Last week at the National Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky, Jennifer Gates came to play. Not only did the 21-year-old amateur rider take home the $100,000 USEF U25 Show Jumping National Championship with Alex—a victory that came on the heels of the pair’s win in the U.S. Open $25,000 Hollow Creek Farm Under 25 Grand Prix at the Rolex Central Park Horse Show in September–she also finished fourth in a world-class field during Saturday’s $250,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Lexington with Pumped Up Kicks.

“We had a good time!” Gates says. “Obviously, you never know what’s going to happen, but I wasn’t planning to qualify for World Cup Finals this upcoming year in Paris. If I did, I’m not sure what decision would be made [at that time].”

Even without chasing points around the globe, Gates has plenty to occupy her. This fall, the senior at Stanford University is juggling a busy show schedule with a full course load and, if last week is any indication, is succeeding handily at both. We caught up with Gates to learn more about her talented U25 partner, Alex; finding balance; and the surprising fact that three of her top mounts have in common.

NF Style: Congratulations on last week! You’ve had so much success this fall in the Under 25 division—can you talk a little bit about your progression in these classes and what they’ve taught you?

Jennifer Gates: The division itself I think is a great stepping stone for riders my age, professional or not, to be able to compete in high-pressure situations without having some of the top riders in the world competing against us, like Laura [Kraut] or McLain [Ward] or Beezie [Madden]. So it gives us a great opportunity to get a taste of success while competing against our best peers in this age group. I think it’s an incredible experience, particularly in Kentucky, because it was under World Cup Finals format, so it put us under a little more pressure [with the idea of] hopefully preparing us for those championships later in life.

Alex seems like a super horse. What can you tell us about him? 

I got [Alex] from Audrey [Coulter] in July. I’ve been friends with Audrey for a while, and she was nice enough to suggest that maybe it would be a good pairing. Audrey has a great program and I think we’ve got a [good] program, too, so the transition was very smooth. He just kind of fit into our string really nicely.

He’s really sensitive [in the ring], so you don’t need to use a lot of hand. But he’s also very quick and comes off your leg very easily. He’s super easy to turn, and the distances usually show themselves, but if they don’t, he somehow figures out any place you put him, which is really nice. He’s super honest, so I think from the beginning, it was really easy because I knew he was a horse I could trust. I’d seen Audrey with him for a long time and she trusted him, so that gave me a lot of confidence.

I know you also jumped some big classes in Europe this summer with the other members of your string. How have those horses helped you gain confidence at this higher level?

My two best horses that are going right now are definitely Lufticus S (“Fluffy”) and Pumped Up Kicks (“Kicks). They’re both incredible, and they’re both by Levisto [Z], actually, the stallion that Judy-Ann Melchior used to ride. My Young Rider’s horse [Lord Levisto], who’s now retired, was also a Levisto, so three of my top horses have been Levisto.

[These two] are both super compact and adjustable, which I love. They’re experienced and great to ride in the ring, and the two of them flip-flop with each other jumping the bigger tracks. So that’s nice—one can have a week off while the other one kind of steps up. I definitely pick and choose which venues I take each [one] to, but it’s really nice to have the greys going.

That’s so funny that three of your top horses were by Levisto! Was that intentional?

I just ended up with all three just by coincidence. When I found out, it was kind of funny, but I wasn’t searching for Levisto [offspring], I was just looking for good horses to ride. But I certainly now have my eye out, and if I see a good Levisto [horse], I get super excited!

How similar are they to one another? 

They ride very similarly; they have nice, light mouths, and they’re light through the bodies. Their personalities are very different, though. Lufticus is very relaxed all the time. Kicks is awesome, but like his name, he can get a little pumped up! [But] they’re both really amateur-friendly.

I heard you say once that being a full-time student and traveling and riding at this high level has helped you be better in both areas. Can you talk about that? 

It’s just really great to have another world I can come back to [at school]. If I have a great week at the show, I can come back and share that with my friends, but they also don’t totally know all about it. And if I have a bad week, I just come home and put it aside and concentrate on the classes I’m taking and my life back here at school. I think it takes a little bit of pressure off the riding.

I also think I’m someone that likes to keep busy and have things to do. It keeps me happy and motivated, and I think being busy is awesome, especially when you enjoy what you’re doing.

How do you think horses have prepared you to be successful in other areas of your life? 

I think horses teach you to be really empathetic and calm. If you’re super nervous, it makes it hard to communicate well with them and be present in the moment. When you’re riding a course in the ring, you really can’t think about anything else besides the jumps in front of you, and how your horse is feeling. I think that translates well to life. If you get ahead of yourself and think too much about the future and worry a lot, oftentimes [that doesn’t help]. In school or in other pursuits, you really have to stay focused and in the moment. I think that’s something I try to take away from my riding when I come back here to [Stanford]. Easier said than done, sometimes, for sure [laughs]! But it translates.

Sorry for this question—as a senior, I’m sure you’ve been getting it a lot—but do you know what’s next for you in 2018?

Yes! After I complete my undergraduate degree at Stanford in Human Biology in June, I will spend a year fully focused on my riding, and then I’m pursuing medical school. We’ll see exactly how everything goes, but that’s the tentative plan. I’ll be in school this winter [during the Winter Equestrian Festival], but I’ll back and forth a bit and my horses will be based there. I’ll give them a bit of time off after [the Las Vegas National Horse Show] and then regroup this winter in Florida. It’s always great to be down there, and you can be selective about when you show, so it’s a really nice place to be.

-Photos by Ashley Neuhof, courtesy of Jennifer Gates.