Riders Reach New Heights at Nor Cal Medal Finals

Katie Aoki wins the Nor Cal Junior Medal Final her first time competing in it. Photo: Deb Dawson
Katie Aoki wins the Nor Cal Junior Medal Final her first time competing in it. Photo: Deb Dawson

Katie Aoki (Jan Hainze, trainer) has been steadily rising through the ranks and has notched a few medal final wins, but at this year’s Nor Cal Medal Finals Horse Show (Oct 8-12), she met a new goal. Not only did she show in her first 3’6” medal final, the Nor Cal Junior, but she won it. “It was really, really exciting,” she recalled. “I’ve had my horse for about two years and we’ve grown a lot together. He trusts me and I trust him, and that worked out really well this weekend.”

Katie found that her experience in past medal finals was definitely a factor in her success. “I just tried to come up with a plan that would be best for me and my horse,” she recounted. “The courses [Scott Starnes, designer] flowed really nicely, and it was easy to establish a pace in the beginning. I liked the jumps because they were natural looking but different from what we usually jump. It was a lot of fun.”

Going into the work off, Katie was in first place and she had to work hard to maintain her cool under the pressure. With a two-round average of 84.99 to Patty Gill’s (Kelly Van Vleck, trainer) 84.16, there was little room for error. “I don’t usually go into the work off in first place, so that put some pressure on,” she said. To add to the difficulty and nerves, after inviting the top four into the ring and giving them the work off test, the judges had the riders turn around and face the outside of the ring. The higher ranked riders did not have the luxury of watching the first riders tackle the test. Katie shared the work off ring with Patty Gill, Abby Jorgensen (John French, trainer), and Blythe Quimby Bonan (Richard Widger, trainer).

“I thought the test was pretty difficult,” recounted Katie. The test included a hand gallop to a jump, several roll backs, a trot jump, and a related distance line the riders had not ridden. As each rider tested, Katie’s nerves increased. “I could hear the audience clapping after each round.”  Despite the pressure, Katie put in a beautiful round and claimed the title, while Patty was reserve champion.

Eleanor Hellman continues her winning season by topping the Nor Cal Senior Medal Final. Photo: Deb Dawson
Eleanor Hellman continues her winning season by topping the Nor Cal Senior Medal Final. Photo: Deb Dawson

In the Nor Cal Senior Medal Final, the win went to another first time competitor, Eleanor Hellman (Sonoma Valley Stables, trainer) on her horse, Nigel. In fact, Sonoma Valley Stables had a lot to celebrate that day, since Eleanor’s barn mate Tonya Johnston placed second. Tonya was first going into the work off with a score of 84.66, but Eleanor’s test put her over the top for the win.

“I've been working on being competitive in the equitation ring all year, although I have always tried to have good equitation as a rider,” Eleanor explained. In fact, it was just the latest of a string of wins for this pair. “It felt really good to win, but what makes me really happy is that Nigel and I have really started to click and work well together. This year I won the Pickwick Medal Final and the Adult Amateur Equitation Championship at Capital Challenge. My mom and I agree, however, that we are most proud of Nigel winning Best Medal Horse at the Nor Cal Medal Finals.” The Best Medal Horse award is sponsored by Sue Lightner of Lightacres in honor of Evan, a very successful equitation horse that many of Sue’s rider competed on.

Eleanor leveraged what she has learned through past experience to earn her place at the top of the final. “My strategy always includes trying to remember to breathe, trying to stay in the moment with my horse, and to have fun. Fun is why we do this.”

However, she had to work hard to make it happen. “I have to admit that my work off was the lesser of my three rounds. I was tired and I could feel Nigel was a little tired too. I have a tendency to get over excited in the work off and want to make the tricky turns and be creative with my track. This work off was difficult because there weren't many options for inside or creative turns, you really just had to do the reasonable inside turns and ride everything really correctly. So I didn't get much of a chance to show off, but it was a tough course and, while I will always say I could have done it better, I am plenty happy to say I rode the simple track well.”

 
 Keely Laughlin is no stranger to the winner's circle. Photo: Deb Dawson
Keely Laughlin is no stranger to the winner's circle. Photo: Deb Dawson

The Nor Cal 3’ Junior/Amateur Medal Final is always the most hotly contested medal of the show, and with 42 entries, this year was no different. Keely Laughlin (Mario and Nina Alario, trainers) soared to the top of the standings after the first round with a score of 85.33. Although five other riders scored higher in the second round, her two-round average kept her in first overall going into the work off. “I was definitely looking for the best track to show my abilities in the work off course, but there weren’t really any options so we all did pretty much the same thing,” she recalled. “I was nervous while I watched the other riders go, but I just tried to look smooth and calm for my ride.”

Keely accomplished her goal, riding her test with precision and executing a prompt and quiet halt after the last fence before returning to the line-up. In fact, it was in keeping with her theme for the whole final as she handled each course with ease. “Over the two rounds, I just focused on being smooth and clean. I really wanted to get the right strides in the bending lines, because on the first day there was one where a lot of people got a different number of strides. I got the same as what the ghost rider did, so I felt good about that. I tried to show confidence, looking for my next jump and sticking to my plan.” Ava Ewing, who placed fourth in the first round and seventh in the second, went into the work off in third place. After riding a beautifully smooth test, she landed the reserve champion ribbon.

The courses included two option jumps, which were skinny verticals placed next to standard verticals. “I think the option jumps were really fun,” Keely remarked. “Also the option jumps made me think of what the smarter choices for my horse would be. There were also places on the course where we could take an inside or outside track. I chose to keep calm and choose the best approach for my horse, which wasn’t always the inside turn.”

Keely is particularly proud of her homebred horse, GHF Hyde Park (Gentry Hill Farm, owner), which she has helped train since the beginning. “He just turned seven, and this is his first medal final win. I’m really happy with him,” she commented.

Isabel Cox earns her first medal final win in the Nor Cal Pony Medal Final. Photo: Deb Dawson
Isabel Cox earns her first medal final win in the Nor Cal Pony Medal Final. Photo: Deb Dawson

After placing third in the first round of the Nor Cal Pony Medal Final, Isabel Coxe (Jill Hamilton, trainer) came back to take their place at the top of the standings after the second round with an average score of 80.33. She was determined to hold onto her lead through the work off, which was conducted on the flat. Also in the work off with her were Skyler Allen (Sami Milo, trainer), Isabel’s barn mate Madeline Park, and Caroline Burke (Nicole Bloom, trainer).

After demonstrating her beautiful position and smooth transitions, Isabelle was crowned champion, followed by Skyler, who moved up from seventh in the first round. “This was my first medal final win, so I was really excited,” Isabelle said. “Like a lot of pony riders, it was also my first time doing a work off, so it was really helpful that it was on the flat to ease us into it. I always think about three things when I’m in the ring: being straight, forward, and patient because sometimes I get anxious.”

Isabel felt well prepared for the final, thanks to some hard work at home. “At my barn we have people who go to the Maclay National Championship and things like that, so we all do the same things they do to prepare. Also, my trainer diagrams the course on a white board and we go through it, talking about what to do in each spot. It really helps me to memorize the course.”

For more information about Nor Cal Medal Finals, including complete results, visit the LEG website.

Horse showing will wrap up with the LA Season Finale (Nov 13-16) at Los Angeles Equestrian Center, featuring the LAHJA Medal Finals, LEGIS League Finals, and more.




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