This year marks the 85th anniversary of the NHS Good Hands final soon to be held at the Mid-America Mane Event Horse Show this fall. The riders participating in this Saddleseat Equitation final are a rare group of America’s most talented equestrians to say the least. Yet, most people do not even understand the term “equitation final.” Equi-what? Equitation is a sport, as much as is football, baseball, soccer, or whatever other cliche sport comes to mind. Equitation is not as common as these sports, but it is just as difficult, and prestigious as any of them. To all of us horse lovers, equitation final is a very well known phrase. An equitation final means that you have made the cut, it means you have shown precision, persistence, and passion.
The NHS Good Hands final is one of three major finals held each year. Each of the finals require rail-work and a predetermined pattern. The NHS Good Hands final is unique due to the fact that the pattern has never changed. A figure-eight has always been the expected pattern to be performed. Consequently, each rider will spend their winter drilling through that same figure-eight. Come show season they can practically perform the pattern with their eyes closed. So how have these riders found a way to stand out? Nadine Van Zommerin, a seasoned and quite successful equitation rider, and now a representation of the American Saddlebred Horse as a World Cup competitor, offers her best advice: “It is really tricky to stand out in this situation, but I’ve learned that precision is the key. It’s almost guaranteed that everyone in a really prestigious final like this will have nearly perfect patterns, it’s just a matter of whose is more perfect, I guess.” Jessica Wuesthofin, the current holder of the Triple Crown, and last years NHS Good Hands winner writes, “A pattern can never be perfect, there’s always something that needs to improve. Like Mama Lil [Lillian Shively – Wuesthofin’s trainer] always told me, ‘dot the i’s and cross the t’s.’ Each time I would do the Good Hands pattern I would think of each transition and how I can improve from last time. In the Good Hands pattern, I once saw a girl nod to the call judge after she backed in the pattern. I think having a perfect pattern and then nodding to the judge is very important, it shows a sign of respect and can make you stand out in a wild class of 20 or more riders.” Each year the horse industry gawks at the seemingly impossible levels of perfection these riders attain.
Catching the eye of the judging panel is only one of the countless tasks for the riders. There is no such thing as a push-button horse, a perfect rider, or perfect scenarios. Every rider has their own battles to overcome. Courtney McGinnis, another one of the industry’s top riders, last year’s Reserve Champion at the NHS Good Hands final, and an international and world champion throughout her career, shares, “The Good Hands event is the first of the three equation national finals, so I believe the major challenge for me is to get my nerves under control and just try to focus on doing my best, and not worrying about the competition.” Similarly, Wuesthofin quotes, “I think my biggest challenge was myself. I would be very nervous at times and got into my own head, so it was difficult for me to relax and believe in myself at the beginning of the season. I learned if you really want it that badly, you have to believe in yourself.” While equitation most certainly requires strength and poise, the key is keeping yourself mentally prepared.
The gist of all of this is, equitation is hard; it takes dedication and a lot of time, but these riders have come out of the equitation finals with more than just ribbons and titles. Riders will learn some of life’s hardest lessons. Most of the competitors will give up classroom time to be able to participate. However, learning does not cease outside of school. The NHS Good Hands final and others have left riders with lessons that could never be taught in school. Wuesthofin was proud to say, “Equitation taught me discipline and self confidence. Without equitation I don’t think I would believe in myself as much as I do now. It showed me I’m capable of doing anything I put my mind to. I’m in college in New York now at the Culinary Institute of America. Sometimes I don’t even realize it, but I apply what I learned in equitation to my everyday classroom and kitchen experiences. I believe equitation set me up for the most difficult times in my life. It taught me how to overcome situations and if something doesn’t go right, just get back up, brush it off, and keep moving through life.” McGinnis values the education she receives in school but also stands by equitation saying, “The lessons that I have learned from equation are very different than the academic lessons I have learned. I contribute self-control, discipline, and patience as attributes I have learned from my experience in equitation.” Van Zommerin is just as enthusiastic about the lessons taught through equitation. She says, “I could go on all day about how valuable being an equestrian is to attaining life-long skills! But with the equitation finals specifically, they taught me how to focus and flourish under huge pressure. They also taught me how to problem solve quickly and maintain my composure, no matter what happened. They taught me sportsmanship and I enjoyed competing with some really wonderful people.”
Along with real-world education, life-long friendships are often created during the equitation finals. Finalists are all competing against each other, but despite that competition, they share common goals and interests that bring them together outside of the arena. Van Zommerin agrees commenting, “I’ve met so many marvelous people who share the same passion as me for not only horses, but the stunning sport of equitation as well. Competing with them has made my respect grow for them, I admire anyone who takes on the tough sport of equitation. Now that I’ve aged out, I’m really excited to watch equitation from the rail this year.” Not only has Wuesthofin also made lasting friendships, but she has supported them regardless the competitive threat they hold. Wuesthofin shares, “I’ve met some amazing people in the horse industry and friends that will last forever. I met my best friend who was also my previous competitor, Juliette Dell. She was always there for me each step of the way. I feel extremely blessed to have her in my life and I will be there through each step during her journey as well.” McGinnis has found that she is most thankful for the family-like atmosphere provided at Delovley Farm. In McGinnis’ words, “It is really fun to be apart of a large barn like Delovely. I truly consider the girls there like sisters to me, as we have shared so many experiences together, which include long days training at the barn and cheering for each other at shows. I feel like the horse world is a real community, and I always look forward to seeing friends from other barns at the shows.”
Jessica Wuesthofin, Nadine Van Zommerin, and Courtney McGinnis are among some of the top riders that have competed in the NHS Good Hands final. They have proven their skill and passed on their best advice. The NHS Good Hands panel looks forward to seeing finalists like these girls this October at the Mid-America Mane Event Horse Show.