Intercollegiate Champion Dances to Her Own Beat

The 2015 USEF/IHSA Cacchione Cup winner Eliza Hay shares her favorite hobby: contra dancing.
Cacchione Cup winner Eliza Hay and Cazenovia College’s Chop Chop | © Al Cook Photography

If you think about the focus and precision required of the Spanish Riding School’s dancing horses, it might suggest why the winner of the 2015 U.S. Equestrian Federation/Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association Cacchione Cup, Eliza Hay, is so attracted to contra dancing in her own—albeit increasingly sparse—spare time.

Contra, a style of folk dancing, involves parallel lines of couples following a caller’s instructions while dancing opposite—“contra” to—their partners. “Dancing is a nice break,” says the 22-year-old national champion. “I’ve done contra and swing dancing and salsa. Contra is the most fun.” But she admits that “with my life, it’s horses, horses, horses. If you ride seriously there’s not much time for anything else.” 

That dedication gave Eliza her third and final shot at the intercollegiate riding title last May, just before graduating with a degree in business from the College of Charleston in South Carolina. It’s a goal she and COC Cougars’ Coach Bob Story had been working toward for years.

“We always talked about winning the Cacchione Cup,” said Bob. “I watched Eliza grow up riding at local shows. What stood out was her focus, adaptability and patience. When she joined my team, I told her she could win the Cacchione Cup and I would try to give her that opportunity. 

“The first year that she qualified, she was really sick,” he said. “I drew for her, walked the course and called the hotel when she was eight riders out. She came over, mounted and put in a very defensive over-fences ride which placed her eighth overall. Then she went in for the flat phase and was so weak she just couldn’t pull it off. Her second shot at it was unremarkable. This year, she knew what she had to do to win and did just that.”

“So much has to come together, including luck,” said Eliza’s mom, Kim Hay, who was at the last IHSA Nationals in Springfield, Massachusetts, to support her daughter. “She got some great horse draws.”

And knew what to do with them. Eliza tapped into her years of experience gained catch-riding, first in high school on coach Alicia Story’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association team, then while home-schooling in her junior and senior high-school years to ride and travel as a working student for Aaron Vale, winner of more than 170 Grand Prix titles and $3 million in prize money, and American Invitational winner and U.S. Nations Cup rider Schuyler Riley.

“Aaron saw I was good at riding the ‘quick’ ones,” Eliza said. She was also good at reading the new ones. When her Cacchione Cup draws included Cazenovia College’s “ride straight and forward” 15.2-hand bay warmblood gelding, Chop Chop, she knew what she had to work with. “He won at IEA Nationals the year before so I’d heard about him and that he had a great reputation.” 

Kim was at the in-gate, taping the Cacchione Cup’s top 10 finalists when she felt herself beginning to tremble: “By the time they were announcing fourth place and Eliza was still there, my hand was shaking so hard the footage is unusable. Then they announced reserve, and you realize your kid has won and it’s unbelievable. Bob was the first to cry. I was second.”

“My life has changed. It’s opened more doors in the horse world,” Eliza says of her win. “My mom and dad [Lewis Hay] have been incredibly supportive since I started. I’m grateful to Bob and Alicia Story, who showed nothing but confidence in me. I got to practice riding a million different horses and even if I didn’t do well, there was always next time.

“I also have to thank J.R. Marshall, who worked with a lot of Aaron’s horses and knew how serious I was about riding. When he helped me get that working-student job that’s when the ‘big stuff’ started happening.”

She hasn’t missed a beat since.

After earning the Cacchione Cup and her diploma last spring, Eliza started as barn mananger and trainer for hunters, jumpers and ponies at River’s Edge Farm and Boarding ( at Iron Horse Farm on John’s Island in South Carolina.

This article originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.

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