The USDF National Finals Is Worth Fighting For

Nov 16, 2013 - 2:49 PM
Amateur riders like Amy Swerdlin, who won the adult amateur third level championship on Scholastica, enjoyed riding in the atmosphere of the Alltech Arena at the USDF National Championships. Photo by Lisa Slade

A few days into the show I observed to someone that it didn’t feel like a championship. Other than the big fancy indoor ring decorations, and the super-snazzy high-tech judges’ booths, this could have been any other big-deal horse show.

I joked that it was because, unlike other national and international championships I’ve attended, this is not a show filled with people who hate each other. (And I think that’s really not actually a joke.)

But more seriously, the stakes at the USDF National Finals are just high enough to get the blood flowing, but not so high as to tighten anyone’s sphincter. And most of the riders were just normal folks just delighted to be there.

It made for a wonderful week. 

Lexington, Ky., has a heckofa lot to offer. It is fairly central—yes, for all the people on the internet bulletin boards who note that Kentucky is not in the middle of the country, I can read a map, and while it is not DEAD center, it is FAIRLY central. It’s easy to get to by road (though, as I may have mentioned, Route 64 through West Virginia was rather hairy) and by plane. There are oodles of hotels, great restaurants, and stuff for the non-horsily inclined like spouses and children. 

Our friends in eventing have a similar show called the AECs, the American Eventing Championships, which they move around the country every three years. Moving the show means, naturally, that the areas around the championships are very well represented, and the areas farther away are less so, and that’s just the way that goes. 

I don’t know which system is better, but I imagine that the USDF will experiment, poll its members, weigh all the factors—moving staff all over the place and finding a venue big enough to hold such a show are not small parts of this decision—and make whatever choice they will make, and then everyone who prefers another choice will complain loudly—usually on the internet—and that’ll be that.

I must confess that I was not an early adopter of the idea of a National Finals. I thought, as I still do, a little bit, that having open FEI divisions at the USDF finals was a bit of a slap-in-the-face to the USEF High Performance Finals. This is not to belittle the excellent performances of my friends Anna and Jim, but in the absence of our biggest Grand Prix stars, what does being USDF National Champion mean?

I don’t know, and if Midge and I had gotten back into full fitness before our own Regional Finals, you’d better believe we would have been in those classes. 

But what a special event, especially for the amateurs, the backbone of our sport. Without such a show, how many of them would ever have a chance to ride in such a tremendous environment as the Alltech arena, complete with banners and e-scoring systems? How many would ever take part in a press conference? Have their rides live-streamed to the masses? What a thing.

And that big-show feel, even without all the wadded panties that often come with such things, made all the riders I watched and talked to want to rise above their own expectations and ride their hearts out. It was a beautiful, well-run and, beyond all else, inspiring-as-all-get-out sort of event. It was a pleasure to take part in. Here’s lookin’ at you, 2014.


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