Championship week in Kentucky showcased a vision a long time in the making.
I just returned from an amazing week in Kentucky, and it was all about hunters! World-class horses and riders all came together for two championship classes, the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships and the USHJA Pre-Green Incentive Championship (see Sept. 2, pgs. 18 & 30).
Two years ago my friend Joey Darby came to me about an idea he had for a pre-green championship. At that point I was head of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Open Hunter Task Force, and we brought the idea forward to that committee. The Open Hunter Task Force consisted of top hunter enthusiasts who immediately came on board with the idea. Colleen McQuay brought her expertise to the table and started building the framework which she had helped to start in the reining world 20 years before. We wanted to promote the pre-green horses, which could then feed into the rest of our hunter divisions and to the hunter derby program.
As I’ve said in many past articles, history moves us forward and teaches us how to improve. The International Hunter Futurity started us on the path to this pre-green incentive 28 years ago. Our breeding program in the United States hasn’t been as strong as we needed it to be to support this concept. That being said, between 1985-1995 the IHF offered between $165,000 and $170,000 in prize money with a nomination fee of $250 for yearlings.
But as the years went on they started splitting the money between 3- and 4-year-olds. The jumps were lowered, and professionals did not buy into the program. The cost of supporting a yearling until it was 3 was and is cost prohibitive. The art of training a young horse is a lost art in this country but one that I think will soon come into play again.
Then we had The Legacy Cup, which was ahead of its time. We hadn’t started to track money won, and we hadn’t started ranking our riders. The add-back formula made that class a high money event when it started. It was a stand-alone event to begin with and then too big to fit into a show. Qualifying for Devon (Pa.) and the fall indoor shows was too strong a pull for our professionals and their customers since the money won at Legacy Cup didn’t count for anything. But this class has led into the World Champion Hunter Rider’s Hunter Spectacular, now under the auspices of the USHJA, which offers $50,000 in prize money, soon to be $100,000. It’s a small and a special class.
Covering The Costs
Showing horses is expensive at any level. Owners of all economic means have lost interest in bringing along young horses. One of Joey’s biggest concerns in wanting a pre-green championship was that the majority of the professionals, young or old, couldn’t afford to bring along a young horse to sell. The cost of entry fees, show stalls, braiding and on and on was just too much. Most shows don’t pay any prize money in the pre-greens so no expenses are covered.
Our Open Hunter Task Force began the daunting task of coming up with the best formula. We wanted people to believe in the program, and most importantly we wanted a program that could sustain itself throughout the years. Colleen felt strongly that if any new program was going to work then the entire committee and the rest of the hunter world had to buy into it. So a group of us put together $25,000 to start the funding for it.
As of Nov. 1, 2012-Feb. 1, 2013, horses had to be enrolled with a $350 nomination fee. From Feb. 2–June 1, 2013, you could nominate a horse for $550, and then June 2 until November the fee was $750. Horses nominated had to be enrolled with the U.S. Equestrian Federation and USHJA and be eligible as a pre-green horse under USEF rules. Each horse had to compete in two pre-green incentive stake classes to be eligible for the pre-green championship. More than half of the horses nominated for this program won money in the program. It’s been a huge success with lots of enthusiasm behind it.
A Vision Realized
Last week in Kentucky people lined the main hunter ring for the entire day. There were two sections, 3' and 3'3". There were 116 back-to-back trips, and the two classes went from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m. The spectators stayed the entire time. The top 30 went back the next day for the championship class.
The Kentucky horse show was running at the same time, and there were 47 first year horses showing. What a boost for our hunter world!
Kenneth Wheeler Jr., whose horse Crisp tied for first place, said to me he thought the class was wonderful with a lot of very nice horses. He thought many horses were sold out of that class and that there were many people who were buying horses for next year specifically for the pre-green championship class.
Then the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championships were held Friday and Saturday with a new tier system and a consolation round. This was the first year an entry fee was added, and we had 88 starters. Many feel that the pre-green incentive program will be the stepping stone for our future derby champions.
Hats off to Joey Darby for his vision, and hats off to Colleen McQuay for taking over the reins to return this excitement to the hunter ring. Hats off to the trainers, owners, riders and horses for making this dream a reality. There are so many committee people who give long, long hours to make these programs happen. Is it perfect? No. Does the committee need to make changes? Yes. But this was an amazing start with a very bright future.
Susie Schoellkopf, of Buffalo, N.Y., is an active R-rated judge for hunters and equitation. She was a successful hunter rider and now owns and manages SBS Farms, a training center, and serves as the executive director of the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. She’s a member of several U.S. Equestrian Federation committees and a founder of the Horsemen’s Advisory Council. Susie’s first Chronicle column was published in November 2002.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. "Between Rounds: A Celebration Of Show Hunters" ran in the Sept. 9, 2013 issue.