The competition was close going into day two of the ASPCA Maclay Final at the CP National Horse Show in Lexington, Kentucky. Saturday’s Round 1 saw 176 junior riders demonstrate their equitation abilities over a tricky course that posed questions at every turn.

Of the original 176, 30 riders were called back on day two, Sunday, November 6. In order of preference, those 30 riders performed a rigorous flat test for judges Diane Carney and Rachel Kennedy. All 30 riders were asked to return for a second round over fences.

Following those 30 rounds, one competitor came out on top of the 2016 ASPCA Maclay National Championship: equitation veteran Hunter Holloway.

Holloway, an 18-year-old rider out of Topeka, Kansas, added the Maclay Championship to a long list of top finishes in the equitation ring throughout her junior years. Just one week prior, Holloway took the win in the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Final aboard her mount Any Given Sunday.

It was a surprise, then, when Holloway entered the ring for round one of the Maclay Final aboard a different horse, a grey gelding named C’est La Vie.

“It was a bit of a last minute switcheroo,” Holloway explained. “Sunny wasn’t feeling his best this weekend; he was running a bit of a temperature. So we gave him this time to rest a bit and he’ll be back in no time. Vie is actually the horse I rode at USET Finals, but we had only gotten him the week before that, so I didn’t know him all that well. But he is a super horse and really wants to do the best he can. He is very eager to please.”

Carney, who was unaware Holloway was paired with a new mount for this championship, expressed her admiration for the rider’s ability to acclimate to such a change.

“Being in that situation—only knowing a horse for a month—and coming in to have the rounds we saw from Hunter this weekend really puts an exclamation point on the picture,” Carney said.

But Holloway is quick to say that these wins did not happen by accident; that the support she has had from her family and trainers throughout her career has been instrumental to her success.

“I credit a lot of my success to my mom,” she explained, referring to Brandie Holloway, who doubles as her trainer. “She’s always been there throughout my many years of riding. And I’ve been working with Don [Stewart] now for around seven years, so he has played a very large part in my career as well.”

Maintaining her humble nature even after such a prestigious win, Holloway’s family, trainer, and judges were quick to compliment the work ethic, determination, and raw talent of this young athlete.

“She’s always wanting to know what else she can do,” said Holloway’s trainer, Don Stewart. “It doesn’t matter how good the round is, she’ll always say, ‘What else can I do?’

“Once, at Devon, she put in a beautiful trip with a junior hunter. And as she walked out of the ring, I said, ‘Look, that’ll be a score of 93 or 94 because you can’t ride any better and the horse can’t go any better, so don’t start asking ‘What else? What else?’ And then she scored a 94 and I said, ‘Told ya!’”

“She just always wants to know more. It’s almost taxing from a trainers standpoint,” he added with a chuckle. “As far as winning the class today, she has been knocking at the door for some time. She was second in this class two years ago. Hunter loves a challenge. So coming in on a horse that was a bit of an unknown with limited experience in these kinds of classes, it just drove her even further. She has a lot of confidence anyway, so with her we just try to keep her making definite decisions and definite plans.”

The second round course, which gave riders little room for error, was nearly a year in the making, explained judge Diane Carney.

“Today’s course had much more in it about style and the riders having to have what I call good horse IQ,” Carney explained. “They had to think like a horse. They had to have a feel and a connection for what was going on underneath them. They had to have a plan.

“The entire course was a test, but it was designed with three real tests in mind—those being the counter-canter, the trot jump, and then the counter-canter once again from fence 11 to 12. If a rider could land on the counter-canter and hold the lead and keep the impulsion to that oxer, that was a very big test and a very sophisticated way to answer it. The course allowed for places to be brilliant, and Hunter certainly rose to the occasion.”

As Holloway humbly accepted these praises, her family watched on with pride. While her mother was unable to be there for this win, her step-father, Larry Ellerman, and grandmother, Rozanne Holloway, were supportive enough for all three.

“She won this with her never-ending want to do the best that she can… in everything,” Ellerman explained. “She has this ‘never quit’ mentality on life. Even when she didn’t have the best run through medal finals, she came back the next day and said, ‘I’m gonna kill this.’ And she absolutely ate up the Washington Final. And then she came here and didn’t have the best first day in the jumper ring with her other horses. But she came back and said, ‘I’ve gotta put the screws to it and stay solid and relaxed and just keep going.’ When it’s on the line, there are very few people who can hold it together like that child does.”

Ellerman also admitted that it can be difficult to come so close to a win and end up second best. But Holloway, he explained, never saw it that way.

“There are all these articles out there that have the bridesmaid tagline. But for her to have even earned that title says something—that shows her color of consistency,” he said. “To have been right there so many times and to have stayed so consistent… I mean how many kids at her age can say they’ve done that time after time after time? We don’t always have the polished, finished product horses. But between Hunter and Brandie, they’ve done all the work on their own. It’s all those two. I just drive the truck!”

Rest assured that Hunter has successfully and thoroughly put the runner-up label to rest. Instead, she’s made a name for herself as the rider who won’t ever quit trying to improve her riding. And there could be no better way to end her junior career than by proving just this.