By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
It’s been said luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. Jacob Pope has been very lucky.
Throughout his life, Jacob has been open to and ready for every opportunity that’s come his way. To outside observers, Jacob seemingly burst onto the scene to win the 2011 Emerging Athletes Program, 2012 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East and 2012 Maclay Finals. However, thanks to his incredible grassroots support system, Jacob was well prepared when opportunity knocked.
As Jacob has progressed in his equestrian endeavors, he’s never forgotten or lost touch with those who have been part of his journey. “I have always been so grateful for the strong and durable relationships in my life,” Jacob said. “I believe that’s what really defined my life growing up.”
Jacob was in heaven growing up on his family’s two-acre farm in Columbia, Maryland. “Horses were just always a part of my family and we all enjoy horses on different levels. Some of my favorite moments were trail riding with my mom, dad and brother,” Jacob said.
A lifelong equestrian himself, Jacob’s father, Andy, had an old mare at the farm on whom Jacob took some of his first pony rides. While this kept Jacob happy for a while, he soon started asking his parents if he could take riding lessons. At age 4, his wish was granted, and he’s never looked back.
When Jacob was in third grade, his parents made a decision that would alter his trajectory: They enrolled him in the McDonogh School, not too far from their home. “I started going there because of their riding program. As an example of how intertwined everything in my life is, my dad had worked at the barn at McDonogh when he was younger, so he knew a bit about the program when we decided I would go to school there,” Jacob said.
It was McDonogh Director of Riding Streett Moore who quickly recognized Jacob’s natural talent and helped further his passion for horses. “Streett started sending ponies that didn’t work in the McDonogh program home with me so I could have a pony or two I could practice on when I wasn’t riding at McDonogh,” Jacob said.
Each day before leaving for school, Jacob would tend to his horses and once the bus dropped him back off in the afternoon, he’d head straight to the barn to do the afternoon chores. “I was so lucky to have that little piece of land at home, where I was able to put the skills that I learned from the McDonogh riding program to work on my own,” Jacob said.
Streett not only gave Jacob ample opportunities to grow in the sport, he and everyone at McDonogh taught Jacob to take advantage of any opportunity that came his way. In 2011, Miranda Kolbe, who handled a lot of the riding outreach activities with students, suggested Jacob participate in the Emerging Athletes Program (EAP). The program was created in 2009 to provide young riders the chance to receive advanced training in both riding and horsemanship from some of the nation’s most knowledgeable equestrians.
Without doing much research about EAP, Jacob signed up to take a clinic with Melanie Smith Taylor. “I didn’t realize it had a second level and Nationals. I just wanted to take a clinic; then I made it to the second level and got to ride with Callan Solem, and ended up going to Nationals and riding with Peter Wylde,” Jacob said. “I really took advantage of the opportunity to ride with decorated athletes and ended up going all the way to Nationals.”
Jacob didn’t just go to Nationals, he won them. “I think treating EAP as a learning experience rather than a competition was a nice way to approach it. I learned so much from it and was able to meet so many people as a result,” Jacob said.
While at Nationals, Jacob met the late legendary trainer Judy Richter. “Judy was there watching and had been talking to my dad while I was riding. After I finished riding, I got to meet her. She told me that if I won Nationals, I could stay at her condo in Wellington to participate in the Invitational George Morris Clinic, which the winner of EAP got a ticket to,” Jacob said.
Having Judy recognize Jacob’s talent and potential was huge. Judy was no stranger to spotting future equitation superstars. Two and a half decades prior, she’d seen something special in powerhouse equitation trainer Andre Dignelli and took him under her wing.
“I know it’s so cliché to say, but EAP opened so many doors. I learned so much from the program, it got me involved in a more prominent circuit and introduced me to people like Judy and Andre,” Jacob said.
Seizing the Opportunity
With lodging secured at Judy’s condo, Jacob made the most of the Invitational clinic experience. This time around, Andre Dignelli took notice of his riding. “At the clinic, Andre ended up offering me a working student position with his Heritage Farm. I went to Wellington for my last Junior year in 2012 and then went to medal finals with him,” Jacob said.
Throughout his K-12 education, Jacob attended brick-and-mortar school. “What was really cool was that I didn’t have to transition from working with the McDonogh program to Heritage. I still rode at McDonogh and went to school there during the week, missing a few Fridays, and then went wherever Andre was on the weekends,” Jacob said. “The programs really complemented each other; they both teach correct riding and horsemanship, and it was great to have access to both simultaneously.”
Just as Judy offered up her condo for Jacob for the Invitational clinic, she once again offered housing for Jacob while he was a working student at Heritage in Katona, New York. “Judy’s farm was 15 minutes from Heritage. After long days at Heritage, taking lessons and learning the ins and outs of their business from Andre, I would come home and take awesome lessons with Judy,” Jacob said.
Judy taught riding at its core, with traditional instruction focused on riding correctly. Since she had taught Andre, their philosophies mirrored each other. “Like Andre, she was very detail oriented. She would tell me to ride the horse I had underneath me. Judy also reminded me that the modern-day glitz and glam associated with riding is just for show, but riding is, at its core, a sport,” Jacob said.
It’s this attention to detail and horsemanship-first mentality that really resonated with Jacob during his time with Andre. “He’s influential to anyone who rides with him. Andre’s top-to-bottom attention to detail is present in every aspect of the barn from the feeding regimen, care of horses and horse fitness to course design. We rarely saw something in the show ring that we hadn’t encountered at home,” Jacob said.
After working with and learning from Andre throughout his last Junior year, Jacob capped off his Junior career with two huge wins, winning the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East and Maclay Finals.
While winning two prestigious equitation finals is something Jacob will never forget, one of his most memorable moments came while working with Judy and her horse Blink. Together they looked at the summer schedule and Judy suggested they take Blink to Fairfield and do the bigger jumpers. Although Blink was one of the horses he rode at her farm, Jacob had only been riding him a few weeks before Judy hatched this plan.
“I thought this would be an amazing but also slightly scary opportunity; I had never done the big jumpers. We started with the 1.20m on Wednesday, then she suggested we do the 1.40m Thursday. I said, ‘Really?’ She countered, ‘You’ve jumped way higher at home!’ We gave him Friday off and she entered me in the Grand Prix on Saturday,” Jacob said. “I did my first 1.20m, 1.40m and Grand Prix in the same week and ended up going clear and being fifth in the Grand Prix. It was such a testament to how well Judy knew horses and how she really believed in me and the horse.”
While Jacob had built an incredible equestrian resume during his Junior years, his parents wanted him to add another item to it before choosing his career path—a college degree. Just as his parents had seen value in attending a brick-and-mortar school from K-12, they wanted to make sure Jacob experienced college and got a degree so he’d have options in the future.
“My parents are both well-educated, my dad with his doctorate and mom with her master’s degree. While they wanted me to follow my passion with horses, they also wanted me to get a degree first,” Jacob said. “They never wanted me to regret not taking the time to go to college.”
Having been on a traditional education track through high school, Jacob agreed with his parents’ recommendation. It was important to him to be well-versed in areas other than just horses. With that in mind, he enrolled at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and received a degree in International Business.
“I thought it was important to have the college experience for so many reasons, but I knew it would help me to relate to the successful and knowledgeable people around me. Having a business degree has proved to be very helpful so far in my professional riding career as I have the skills to help manage the business,” Jacob said.
While at Rollins, Jacob not only pursued his studies in the classroom, but he also kept riding. “Streett gave me a horse to take to Florida so that I could still ride. I kept it with Waddy Oursler in the Orlando area and then would show in Wellington on the weekends,” Jacob said. “It was a challenge to juggle both riding and school, but I managed to enjoy my college experience.”
Throughout college, Jacob kept his amateur status. Doing so enabled him to check another item off his bucket list—winning team gold at Young Riders in 2015 with his mare Zilvana.
As soon as Jacob had his degree in hand in 2017, he happily turned professional. “It had been a goal to be a professional for as long as I can remember. However, logistically I had to wait to graduate first. With open jumpers going during the week, there was no way for me to be in the classroom and in the ring at the same time,” Jacob said.
Once again, doors were opened for Jacob based on his past performance and relationships he’d created in the sport. “Winning the equitation finals and being active on that circuit opened new and different doors than EAP had, as it got me national recognition,” Jacob said.
As soon as he graduated, he learned there was an opportunity to be a rider at Ivan Rakowsky’s Team Rakowsky. “Again, my story is intertwined. When I was a Junior, Ivan had a lot of sales horses that Patricia Griffin and the kids from Heritage showed. So, I had seen him a lot and knew his horses as a working student at Heritage,” Jacob said. “He seemed like a good guy, the horses he had were nice and he had good business sense.”
Although the position began as a riding position, it’s evolved in the past six years as Jacob’s been part of the team. “I now have endless roles: training horses, finding new horses for our clients, teaching clients and managerial responsibilities like writing contracts, billing and more. I’ve really gotten to know the business aspect of the sport through working with Ivan and love working on every aspect of it,” he said.
Nothing is beneath Jacob when it comes to pitching in at the barn. “I still come to the barn in the morning and help turn out. If our grooms are busy doing something else, I will get my first horse and tack it up. Even though I’m showing in derbies and the Grand Prix, I’m happy to clip horses, pull manes, do whatever needs to be done,” Jacob said.
One thing that Jacob has learned from Ivan is to invest in horses and ponies to create an income stream for himself separate from his riding duties. “I own parts of several horses and ponies. I have a hand in lots of activities that enable me to afford to keep horses for myself and further my career,” Jacob said.
While he’s in the saddle, Jacob can be found winning in both the hunter and jumper rings and often in the biggest classes in each, the hunter derbies and Grand Prix. “I’m currently trying to rebalance my time now to focus a bit more on my nice jumpers. I just started breaking into the FEI classes this past year with Highway FBH and Incento S.a.,” Jacob said.
In July 2022, Jacob notched his first FEI Grand Prix win with Highway FBH at the Silver Oak Jumper Tournament. That win resulted in him being invited to the major league tour in Mexico this past fall. “I was able to do my first five-star shows, so that was a really memorable experience, and I got several good placings,” he said.
Jacob recently checked off an item from his professional bucket list, competing on the U.S. Jumping Team for the 2023 FEI Competitions at Uggerhaine in Denmark and Drammen in Norway. Jacob traveled to Europe with teammates Alise Oken, Nikko Ritter and Alessandra Volpi. Together they competed under the guidance of Chef d’Equipe Anne Kursinski and Team Manager Erin Keeting.
“It was a lifelong dream to represent the United States. To be able to do it with Highway, who is such a special horse and I own part of him, was really cool,” Jacob said. “To be able to come right out of the gate and be successful as a member of the U.S. team was pretty incredible.”
After a seven-year drought at the three-star Nation’s Cup events for Team USA, Jacob and his teammates were able to secure the gold medal at the 2023 FEI Jumping Nations Cup Uggerhalne CSIO3* through exceptional riding and teamwork. “My time in Europe with the team will go down as one of my favorite showing experiences ever. It was such an honor to be on Team USA and experience the camaraderie that comes from being part of a team. I’d only previously been on one other team, at Young Riders in 2015, so it was great to be part of a team again and pull for everyone,” Jacob said.
Jacob not only rooted for his teammates while they were in the ring, but he also gave his all when he was in the ring. In both rounds of the Nations Cup, Jacob and Highway FBH went clear. “The week could not have gone any better. Growing up, I’d watched riders wearing the signature Team USA jackets stand on top of the podium to receive gold medals. To be able to do the same was a dream come true,” he said.
Because Jacob is thankful to everyone who believed in him throughout his rise in the sport, he feels it’s important to pay it forward to the next generation of equestrians. “I had relatively humble beginnings in this sport and lots of help. That’s why I always try to have working students to give them the same valuable experience I had. Right now we have Nick Pongracz, who came to us as a working student five years ago with experience on a local level. Now he’s developed into a real professional who’s doing international competitions,” Jacob said. “It’s been so cool to watch him develop.”
Another way Jacob likes to give back is through staying involved with EAP. This past year’s winner earned a two-week apprenticeship with Jacob at a horse show of their choice, to work with him and see what EAP graduates are doing now and how they can do the same in the future.
When young riders ask Jacob for advice in advancing in the sport, he’s happy to give some words of wisdom. “Learn from your experiences, even your bad ones. Watch your peers and people you admire carefully. Ask questions. Get to know your horse,” he said. “My dad would always say, ‘Horses don’t care until they know you care.’ I think that’s great advice to show you need to be sensitive to the horse’s needs; each horse is different, and you need to be respectful of each and every horse.”
By helping others gain opportunities, Jacob reinforces the fact that he thinks having a good foundation is important in both riding and regular life. “I’m grateful to those who gave me a ‘leg-up’ to get me to where I am today. It’s amazing that I can make a living doing what I love to do, with people who share the same passion. Every single day, I’m excited to ride the horses, help my clients and go to work,” Jacob said. “It’s a fun and rewarding way to live life. I will definitely continue to work hard, and with a little bit of luck, who knows where I might end up!”
For more information, visit teamrakowskyequestrian.com and follow Jacob on Instagram @jpope12
Photos by Isabel J. Kurek, isabeljkurekphotography.com