If there’s a day in the annual horse show books that is likely to go down in infamy, it’s almost always Sundays at the ASPCA Maclay National Championship. This year, after multiple rounds, it would be North Run’s Ava Stearns, 18, and the 8-year-old Acer K who would take home the hard-earned title at the National Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky, earning a permanent place in the Big Eq history books. Fortunately, 2019’s Maclay class also brought with it all the requisite excitement, tension, and high drama we expect from a Finals, thanks to a technical and thoughtfully designed “throwback” track created by Course Designer Bobby Murphy.
Nearly 180 competitors would test their metal on Murphy’s 14-effort, Round 1 track, which included a serpentine section, multiple jumps with no standards (hello, ASPCA skinny!), and plenty of tricky questions along the way. And who better than Murphy, himself, to walk us through the hazards at play in this year’s Maclay National Championship, as he does in his excellent Facebook live course walk (read on!) for theNational Horse Show?
Here, the five biggest questions from this year’s course—and how to ride them correctly.
Question 1: Ride Up to the First Jump
Watch enough classes at every level and you’ll quickly realize that the first jump on course often sets the tone for the rest of a round—and the 2019 ASPCA Maclay Championship was no exception. Murphy recommended that riders channel their inner McLain Wards with a light, forward seat, creating enough pace to the first jump so they could get their work done early. The goal: go forward for the first three strides in the loose, five-stride line, then settle in for the remaining two. According to Murphy, there is intentionally no rest for the weary on this particular course. “I’m not kidding,” he says. “If you don’t do Fence 1 correctly, the next six jumps on course [will be affected].”
Question 2: Whatever Happens, Stay on Track
After that first, forward line, what happens in the landing of Jump 2 is critical. The ability to collect your horse, without shifting from side to side or otherwise deviating from the track, has a big impact on what comes next: a tight turn to the first of the serpentine fences, beginning at Jump 3. “The inexperienced [riders] will land after the [loose] five and struggle to regroup,” Murphy predicted.
Question 3: Ride the Track, Not Individual Fences
According to Murphy, this year’s course was all about “throwback” jumps harkening to the Maclay’s more than 80 years of history. Among the obstacles showcased: a large coop designed to look like the roof of Churchill Downs (a nod to the National’s Kentucky Horse Park location), a wedding bench used at a friend’s nuptials this summer, and 60-year-old pieces of his grandfather’s fences, whose rustic vibe even Joanna Gaines would approve.
As is the case every year, the pièce de résistance was undoubtedly the ASPCA fence, Murphy’s “favorite”, which he presented this year without standards and topped with decorative logs (“You can buy a knock-off version on Amazon!” he jokes). The key to conquering 2019’s, mostly inviting array of obstacles? Focus on the real challenge: the track, itself. “I usually don’t connect [the first few fences on course] this much… but the jumps [themselves are intentionally] simple,” Murphy said.
Question 4: Know When (and How) to Breathe
The turn from Jump 6 to Jump 7 provided riders with their first and only true break in the action of the course. “The good ones will [use this time] to breathe,” explains Murphy, “the less-experienced ones will breathe too much, because there’s a very tight six strides up ahead.” As the Final’s only required number of strides, riders needed to get the six done early and accurately, and relaxing too much through corner could compromise their effectiveness. “I would check the length of my reins [here],” advises Murphy, who says this is also the time for riders to adjust their feet in the stirrups, correct their position, or check on their mental game before the intensity picks up again. “I’m telling you, this is the only breather on course,” he warns.
Question 5: Know When to Hold ’Em… Or Leave it Out
“If you don’t hit anything else [on course], you need to hit this,” Murphy cautioned of the final, bending line from combination 11a-11b to a “maxed-out” final vertical at Jump 12. According to Murphy, the line should be ridden as a conservative 7 strides… but then… being a Big Eq final, there’s always room for interpretation. Fortunately for us, it happens on camera, live, so be sure to watch the hilarious exchange below between Murphy and Don Stewart, as they hash out whether a forward six (Stewart’s choice) or the holding seven (Murphy and Judge Jimmy Tarano’s) is the better option. “These horses today have these big, scopey strides… we want to end the course with a bang!” Stewart says. “I’ve been wrong before, but I can’t remember when.” Fair enough, Don, fair enough.
The verdict? When it comes to options, there’s always a bit of grey space on course. The best path to success, therefore, is almost always the one that suits your particular horse. Knowing what’s right for his or her overall mentality, stride-length, and skillset will always be key.