You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But How Much Should You Jump It?

Sep 13, 2011 - 5:49 PM
Stacia Klein Madden believes that requiring AA shows to provide both an open water obstacle and an option fence is the best way to prepare riders for the USET Talent Search Medal Finals. Photo by Parker/Russell—The Book LLC.

The author believes that one of the most challenging national equitation classes needs to include an open water jump—but it shouldn’t be mandatory in all qualifying classes.

The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Hunt Seat Equitation Task Force is always striving to listen to the recommendations of people in the industry, as well as other committees, in order to better the sport.

The USEF Talent Search Finals have always called for an open water jump in the stadium jumping phase, but until December 2010 there was no requirement to have open water jumps at qualifying competitions. A few years ago the Task Force started discussing the fact that it seemed like the riders at the East Coast Finals struggled to negotiate the water jump well.

We can’t be sure why this is different at the two Finals, but my guess is that on the West Coast riders show at fewer venues, and many of those venues, such as the Los Angeles Equestrian Center (Calif.), the Oaks (Calif.) and Del Mar Horse Park (Calif.), have an open water jump and use it.

The only competitions my riders attend with an open water jump are at Old Salem Farm (N.Y.), the Kentucky Horse Park, the Hampton Classic (N.Y.) and Lake Placid (N.Y.). But the show schedules at these venues have changed over the years. There’s no equitation on the field at Old Salem—not even the Governor’s Cup—and there’s only one equitation class on the field at the I Love New York Horse Show in Lake Placid, and you have to qualify for that. The water jump at the Kentucky Horse Park is a move-able one, and in my experience it wasn’t utilized in the equitation ring until the water jump rule came into effect.

So we on the Equitation Task Force took it upon ourselves to address this. Last year we came up with the idea to make it mandatory to include a water obstacle with a 10′ to 12′ spread in all USEF Talent Search classes at AA rated horse shows and to include an option jump that riders could elect to jump instead. Typically the option jump has a high degree of difficulty, such as a tall, skinny vertical, a square oxer or a plank. We wanted to see if access to the water jump during the competition year would help improve the quality of competition at the Finals.

The USEF High Performance Committee governs the specifications of this class. When they met this year they opted to make an open water jump at AA shows mandatory but deleted the idea of an option jump. This new rule will go into effect on September 1, 2011.

The High Performance Committee is striving for excellence and to make the USEF Talent Search a special class. It should—and does—teach riders how to jump a jumper course well. Riders like McLain Ward, Lauren Hough, Richard Spooner and Meredith Michaels-Beer-baum won at this Final and went on to successful international careers. We’re 100 percent behind the idea of using this class to groom the next generation of international riders.

Like the High Performance Committee, the Equitation Task Force really wants to see this class continue to produce top riders, and the trainers I’ve talked to are all thrilled with the opportunity to jump the open water on a more regular basis. But the Task Force is also familiar with the clientele and the horse shows we attend, and we know there will be potential threats to the class if there isn’t an option jump offered along with the open water. 

Why We Need An Option

My riders have always practiced the open water at home. As a farm owner, I’ve taken the time to install an open water jump, a single liverpool, a double liverpool in-and-out, a bank obstacle and a grob to prepare for this and other classes.

Every year before the big $10,000 equitation class at the Hampton Classic, I take riders and a tractor-trailer load of horses to a different place to school similar obstacles since the horses might become familiar with these jumps at home. In 2008 and 2009 I chose John and Beezie Madden’s farm John Madden Sales in Cazenovia, N.Y., for this practice trip. Last year we attended the training session at Double H Farm that benefited the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Capital Campaign to practice on that field prior to the Hampton Classic. 

We love having access to open water at horse shows and teaching kids to ride it better. We’re trying to find an equilibrium where we don’t have to over-jump the water in the equitation division, but we still have the opportunity to school it and use it in competition. 

For example, if you’re at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), showing in that circuit for 12 weeks without pre- or post-circuit shows, as a trainer you might choose to jump the water every other week and utilize the option jump once the horse and rider have had a few successful water jump experiences. We’d like to allow horses who are good water jumpers to stay good water jumpers. If we have a setback, if a horse steps in it or spooks at it, we can take a week off, school it, then represent the water without losing access to the class. The USEF Talent Search has such an important flat phase requiring the riders to execute extensions and the counter-canter. I would hate for riders to lose this opportunity if they need to show a horse that does not jump the open water for a week or so.

Having the option available gives trainers a way to properly train their riders, especially as they’re stepping up to that class. In my barn riders start in the equitation coming up through the age group divisions and the Taylor Harris Insurance Services National Children’s Medal. When that’s going well they start with the hunter phase of the Washington International Equitation Classic, then the USEF Medal and ASPCA Maclay. When I’m happy with the progress, I’ll introduce the jumper phase of the Washington and give them a chance to learn about jumper rules, jumper tack, time allowed, and so on. The USEF Talent Search is typically the last class I introduce. Without having the water jump option, the transition from the jumper phase of the Washington to the USEF Talent Search could become really difficult or even deleted in some cases.

For example, I had kids moving into the USEF Talent Search this season. So in the pre-circuit weeks before WEF I had them entered in the USEF Talent Search and jumped the option rather than the open water. It was their first time outdoors in a few months, and I felt the horses were not fit enough and hadn’t schooled the water properly for this show year. Then during a break week we schooled the water to give the riders experience and get the horses comfortable. Then I had the riders jumping the water during the regular circuit. By the time the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) rolled around, every kid I sent into the USEF Talent Search jumped the water and jumped it well.

Some professionals are concerned that a lot of kids have horses that don’t jump the water. After all, many of the equitation horses are just that because they might have failed as an open jumper due to their inability to negotiate the open water well. These kids have been able to show in the USEF Talent Search and accrue points by jumping the option this year. We’re throwing around different ideas: perhaps a certificate of capability that says that one of your wins includes jumping open water.

Also, we’ve had trainers from the Midwest and mountain regions worry that this may make people stop showing in the class entirely. We want to think this through and avoid having a period of time where riders don’t have access to the class.

Historically the class has been governed with consideration for the realities of the show world. The class specifications for the East and West Coasts differed, starting in 1996, when the class was governed by the U.S. Equestrian Team. Starting that year the rule required at least a liverpool at qualifying competitions in Zones 7-12 and made water obligatory at Finals. The Committee voted against making it mandatory for the East Coast qualifiers for fear of loss of revenue and dwindling class attendance.

I believe we need a chance to see if regular access to the open water jumps in competition helps to resolve the problem of it being ridden poorly at the Finals.

Where Does USEF Talent Search Fit Into The Big Picture?

The USEF Talent Search is the most difficult of the national equitation classes, and we trainers take it seriously. It teaches riders about time allowed, jumper course design, the 45-second clock, waiting for the buzzer, the flagged jumps, and so on. And even the Finals are structured in

a meaningful way that’s different from every other final: it’s four phases, with a flat phase, a gymnastic phase, a stadium phase and the “final four” phase. 

The last phase teaches riders about the World Championship format, which is the only other equitation competition where riders ride three other horses. The East Coast Finals are at the USET headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., where you’re surrounded by nostalgia, you get a chance to visit the trophy room and look at the history, and the judges take the time to speak to the trainers and riders about their expectations. There are fewer riders at this Final typically, and it feels intimate and special. Getting to this event gives you a real feeling of being a top rider, and there’s a strong connection to the elite jumper world. 

One of the most interesting ways I saw the value of equitation with my own eyes was at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. The U.S. riders—McLain Ward on Sapphire, Beezie Madden on Authentic, Peter Wylde on Fein Cera and Chris Kappler on Royal Kaliber—came up through the equitation system. After the Nations Cup the U.S. team was tied, in a jump-off situation. The U.S. riders led the jump-off course by creating a shortened course—jumping a vertical with six strides over the rock decorations and forming a bending line to the sailboat vertical in six strides. It was so reminiscent of bending lines in the equitation. The U.S. riders looked completely competent doing it and ended up winning the jump-off for a medal.

Another time I saw the connection between equitation and international jumping was at Spruce Meadows (Alta.). I spent a lot of time shadowing John and Beezie Madden, and one day John was getting another rider ready, and Beezie was getting ready for a jump-off. She asked me to watch the striding between two fences that looked really far apart, about 13 or 14 strides. I was thinking to myself, “Why does she need to access this information?” but I did as I was told. When I reported back, she said, “OK so I can probably do one less on Judgement.” She did one less, and she was faster. As a younger trainer I used to think in the back of my mind that anything over eight strides was too far to count, but my outlook changed from that day on.

By teaching equitation, you hope you’re making riders who will want to stick with the sport and have bigger aspirations, like Brianne Goutal and Jessica Springsteen who were trained in similar programs. Even if riders don’t, you still want them to learn along the way as if they do have those big aspirations. You try your hardest to prepare them to be the best riders they can be. Having the open water as an option in USEF Talent Search qualifiers will help us develop that next generation of great riders.

Stacia Klein Madden is the head trainer at Beacon Hill Show Stables in Colts Neck, N.J. Alongside the Beacon Hill team of Mary Anne Minor, manager, and Krista Freundlich, Heather Senia and Wilhelmina Horzepa, as assistant trainers and Stonehenge Stables’ Max Amaya, Madden has trained multiple riders to wins at equitation finals, including Brianne Goutal, Jessica Springsteen, Maria Schaub, Nikko Ritter, Kristy McCormack, Sophie Benjamin and Sloane Coles. She serves on the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Hunter Seat Equitation Task Force, the U.S. Equestrian Federation National Hunter Committee, the Hampton Classic Advisory Committee, the National Horse Show Advisory Committee, is a USHJA Mentor and a USHJA Certified Trainer as well as an r judge in the hunter and equitation divisions.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “You Can Lead A Horse To Water, But How Much Should You Jump It During The Year?” ran in the Aug. 22, 2011, Equitation issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Columns
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