Sabine Close described her night in the R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship, sponsored by Hayutin, as the “best possible outcome.” It’s to be expected that the best possible outcome is a win, but Close made it even better, overcoming the odds after suffering a bit of an injury, and rising to the prestigious title aboard just an 8-year-old horse.

Over a month before the class, which took place under the lights during Desert Circuit 9, presented by Kubota, Close suffered a broken collar bone from a fall, and had to go through a bit of physical therapy and about five weeks off of riding. She made the return to the show ring only two weeks before Saturday night’s class, and her confidence was back in full swing.

Close was one of 45 young athletes to head into round one over a technical track designed by Skip Bailey. The course included elements like trot poles, halt, counter canter, and a network of fences set 3’6” in height. Close went eighth in the order of go and scored a total of 179 in round one from the judges, Connie Tram Hunt and Don Stewart, putting her just one point shy of the lead.

Sabine Close and Off To Neverland. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“I think actually the trot poles are what I was most conscious of,” Close said of what was perhaps the trickiest part of the course for her. “I wanted to halt and use that to take a breath and give my horse some time to breathe as well. I wanted to show off there because the counter canter was coming afterwards and I thought it would be a good way to lead into that.”

Round two featured a new course, the addition of Dayton Gorsline and Lisa Carlsen to the judging panels, and an added element of time allowed, encouraging riders to attack the course as a jumper challenge. This round was new to Close, who competed last year in the class, but it didn’t discourage her from giving her all.

“I did this class last year, but I did not make the second round,” Close, 18, explained. “I had a feel for how to do the course walks from the Talent Search Finals, but being completely by yourself in the warmup is a challenge but it’s really unique to this class which I think makes it more interesting.”

The format of the class makes it one of a kind; riders have to conduct themselves through the entire championship without help from a trainer of any sort. They must walk the course, formulate a plan, warm up, and execute the plan by themselves. Close admits that the year prior, she made a mistake in her warm-up that she knew exactly how to fix for this year’s edition.

“Last year I had a couple rails, which I attributed to not jumping big enough in my warmup, so that was my main goal to improve from there,” she explained of how she adapted from her experience last year. “I tried to jump a little bigger so he wasn’t as surprised when he went in there. But I think both of us have grown so much from the past year. It was our first 3’6” final last year, so it was a really good start to the season, and moving onto this year it was a perfect end to [Desert Circuit] too.”

Sabine Close and Off To Neverland in their winning presentation. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Training under Olivia Dawson-Grove, Close has a toolkit from the years she has under her belt learning the ropes of equitation. “I have three main steps I go through in my head before I go in which is pace, straightness and impulsion,” she shared. “I try to think of those things the most when I go in and it seems to pay off the most when I’m focusing on that. Establishing a pace in the beginning and having short reins and keep going on that pace is the most important for me. That way you can adjust.”

Close’s mount, Off To Neverland, was awarded Best Equitation Horse as well. He’s only 8 years old, but their partnership has proven that age is just a number.

“He’s perfect,” she shared. Close does quite a bit of catch riding, so having a horse to call her own is extra special. “We got him when he was 7 so he was a bit green and hadn’t done the equitation before. We had to work a lot on the flat and from there that just developed well into jumping. He’s the best in-barn personality and he always steps up to the plate in the ring he always tries his hardest. I love him. He’s my favorite thing in the entire world.”

Close has big plans to graduate and move on to ride in college, having already committed to the University of California, Davis. She enjoys participating in school science fairs and looks forward to having more opportunities to explore academically while riding on the school’s equestrian team.

“I have always loved the academic side as well so it was something I personally really wanted to pursue,” she shared of wanting to get a college degree. “It just opens so many doors and windows of opportunity for anything you want to do in life.”

Close isn’t done with her equitation career, however, as she plans to keep working towards medal finals in the fall on the East Coast. She’s attended several big medal finals before, but aiming for higher finishes to cap off her junior equitation career. Ultimately, Close believes in the importance of equitation as a foundational skill that sets riders up for whatever they choose to do next.

“I think it’s great because it incorporates everything from all three divisions,” she said of the equitation. “You want to have the turnout of the hunter ring, the courses are more jumper style with the track, and you have to get so good at doing it. It’s maybe at a little slower pace than the jumpers, but it sets you up to pick up the pace and go faster over bigger jumps. I think it’s just a good foundation for that. To teach you how to ride properly and efficiently.”

Close also knows the value of a strong team, which she has behind her, whether they can help her train or just have to sit back and watch on nights like these.

“They’re amazing; they’re all so helpful,” she said of the team behind her. “From the barn presence and organization, to how they warm you up and keep you updated on the schedule. Out of the ring, on bad and good days it makes a huge difference to have a team supporting you no matter what.”

Lily Grosz captured second place and Camilla Jerng was third, with her horse, Fallon V’Gas also winning Best Turned Out Horse.

Injury or no injury, Close proved her ultimate toughness in Saturday evening’s R.W. Mutch Equitation Championship, making it a night she’ll remember for a very long time.

Conor Swail and Count Me In Clock Another Win in $117,000 Kubota CSI3* Grand Prix

Conor Swail (IRL) only actually owns a home in Florida, but he seems more at home in Thermal than anywhere. The irishman took another major victory Saturday in the $117,000 Kubota CSI3* Grand Prix aboard Count Me In, one of his fabulous string of extremely consistent top contenders.

In their third year together, Swail can recount some of the best moments of his career with 17-year-old “Crosby,” but he knows he’s still got an incredible partner on his hands with quite a bit to go.

“He has been an incredible horse for me,” Swail said of the Hanoverian gelding (Count Grannus x Sherlock Holmes). “He’s the best horse I’ve ridden. Two years ago he took me to places [I’ve never gone]; we did Aachen, the World Cup Finals, if I’d had one less [rail] down I would’ve been on the podium. The Aga Khan – that was the best, jumping day of my career, so the horse has just been amazing for me.”

Conor Swail (IRL) and Count Me In. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

And he’s still amazing. In Saturday’s class, the pair was one of seven to jump clear over Joey Rycroft’s course, and they had the pole position of jumping off last. Ali Ramsay (CAN) took over the lead just prior with Conrado 12, owned by Ramsay Equestrian, Inc., but Swail had just enough gas in the tank to edge her out of first place. With Swail atop the podium, Ramsay took second, and Peter Petschenig (AUT) took third aboard Ennebel Van Het Posthuijs.

Swail cranks out wins everywhere he goes, but he’s insanely in tune with his horses, noticing when they’re not themselves, even if the results are still stellar.

“Last year he had a little bit of a dip in form there,” Swail said of Crosby’s performance. “I think he was struggling a little bit mentally. Now the last few starts with him, he won the four-star in Vegas, had one down in the five-star here in December, he won the four-star here and now he’s won three-star. I think that’s his last four grand prixs, so three out of four wins is not bad.”

Swail sees it as “not bad” while many others look at his resume and are speechless. But for Swail, it’s less about the results than it is about keeping his horses comfortable and happy.

Conor Swail (IRL) topped the podium in the $117,000 Kubota CSI3* Grand Prix. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“I am trying to mind him a little bit now; he’s 17 and I don’t know how much I want to push him to do all the five-star shows,” Swail said of letting Crosby dictate the level he’s comfortable jumping. “I think if I can keep him comfortable here and winning these three- and four-stars, and maybe the odd bigger one here and there, that’s maybe better for him.

“Some days he jumps better than other days, but the scores are still the same. It’s still a win. He’s just that good. I’m just trying to keep him as happy as I can.”

As happy as the horse is, Swail admits he’s a little like a troll in the stable. “He’s very grumpy,” Swail said of Crosby’s behavior once tucked in. “Actually one of my girls calls him ‘Grumpy.’ If you go in his stall he is ears back, and he’s very grumpy, but when you take him out of the stall, he’s totally fine. He’s nice, kind and quiet.”

Swail has spent the past few seasons traversing between Thermal and Wellington, but this year he put all his eggs in one basket, and that basket stayed in California.

“I decided I’d come here and dedicate all my time this winter to Thermal,” he explained. “I thought it was a better decision for my horses as well and the footing is excellent here. The grass ring is amazing and we switch a little bit between here and the sand ring and both are excellent, world-class [arenas]. Everything is working very well. The horses are jumping great. It’s not just one horse; all my horses are in good form and it’s really paying off for me so it seems like a good decision.”

Swail, himself, has donned a lucky shamrock belt this week while jumping, but he admits he doesn’t have true superstitions that he’s aware of. But that doesn’t mean his team is without superstitions.

“JohnJoe, my [groom], we just changed our stirrups this week you know and I won the first day and he won’t change them,” Swail joked. “Whichever warm-up jump we use, if we go clear he wants the same jump. Actually he doesn’t like to change anything. If we’re clear wherever he was standing he’ll go stand in the same place. I don’t think I am superstitious but I suppose we all are a bit.”

Up next for Swail, he returns to CSI4* action, choosing two of his trio of winners that are still in the desert to join him. But before that, one more FEI class remains for Desert Circuit 9, the $32,000 Frontier Farm CSI3* 1.45m Classic.

Mark Kinsella and Quality H Get Their Win in $40,000 Prestige Italia Grand Prix

Mark Kinsella had been waiting for a big win, and he got just that on Saturday of Desert Circuit 9, presented by Kubota. Aboard Quality H, owned by Ben Asselin, he blazed to the win in the $40,000 Prestige Italia Grand Prix in style.

“I’m super happy and the horses been really gathering good form over the last couple of weeks,” Kinsella said of his win and his string. “I feel like I’ve been knocking on the door. I missed the first five weeks of circuit here so I had a bit of a slow start but I’ve been building him up. Luckily enough all the stars aligned today.”

Quality H is a horse Kinsella was paired with a couple years ago, and together they’ve jumped up to the CSI5* levels and even ridden for team Ireland in a Nations Cup. “He’s the best horse I’ve ever ridden,” Kinsella said of the 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding (FRH Quaid x Stakkato). “He’s really incredible talent wise, but he challenges me with my system, and my preparation for him because all the stars have to align for days like this to get our good result. Honestly when I feel that horse firing underneath me I feel like you know nothing is impossible.”

Mark Kinsella and Quality H. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

Over Peter Grant’s track, Kinsella joined eight other clear competitors and went fairly early over the short course, so he had to lay it down, with riders like Conor Swail coming behind him. He put in the time he needed that no one else could catch. Swail took second aboard Vital Chance de la Roque, while Shawn Casady captured third with Castelissimo, owned by Tiffany Sullivan. Elisa Broz captured the U25 victory aboard Vivoucenta PS.

A professional himself, Kinsella values getting to work alongside other professionals and taking advantage of the vast knowledge network at the Horse Park during the winter months.

“I’m working right now with Susan Ighani and she’s been instrumental in prep work with this horse,” he explained. “She’s doing a lot of dressage work and I feel like it really helps his body and helps him get soft and supple and therefore that helps me, so big thanks to her. I obviously have to thank the rest of my team, Dennis Djikerman, Michael Williamson, [Quality’s] groom, Iris – everyone plays such a massive part. Our team is getting bigger and stronger and I do the steering on days like this but without everybody else it wouldn’t be possible.”

Sharing the stage with other professionals was an honor for Kinsella, as it always is, because it opens the door for him to get to learn even more from the fellow riders. “This morning myself and Conor Swail were the last two people to walk the course, which isn’t ideal, but given the circumstances, with a lot of clients showing, it’s nice to be able to rely on him, and just ask him some questions mid-course walk.

Mark Kinsella and Quality H in their winning presentation, pictured with Michael Williamson, Dennis Djikerman, Sophie Kinsella and Iris Struyf. Photo by High Desert Sport Photo

“Plus watching the likes of Kyle King and all these guys, everyone here rides at such a high level and the sport is so competitive. It’s great to be victorious, but it’s also so influential to me to be able to learn, even if I take a small piece of somebody else’s system that I can add to mine. I feel like gathering a toolbox and it should get bigger and bigger.”

Kinsella bases his operation in the desert for most of the year, and he’s grateful for every step with every horse and every client.

“Circuit has been really good; we got the addition of a couple new clients recently, which is great and our clients are killing it across all the rings,” he reflected. “Everyone is striving for success and trying to be competitive. Michael won his first FEI class this week and that was fantastic so we’re getting ready now to go enjoy the FEI Grand Prix with them and a couple clients there, too.”

With the new addition of a baby boy, Cooper, Kinsella and his wife, Sophie, are soaking up the moments and the sunshine. “We love spending our winters in the desert,” he continued. “I couldn’t think of a better place. They have a fantastic National schedule; it’s great money and equally really good FEI schedules. It’s a place where you can get to know horses and you can also be competitive in new divisions. There are so many options here. We extend a big thanks to everyone at the desert who helps to put on such a fantastic show. We really love being here and enjoying our winter.”