Equitation is traditionally the territory of the under-18 crowd, but you’re never too old to learn, and in the second annual American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge, it was a rider just out of the junior ranks who bested more than 60 competitors to win this educational event.
Nina Vogel, 20, traveled home to California after her first year at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire) to ride Pam Stewart’s Durango to the top of the class on June 19-20 in San Juan Capistrano.
The format of the challenge is different than most equitation classes or medals, as it focuses on education as much as competition. After a warm-up on June 18, the first day featured a jumping phase over a 3’3″ equitation-type track followed by an educational presentation and Q&A phase with all riders, trainers and judges that evening. On the second day, competitors took what they learned from Day 1 and applied it to their next ride, followed by a work-off of the top six riders.
At the end of the first round, Vogel was sitting in fourth place.
“I like being in a place like that,” she said. “The pressure usually doesn’t worry me; it more makes me feel secure in my position in the class and is just motivation to keep doing well. I have had a decent amount of experience over the years with multi-phase classes. It’s definitely a challenge, but I was ready to keep my cool and ride the way I did the first day.”
Riders met that evening at a hotel, and as they entered, they picked up the judges’ comment cards from that first round. Mental skills coach Tonya Johnston gave a presentation, followed by a video showing the history of traditional equitation riding, with comments by judge Bernie Traurig. Then Traurig and fellow judge Geoff Teall, along with course designer Karen Healey, Johnston and event founder and title sponsor Georgey Maskrey-Segesman fielded questions from the riders.
“Getting those judges’ comments cards was invaluable, because that’s what you don’t hear,” Vogel said. “You get ribbons, you get scores, and you can compare yourself to other people. You can hear what the trainer thought of your round, but you don’t get the opinions from the people who are actually making those judgments. So I think the educational value and from whom it came was just special. I felt very lucky to participate in it, and I think it’s unique and important as an event itself, but it also translates into any other equitation or show class with a judge that any rider might be participating in.”
Vogel received notes on her riding from the judges, which she said was a bit like a clinic or a lesson. “There were notes on the course that were interesting, because that’s the first thing I do when I come out of the ring is review my course with my trainer,” she continued. “So it was helpful to have a second set of eyes. It was interesting to see what they cared about and commented on versus what we had discussed. But it was similar. Certain parts of my course, objectively, had certain mistakes or highlights or adjustments, and they were aware of it.
“But with one part of my course, anyone that I talked to said, ‘Oh, were you a little tight to that?’ And it was funny, because the judges didn’t comment on it,” Vogel added. “From me riding, it didn’t feel that way. Durango patted the ground a little more than expected, and [the judges] saw it from the side, and I think they were able to see that I wasn’t actually that close to it, so that was a very specific example. With other riders that I watched, I could see people actively making changes, which was really encouraging, because I think that is the value of a learning class.”
Vogel’s trainer, Katie Taylor of Durango Farms in Coto de Caza, California, was enthusiastic about the class and said she would have loved to do something like it as a junior. She also looked over the judges’ cards and gained valuable insight.
“When you work with somebody so much, sometimes you say things over and over and over,” she said. “And then someone else says it, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I DO do that, don’t I?’ Also, we get so focused on one thing sometimes, and then they mentioned something different. It was good to have another perspective from someone who doesn’t watch them ride all the time.”
Traurig was excited to share the comment cards.
“Those cards really make it important, because we give the positives of their riding, we mention areas that we want to see improved, and we mention some things that we don’t like,” he said.
Healey built a more difficult course on the second day, but Vogel rose to the challenge and left the arena with a score of 95.
“The courses were so fantastic,” Vogel said, “especially that second day. There are a lot of good courses out there, but it’s just incredible how many questions Karen was able to fit into one track. It was really interesting to watch, because a lot of riders made the most subtle differences between their decisions, but it made all the difference, sometimes in a good way, and sometimes not.
“In the second day’s course, everything was related, which is always challenging,” she continued. “There were places to take a breath, but you really had to be on the whole time and have a really well-connected plan.”
Because Vogel went late in the class, she took the opportunity to watch others ride.
“With all the fences being related and connected, it made for a beautiful track if you executed it well, but it also demanded a lot of attention and clarity from the rider,” she said.
Traurig also had high praise for the second-round course.
“It had every ingredient that a championship course could ask, and it was all done in the right way,” he said. “I walked the course in the morning, and I said, ‘Karen, it’s their Olympic Games.’ It was very challenging. The horses and riders that were less experienced had some difficulties, but there were no accidents; it wasn’t a dangerous course. It was a demanding course in that it asked all the right riding questions. The ones that rose to the top jumped it beautifully, and that’s what we wanted to see.”
From age 11 Vogel rode with the Karazissis family at Far West Farms in Calabasas, California. “I am grateful for the technical education I got there, from flat lessons to different exercises that we do at home,” she said. “I understand what I’m trying to do when I’m on my horse. That translates to the show ring, and it’s a methodical approach; it’s not just for posing.”
She paired up with Durango, a 9-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Cassini I—Sidney IV) last year, and that’s when she also began working seriously with Taylor, whom she knew from Far West Farms, and the rest of the Durango Farms team of David Bustillos, Allison LaJoie and Lauren Dendiu.
“I’ve known Nina since she was 10 years old,” Taylor said. “She actually rode my older mare, so I would help her on her a bit, so we have been close for a while. But what was really exciting about the whole thing was the fact that she had just come back from college, and after watching that second round I just had no words and nothing to correct. She was unbelievable. Spot-perfect! She came out, and we just had huge smiles.”
“It was flawless!” agreed Traurig. “We wouldn’t throw 95s around. There was one other 95, and with both of those rounds, Geoff and I looked at each other and said, ‘What would you change about that?’ And both of us said, ‘Nothing. Nothing. They were flawless.’ Their accuracy, their style, their horses were beautiful; they made beautiful jumps. Somebody asked why we didn’t give them 100. Ninety-five is good enough.”
Vogel had hoped to ride in the class last year, but a personal conflict kept her on the sidelines, so she was particularly excited to come back for it this time. “I found the class refreshing and encouraging that Georgey had the ambition to develop a class like this, especially with there being the divide between the East and the West Coast in the equitation,” she said. “The development of young riders can get lost, just because there is so much going on. This was a great place for riders and trainers to get together and focus on riding—not points, not wins, just riding.”
But the thrill of a victory wasn’t lost on her either.
“I just finished my first year of college, so I’ve been riding very little, and I’ve missed it a lot,” she said. “When I lived in California it was a huge part of my life, so it was hard to not be in the show ring. I haven’t competed since August, so that made the win extra special and very rewarding.”