Tessa Downey was about to walk the course for the second round of the North American JR Equitation Championship. Then a friend, last year’s winner Carlee McCutcheon, pointed out that Downey had boot polish all over the back of her breeches. Downey sprinted to find her trainer, Peter Pletcher, who quickly bought her a new pair.
That mishap didn’t stop the 18-year-old from winning the 3’6” championship, held Sunday, October 1, 2023, at the Capital Challenge Horse Show at The Show Place Arena. The show, held at Prince George’s Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, is celebrating its 30th year. The championship was presented by the Palm Beach International Academy.
“It was a disaster,” Downey said of the boot-polish debacle. But she put on the breeches and discovered that “coincidentally they are the brand Carlee was wearing when she won so now they are lucky.” She said she might wear them for the rest of the indoor equitation finals.
How the Day Unfolded
A total of 150 riders competed over the first round of 11 numbered fences (13 jumping efforts). Then the top 20 riders returned to ride over the second round of nine fences (11 jumping efforts). Downey and Maddie Tosh were called back after the initial two rounds for a final work-off. The test included a transition to walk, a counter-canter, a trot jump and a hand gallop to the final jump. Over the three courses, Downey scored a total of 551. Tosh scored 548.
The six judges sat in pairs and included Mark Jungherr and Michael Tokaruk, Mark Bone and Chris Wynne, and Jeff Ayers and Virginia Edwards.
Downey: “Confidence in Myself”
Downey, of Houston, Texas, rode Efendi, owned by Ken and Emily Smith’s Ashland Farms. “One word I’d use to describe the horse I’m riding is a magician. He is amazing,” she said. “He is able to cover up minute mistakes and make everything blend together.”
One thing that helped is that each of the three courses started on the right lead, which Downey said was their strength. She was grateful for that because “pace is something I’ve always struggled with,” she said. In the first round, she realized that she needed more pace when she had rubs in the two-stride line, an oxer at the end of the arena and a skinny fence. But she learned her lesson, and in a bounce to the last fence, “I was able to pick my horse off his front end as well as use my leg to really take his hind legs.”
When the judges called her back to test, she said she was a little nervous. “I have had a history of not being great with testing,” she said. She watched the round of Tosh, who rode first. “I know it’s great. I know the amazing team behind her. But I think it was most important that I had confidence in myself, my abilities, my horse and his abilities, and my team, and I thought that really showed.”
Downey on Preparation
To prepare for the finals, Downey said she did lots of exercises based on the previous year’s championship tracks. For the first round, she went 70th. But she watched only 10 to 15 quality rounds. “I had a thumb scrolling on TikTok or whatever I’m doing, and sort of picking and choosing who I watch depending on the horses that went before and what their stride was like compared to mine and just really nailing down the technique that was needed.”
In addition to Pletcher and the Smith, Downey said her trainers include Ashland Farm’s Chrissie Kear, Daisy Farish, Brady Hayes and Nora Gray. It also incuded Jef Lauwers from Pletcher’s stable.
Tosh: “Everything or Nothing”
Downey was in first place after Round 1, with Tosh in second. “Going into the second round, I kind of had nothing to lose at that point,” Tosh, 17, of Milton, Georgia, said. “It was everything or nothing. So I kind of just really went for it. And [Daktari 38] was great. It was amazing all the way through.”
After the second round, Tosh said she found it nerve-wracking to wait for Downey’s score. “I knew she had had an amazing second round but was just waiting to see if we were going to test again,” Tosh explained. She’s ridden Daktari, owned by Dr. Betsee Parker, for three years.
Tosh won the second round with Downey maintaining the overall two-round lead going into the final test.
A Plan to Suit the Horse
Once the judges announced they would test the two riders, Tosh said she and her father, legendary hunter rider Hunt Tosh, developed a plan “that would suit my horse the best. I was able to execute a couple inside turns that I thought were pretty challenging and, you know, he was amazing.”
At shows, Tosh also works with Missy Clark and her North Run stables. “We practice hand galloping a lot. So I wanted to be sure I was able to show off to the last jump and execute the counter canter well. But everything else I felt like it was—I was pretty prepared for it.”
Hunt Tosh is known for being superstitious, and Maddie said it carried through to the championship. “Before the second round, I went to redo my hair, and my hair tie snapped in half,” she said laughing. “My dad tied it on my belt in the second round because he felt like I needed it. So superstitions definitely run in our family, but I guess it works.”
Results and More Coverage
For complete results of the championship, click here.
Thanks to Cosequin® for our coverage of the 2023 Capital Challenge Horse Show, including rider interviews, competition reports, photos, videos and more. Check back for reports on the WCHR Professional Challenge and the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge, Wednesday, October 4, and the WCHR Pro Finals, Friday, October 6.