I had the privilege of commentating at several major equitation finals this season. From the USEF Pony Medal Final (Kentucky), the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East and —West (New Jersey and California), Dover Saddlery USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final (Pennsylvania), and finally ASPCA Maclay Final (Kentucky), I watched hundreds of rounds from junior riders who had done the hard work throughout the year to achieve the goal of competing at a national equitation championship. As a graduate of the equitation ranks, I could empathize with the pressure they felt when they finally had the chance to walk through the gate onto what could feel like an enormous stage. So many hopes and dreams hinged on their two minutes in the ring.
From my perspective outside the arena, I found myself thinking of things I hoped they would take away from their experience: This is hard work. Horses have good days and bad. They were doing a great job and are a work in progress.
Looking back at my time as a junior rider, I learned so much each time I had an opportunity to compete under pressure on a big stage. Regardless of the results I achieved in each class, I tried to learn something that would help me improve my performance the next time. I discovered some tips and tricks along the way that helped me come back each year, a bit more experienced and capable of producing a better round with my horse. There are a few of these that I think are critical to success in the equitation division.
• Understand the equitation division is not a beauty contest.
It is meant to be a pathway forward in educating riders about the fundamentals and technicalities of track, pace, and course management, as well as how form affects function. It is about learning to ride. The equitation division is meant to help you gain the tools you need to achieve growth as a rider. Learning those skills takes a lot of time and effort—think about the adage that it takes 10,000 hours to become proficient at a skill.
The reality of this is that you are going to lose more classes than you win. How you choose to handle and grow from those challenges defines you as a rider and will help you succeed through the equitation ranks. Characterizing a round as “bad” wastes a learning opportunity. As a rider, I know firsthand how easy it is to be discouraged when your trip does not go according to plan. However, it is vital to always try to find something you did well while on course and isolate the pieces you struggled with. By doing this, you can identify the weaknesses that you will need to go home and work on.
• Take every opportunity to learn from more experienced riders.
Becoming a skilled rider is a continual process. In this sport, you are never done learning. Take every opportunity to go to different clinics or watch videos of other riders and trainers online. When you listen to educated professionals teach, the vocabulary they use to express themselves varies, but the concepts they are trying to convey are most likely the same. One of the various ways of explaining something might click with you.
One of the best ways to learn is by watching and listening to riders and trainers at the top of the sport. As a junior, I observed how McLain Ward warmed up his horse in the schooling area and how Lee McKeever took care of a horse after a round. You can learn just as much from the ground as you can from the back of a horse. Go to the schooling ring, watch and listen. Often, the schooling area can be more educational than watching the round itself. Pay attention to how riders set their horses and themselves up to jump the track at hand, then watch the round they produce in the ring. Think about how the riders’ set-up helped them address the challenges of their course.
• Be strategic about goal-setting.
With the variety of equitation finals that are available each year, it is important to set attainable short and long-term goals. Short-term goals make your long-term goals possible. Working toward each of them helps you and your trainer measure your progress.
For example, a significant goal during my last junior year was to improve my ability to start every round with enough pace. When you establish the correct pace before the first jump, you set the tone for the rest of your round. I struggled with this throughout my junior career. Knowing this, I prioritized setting my pace, and when I managed to do that, I would consider my round a success. This was a great goal for me to work on because it was entirely within my control, no matter what horse I was riding, and it applied across the hunter, jumper and equitation rings. After the short-term goal you set for yourself has become a habit, you are more likely to achieve your long-term goal.
• Look for the questions behind the courses.
Understanding the mechanics of how and why an equitation course is designed is crucial to being able to ride it well. The course designer uses the course to ask questions that you and your horse need to be able to answer fluently.
Analyze the course and break it down to find the individual questions. Compartmentalize it into sections so that you can be very deliberate and execute your plan in an organized way. Try to identify the places in the course where you can find a moment to pause and take a breath. Plan for the possibility of having to ad-lib. Things rarely go 100% according to your plan.
Study the courses that have been used in equitation finals over the past years. They are easily available online. These courses are not simple and are often modified versions of complex jumper tracks. Visualizing how they could be most fluidly ridden can help you feel more familiar with this type of course when you see it at an equitation final.
• Your horse is an individual; walk your course with him or her in mind.
Determine what skills the judges want to see, and then decide how you can do that in a way that is best for your horse.
Ride the horse you have and plan to execute the course in a way that is best for your animal. If a line is too long for your horse, plan to add a stride, if it is too short, leave it out.
• Watch others—within reason.
Over the years, I found it very helpful to observe some of the trips of riders who would compete before me from a variety of spots around the ring. The way a course rides can appear very differently from various viewpoints, and you must consider where the judges will be seated as well. I try to not watch too many trips, just enough so that I am comfortable with my plan and how to execute it. Once I feel like I have a good handle on it, I try to keep my mind busy by going to do some schoolwork or riding a horse. Watching too many trips can become confusing.
• Harness positive thinking to produce positive outcomes.
Looking back at my time in the junior ranks, one of the greatest things I learned was the power of positivity and its role in success. The thought process that you bring to your riding and your interactions with the team that supports you defines your outcome. Surround yourself with people who want you to succeed, push you to chase your dreams, and encourage you to try again when things don’t go your way.
Decide what is going to happen rather than worry about what might go wrong. Focus on your growth rather than your mistakes.
Allow you and your horse the grace to make a mistake and believe that you will come back better for it. Remember why you started this sport, how far you have come, and remember that there is a lifetime of riding ahead of you.
Ava Stearns, of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, was the 2019 winner of the ASPCA Maclay Final (Kentucky), and also finished as reserve champion of the 2019 WHIS Equitation Championship (District of Columbia) as well as the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East in 2019 and 2020. After aging out she started riding on the NCEA team for Auburn University (Alabama), where she is earning a master’s degree in public administration. She was named to the Ariat All-America teams six times, as well as being named the 2022 Flat Rider of the Year.
She now is a sought-after equitation commentator, and her credits include the Dover Saddlery USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final (Pennsylvania), the ASPCA Maclay Final, the Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals (California and New Jersey) and the Hamel Foundation NHS 3’3” Equitation Championship (Kentucky).