he was rough and tough but in Gladstone was really nice. The eight of us riders really had a great time together. We came from all over and it was nice to meet everyone. We’re all at about the same level. This year on the first anniversary we all checked in with each other, and we’re all looking forward to doing it again next year.”