Tuesday, Jun. 4, 2024

A Need For Speed—But Not Below A Certain Height

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There are two nearly identical rule change proposals that will be voted on at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Mid-Year Meeting (held June 17-18 in Lexington, Kentucky) that would, in short, eliminate speed classes for junior and amateur classes set below 0.90 meters. Jump-off classes are still permitted. The rule changes also propose to eliminate combinations for these same junior and amateur classes. 

My first thought was that this seemed like a reasonable request. When my daughter overheard, her immediate reaction was, “Optimum time just gets so boring over and over,” with a long sigh. When we do get to do a jump-off class with her, I always talk about how the geometry of your track is what wins jump-offs, not just running as fast as you can. I’m at these lower-level rings plenty these days as I have students and my child to coach. While my team is usually very proficient at not producing the “hold your breath” rounds, we do see plenty of those while watching. So what is the answer? When do these grassroots riders truly need to go against the clock? 

Speaking From Experience

When I was a junior rider, the junior jumpers started at 4’6″. There were no high schooling jumper options or 1.20-meter classes to get to know my first junior jumper in those days. The adult jumper division consisted of the preliminary jumpers, offered at 4′-4’3″, the intermediate jumpers at 4’9″, and the open jumpers, offered at 5′ and above. 

“Typically, at an FEI show the opening class is a speed, but if you watch those classes, a rider will choose whether they are using that class with a goal of winning or schooling their horse,” writes columnist Aaron Vale, pictured on Carissimo 25. Kimberly Loushin Photo

If I wanted to get to know my horse in the ring, I entered a hunter division. The first time I showed my mare was in the regular working hunters, with the fences set at 4′. It was the highest hunter division offered, so that is what I did to “get to know her.” This was back in the days where all the top grand prix riders also rode in the hunter divisions, and the kids from the horse show would go watch these divisions, because it was such a great opportunity to watch the top riders. It was also a great place for riders to learn the basics and how to finesse. The hunters teach you pace, proper striding, managing your track, balancing for your change, and the value of a finding a good distance. While you can also teach and learn these concepts in the jumper ring at the lower levels, there are no consequences for not perfecting them if your horse clears the jumps. 

When I was towards the end of my junior career, they had just created the children’s jumper division in California, which was offered at 3’6″. I had a jumper that could not quite be competitive in the junior jumpers and was sold to the West Coast for this job. It was great for him to have a second career opportunity. There is a lot of value to adding such a variety of jumper classes at all levels, for both the horses and riders. 

I look back and see how much our sport has changed. Now you have every division available at the horse show, from the 0.65-meter jumper classes and onwards. Basically, there is a division for every cup hole, in the hunter and jumper ring. While this is good for our sport, it also has created quite a job for the horse shows and organizations that oversee them. We are constantly going through rule changes and swapping the names of divisions. 

The Importance Of Trainers

This brings me back to the proposed rule changes (JP118) and what they mean. First and foremost, I am a testament that you do not need to learn to go against the clock at these lower levels. 

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Sure, it is fun to do a jump-off, but a horse-and-rider combination must qualify for the jump-off by displaying some level of proficiency in the first round. I think at the 0.90-meter level and below, riders should be allowed to jump off if they can successfully get through the first round. A traditional power and speed class, Table II, Sec. 2 (c), also at least makes you get through the first part of the course to continue to the speed portion. Unfortunately, I don’t love this class as it seems to be a way for horse shows to shorten their day if the entries are too heavy. The riders are there to horse show, so let them at least get a chance to jump more than nine jumps. 

They do offer Table II, Sec. 2 (d) power and speed classes now, which let you continue no matter the faults in the “power” phase. I do like this option as it allows you to get more than nine jumps for a young horse or a rider that needs the extra practice. I am assuming if a rider has faults in the first portion, they should not be using the speed phase as a speed class; it should then be turned into a school for the horse and/or rider. The trainer should emphasize this. 

However, a speed round is what it is: a timed first round against the clock. It sets no prior qualifications to allow a combination to go against the clock. The only thing keeping an unqualified horse-and-rider combination from going too fast in that speed class is the trainer, and honestly you can enter any horse show in America without a qualified trainer—a parent can be listed as a trainer, so long as they are a member of our federations. So what are we really gaining from speed classes at this level anyway? If shows are still offering a jump-off class against the clock in these divisions, I think that is a very acceptable decision. 

As for the part of the rule change regarding eliminating combinations for juniors and amateurs, I see the point, yet I think this doesn’t necessarily have to happen at all in the divisions under 0.90 meters. Juniors and amateurs need to learn to properly navigate combinations. Maybe we could implement no oxers at the B element, as the pony jumper rules are written, or perhaps we can have only vertical-vertical combinations to make it easier for the horse or rider. I believe 0.70 meters or lower is where the ruling of no combinations may need to take effect. Riders and/or horses are entered in these divisions for a reason: to have fun navigating courses at the very beginner level. Let’s let them do that. 

The Purpose Of Speed Classes

Speed classes do still play a very important role in the development of a horse and rider. They are offered in all the national finals, such as Devon (Pennsylvania), Pennsylvania National, Washington International (Maryland) and The National Horse Show (Kentucky). They are also offered in every Fédération Equestre Internationale draft schedule, including at the FEI North American Youth Championships. From two-star to five-star, there are plenty of speed classes to choose from. Typically, at an FEI show, the opening class is a speed, but if you watch those classes, a rider will choose whether they are using that class with a goal of winning or schooling their horse. 

I might take a young horse and go medium pace, so the horse gets experience over technical, thoughtfully designed tracks without having to enter the feature grand prix that week. The class is used for exposure for that young horse. I also might instruct my students to use that class as an inviting way to get the horse into the ring and do the adds, so the horse is properly schooled and mentally ready for the grand prix. 

One must also consider that these classes are all offered at 1.40-meters or higher. The capability and goals of the horses and riders are different. I am not sure this is the thought process going through the heads of riders showing below 0.90 meters. Instead, or at least 90% of time, they are thinking about that champion ribbon and getting the extra points on the speed class day. It’s a great goal to be champion at the end of the week, but maybe we can include an optimum time class instead of a speed to prove we can win in all ways and not just going fast. 

So where do we start offering the speed classes again? I know that these rule change proposals address the divisions under 0.90 meters, and this is very appropriate. But I don’t think speed classes need to be offered until 1.10-meters, and I might even venture to say the 1.15-meters, but there could be a revolt against me.

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We also must consider the speed classes offered in the Markel/USHJA Zone Jumper Championships—which now start at 1.10 meters—and NAYC, where the FEI children’s division goes to 1.25 meters. I also will point out that at these events, there is also more of a thought process to the speed rounds as it helps determine future order of go, and there is also a detriment and risk of going too fast as you could have a rail and in turn a less desirable order-of-go for the feature class. This is the same structure for many of the speed classes offered at FEI events, especially at the top levels. 

I believe having speed classes offered at the 1.10-meter height gives riders more than enough time to figure out how to ride against the clock in the first round. The USEF is not taking all jump-off classes away for the lower levels. They are proposing to eliminate the speed class that is not used in the same concept as it is in the top levels. Why not let our riders learn more about the true values of riding at these levels? That is what today’s top riders did as juniors in the hunter rings. 

Our juniors today are already one step ahead in the jumper ring by getting to do it at introductory levels. Let us make this one step ahead count and ensure all the classes in a division focus on what is right for the future of their riding. 


Top grand prix rider Aaron Vale runs his Thinkslikeahorse training facility in Williston, Florida, with quality jumpers, hunters and equitation horses. Many of his students compete on young rider and Prix des States teams, qualify for the top equitation finals, and become successful grand prix riders. 

Vale has won more than 275 grand prix classes and represented the U.S. team on European tours and in Nations Cups, as well as placed in the World Cup Finals. He’s won countless USHJA International Hunter and National Derbies and twice won the $500,000 Diamond Mills Hunter Prix (New York). Most recently he helped the United States earn bronze at the Longines League of Nations Ocala (Florida). 

As a junior rider, he was reserve champion at the ASPCA Maclay, USEF Medal and USET Talent Search. He was named Best Child Rider at Washington and the Pennsylvania National. 

He lives with his wife, Mallory, and daughter, Kinser. 


This article originally appeared in the May 2024, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.

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