After Kate Conover’s brother Jay passed away earlier this year, she changed her focus to riding for her family. That newfound goal helped make her win at the $20,000 WCHR Pro Finals at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, Friday, October 6, 2023, that much more special.
“My mom really loves it so I know she’s watching and I can’t call her yet because I’ll cry, but I know I made her really proud and I know my brother is watching. … He died January 13, and from there I just thought about riding for my mom and for myself and I made this a focus and I wanted it. I wanted it for not just for me but for my family, and I couldn’t be more ecstatic that it actually happened.”
Conover won the finals, sponsored by the Rein Family, with a score of 355.33 over four rounds. Brady Mitchell placed second with 352.99. Shelley Campf was third with 341.15, and Geoffrey Hesslink was fourth with 259.32.
How the Competition Works
The evening started off with six riders who competed in the WCHR Pro Finals Playoff Round. The riders were at the top of the 2023 Final WCHR Professional National Standings. The Playoffs consisted of a 3’5” handy course on horses selected by the riders.
Conover finished the initial Playoff round in first riding Small Friendship with 93. Hesslink placed second riding Spoken with 88.33. Brady Mitchell finished third riding Holden Out with 86.66, and Shelley Campf finished fourth riding Understudy with 81.66. Rounding out the riders was last year’s WCHR Pro Finals champion Nick Haness in fifth riding Queen Celeste with 71.66. The pair dropped off the correct lead behind while making an inside turn. Sixth was Leslie Steel riding No Reservations with 66.33.
After the Playoff round, the top four riders started the Final Four on a clean slate. They showed four horses provided by the show over four different courses of eight to 10 fences with fence heights set at 3’5”. In the first round, the riders competed in the reverse order of the final standings of the Playoff round. The order of the horses was randomly drawn before the class. For the next three rounds, the horses stayed in the same order and the riders rotated.
For the Final Four, the riders warmed up the first horse that they rode. After that, they could not warm up their next three horses.
In the first round, Mitchell and Hesslink’s horses both refused jumps. The competition officials had Mitchell ride the course again on a new horse, Lifestyle. Hesslink rode the course again on the same horse, Actionable, who bucked in the corners and had a rail down at the third fence. After that, Hesslink retired and didn’t receive a score for that round.
Conover: Helping Each Other Out
Conover explained that part of her ease riding four borrowed horses in the final rounds was that she never rode the same horse or pony when she was younger. That helped her learn to make relationships with the horses very fast. “Every horse you don’t ride the same. They have a different way of going,” she said. “Some are strong, some take a lot of leg, some have a lot of blood, some go left, some go right, and it’s just in that moment of thinking, ‘OK. How can we solve this puzzle and become a team fast?’”
Another factor that helped was the teamwork among the riders in the Final Four. “We all worked together as a team to help each other. We got to warm up our first horse, of course. And everybody who brought the horse gave us great information about it,” Conover said. “You jumped a few jumps and from there we kind of leaned on each other to say, ‘Hey, this one goes left,” or ‘Hey, you should take your spurs off,’ or ‘Watch the change’ or ‘Room at the verticals.’ It was nice that we are all competing, but we all look to help each other a lot.”
Mitchell: “This Wonderful Feeling”
Mitchell said he selected Holden Out for the Playoff round even though the horse hadn’t yet shown in the indoor ring. “It actually worked out really nicely for him because he’s such a brave, sweet horse so this was a fresh environment for him,” he said. “And he hadn’t had a chance to show in here yet, which I feel like brought out the best in his jump. He was really on his game. … The good news is that he will go over anything you aim him at so even though he hadn’t had a chance to go in there I felt really confident.”
After getting a chance to watch the borrowed horses go earlier in the morning, Mitchell was keen to ride the paint horse, Totoka Fuji. Fuji, owned by Ingenium Farm, was the highest-scoring horse with 356.82, for which he received the Far West Trophy. “From the first second this morning, I have to say I wanted to make the second round so I could ride the paint horse. I knew I was going to like the way that horse felt, and I’m really glad that I had a chance to ride all of the horses but [he] just gave this wonderful feeling.”
In addition, the other borrowed horses were Topline Imports LLC’s Lifestyle 342.66. Emily Wolkind’s A Little Less Conversation and LG Sporthorse’s Actionable were also ridden.
Campf: Not Able to Practice
Shelley Campf traveled to the Capital Challenge with her clients from Oregon. A horse she’d planned to bring ended up not coming at the last minute. So she wasn’t going to compete in the Pro Finals. But then one of her clients let her ride her horse, Understudy. In addition to not having ridden at the Capital Challenge before the Pro Finals, Campf hadn’t competed very much this year because she had ripped a muscle in her thigh.
The horse she rode in the first round is 8 years old and a little green. “It’s hard to duplicate that atmosphere and the Capital Challenge atmosphere of warming up under the lights and then going in the dark [in the tunnel to the arena] and then coming into the ring and then the big stage with the TV and everything. He was a little impressed. There was a little bit of horseback riding going on, but he did it for me.”
Formulating Riding Strategies
Despite Hesslink’s difficult first round, he said it was great that Conover had won. “It wasn’t my night tonight, and that’s OK,” he said. “I find it an honor to be in this class, and I think Kate is one of the most beautiful and most amazing riders. So I could not be happier for her, and I think she’s the most deserving so I think it’s great.”
After Hesslink had challenges with his first-round horse Actionable, the other riders formulated their strategies to ride him. “I rode him after Kate and I said to her, ‘I’m going to be fine, right?’ I didn’t want to get bucked off. And she said I was going to be fine and to ride him like he has a snaffle in his mouth and not a pelham. I walked up to him and loosened the curb chain so it was dead loose, and I got on and asked the groom his name and started talking to him. And he was standing there like this and I was standing there talking to him and talking his name and petting him and scratching his withers and his neck went down, down, down. When I walked in, I honestly loved riding him. He had a beautiful jump.”
Conover checked with the horse’s rider, asking her how he liked to be ridden. “She said she tries to be really soft, keep the head up a little, don’t force it up, and she gave me some nice information. And I just tried to take my time going in the ring, get my canter a little earlier. I thought after the third jump is when I finally felt like, OK, now he took a breath.”
For a complete look at the results, click here.
Thanks to Cosequin® for our coverage of the 2023 Capital Challenge Horse Show, including rider interviews, competition reports, photos, videos and more.