The ASPCA Maclay Championship – a dream for most junior riders to compete in, but a reality for very few. For 16-year-old Sam Walker, pressure and nerves weren’t evident from the outside as he rode to victory at the National Horse Show, winning the coveted title of ASPCA Maclay Champion – one of only three males to win the title in the past 17 years.
Since 1933, the Maclay Finals have been the pinnacle of the indoor equitation circuit; it is the culmination of blood, sweat, and tears as riders dedicate countless hours of practice to perfect minute details of their equitation skills. Not only is the qualification for the Final difficult, but to produce a flawless course on the day weeds out the best of the best. Many winning riders go on to have successful professional riding careers and represent their countries on the world’s biggest stages. And for Sam, that goal is no different.
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Based in Ontario, Can., Sam has been training under the masterful tutelage of Missy Clark and John Brennan at North Run in Vermont for the past four years. But Sam’s connection to Missy goes further than that – in fact, Missy trained Sam’s mother, professional rider Dee Walker. As Missy’s working student, Sam has been focusing on his equitation as well as horsemanship skills to develop into the confident and tactful rider he is today.
“Sam’s talent, work ethic, determination, and ‘smarts’ are some of the noteworthy traits which contribute to his success. Sam earned every moment of this win and we’re all so incredibly proud of him,” Missy explains. “Additionally, the fact that Sam won this championship on a horse we bought as a seven-year-old has made this moment even more special for [my husband] John and me."
Photo by Phelps Media Group/National Horse Show.
Besting the field of 175 riders aboard the 11-year-old Waldo, the duo laid down a flawless course despite the difficult questions asked by course designer, Bobby Murphy. At first look, the track seemed straightforward and simple, but following rider errors, spooks, and mishaps the course proved to be difficult for even the best of junior riders.
Judged by Walter T. Kees and Chance Arakelian, the top 25 riders returned for the flat phase and second round of jumping. Sam rode with ice in his veins and was called back for the work-off in the lead. Watching the five riders before him make mistakes, Sam knew he didn’t have to do anything special to stand out; all he needed to do was produce a clean, simple, error-free test to win – and that’s exactly what he did.
“I had everything to lose in the test. For me, playing it safe was the best thing I could do to hope to come out on top,” Sam says. “I thought all three courses were very fair for the group of riders who were in the class.”
What makes Sam stand out from past Maclay Finals winners isn’t just that he’s one of the three recent male winners (Jacob Pope won in 2012 and Brian Walker won in 2001) or that he’s a working student. It's his tenacity and incredibly hard work ethic which places him above the naturally gifted rider. His mount Waldo isn’t the easiest of horses to simply walk into the ring and lay down a perfect trip. With Missy and John, Sam has taken the time to develop a unique bond with the grey Warmblood gelding.
“Waldo actually came from Brian Walker, the previous  Maclay champion, who is from Canada as well. He’s a really quirky horse. There’s only three or four people in the barn who ride him because sometimes he can get a little confused. I think he likes to have his rider. When John rides him, he knows it’s John and when I get on him and go to the ring, he knows it’s me,” Sam says. “He always wants to do well. He’s a real winner in my mind and he always tries his hardest for me. I’m really grateful for Missy and John’s training with him because he’s been a little bit of a project I will call it.”
With his drive for uncompromised excellence and passion for horses, there’s no doubt that Sam will make a name for himself in the professional ranks in the years to come. But for now, we congratulate the young rider and Waldo for etching their names in junior equitation history.
Watch Sam's winning test:
Feature photo by Phelps Media Group/National Horse Show.