Making The Equitation Finals True Championship Tests

Nov 21, 2016 - 11:16 AM

Our columnist believes more stringent qualifications will lead to riders who are more prepared for finals and beyond.

Each year following the major equitation finals, there is a great deal of debate about the formats, the courses and the judging. The 2016 Pessoa/U.S. Hunter Seat Medal Final was an excellent example, where many praised the course, while others had major issues with the scope and technical aspects.

The Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals, Medal Finals and ASPCA Maclay Finals are championships for equitation. A championship is supposed to be an event that you have qualified for, and it should be difficult to pick out the best person. I thought the courses this year were wonderful. A clear-cut winner came out.

As the chairman of the USEF Talent Search Task Force, I know that a lot of riders had a great deal of trouble at the Talent Search Finals because they weren’t at the right level for the event.

Jimmy Torano and Mary Lisa Leffler’s Medal course was difficult for the majority of the riders, but it shouldn’t have been that difficult if the riders were prepared correctly. I have judged several times, and I think there is a flaw with the Medal Final format. It is a very long day—starting at 4:30 a.m. The judges have to be there to set the courses, and you don’t usually walk out until 6:30 p.m. There is not much of a break, and it is very strenuous. You are doing that all day long to select 40 people out of almost 300. There are a lot of riders that really and truly are not quite ready for the event yet. When I have judged it, the courses have been difficult. I have gotten some criticism about it, but I also got very clear-cut winners.

Paring Down The Numbers

The Medal could learn a little from the Maclay. The Maclay has done a good thing by holding regionals, creating a more prepared pool of riders for the finals. For the Medal, the U.S. Equestrian Federation canvases the country for qualified riders, but those riders are not getting qualified on the same playing field. Some are qualifying at little shows with only a few riders, while others get qualified at the most difficult competitions, and those are usually the people who are very good. Those top riders actively seek out the top competitions to put themselves in a position to beat the others.

I think the criticism shouldn’t cover the judging of the courses at all, but how these people actually qualified.

When I was growing up, anything at the top was very difficult to achieve. If you wanted to go to Madison Square Garden for the National Horse Show as a hunter there were only 10 spots available. It was very difficult, and it was a great honor. When you got there and there were only 10 people, you knew that you were with the very best.

I am not suggesting that we only have to have 10 entries at the Medal Finals, but it could be pared down by half, which falls on the shoulders of show management and the Equitation Committee. A lot of the people who were complaining about the numbers are in a position to make changes, and I think they need to take a closer look at it.

At the top levels of the sport, if you want to go somewhere very special, whether it be the World Cup Finals, the World Championships or the Olympic Games, you must go through difficult qualifying situations to ensure that you are capable of competing at that level. The same approach should be taken for the equitation finals, as they are also championship events. The riders need to learn the importance of correctly qualifying for championships at the beginning of their career if they hope to continue in the sport.

It’s Not About The Trainers

A lot of trainers’ livelihoods depend on helping riders get to the finals. Whether the riders win, lose or draw, the trainers sold the kid a horse, trekked it all over the country, and charged them a lot of money just to say the experience was great.

However, I don’t think the experience is all that great if the rider or the horse go in the ring and are not prepared. The parents have spent thousands and thousands of dollars, the kid is embarrassed, and the trainer is standing there saying, “Oh well, it was a great experience.”

The better experience would be having them show at a level where they can learn and possibly be competitive. Maybe they are only ready for the 3′ equitation or the Taylor Harris Insurance Services National Children’s Medal. There are so many other things they can do. Then, when they are ready to move up to the Medal or Maclay, at least they have a better foundation.

A Different Way To Qualify

We have to get the qualifiers on a real and fair playing field. They should all offer a difficult course that’s close to what you’ll be doing in the final. You need some of those tests.

As part of the committee for Talent Search, we’re making a lot of changes and rules and giving stars to different horse shows so you know exactly what each show is going to be offering. If you’re going to a three-star, you know that it’s going to be the maximum height, and it’s going to have a water jump. You don’t go to the Talent Search Finals unless you get a ribbon in one of the three-star classes. There is a prerequisite you need—a certificate that you’ve jumped the water.

We’ve made it harder to qualify, and for the first few years, the class numbers went down. Now, the class is coming back in a different way with people who are a lot more prepared.

I’ve judged a few horse shows, and I’ve heard the announcers calling people on the PA system to get a fourth or fifth person entered in an equitation class, so the points could count. That’s not the way it should be done. There should be a definite number of entries that compete and, certainly, enough competitors to give out all of the ribbons. It’s a shame when they offer eight ribbons, and there are only three or four people in the class. It’s hard on the horses and adds up more expenses because they have to go to more shows to grab these points.

I’ve been to a lot of these shows, and I’ve seen the vans pulling in and out. Sometimes these riders try to make it to two shows in one day. Should there be a rule that simply states there are a limited number of classes you can do? Should there be a rule that you can’t shift from one show to the next?

I think they should look at the Medal classes and rate them based on how many points come from an AA show, instead of rating them as an A, B or C horse show. The better riders are going to be at the better shows, and they should be awarded points accordingly. With the Talent Search Finals now, a win at a three-star automatically qualifies you. Winning at a major show should become an automatic qualifier, and winning at any show should be required in addition to the points.

The Pessoa/U.S. Medal is at a crossroads. For too many years there have been too many riders attending an event they are unprepared for in the name of “experience.” There are a number of other ways for these riders to gain experience, and only the best of the best should be participating in a championship. As the level of the sport around the world continues to rise, we need to follow suit, even at the junior levels. It allows us to continue to produce athletes who are prepared to represent our country on an international stage.


Ronnie Beard of Wyndmont Inc. is a respected trainer and coach with a gift for discovering talented young horses and developing them into international superstars. He is a sought after R-rated judge and has judged all the major equitation finals. Currently, Beard serves on the USEF High Performance Show Jumping Committee, and he is the chairman of the Platinum Performance/USEF Talent Search Task Force. He contributes countless volunteer hours to equestrian sport with his work on the USEF Show Jumping Developing Young Rider Task Force, and he was one of the original co-chairmen of the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program. Learn more about Beard at www.Wyndmont.com. He began writing Between Rounds columns in 2016.

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