My road to the Maclay Finals and what I learned along the way...
In 1997, I was 18 and it was my last junior year competing in the hunters, jumpers and equitation. I was training with Karen Healey in Southern California and showed my own horse, Wanaheim, in the Junior Jumpers as well as leased a couple horses to compete in the equitation. I loved the jumpers and thoroughly enjoyed going fast against the clock. Growing up as the daughter of a jockey, going fast was in my blood. When I started riding with Karen, she had explained to me that only doing the jumpers was not going to give me the polish I needed as a rider, especially if I was considering turning professional. I wasn’t totally sure what I was going to do after my last junior year, but I did always want to be the best rider I could be. So, Karen talked me into giving the equitation a go, and we leased a horse for a couple months at the start of the year. I was lucky enough to qualify for both the AHSA (now USEF) and Maclay finals during the winter circuit, formerly known as Indio, so for the rest of the season I focused on my junior jumper and qualifying him for the Young Riders and Harrisburg zone team.
When it was time for the regional finals at the end of show season in September, Karen found me a chestnut mare named “Santana” to show, and she had just come from Europe where she was doing the jumpers. When she first came, she would jump two feet over everything so we had our work cut out for us to keep everything smooth. She didn’t know counter canter and wasn’t that great with lead changes. But, with lots of hard work, we finished well in the regional finals and ended up qualifying to go back east and compete at both Harrisburg and Madison Square Garden. We had also qualified for USET finals at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center.
This was my first time competing in USET finals, so there were definitely some nerves. Knowing that my mare was quite green, I didn’t quite know what to expect. That year, 1997, George Morris and Anne Kursinski were the judges, and they designed the courses. They were challenging to say the least. The flat phase went pretty smoothly, and so we geared up for the gymnastics phase. The very first jump in the course was a small wall that we had to walk over. Yes, you read that correctly, we had to walk over it!! Before I even walked into the arena, I was defeated. I kept telling myself that my horse was not experienced enough to show at this level of technicality. I was so nervous in the warm up area! I specifically remember circling time and time again in front of the warm up jump because I was holding my breath and couldn’t see a distance. No matter what I did, I couldn’t get out of my own head. And no matter what, I would fail.
So, I entered the arena at the trot like Karen had instructed and then brought my mare down to a walk about 8 to 10 feet away. As we got closer, I could feel myself tense up. All I had to do was close my leg to tell my horse that we were, in fact, supposed to go over the jump, and I just froze. So, sure enough, my mare stopped out of pure confusion. After that, I took a deep breath and felt as if all the pressure was off since I had screwed up. Then, I laid down a very good round. There were several other challenges in the course which both my mare and I handled well. I came out of the ring with an “oh well” type attitude and that did not impress my mom. As I had said before, I wasn’t as excited to show in the equitation but decided that it would be good for my riding career.
My parents were always extremely supportive of me and my riding and wanted to do anything they could to help me achieve my goals. My mom and dad always believed in me and felt I could be very competitive in any arena. In hindsight, when I agreed to do the equitation my heart wasn’t in it as much as it was in the jumpers. After my horrible round in the gymnastics phase, my mom sat me down and said that she felt like I wasn’t trying. And she was right!! The basics of riding was always very easy for me, and I often didn’t challenge myself enough. The USET finals was my first really big challenge, and I didn’t realize what it took to ride at the best of my ability. I had an epiphany that day that there were so many other riders competing against me that were on lesser quality horses with maybe less talent than me but they were going to beat me every time because their heart and desire was overpowering mine. My mom and I had a long talk, and I committed to putting in 100% effort from that point on. That set the stage for traveling east for the finals.
Some stablemates and I flew east and started out at Capital Challenge which was a good warm up show for us. My mare and I were working very hard and felt improved each time we were together. I had also worked with a Sports Psychologist per Karen’s recommendation and that helped get my head in the game. In between showing, we were constantly having lessons, riding without stirrups, doing sophisticated flatwork and jumping courses. As we got closer and closer to Harrisburg, I felt more and more prepared for the AHSA finals.
When we arrived at Harrisburg, I was very excited because I was not only going to show in the Equitation finals, but I also got to compete my jumper “Wanaheim” in the Zone Team Finals. The jumpers were my true love, and I had so much fun in that division. After the competition was compete, the Zone 10 Team walked away with a gold medal. It was such a fun and amazing experience. Now it was time to focus on the AHSA Finals! I was mentally and physically prepared and felt that I could handle it. I cannot remember how many riders competed that day but it was over 200 from all over the country. It was a big deal to just be there. Santana and I had a great first round and we made it to the second round where we had to do a shortened course with some harder tests. Even though I came into it with a better attitude and more mental preparation, I ended up watching a lot of people ahead of me mess up which were not the most ideal images to have in my head before I walked in the show ring. I started to doubt myself and my horse when I saw other people making mistakes. As much as my mare had improved, we also still had things to work on so that was always in the back of my mind. So, when it was time for the second round, I choked and made similar mistakes that several other riders made.
One big lesson I learned that day was to pick and choose what riders to watch and when to just stay busy back at the stalls on other things like polishing boots, cleaning tack or helping the grooms . By overwatching, you tend to overthink and create more doubt. Try to select riders that typically have good solid rounds and then try to recreate what they do.
Next, we went to Washington where i just practiced. I didn’t show in the equitation throughout the whole year so I did not qualify to compete at these finals. Washington was a nice break for me to get to watch a ton of amazing riders with no pressure of competing against them. I got the chance to learn and also see who I was up against.
The final week was The Maclay Finals in New York City at the amazing venue Madison Square Garden. It was such a trip to see the horses getting unloaded off the semi-trucks in the middle of a huge city. My mom flew in to watch me compete, so I was excited to see her and for her to see how hard I had been working. I had been on the road for about a month at this point and did nothing but eat, sleep and ride. If I wasn’t at my best at this point in time, then it just wasn’t my time. I knew in my heart that it was going to be a great experience because I was relaxed, focused and well prepared. Again there were over 200 of the best junior riders throughout the whole country that had qualified to be there along with me. I went late in the first round and had made a plan to watch a select group of riders to see how the course rode and develop a plan. I was sitting in the stands with my eyes closed and trying to relax when something told me to open my eyes and there was my Dad sitting there. He flew in from California and surprised me. I was so excited to have him there for such a special day. As I had said before, my Dad was a jockey and always worked on the weekends so he hardly ever got to see me show. After getting to visit with my Dad for a bit I had to get back to business.
As the day went on, I saw many different types of riders and many different scenarios play out. Some bad, some average and some amazing rounds. When it was my turn to go, I paid a ton of attention to the mental side of it. I lost my focus and confidence in previous competitions and I didn’t want to allow that to happen again. I wanted to stay positive. So, I went in the first round and both “Santana” and I performed great. After the first round and flat phase, we ended up in the 15th spot. In the second round, we were given a course of jumps and we had to design a course ourselves. The rules were we had to jump each jump once and do a couple of “tests” somewhere on the course. I was the only rider in my barn to make it to the second round, so I had my trainer, Karen with her husband Fred and assistant Melissa all to myself. They helped me walk the course and decide what the best route was to take. One of the tests was to change leads somewhere on the course and because my mare still was a little green we decided the best type of change was a simple change to ensure my mare and I would fully complete it. When I was on deck and stood at the ingate, I remember very well taking a deep breath and focusing on only myself and my horse. It was as if I had tunnel vision and I didn’t think or focus on anyone or anything around me. I knew we were as ready as we would ever be.
So, we entered the arena and off we went. We had a good solid round, but we did have a rub on a jump. Since we did a simple change and some other riders did flying changes, that put us slightly below them. It was up to the judges of whether they would mark me off for the rub. But, overall we had a great solid round and I was extremely happy. After the second round was completed, we were called back into the arena for the awards ceremony. This meant I actually got a ribbon!! It was pretty surreal and to have both my parents there was a very special moment. In the end we received the 8th place award. I was extremely excited to say the least! There were so many things I learned from going to indoors and competing in the different equitation finals.
Photos below are Stevie receiving her 8th place ribbon, Stevie and Santana in the first round of Maclay finals, the beautiful arena at Madison Square Garden and Stevie with her trainer Karen Healey, Karen's husband Fred Bauer and assistant Melissa Jones.
Here are some pointers if you are going to be competing in a big national competition or any show for that matter.…
- First and foremost you have to give it 100% effort. At the start of the finals season, I realized that I wasn’t giving it a solid effort and that others would always beat me because their heart was in it more than mine. You can never work too hard to be the best rider out there. Riding without stirrups and continuously working on perfection will only better you as a rider.
Another great tool was to practice some simple sports psychology techniques….breathing and visualizing my course jump by jump with lots of details helped me a ton.
One thing that I think a lot of people forget is to pick and choose who you are going to watch. If you go later in your class and have the ability to watch some riders, pay attention to selecting specific riders that will likely have solid rounds. Another important element is to pick riders with horses that are similar to yours. If you have a big strided warmblood and you watch a smaller thoroughbred type, the course will likely not ride the same for you and your horse. Be aware of that in any discipline.
The first time you compete at an indoor finals it is very overwhelming. There are a lot of elements to adjust to including riding in a much smaller arena (including warm up areas that are the size of postage stamps). The pressure of competing in front of a big crowd is also something that a lot of people are not used to. Remember that showing horses is a spectator sport. We will always have people watching us no matter where we are. But, in my experience the judge is always rooting for you and most other people are watching you for their own benefit of comparing themselves and learning. In my opinion, it is always best to show at indoors the first time with less pressure and simply try to absorb and learn as much as you can. The next time you compete at an indoor show you will be so much more knowledgeable and well versed to the schedule, size of arenas and the pressure.
Stay positive!! It is so easy to focus on your mistakes and negative experiences. Know that we learn from all our mistakes and take those lessons to improve your skills. No matter what sport we compete in, you must have a positive approach so you can continue to grow as a competitor.
My last bit of advice is to love and respect your partner the horse. In any discipline, the horses are our teammate and they are a huge part of our success. Try to always be in tune with your horse and have a mutual respect for them. Discipline for both you and your horse are imperative to success but there must be a balance. Remember without the horses this would not be possible.
More about the Author Stevie McCarron Wigley
Stevie grew up riding and showing in California, turned pro at 18 and worked for many different professionals including Karen Healey, Butch and Lu Thomas, Candice King and Anne Kursinski. She then moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 2005 to start her own business, Cloud Nine Farm. She has been a pro for over 20 years and is very passionate about the horse business. Cloud Nine Farm is now accepting new clients starting May 1st. Please contact Stevie here...