After three days and numerous tests, Samantha Harrison (La Canada, CA) found herself leading the victory gallop of the 2012 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals West. The win was made even more sweet for the Oklahoma State University junior and member of the NCAA Equestrian team. "Winning means so much to me because every single year I've gone in on Santika, something has gone wrong. It was a really big accomplishment to go out there and be consistent in all three phases."
Samantha (Karen Healey, trainer) was particularly happy to win on Santika, who also won the Best Horse Award, as the pair has been together for many years. "I've had her a really long time. We've had a connection ever since I got her, and we've only gotten to know each other even better. We've really learned to figure each other out over the years," Samantha explained. From the Six-Year-Old Jumpers to Junior Jumper Show Jumping Hall of Fame Western League Champion to riding on the Gold medal Zone 10 team at the Adequan/FEI North American Junior & Young Rider Championships presented by Gotham North to winning ribbons in her first grand prix events, Samantha and Santika have a long, rich history together. The Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals West is another exemplary accomplishment for Samantha and her bay mare.
Given her riding resume, Samantha was well prepared going into the Talent Search Finals. Because of her NCAA experience, Samantha is no stranger to riding unknown horses, which gave her an edge in the work-off and contributed to her consistency. Karen Healey, Samantha's trainer, commented, "Samantha has been with me for seven years and even though she is super sweet, she can be a tough rider and get it done." Samantha was focused on getting it done and throughout the entirety of the Talent Search she adopted an all or nothing attitude."
Samantha concurred. "I just thought to myself that I had to ride every step and take nothing for granted. I knew if I went out there and gave it my all and just rode, everything would fall into place," she said.
Everything did fall into place, and Samantha exemplified the effectiveness the judges were looking for. "She rode really well on all four horses and was very, very solid on every horse she rode. She was solid enough that the little mistakes some of the others made caught up with them," Chrystine Tauber said. Bernie Traurig added, "The cream rose to the top. There was just over a handful of riders that were quite talented and impressive. It was the changing horses that separated the class and made it easy to judge."
The final day of competition started on Saturday afternoon on the grass Cricket Field at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center during the Los Angeles International Jumping Festival (Sept. 19-23). For Phase 3, competitors jumped over a difficult Grand Prix style course on the grass field. The course, designed by judges Chrystine Tauber and Bernie Traurig, challenged riders with a very technical course with several natural obstacles, including a bank and a wide open water jump.
Bernie commented, "This course asked all the questions you would find in a grand prix. In some cases, it was even a little more demanding because we were looking for riders who had control and rideability. We put a lot of emphasis on their ability to negotiate technical lines and approaches. In addition, we added the natural jumps like the bank, which you wouldn't usually see in a class." Though it was unusual, no rider or horse struggled to jump down the bank. "It surprised me because that's not an easy bank," Bernie said. Chrystine agreed and added, "Everyone jumped the bank very well all day long."
However, the open water after the bank did cause problems for many of the riders and horses. Bernie and Chrystine purposefully incorporated the difficult water jump in order to truly test the riders. "Water is a big issue, and it's certainly not something they would encounter in any other equitation class," Bernie noted. The water jump was eleven feet wide without a pole and had a low flower box set at the takeoff. "If we had had a bigger brush in front, then the horses would have backed up and jumped up higher. But the lower takeoff didn't help you at all and you really had to ride to the water," commented Chrystine.
In addition, Bernie and Chrystine changed the course to make the line even more challenging. Riders had to jump down the bank, ride a long distance to the water, and then immediately turn left and jump a triple combination. "Jumping down off of a bank puts the horse's balance down low for the first couple of steps. Then many riders sat up and started trying to find a balance, but then they lost the pace. That in itself ended up creating a wonderful test of being able to land and rebalance as you ride forward. So many of them got trapped into pulling back to get the horse in balance, but then they were dead at the water," Chrystine explained. "Then after the water, you had to immediately look for the turn and then start building to get back uphill to the triple combination. You had to jump the water, bring the horse back, look around the corner, and then keep the impulsion up the hill. It was a very technical line."
All of the Talent Search finalists had the opportunity to ride the challenging course, but all eyes were focused on the top riders coming into Phase 3. The top six returned in reverse order: Kilian McGrath (Karen Healey, trainer), Savannah Jenkins (Karen Healey, trainer), Morgan Geller (Kay Altheuser, trainer), Samantha Harrison (Karen Healey, trainer), Olivia Champ (Karen Healey, trainer), and Lauren Myers (Cara Anthony, trainer).
Kilian (Thousand Oaks, CA) made the difficult course look effortless on Salerno (Rolling Oaks Ranch Inc., owner) and scored a 92, setting the bar high for the riders who came after her. Savannah (Virginia Beach, VA) rode a clean course on Capilan 2 (George Maskrey-Segesman, owner) and scored an 85 for her efforts. Unfortunately for Morgan Geller (Manhattan Beach, CA), Sicerto B (Q of E Farms LLC, owner) caught the edge of the open water jump and she fell off as he stumbled. Thankfully, the pair suffered no major injuries and both walked out of the ring.
Next came Samantha on Santika (LLC Harrison Farms, owner) and her extraordinary round won the audience and the judge's approval. The pair scored the highest score of the phase with a 94. Returning in second place, Olivia (La Canada Flintridge, CA) turned in a slow and consistent round aboard Parrandero (Katie Harris, owner), earning her an 87. At the top of the leader board after the first two phases, Lauren (Seattle, WA) rode a good course on Dinero (Francesca Giammalva, owner) and scored an 84.
Though scores were released after the completion of the Talent Search, at the time, riders had no idea where they stood after their jumping rounds. The top four were announced in no particular order and Kilian, Samantha, Olivia, and Lauren were all excited to enter the ride-off.
For the ride-off, each rider had to ride a shortened course on her own horse and then ride the course on each of the other horses. Modeled after the Show Jumping World Championships, the top four each started with a score of 0 going into Phase 4, with the start order determined by the cumulative score of Phases 1 to 3.
Going into the ride-off, judges were focused on the effectiveness of the riders. "The riders who were just sitting there and not effectively influencing the outcome of each jump got into trouble on the course," Chrystine noted. Bernie added, "It's a great class because it allows the flexibility of judging and some flexibility of riding because it's with a jumper theme. It's not a pose contest."
Hoping to impress the judges with her riding ability, Kilian rode first in the ride-off on Salerno. Her ride was flawless and the pair received the highest score of the day with a 95. Lauren and Dinero unfortunately earned their lowest score of the competition with a 76. The competition remained fierce as Olivia scored a 90 aboard Parrandero and Samantha, riding last, scored a 91 on Santika.
Then the excitement ramped up as Lauren's saddle was put on Salerno. Once mounted, riders had exactly two minutes to warm up on the new horse before entering into the arena. Lauren commented, "I always like riding different horses. It's a good experience because you have to adjust to a new horse in two minutes. I did a few bending left and right to make sure they were listening." All four horses and riders held up amazingly well under the pressure, heat, and hard work as the long competition continued. Though all of the girls rode best on their own horses, they showed off their impressive riding abilities on the other horses as well.
Lauren scored in the 70s on all four horses, which gave her a cumulative score of 296 for Phase 4 and earned her the fourth place ribbon. Lauren was pleased with her results and explained, "This is my third time in the finals, and my first time in the final four, so I was definitely super excited. My goal for next year is hopefully to win!"
After a great round on her own horse, Kilian struggled a little with Parrandero and Santika and placed third with a score of 316. Youngest of the top four, Olivia turned in three high scores and placed second with a score of 341. But it was Samantha who turned in four extremely consistent rounds, all in the 80's and 90's. She finished with a score of 350 and the judges were impressed with her riding skills.
In addition to her long time equestrian partner, Samantha also had two of her barn mates in the top four as well as several other barn mates and her sister competing in the Talent Search. "It was helpful having Kilian and Olivia in the top four for support, but really all four of us supported each other and gave each other advice on our horses," Samantha enumerated. Lauren agreed and said, "Everybody helped each other out in the warm up arena. For example, they would say whether you should or shouldn't wear spurs, and everyone was really nice about it."
Though Santika won the Best Horse Award this year, last year's winning horse, Parrandero, carried Olivia to second place in Olivia's first Talent Search Final. "I wanted to go in there riding forward and confident. At home since I train with dressage trainer Claudia Roberts, I do mostly flatwork and dressage work," Olivia stated. "Having a strong foundation in dressage is especially helpful when riding other horses because you know how to lengthen and shorten their stride."
Karen praised Olivia's work ethic and said, "Olivia is a quick learner and is always very focused. She also has a great feel." Karen continued, "Now Kilian is a little more aggressive than Olivia. Her only issue is her nerves and she has to remember to calm down and breathe." Kilian herself admitted, "I psyched myself out a little bit during the work-off since we had to ride our competitors' horses. I was worried something would happen to Salerno."
But Kilian schooled her nerves and her third place finish had the additional benefit of qualifying her for the Maclay Final. "I accomplished my goal of being in the top four," Kilian stated. "It's just such a great experience because it shows who has the most ability to become a professional, and I'm just so happy."
As the trainer of three of the top four girls in the Talent Search, Karen explained how she prepared the girls for the Talent Search Finals. "All of my kids are very strong on the flat because my training program is very flatwork oriented. I also made sure they all schooled on the grass field to prepare for the jumping phase," Karen said. "In addition, I will be judging the Talent Search Finals East this year for the third time, so I know what is expected to win. The Talent Search is one of the best finals because it truly shows the depth of a rider."
In addition, Chrystine hopes the experience was beneficial for all of the riders who participated. "You had three different phases that could have exposed some of your weaknesses. What did you learn from that? I hope everyone comes away from this experience having recognized what they need to work on and that it will help improve their riding in the future."