Taylor St Jacques won’t have another opportunity to contest the USEF Junior Hunter National Championship (July 31 – August 1, 2017), but most would agree she doesn’t need one. In her first and last appearance in the final, the Heritage Farm rider, 17, and her nine-year-old Westphalian gelding Di Samorano took home top honors at Hits Saugerties in Saugerties, New York, winning the handy class and classic along with the High Junior 3’6″ division and overall USEF Junior Hunter National Grand Championship – East. Not bad for a horse who was originally purchased as a tentative equitation prospect.

“We bought ‘Samo’ about a year ago from [coach Andre Dignelli], initially to have a secured equitation horse because at the time last year, I didn’t have a definite ride for [equitation] finals,” Taylor explains. “Andre paired me up with him and it was a great match.”

Though St Jaques took over the ride on Heritage Farm’s Charisma last fall as her primary equitation horse, she qualified Samo to compete in the High Performance hunter division at the Washington International and the 2016 National Horse Show in Kentucky, where the two of them excelled. “He was a rockstar. He’d never been indoors and he was eight at the time. In Washington, he scored an 85 with me,” Taylor says, adding that during the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, she swapped Samo back into the equitation division, competing successfully across the board in a variety of classes, including the USET.

Post-circuit, St Jacques decided that 2017 was her year to qualify for Junior Hunter Finals, but was unsure which of her horses would be best suited to the task. Samo—who has also taken turns with St Jacques in jumper classes and USHJA International Hunter Derbies—wasn’t the obvious choice, but his exceptional mindset and maturity in the ring made him hard to deny.

Taylor St Jacques and Di Samorano, 3’6″ Overall Grand Champion

“Samo is really simple and straightforward. He’s not spooky, he doesn’t have any quirks, he lands both leads. There’s not much that you have to think about when you go in besides yourself,” Taylor says.

“I asked Andre if I could try him, and he was like, ‘Yeah, sure. Why not?’ So we slapped some aluminum shoes on him and went out and qualified for Junior Hunter Finals, and here we are.”

Taylor’s good friend and Saugerties roommate Alexandra Pielet won Overall Reserve Champion with Giovanni in the Large Junior Hunters, while Isha Swani & Park Place and Hallie Grimes & Custom Made earned Overall Grand Champion and Overall Reserve Champion honors, respectively, in the Small Junior Hunter division. In the end, Samo’s versatility and level-headedness came into play, especially given the nature of the courses, which including a much-talked-about straw bale ring that earned refusals from more than one seasoned show veteran.

“I think the courses were more like a derby course, almost. They weren’t just your typical outside-diagonal, outside-diagonal,” Taylor says. “I really enjoyed that, especially with the ring being so big, we were able to pick up a nice gallop and it wasn’t a boring course. It kept you interested; it was exciting to ride and exciting to watch.

“I think it gives a better presence when you can actually go forward [in the hunters]. It looks a lot brighter,” Taylor adds.

When it came to her instructions from coach Andre Dignelli, Taylor says the day was all about setting a good pace and keeping an eye on her leads.

“[Andre told me] that if you can land the lead, that’s great, but just to watch the changes because in a big ring, the horses can tend to get lost and that’s when missed changes can come into play,” Taylor says. “He just told me to go in there and ride my ride and keep a good pace the whole way around.”

St Jacques will be a freshman this fall at Auburn University in Alabama, where she’ll compete on the NCAA Equestrian team. Until then, though, she’ll be concentrating on preparing for equitation finals, and Samo—who will compete in USET classes at Kentucky this month and then the High Performance hunter division later in the year—will be doing his part to help Taylor compete in top form.

“We knew that he could obviously do the hunters—he’s a very quiet and easy-going horse—but it was never really our intention to make him a hunter. He’s a very, very good all-around horse,” Taylor says. “Anything you ask him to do, he does to the absolute best of his ability.”

Photo credit: ESI Photography/US Equestrian.

You can watch on-demand coverage of the USEF Junior Hunter National Championship – East here or keep up with the Championship on Facebook. Get behind-the-scenes coverage of this and other equestrian events on the USEF Network’s FacebookTwitter, and Instagram accounts.