Mikayla Herbert made one of the best decisions of her equestrian career when she agreed to look at a gentle giant no one else was interested in . . . and today she rode off with the Lady Rider of the Year crown.
It was a dramatic Ultra-Mox-sponsored class that saw just eight of the 29 starters come back for the second round – four on zero faults, one on a single time fault and three on four faults.
Amanda Wilson (Hikurangi) on her coloured horse, Showtym Cassanova, set the scene in the second round with a brilliant clear in 59.13 seconds to finish with four faults from the two rounds. Nakeysha Lammers (Taranaki) and her home-bred Resolution matched their efforts but stopped the clock at 56.79s.
Young gun Olivia Dalton (Karaka) and her Aussie import, Cil Dara Bonaparte, added another four to their tally to sit on eight faults in 60.59s. Tegan Fitzsimon (West Melton) and Double J Monarch had just a single time fault from their opener and added nothing to finish on one in 61.39s.
Then came the clears – first up was Jasmine Sketchley (Whangārei) and her stunning chestnut stallion, Bravado Ego Z, who finished with four faults from the two rounds in 62.85 seconds.
Sarah West (Matamata) and her grey, Oaks Centurian, also added four in 60.48s.
Emily Hayward (Te Awamutu) and Belischi HM had a few problems and appeared to the judges to tip her hat to retire.
However, when the announcement was made, she approached the judges' box to unsuccessfully contest the call.
That left it all to Herbert and 9-year-old Grand Caballo – go clear and take the class.
She had a few hairy moments but they managed to ride through and notch a double clear of the class to take the win, with Fitzsimon second, Lammers third and Hayward fourth.
A very emotional Herbert struggled to put into words just how special the win was.
"I am overwhelmed and so grateful," said the 22-year-old veterinarian nurse. "I am just so happy. I was last to go and all the riders in the field are phenomenal. I knew I just had to go clear."
Coming into the class Herbert had just wanted to go clear. "I had no expectation of winning. I am just so happy it turned out my way."
She has had the 18.1 hands-high horse for 30 months.
"He hadn't done anything when I got him. He was bred by Kylie and Ike Unsworth who said he was a great horse and I should give him a go. Not many people wanted him because of his size."
Herbert had a "play" and did a little jumping and says she quickly fell in love with him.
The two enjoyed success in the 7-year-old and young rider series and now can lay claim to the Merrylegs Cup as winners of the Lady Rider of the Year.
"He's just been getting better and better the last couple of shows and today he jumped better than ever."
She had plenty of praise for course designer Werner Deeg, of Germany, too.
"I couldn't have asked for a better course – there were plenty of questions but it was flowy, which worked well for me."
Huck, as the horse is known at home, wants to jump everything in his way and she's hopeful that will flow through to World Cup rounds in the future.
"He has the best personality – he is huge but is a mini me in a big body. He's scared of his own shadow and doesn't have a mean bone in his body." Unsurprisingly, she has no intention of selling him.
All the lady rider entrants wore silver armbands to honour the late Ray Burmester, a long time sponsor of the class. The winner today also won a two-tone, nine-carat snaffle bracelet.
In the GJ Gardner Pro-Amateur Rider of the Year class Vicki Prendergast (Matamata) and the 6-year-old Selena C were the only combination to go double clear, despite a gentle nudge on the second of the double.
Seven of the 26 starters came back for the jump-off where four faults seemed the order of the day, with the rest of the placegetters all finishing on four.
Ultra-Mox Lady Rider of the Year: Mikayla Herbert (Rotorua) Grand Cabello 1, Tegan Fitzsimon (West Melton) Double J Monarch 2, Nakeysha Lammers (Taranaki) Resolution 3, Amanda Wilson (Hikurangi) Showtym Cassanova 4, Sarah West (Matamata) Oaks Centurian 5, Jasmine Sketchley (Whangārei) Bravado Ego Z 6.
GJ Gardner Pro-Amateur Rider of the Year (part of the Dunstan Horsefeeds and Equifibre Pro Amateur Rider Series): Vicki Prendergast (Matamata) Selena C 1, Grace Percy (Wairarapa) Kiwi Spirit 2, Siobhan Ryan (Wellington) Natalie 3, Sally Clark (Dannevirke) Victoria's Secret 4, Lucia Voss (Kawerau) Ngahiwi Para 5, Kylee McCambridge (Cambridge) Chicago 6.