Steven Hay, shown with his endurance horse "Sammy" at the Biltmore FEI**, qualified to represent the US at the FEI Junior and Young Rider World Endurance Championship in Abu Dhabi in December. Sammy was not allowed to travel because an influenze vaccine given in 2007 did not meet UAE requirements.
When Steven Hay was just six years old, he knew that he was in love with horses. He rode horses at his grandmother’s farm, and spent several years taking advantage of all the opportunities available to a young rider, such as showing and 4H. But he was hungry for more. “When I was younger I had showed, and I did 4H and it wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t feel like going in the show ring and riding around in a circle. It didn’t test us. It wasn’t enough.”
Hay, a 21 year-old junior at Penn State University, sought the kinds of equestrian competitions that would challenge him and his horses both mentally and physically. He got involved in competitive trail riding, “then I got into endurance and distance riding and that was it.”
The Port Matilda resident loves the challenge of conditioning a horse for competition, and preparing himself and the horse mentally for the races. He was named to the first ever United States team competing at the FEI Junior and Young Rider World Endurance Championship, which was held in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in December. Although he has been competing in endurance races since 2005, Hay has achieved enviable success. In 2010 he placed eighth out of 79 competitors in the Biltmore FEI 50, and fifth in the Canter Over the Mountain Endurance Competition. That same year he was on the gold medal team at the North American Champions, where he was also the Individual Bronze Medalist.
In 2011 he placed second in the Young Rider competition and fifth overall at the Biltmore 75 mile FEI2*. And he was once again on the gold medal team at the 2011 North American Champions, and won the Individual Bronze at the North American Junior Young Riders Championships FEI2*.
Chef d’Equipe Emmett Ross praised the team and the opportunity presented by this championship. “These Young Riders will hopefully become candidates for our senior teams in World Endurance Championships. The U.S. development of Young Riders has been a huge focus and effort by several people including Jan Stevens and Kathy Brunjes, their efforts have produced these five strong riders as well as many others.”
Sammy Stopped at the Airport
All of the mental preparation and training Hay has invested in the sport, along with the success he’s achieved, paid off in ways that he could not have predicted. Preparing for traveling to the World Endurance Championship, Hay had to rearrange some of his finals at Penn State. The owner of the horse he was scheduled to ride in Abu Dhabi, Natalie Muzzio, had taken her Arab gelding Khalil Asam (Sammy) to Atlanta for quarantine prior to shipping the horse to the UAE. “I had finished my last final, and got the phone call,” he says. It was a phone call that would reshuffle everything he had planned for his final year of eligibility as a junior rider.
“There was a last-minute problem and my horse didn’t actually go. There was a huge mess-up with paperwork,” he explains, “and it just wasn’t noticed until the last moment, when the horses were leaving for the airport in Atlanta.” Hay is still astonished at the shattering news. “One of his initial influenza vaccines, which he had three years ago, wasn’t given according to the UAE’s requirements,” he says. ”It was a couple of days off.”
Hay’s first trip out of the United States, in which he had invested so many dreams of competition and camaraderie with his teammates, was profoundly altered. He wasn’t even sure he should go. “It was pretty devastating. But I did go to the race, and I crewed for the team. We had all worked so hard to get to that point,” he says. With maturity beyond his years, and more grace than most people could summon in his situation, Hay decided that he could still contribute to the team that meant so much to him.
“It was really upsetting,” he explains, but “I thought I have to go this event, because I would be so torn up to watch the results at home. It was quite the honor to be there and to think ‘I was supposed to be here.’”
From Competitor to Cheerleader
To suggest that he was disappointed would be a gross understatement. “I was—we were all really upset—because we had worked so hard to get to that level, to prepare. And it was of course extremely upsetting.” As he thought about his predicament, Hay considered the vagaries of working with horses, and the fact that all the planning and working and strategizing in the world could not erase the fact that humans and horses are not machines. Nor are the masses of data and paperwork that accompany us as we compete, work and live static and infallible. “But I think when you’ve been working with horses all these years, you become accustomed to that mentality that it’s not always going to work out. You sort of go in to it as a big risk, and coming out of it, it didn’t work out.”
For the record, the United States team finished fourth, despite the loss of Hay, and the disqualification of another of the team’s horses after the first on-course vet check. The three remaining riders were undeterred by the obstacles, and they persisted.
“Life goes on,” Hay says, “It was kind of hard, to be honest to watch everyone else ride. But it was definitely a great experience and I felt that I did a lot, supporting the team.” Despite everything that happened to this 21 year-old, though, he has not let the disappointment poison his outlook. “I still have, even though it was a huge letdown, I’m still optimistic about everything.”
But he has also learned some valuable lessons about how to prepare for the next international competition. “I might pay a little closer attention to make sure everything is taken care of. I’ve had a lot of time to sort of get over this, but a lot of people are upset about this.”
Don’t Look Back
As he contemplates his graduation in 2013, Hay continues to work with his competition horses and train new ones. “I’m always down at the barn every day. Right now I have two competition horses, and one horse that’s retired,” he says, “and now I have a young horse that I just got. Between all of those, I’m usually always doing something at the barn.” He loves the community of endurance riders, and the way they all work together. Part of the discipline’s mystique is that there really are not coaches, in the traditional sense.
“I do it on my own. I have a lot of friends that are very good international competitors who are always available as a resource. Endurance is kind of a tight knit community and we all sort of help each other out. Because it’s a sport you really can’t do by yourself,” he explains.
Philosophically, Hay has moved on from the profound disappointment of the World Endurance Championship. He was amazed by what he saw in Abu Dhabi, too. “I’d never been out of the country before, and that was very different. It was shocking to see how Western that part of the world is. It’s a huge business commerce country.” The travel and what he learned about himself and a part of the world many people will never see have reinforced his desire to continue competing.