As the rider with the shiniest boots at the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session, Jacob Pope will surely fulfill U.S. show jumping chef d’equipe George Morris’ turnout expectations when he meets him in January.
But on the list of things that impressed EAP clinicians on Nov. 17-20, several more important characteristics trumped Pope’s polishing skills. The 16-year-old rider from Columbia, Md., bowled over the judges with his top-level riding, horsemanship and stable management skills.
“We all were impressed with every aspect of Jacob on every day,” said show jumper Peter Wylde, who flew from his home base in Elmpt, Germany, to help teach the clinic. “I look at Jacob as someone who has a future as a rider in the sport, as well as a horseman. I’m really impressed with his riding skill. We all felt strongly that he’s really exactly what we’re looking for. He’s the ideal, in a way—someone who has a big future and needs some doors opened, and we spot his raw talent and want to help.”
After progressing through their local Level 1 and regional Level 2 training sessions, 12 finalists from across the country converged on Country Ridge Stables in Mundelein, Ill., to vie for two spots at the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, to be held in Wellington, Fla., Jan 3-7. In addition, the top rider also earned a $3,000 training grant and a $1,500 gift certificate from Dover Saddlery, which honored the EAP finalists at the grand opening of its new store in nearby Libertyville, Ill.
"This gives me even more will to go on and continue in the future,” said a beaming Pope, who trains at home with Streett Moore. “This is absolutely what I want to do as a career, and the thing I really take away from this week is the importance of connections—those with your horse and with other people. I know these people will be my professional colleagues in the future, and now we know each other and can call on one another for help.”
Riders partnered with a borrowed horse for the duration of the training session and were judged not only on the bond they forged with the animal while riding it, but how they cared for and interacted with the horse on the ground.
The finalists also took written tests, and top hunter rider and former grand prix groom Jennifer Alfano led stable management lessons. Mindy Bower, a protégé of renowned natural horsemanship trainer Buck Brannaman, taught the finalists the importance of groundwork. And riders also enjoyed demonstrations of equine massage, acupuncture and chiropractic work from top veterinary professionals. Wylde, Melanie Smith Taylor and Sally Ike helped riders in the ring.
“I would say that overall, this was the highest level of all the riders together. All of the kids rode very well and are very capable. They showed super talent and very positive attitudes and very good horsemanship,” said Wylde. “If they wanted, any one of them could be a professional in the sport.”
On Sunday, the final day of the training session, riders competed in a nations cup-style show jumping competition. And although the course, which was modeled after a grand prix at the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.), didn’t change for the second round, there was still plenty of excitement to be had. The team standings came down to the last rider, Lauren Ditallo, who put in a clear round with Debbie McIntyre’s Con under heavy pressure and boosted her team, Calypso, to the top of the podium.
Naturally, most riders felt their second attempt at the course was much better.
“I wasn’t too happy with my first round,” admitted Pope, who was the trailblazer of the group. He has very little experience in show jumping and accrued 1 time fault. “I didn’t think it was as good as I could have done. I was a little nervous, and I just wasn’t in the right place mentally. So I really changed my attitude before the second round and shifted into ‘jumper mode.’ I've really only done hunters and equitation in the past, so I’ve never really done anything like this before. It was so much fun! It’s definitely what I want to do in the future.”
Unlike Pope, however, second-placed Natalie Crane isn’t 100 percent sure she’ll become a professional rider someday, but she knows horses will always be in her life. The 19-year-old rider from South Dartmouth, Mass., has a keen interest in psychology, and she’d like to explore that in the future.
Crane, who trains at home with Kathy Fletcher and Laurel Tinney and works for Eric Hasbrouck, qualified for the top equitation finals in her junior years. She’s now in her sophomore year at Vassar College (N.Y.).
“I was really proud of my first round,” said Crane, who rode Richard Cheska’s Woman-D to two fault-free performances. “She was so rideable, and it was so smooth. The second round wasn’t quite as good, but I was still smiling. My mom always says that that smile is how she can tell if I really love a horse or a course.”
For Wylde, this year’s strong group of riders was an indicator that the program is growing in the way its leaders intend.
“This program is to help identify raw talent—riders who we feel have a future in the sport and that are committed and are good horsemen. We want to try to enlighten them,” he said. “We see some of them come back for a second year or a third year, and we see their total awareness of the horse growing. A lot of these kids have raw talent but don’t have the training or the exposure to these kinds of ideas. And you can see them evolving, even in the short period of two or three years. It never occurred to them before, but you can see them start to consider the bigger picture and not just the blue ribbon.”
2011 EAP Finalists:
Henley Adkins, 15, of Moorpark, Calif.
Marina Bynum, 17, of Santa Ana, Calif.
Ali Cornish, 17, of Chico, Calif.
Natalie Crane, 19, of South Dartmouth, Mass.
Lauren Ditallo, 17, of Long Grove, Ill.
Julie Gravelle, 17, of Ocala, Fla.
Stephanie Nagler, 17, of Santa Fe, N.M.
Jacob Pope, 16, of Columbia, Md.
Abigail Postle, 17, of Columbus, Ohio
Candice Schober, 20, of Colts Neck, N.J.
Sean Summers, 17, of Scottsdale, Ariz.
Kendrick VonHofe, 16, of Wellesley, Mass.
Special award winners included:
Sportsmanship award (voted by riders): Sean Summers
Top score on written test: Julie Gravelle
Stable management award (chosen by Jennifer Alfano): Candice Schober
Horsemanship award (chosen by Mindy Bower): Abigail Postle
For additional coverage of the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session, check out the Dec. 5 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse.