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Hay is for Horses: Eliza Hay Crowned Nationís Top Collegiate Rider

          Release: 05/06/2015
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CHARLESTON, S.C. – College of Charleston equestrian placed fifth in the nation on their sport’s biggest stage, the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA) Nationals. It’s a tremendous feat and a tough accolade to overshadow, but senior Eliza Hay may have done just that: Hay won the IHSA’s highest honor, the Cacchione Cup, signifying her as the best collegiate rider in America.

“We have always aspired to win the Cacchione Cup,” said head coach Bob Story. “Eliza went in there and rode the hair off of everything she drew. For Eliza to win this, and win it in the way that she did, is incredible. She is the best intercollegiate rider in the country, and she is from the College of Charleston. Her name is on that trophy forever. She is on there with Olympic riders and some of the best riders to ever live. That’s how big of a deal this is.”  

Hay is the first rider from The College to reach this pinnacle achievement, which requires a grueling process over the course of a year to even qualify to compete for. The Cacchione Cup field is made up of one rider from each of the IHSA’s Regions (usually close to 40 riders) who accrued the most points in the Open – or most elite – Division over the course of the regular season.

Hay, who has been riding since the age of four, was representing IHSA Zone 5 Region 3 for the third time in competition for the Cup, and the prior experience definitely served her well in her senior swan song.

“It definitely helped to have done it once, and even twice before,” said Hay. “The first year, it is really scary. Now with it being my third time, it wasn’t nearly as nerve-racking. I was able to stay much more composed throughout the competition. That allowed me to actually use my brain, and think about what I was doing, instead of feeling like I was unable to breathe.”

A major variable in the sport of collegiate riding is the drawing of horses, a process which randomly assigns riders to horses. Many times, the riders are matched with an unfamiliar horse and forced to find comfort – while also making the horse comfortable – on the fly.

The riding is done over the course of three phases, with each rider being issued a score and the field shrinking after every phase. The first phase is over fences, or involves jumping, and sends the top 24 riders on to the next phase. Hay was positioned in fourth place after the first phase, and well within reach of the sport’s most coveted prize.

“In the first phase, I drew a fantastic horse: Chop Chop,” said Hay. “I had ridden him previously, so that really helped my first round. Having already ridden the horse, I could fine tune things.”

The second phase is a flat phase, with the riders being judged – scrutinized even – on varying criteria such as control of the horse. It’s up to the judges how many riders are worthy of advancing to the final phase, and this year, Hay, still in fourth, was one of 10 riders invited to the final circuit.

“In the flat, I did not draw the easiest horse in the world,” said Hay. “But, I made it work, and the judges apparently still liked me, so I remained in fourth place.”

The final phase is once again a jumping phase, but the course is much more challenging and tests the riders to the highest degree.

“I drew James, who is actually the horse who won the Cacchione Cup last year,” said Hay. “That was exciting, but I watched him earlier and he did not look like the easiest horse to ride. I was a little worried, but since I was in fourth, I felt like I was in a good spot. You almost don’t want to be in first before the final round, because it’s very difficult to keep that. It’s better to be second, third, or fourth, I think, so that worked in my favor as well.

“After I rode, I wasn’t sure if I had done enough to overtake first place. I was just hoping to remain in the top five, but mostly I was just relieved to be done and watch the remaining rides.”

After the judges’ marks are tallied, the riders are announced in descending order, saving the champion for last. When it came down to the final two, and Boston University’s Carly Corbacho was announced as the runner-up and Reserve National Champion, the emotion began to set in for Hay and her supporters.  

“I was in shock,” said Hay. “I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling. It was really surprising. When it gets down to the top two, you’re thinking the next name called is going to be you. It was unreal, and it means a lot.

“My last four years here at The College could not have been better. It’s a unique experience, because riding is usually an independent thing, but we do it as a team. Even though the Cacchione Cup is an individual competition, it means a lot to bring it to The College, and I know it means a lot to Coach Story too. It’s a huge honor I’ve been working really hard for my entire life, so it’s great to have that pay off.”

Hay was a major contributor to the CofC squad finishing fifth nationally and solidifying back-to-back top-five finishes at Nationals, but knows she could not have done it without her teammates. Representing The College in the team competition were Emily Rees, Jenna Terribile, Kristina Athey, Jackie Lundsted, Hannah Showell, and Victoria Bauer. Every rider in the team portion of the competition finished in the top-10 in her respective class, propelling the Cougars to their fifth-place overall finish.

Bauer was instrumental to the Cougars’ success by earning maximum points with a first-place finish in the Team Intermediate Fences, securing herself a National Champion honor for the second consecutive year. Bauer was also the Reserve National Champion in the Individual Novice Flat.

Hay finished in the top five in both of her team events as well, earning a Reserve National Champion honor in the team Open Fences and placing fifth in the Team Open Flat. Hay earned another Reserve National Championship in the Individual Open Flat.                       

Last season, the Cougars finished second nationally and earned the program’s third Reserve National Championship.

Hay’s passion for riding was sparked at an early age. When she was just four, she attended a fair and was drawn to pony rides above all other attractions.

“I rode once and apparently I was hooked,” said Hay. “It’s before I can remember, but my mom tells a story of me getting back in line over and over for the entire day. From there I started with lessons, and I was a lot better at that than I was ballet. My first riding teacher told my mom I was a natural, and then my mom got really into it and has helped me so much. She has been the main driving factor in my riding career.”

Hay, who does not attribute her affinity to horses to any potential irony related to her surname, will continue her passion for horses beyond her time at The College. She accepted a full time job as a barn manager in Charleston, and relishes the opportunity to call her passion “work”.

“Hay is for horses, I’ve heard it a million times,” she kidded. “I was offered a job to be a barn manager and trainer here in Charleston. It is a really beautiful property with a lake, two barns, a beautiful riding ring, and a second ring in the works. It’s going to be a great place to work every day. I’ll be doing everything I love: riding, teaching, taking care of the horses, managing the barn, going to shows… I’m really looking forward to it all.”