Kasey Ament impressed judges Christina Schlusemeyer and Gabriella Salick during the BET/USEF Talent Search Finals-West, which attracted 38 riders to Burbank, Calif., on Sept. 24-25.
With her exceptional riding, Ament emerged as the leader after the first night, in the flat and gymnastics phases, and finished the event as the overall winner.
On the first night, riders had two minutes to demonstrate a synopsis of the flatwork they do to prepare their horse for jumping. They provided a written summary of their intended work, as well as the goal they planned to accomplish. Many riders noted the need to get their horses soft, flexible, and responsive, and the judges were impressed with the quality of the flatwork.
While the gymnastics phase was not overly difficult, only a handful of riders mastered all of the tests. However, the gymnastics was not tricky, and the only two eliminations resulted from riders who forgot to re-jump the entire combination of jumps when they had a refusal. There were no crashes and only three refusals the entire night.
Schlusemeyer and Salick spent a lot of time preparing for the finals. As Salick had never officially judged before, she spent time learner judging with experienced equitation judges during the Indio (Calif.) circuit. She learned how to keep a judge’s card, scoring techniques, and how to evaluate some of the finer points of equitation.
Salick and Schlusemeyer telephoned, traded faxes, and finally, right before the finals, the two met at Salick’s farm to build and test the gymnastics they had conceptualized.
“We practiced for three days,” said Schlusemeyer at the riders’ meeting. “I think you will find the gymnastics do-able and challenging, but not daunting. Keep your cool.”
Ament topped the first phase, followed by Nicole Adamson, Kendle Handtmann, Megan Edrick and Morgan Taylor. Although some trainers complained that the gymnastics weren’t high enough, the judges said the riders were well tested and only a few really nailed all elements of the tests.
For the first time, the stadium phase was held in the covered Equidome. A few trainers and riders lamented not riding on the grass field with the banks and ditches, but they included a portable water jump in the test. In addition, because they weren’t fighting a sinking sun, the final ride-off of the top four was scheduled for 6 p.m., which gave the horses time to rest and allowed more people to watch the event.
The first-round course proved challenging and only Ament earned a score in the 90s–a 95. Fortunes changed as some of those high in the standings made mistakes. Edrick made an inside turn and ran into a standard, while Adamson had some distance problems. Both riders remained in the top 10, but they were out of the top four.
Handtmann continued her accurate riding, and Taylor put in a solid jumping round. Veery Maxwell, 17, Woodland, Calif., a relative unknown in the big equitation ranks, wowed the judges with a fluid, stylish round and earned the fourth slot for the final ride-off.
After a short break the riders returned. First, each rode the shortened course on her own horse, and then they rotated to the other horses.
Ament was flawless. She guided each horse as if she knew all of its quirks and strengths. Her horse turned out to be more challenging than everyone first realized as he became more tense and fussy with his head with each ride.
Maxwell’s inexperience showed in this phase, and although she made no huge errors, she didn’t have the depth the other riders demonstrated.
Ament, 17, Colton, Calif., earned the championship, followed by Handtmann, Tay-lor and Maxwell.
“This is my all-time dream,” said Ament. “I’ve dreamed about this since I was 5 years old. This class is a true test of a horse person and a rider.”
Handtmann, 17, Carpinteria, Calif., agreed, “This class is so much fun. Once you’re in the top four, there’s no more pressure. Anyone in the top four rides well.”
Taylor, 16, Salinas, Calif., really liked the gymnastics phase. “This is my third time in the finals, and it’s lots of fun. Kasey’s horse was the hardest [to ride]. He took more leg and has a huge stride. The other horses were a little easier.”
Ament said Taylor’s horse was the most difficult. “You really have to package him and he’s stiff to the left,” she said, as Taylor smiled and nodded knowingly.
“I was nervous about the gymnastics,” added Maxwell. “I had heard all these stories, but then I saw it and it was stuff we work on. It was realistic. I liked having the different phases and more than one chance to do well.”
Ament, Taylor and Handtmann are off to the fall East Coast indoor shows and then college. Ament plans to attend Pepperdine (Calif.) and Taylor is applying to several colleges but admitted she has a fondness for the University of Colorado at Boulder. Maxwell deferred her acceptance into Georgetown (D.C.) until next August and plans to use the time to gain jumper experience. And although relatively new to the national level equitation, she proved she was no fluke by winning the USEF Zones 8, 9, 10 Regional Medal Finals.
“This whole week has been amazing,” said Maxwell of her first trip to Southern California.
Karen Healey was honored with the leading trainer award as Ament’s coach. Handtmann took the team approach with Frank and Stacia Madden and Jeff Katz. Jim Hagman guided Taylor, and Hope Glynn trained Maxwell.
The judges were impressed with the level and quality of riding. “Some said the gymnastics were too easy, but we wanted people to go home and be encouraged, and they weren’t that easy!” said Schlusemeyer. “We built the stadium as high and wide as the specifications allowed. It was a blast, and everyone rose to the occasion.”