Eighteen-year-old Hunter Holloway realized every equitation rider’s dream last month when she captured the 2016 ASPCA Maclay Medal Final. But it was a victory six years in the making… As told to Carley Sparks.

I competed in my first Maclay Final in 2011. I was 13.

Equitation wasn’t something I was really aiming to do in the beginning. I won my first Grand Prix at age 12. I only started doing equitation the year after because we had an equitation horse come into the barn to be sold. I showed him and thought, Oh, I actually kind of like this.

Later that year, we met Don Stewart and that started my equitation career proper. It was a little bit of a reverse order. Grand Prix, then equitation.

For the Finals that year, I rode another sales horse named Constantine. He was a jumper that we ended up turning into an equitation horse. We had a pretty good year. I made the top 25 at Medal Finals (Pessoa/US Hunter Seat Equitation Finals), but didn’t qualify for Washington (WIHS Equitation Final).

I remember being super excited but very nervous for the Maclay Final. I don’t know why. Normally, I don’t ever get nervous about going in the ring, but equitation gets to me. Maybe it’s the pressure.

I ended up missing an inside turn in the first round. I didn’t go off course of anything like that—that came later—but I totally missed the inside turn, so I didn’t make the top 25 or anything. But it was a good round for my first time.

The second year I felt a little more prepared.

Before I started riding with Don, I never used to count strides. I jumped Grand Prixes without counting strides. I mean, if I was riding hunters and going down a diagonal line, I knew how many strides it was supposed to be. But in a bending line in the jumper ring, my mom and I, we’d walk the line to get an idea of it. It wasn’t the end of the world if you added a stride or left one out as long as you got there in the right balance and jumped a clean jump.

In equitation you need to know how to count. Some of those lines are so long, your horse will get really flat. My instinct was to correct the balance. I’d jump into a forward line and think, oh, that looks long and I’d add. Don used to call me the next Oklahoma strangler because thought I was from Oklahoma (I’m not) and I’d always add. That was really hard for me to learn. I really struggled with it.

Eventually, I stopped adding and Don caught on that I wasn’t from Oklahoma, so the nickname didn’t stick.

For my second year in equitation, I rode a horse called Blige that we’d gotten through Don. Great horse. She was just seven, but she didn’t bat an eye at anything. Medal Finals went really well again that year—I was in the top 25. I believe I qualified for Washington, but something happened with the entries where I still couldn’t go. We won the Maclay Regional.

Maclay Finals was a different story. Blige was normally a very solid horse but that ring at Kentucky Horse Park unsettled her. She walked into the ring and spun. I kind of kicked her around and got her to the first jump, but she spooked and stopped. After that I got her around and she was fine.

It wasn’t the Final we were looking for, but I couldn’t really be mad her. It’s a scary ring for a young horse.

Things were going better for us the third year.

I’ve wanted to win every Maclay Final I’ve ever year I’ve done it. That third year, I was riding Blige still and felt closer to it.

We made the top 25 at Medal Finals and won the Maclay Regionals again. (I still didn’t do Washington, for some reason.) But it kind of fell apart at the Maclay Final. I had a swap after the third fence and got really deep to an oxer, so I didn’t make the flat.

In 2014, it came together. I finished second on Any Given Sunday (“Sunny”).

I always felt amazing on that horse! He’s such a confidence booster. I did him in the Grand Prix and jumped so many big tracks on him that everything always seemed easy.

I felt really good going into the Maclay Final that year. I was sixth at Medal Finals and second at Washington. That first round of the Maclay Final, I laid down one of the best rounds I’ve had on that horse. The flat phase went well. Our second jumping round was good. I felt very confident about it.

It came down to Tori Colvin and I.

Then we got to the testing portion and had to switch horses. Tori went first on Sunny and had a great round. They were amazing to watch together. I went next on Patrick, he was a blast to ride.

Before I walked into the ring, Don said, “The horse has a big stride, go wide on the last line. You don’t want to get there too early.” Well, I landed off the jump and I went wide. I went too wide. I went so wide that I lost track of where I was in the line and ended up adding a stride.

I landed off the jump and thought, Oh my god, I think I just added. You know, right then and there that that’s the moment you lost the big class

It was heart breaking. You’re still happy—you finished second. But it crushes you.

Come 2015, I really wanted to get the job done.

I just wanted to get in there and win it. To come so close, it’s a great feeling because, okay, I’ve been second here, third here, but then to not have an actual blue ribbon yet. It’s one of those things where you’re like…ugh!

Going into the Maclay Final that year, I felt really good. I thought, this is my year!

Only it wasn’t.

I jumped the first line—it was good—then it was a bending line to the end jump. There were two end jumps that looked identical to one another. Absolutely identical. It was a really forward line, too. I landed off the second jump and got there really easy. I remember thinking, that should have been a lot more forward. Then the next line got easy too. It also should have been a forward line.

And that’s when they called me off course.

In your head, it’s like, Oh my gosh, I did not just jump the wrong end jump! Then you realize, there’s another year that you’ve just thrown this class away and gave it up because of some really stupid mistake.

That was crushing. Absolutely crushing.

I cried outside for a second, then went back inside and thanked Don, thanked everyone. We packed the trailer and got the heck out of there. I watched the rest of the rounds on the livestream on the way home.

At some point, you just have to laugh at yourself. But it’s not a moment I enjoy reliving.

This year, I was much more relaxed than the previous years.

Before, I’d always think I have to win it this year so I don’t have to come back next year. This year, there wasn’t another year to come back. Somehow, it was a lot less pressure.

I had a great horse and knew it. I felt very comfortable and confident going in. I knew I could count strides, so that was no longer a worry.

Our final-Finals season did start off quite to plan. Sunny had a bit of time off to get ready for indoors. We were both a little rusty at Medal Finals. I messed up after the first jump so it was definitely not the show we wanted. I was pretty shook up about it, but I thought, you know what, it’s my last equitation year. Keep moving forward, don’t think about it too much.

The next week I did more no stirrup lessons than I’d ever done in my life. I kept getting on horses and Don would say, take off your stirrups! Every. Time.

By the time we got to Washington, I felt we were on our A-game. From the moment I walked into the ring, I knew this was it. We just kept putting in good rounds. I think our lowest score was a 95 the whole show. It was really exciting! And a big confidence boost going into Maclay Final. If I did that well in Washington, there was no reason I couldn’t stay on a roll and just keep going.

And we did. The whole week at the Maclay Final Sunny felt super in the lessons. I was feeling really confident. Then Friday morning, we were 27th to go in the 4:30am warm-up class. I got on Sunny and knew immediately that something wasn’t right. Even at the walk I could tell something off.

His stride felt weird. He felt tight. It wasn’t anything soundness wise. He almost felt like a horse tying up but he wasn’t.

We took his temperature and discovered that he was running a bit of a fever. The vet diagnosed him with a viral infection. He was fine within a couple of days but, in the meantime, he wasn’t healthy enough to show, which meant we had a day to figure out which horse I was going to ride.

We ended up going with the horse I rode at USET Finals, C’est La Vie (“Vie”). We’d only had him a week or so before that Final. It was all so last minute, he wasn’t even body clipped. Thank god he’s such a Steady Eddy. We got him clipped and he was good to go the next day.

Saturday morning, I knew Sunny was going to be okay and that was the most important thing to me.
I was pretty nervous walking in the ring on a horse that didn’t have the most experience in the equitation ring or the benefit of a warm-up round. But I knew whatever I asked him he was going to have a good answer.

We ended up putting in a very solid trip. I was a little long to one oxer down the bending five, but it was enough to get me into the flat and high enough that I felt I had a shot. After that, I knew the horse was 100%. I thought, we’re okay now. We can get through this.

The flat phase went well. I stayed in third.

Going into the third round, the course asked for the counter canter down two lines. Don and I had three different plans for those lead changes—we had plan A, B and C. If we landed left, we were going to try and hold the left lead. If he fell off the lead, we’re were going to act like is was a simple change. If landed right, it was a flying change to the left. I had a plan for every possible contingency. I felt prepared.

Vie answered them all perfectly. He landed that left lead for the first counter canter and held it perfectly. For the second, he landed left and we were able to do a nice lead change to the counter lead to the last jump. He couldn’t have done it better.

I was so proud of that horse!

For him to come in there and do what he did, it was amazing. And for me, to finally lead that victory gallop after coming so close, it was such an exciting moment.

There was no better way to end my junior career.