July 2018 - Fast Friends

Hayden, left, and Natalie often swap 1st & 2nd place finishes. Photo: Sofia Jain

Young Grand Prix jumpers Natalie Dean & Hayden Zadel embody high hopes for Zone 10 at the North American Youth Championships.

by Kim F. Miller

Eighteen year old Hayden Zadel emerged from her debut in the HITS Coachella Million class this year with a big smile on her face and only a few time faults on the score board. Running toward her, arms outstretched for the first congratulatory hug, was Natalie Dean. More recently, Natalie was right there when Hayden wrestled with the difficult decision to leave one good trainer for another. After talking it through with her mom, Hayden turned next to her 19 year old best friend.

The young Grand Prix jumper riders met two years ago at a USHJA Emerging Athletes Program session and connected immediately. Many friendships have arisen among the crop of talented North American Youth Championships prospects, but these two are especially close. They’re a grade apart academically and, until recently, did not ride at the same barn, but they have more important things in common. “We both decided at EAP that we would aim for the Junior or Young Rider team the following year and we have been kind of moving up the ranks together,” says Natalie. “We didn’t really know a lot of people doing it, so it was nice that we had each other.”

On Aug. 1-5, Natalie and Hayden will make their second trip to the North American Youth Championship (formerly called the NAJYRC), well prepared to help Zone 10 vie for a podium spot. Like all their teammates, they are talented, determined and accomplished riders, and their close friendship gives them an extra edge.

“We are both very focused and driven,” says Hayden. While contemporaries have dabbled or dived into the party scene, Hayden and Natalie “have never really been into that.” They are keenly aware of the investments they and their families have made in the sport and are extra motivated to be on their best game at all times. Both aspire to careers in the sport and understand the rigors of the road ahead.

Their friendship also enables them to balance their serious sides with a “goofy side,” Hayden notes. “When Guy (Thomas) saw some of the stuff we do together, he said, ‘Oh, I see why you are such good friends.’”

Natalie & Chacco’s Goldy.

Natalie

Natalie is one year ahead of Hayden school-wise. She just finished her first year at UC Santa Barbara, gaining national Grand Prix mileage riding only during weekend competitions. After riding a few horses every day of the week throughout high school, “It was an adjustment,” Natalie acknowledges. Gym visits and having her horses kept in form by the Willow Tree Farm team made it all work.

She started riding at 11 with Jen Kallam, who encouraged her to add Portola Valley Pony Club participation to her equestrian upbringing. In addition to a fun-oriented entry to the hunter/jumper world, Jen’s program laid a solid horsemanship foundation, in part because it did not include grooming service. “I learned a lot about horse care doing it myself.” As her jumper ring ambitions grew, Natalie moved to the Thomas family’s Willow Tree Farm three years ago and began a steady ascent to the Grand Prix ring.

“I’ve learned so much from all the of Thomases,” Natalie says of Lu and Butch Thomas and their son Guy, a 2004 Olympian for New Zealand and a big ring veteran. He and Natalie contested the same classes a few times already and Guy expects there will be a lot more of that to come.

“She has a great feel on the horse and horses really like her,” Guy notes “And there’s a very serious drive about her…sometimes a little too much.” Reminding his student that perfection isn’t possible every round is advice Natalie needs to hear now and then. “What we learn from each round and taking it forward is what’s important,” her coach emphasizes.

Natalie came to Willow Tree with hunter, equitation and a little jumping experience up to the 1M ranks.  With her first “real” jumper, Mary Poppins, she went from the 1.10M Modified division to winning the High Junior Jumper standings last year. “I owe a lot of my success to Poppy,” she notes. She’s been well mounted throughout her jumper journey with a break-out partnership emerging this year with the 13 year old Chacco’s Goldy.

Natalie tried the Chacco Blue mare during last summer’s North American Youth Championships. The Zone 10 team, including Natalie, had a rough go of the rigorous, fully 1.5M tracks there. Butch Thomas recognized that a more seasoned campaigner might be a better segue for Natalie and they were able to try Goldy at Ilan Ferder’s stable during an off-day.

“She’s incredible,” says Natalie. And simple. “She comes out the same every day, she’s consistent and straight forward.” Goldy’s confidence and capability at the national Grand Prix height enables Natalie to build those qualities herself and their first year together has been happy and successful.

Hayden Zadel and Triskel. Photo: Natalie Dean

Hayden

After working her way up to and into the Grand Prix ranks with Liz Hutchison at Avalon Hunter Jumpers, Hayden just recently decided to join Natalie at Willow Tree. It’s never an easy decision leaving a good trainer, especially when things are going well. It was time for something different and Willow Tree’s Grand Prix circuit itinerary fits her future goals, she explains.

Hayden just graduated high school and, after a full summer of big league jumping with her new stablemate, will attend University of San Diego. She plans to follow Natalie’s footsteps by continuing to train and compete at high levels. Unlike her, Hayden plans to have her horses at school thanks to its proximity to top trainers and shows.

When it comes to horsemanship education, Hayden has already had an introduction to the sport’s highs and lows. After a super 2017, “I didn’t think I could have a better year after moving up so quickly and everything went so well.” She concluded 2016 by doing well in her 1.4M debut, at the Las Vegas National in November, and sailed through the following year with many great rounds and ribbons. The return to Las Vegas was not so glorious: a fall in the U25 Championship and a refusal in the 1.4M Classic, she recounts with a wise laugh.

A successful HITS Coachella run early this year saw her back on an upward track, highlighted by the HITS Million. Along with the biggest fences and most technical track of her career, Hayden faced an unprecedented bout of nerves. “I could barely talk to people all day. I felt nauseous. I couldn’t eat or sit down and I was a wreck in the warm-up ring.” Nervousness is normal for her and she likes it. “I need the high pressure, the hard course and need to be scared a little to ride my best.” But the episode at Coachella was different and worrying until she stepped to the back gate. “All of the sudden I got this sense of calm,” she reflects. “I knew I could do it and experienced a big adrenaline rush.” Aboard her main horse of the past two years, Triskel De Kerliven, she did exactly that, jumping clear with only time faults.

Triskel, aka “Beau,” also came from Ilan Ferder’s stable and is her “first real jumper.” They tackled their first 1.4M classes together just a few months into their partnership and continue to cross new thresholds by giving each other confidence. Scope and try are Beau’s strengths. In their two years together, the five or six times he’s refused a fence “happened when I doubted myself,” Hayden explains.  “He’d get confused when that happened and I learned that my confidence gives him confidence.”

Goldy, left, and Beau are buddies, too!

Hayden credits her first show-oriented trainer Liz Hutchison with building that confidence. “She helped me through some tough years with other horses, and through my high school years,” says Hayden of a close and influential five-year relationship with her former coach. It started inauspiciously with Liz insisting on lots of flatwork and her student saying, “Wait…I just want to jump,” Hayden recalls. But the strong foundation that resulted enabled her to handle the higher levels quickly once she had the right horse to do it with. She thanks Liz for constantly challenging her in confidence-building ways. “She believed in me even before I believed in myself and, whenever there was a new challenge, she didn’t give me an option or any time to stress out about it.”

Liz describes Hayden as “level headed” from the get-go. She’s focused, goal oriented and without limits ability-wise. On and off the ground, “She is so lovely with her horses,” the trainer adds. “She’s the first to suggest they get time off and, if you ever can’t find her, look in Beau’s stall. She’ll be there hanging out with him as he’s lying down.”

Extra Prep

Natalie and Hayden are building up their knowledge banks with extracurricular experiences. A student of the sport, Natalie watched live streams of the George Morris Horsemastership Sessions for several years before earning an invite to participate in Florida early this year. She was one of a few West Coasters there and especially enjoyed going through it with Hannah Loly, a Zone 10 teammate last summer and this summer.

Being coached by and spending time with McLain Ward, Kent Farrington, Anne Kursinski, and stable manager Colleen Reed, exceeded her high expectations. Touring Kent’s barn and asking questions of his grooms was especially inspirational for the former Pony Clubber. “It was spotless,” she shares. “That didn’t surprise me, but still it amazed me that such a big barn was so well kept. The management and the small things he shared with us were all part of making sure that everything plays out the way you want it to.” She related to McLain being “a stickler on the little things, because if you let the little things slide, the big things do, too. I’m a little bit wired like that,” Natalie acknowledges. “My trainers think I may have a little bit of obsessive compulsive disorder!” Some of this manifests as being an “encyclopedia” when it comes to sport rules and class specifications, a handy trait in a friend and teammate, Hayden notes.

Natalie was honored to get help from riders of the Horsemastership sessions’ caliber and acknowledged a bit of pressure. “It was exciting to have them telling us we are the next up and coming riders.”

Hayden had a more recent new experience when she represented the U.S. on the U.S.’s Junior Riders Nations Cup team at Thunderbird in Langely, B.C. “Our chef, DiAnn Langer, had high expectations. She had picked the team, rather than filling it off the rankings, and I didn’t want to let her down.” Neither she nor her teammates let anybody down as the Junior and the Childrens teams took gold.

Although the Zone 10 NAYC teams had not been officially named at presstime, Natalie and Hayden felt great about their likely squads heading to Old Salem Farm in New York in early August. “I’m feeling a lot more prepared and excited and I think both teams are strong this year,” says Hayden. As with many things, Natalie is in total agreement with her best friend and teammate.


Hayden, center, with another NAYC buddy, Hannah Loly, left, and Natalie.

The New Selection Process

Zone 10 used a new process for selecting the NAYC team members this year: a combination of riders off a national money-won ranking and riders who earned their spot through a scaled-down version of the Zone’s traditional trials system.  Opinions vary on the new method, (California Riding Magazine, July 2017), but Natalie feels the outcome will be good. “It felt significantly more difficult to qualify because we were competing for two spots, not four, but I think it’s really clear who was ready to do the Championships and who wasn’t. Jumping up to the Championship specs was a good learning experience and everyone improved through the trials even if they didn’t make it.”

Natalie and Goldy dominated the Trials, while Hayden and Triskel qualified through the money-won rankings, even though she started the year not sure if she’d go out for the Young Riders team. With the trials as the only option to qualify last year, Hayden was not able to contest as many Grand Prix classes as she had wanted to. She started 2018 with the priority of qualifying for the HITS Million and accomplished that by doing well in Friday and Sunday classes during her five weeks on the HITS Coachella circuit. In the process, she’d racked up enough money to secure a top-two spot via the money-won standings for team qualification.

The final teams were to be announced on June 20.