Are We Over-Specializing?

Dec 24, 2013 - 1:44 PM

Today’s top trainers tend to focus on one element of the horse show world, while trainers of the past were masters of all three.

Years ago we watched our very best riders and trainers go from ring to ring either riding or training in all three disciplines: the hunters, the equitation and the jumpers.

Many riders rode the same horse in the hunters and the equitation right through the USEF Medal and ASPCA Maclay finals. I remember when Mark Leone won the 1979 USEF Medal Finals on his fantastic hunter Rain Forest and was champion in the junior hunters at the top indoor qualifying shows on that same horse in the same year.

But today we have hunter trainers, equitation trainers, jumper trainers. And is that system really working for this country?

I thought about this while visiting one of my oldest and dearest friends, Rodney Jenkins, in mid-October. Jennifer Alfano and I were on a horse-hunting trip. For those of you who do not remember Rodney, he was probably one of the best riders and best horseman of his time in the show world. We lost him to the racetrack, where he’s very happy. He doesn’t even judge much anymore, although he did judge breeding day at Devon (Pa.) this year.

We arrived at Rodney’s racing barn at Laurel Park (Md.), and everything was in perfect order. Two well-behaved Thoroughbreds were presented to us with beautiful coats.

I rode with Rodney and worked for him many years ago, and his barn was run with efficiency and top horsemanship. His entire family was involved in the business, with each one of them bringing a different expertise to the table. But at the end of the day all of it came together to produce the very best hunters and jumpers that would still stand the test of time.

Like Rodney, Michael Matz could ride the hunters and jumpers to blue ribbon after blue ribbon. And wouldn’t you know it, he’s now in the race horse industry as well.

In the 1970s, we had $10,000 hunter classics, and the American Invitational offered $10,000. But since then the jumper money has grown and grown, and the hunter money has stayed the same. Meanwhile the cost of keeping a horse and the expenses for putting on a top horse show have skyrocketed.

What Changed?

But we still had discipline in our sport in the ’70s. The team gathered at U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., to train under the guidance of Bert de Nemethy.

For 25 years, he brought integrity and focus to the top of our sport and delivered many medals in many Olympics. Frank Chapot, Bill Steinkraus, Conrad Homfeld, Greg Best, Melanie Taylor, Katie Prudent, Leslie Howard and George Morris, to name a few, benefited from the Bert de Nemethy school of riding.

Geoff Teall wrote an article about role models in the Nov. 12 issue of the Chronicle. Role models are good at what they do and are great horsemen or women no matter what they’re teaching—hunters, jumpers or equitation. They’re teaching good riding and good horsemanship. We need more of these role models like we had 40 years ago.

When did we stop teaching good riding from the hunters to the equitation to the jumpers? Why do so many of our top junior riders not choose to enter our industry when they’ve finished their junior careers? Are they burnt out? Do they have to focus too much on the equitation finals?

Too Much Going On

I’ve written articles, as has Bill Moroney, about goals and incentives in our sport. Years ago we had a few finals—the USEF Medal, the ASPCA Maclay, USET Finals and the three indoor qualifying shows. Now we have all of those plus zone finals, U.S. Hunter Jumper Association International Hunter Derby Finals, Marshall & Sterling Finals, WIHS Medal Finals, two huge money finals at HITS, many California finals and now a new USHJA pre-green program. We have Horse Of The Year awards and zone awards.

Within all these finals and the World Cup and Olympics, we must find a way to funnel our young riders into all parts of our sport. We must take the time to watch and learn from the best, to have goals and to follow in the path set forth by the riders and trainers from years past.

I think economics has made us choose one direction, and it’s fine that we specialize in one discipline or another, but we must learn all of it. We must have our riders experience equitation, hunters and jumpers so we broaden our horizons and continue to learn.

Our hunter riders need to remember those riders of the past who did both hunters and jumpers, and our jumper riders need to watch our top hunter riders. We all need to make our sport enticing for those top juniors who need to learn how to teach and to ride hunters, jumpers and equitation.

But we need all of our trainers at each level to want to broaden their horizons. George Morris gave a USHJA trainers certification clinic here in Buffalo this winter. He taught for three days from the intermediate level to the jumper level. He taught good riding, good horsemanship and correct teaching methods.

George is one of the few who can teach all levels. He picks up on bad habits of horses and bad riding habits that seem to go in trends. But he doesn’t discriminate between equitation, hunters and jumpers. He teaches great riding.

The USHJA is still young and still going through growing pains, but we need to keep the leaders of the past showing us the future. Our rules need to be innovative but still keep our tradition and history as a guideline.


Susie Schoellkopf, Buffalo, N.Y., is an active R-rated judge for hunters and equitation. She was a successful hunter rider and now is the owner and manager of SBS Farms, a training stable, as well as the executive director of the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center. She is a member of several U.S. Equestrian Federation committees and a founder of the Horsemen’s Advisory Council. Susie’s first Chronicle column was published in November 2002.

If you’re a Chronicle subscriber, you can log into www.coth.com and read all of the Between Rounds columns that were printed from 2010 to present.

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