The leaders behind this new U.S. Hunter Jumper Association program hope to discover and nurture our gold medalists of the future.
Californian Annie Lufkin has a dream. Some day the 16-year-old would love to see herself standing on the podium, a gold medal hanging around her neck.
Lufkin’s goal, one shared by thousands of other young riders around the country, is a distant dream at this point, but a group of show jumping’s most experienced and influential members is helping kids like Lufkin get a jump-start on fulfilling that dream through the new Emerging Athletes Program.
USHJA President Bill Moroney, the U.S. Equestrian Federation Developing Riders Program Chairman Emeritus Ronnie Beard, and Olympic Show Jumping gold medalist Melanie Smith Taylor are the leaders behind this new idea, which has evolved over the past year into a fully formed program with designated steps intended to discover the next riders who can represent the United States in show jumping.
When the U.S. Equestrian Team had some of their most prosperous decades and was growing into a powerhouse in the show jumping discipline, the sport was led by the team’s chef d’equipe, Bertalan de Nemethy. De Nemethy hosted regular clinics and training sessions at the team’s headquarters in Gladstone, N.J., throughout the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
Riders who came out of these training sessions would often go on to represent the United States in international competition, and some became legends of the sport, such as Taylor.
Lufkin, currently a student at the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut, is one of the first young riders who has applied to participate in the Level 1 Training Sessions. Lufkin grew up riding dressage and has only started jumping in the past three years.
She chose to apply for the educational opportunities. “To be able to [take a] clinic with Melanie Taylor is very cool,” said Lufkin. “I know she’s an awesome rider.”
Lufkin also noted that she wants the chance to watch the other junior riders at the Screening Trial. “Just being able to watch them in the lesson would be a great opportunity for me,” she added.
In addition to committee co-chairmen Taylor and Beard, the program has drawn other equally impressive names in the sport, such as USEF Show Jumping Director Sally Ike; grand prix riders Candice King, Georgina Bloomberg, Katie Prudent, Alison Robitaille and Eliza Shuford; as well as Kathy Moore and USHJA Vice President Chrystine Tauber. U.S. Chef d’Equipe George Morris and John Madden will serve as advisors to the committee.
“We were trying to figure out how to develop a national, grassroots program that was similar to what was so successful back in the ‘70s with Bert de Nemethy,” said Taylor. “There were a lot of things that Bert did that worked. We built a lot of depth to the teams.
“We had a period of time where we weren’t as successful, and now we’re back on top again,” Taylor added. “We want to try and maintain that feeling that we have plenty of depth, and we’re always trying to improve things. We need to always be progressive thinkers, whether it’s training horses or building teams. We need to be thinking, ‘What can we do better?’ ”
The committee developed a mission statement, which explains their overall intent: “To provide these riders with the support and assistance necessary to facilitate the opportunity to reach their full potential by creating a national program as a step ladder to international competition.”
The mission is a way of not only fostering an educational experience for riders already at the A-rated level, but also those grassroots riders who would otherwise not have an opportunity like this.
With the intricacy of the Federation and affiliate relationship with the USHJA, the EAP had to be formed so that it didn’t overlap with what the USEF already has in place.
“It’s not a High Performance program, it’s a national program,” noted Moroney. “That’s where the USHJA comes in as the national affiliate for show jumping. It’s our duty to find young people who will hopefully end up in the athlete pipeline and will represent our country internationally in the future.”
“For years, I’ve been the chairman of the Developing Riders [Committee], and those riders are basically out in the public being seen, doing bigger classes,” Beard said. “They’re easier for us to find. But we thought that somewhere along the road we needed a way to locate and train riders who haven’t been so fortunate. I think it’s going to be a great thing because what we now have with the Emerging Athletes [Program] is that we go out and find young talent and make sure that we don’t lose them. Eventually, they’ll go into Developing Riders and on to bigger things.”
Taylor, Moroney and Beard all stressed that the EAP isn’t necessarily for riders already competing near the grand prix level.
Moroney believes there will be a cross-section of young riders on the list from those competing at unrecognized horse shows all the way up to those we would consider our “High Performance” juniors and amateurs.
“This [program] gives us a chance to go into each area of the country geographically, where those kids can come and ride in front of the committee,” said Moroney. “They’ll get on a list of riders who we want to keep watching and promoting as the sport goes forward.
“I think as you go up in height in the sessions, you’re going to have higher-level kids that you want the others to see ride in that environment,” Moroney added. “There’s nothing better than watching other people school to learn and pick up things.”
How It Works
For young riders interested in the EAP, the program includes three levels: the Level I Training Sessions, the Regional Level II Training Sessions, and the National Training Session.
There will be 11 Level I Training Sessions held in each USHJA Zone in the country (with two in California) from April through July of 2009. They are held over two days and will be run at levels of 3′, 3’6″ and 4′. While there is no minimum age requirement, the program is limited to riders 21 years of age and under.
The Level I Training Sessions will be open to 24 riders with three groups of eight riders each. Taylor explained that the riders will demonstrate and learn flatwork and gymnastic exercises on the first day, and they will ride a course on the second day. Riders will walk and help set the course.
“They’ll be asked to present themselves, show how they warm up and do the exercises. We’ll talk to them, give them ideas and coaching, and then they’ll go back and do the course again,” Taylor explained. “We’re observing what they can show us with their ability, and it will also be an informative clinic. [The] clinician will put them in an order by their ability at each session. At the end of all the Level I training sessions around the country, a certain number or percentage will be invited to Level II.”
|Close To Her Heart
The Emerging Athletes Program has special meaning to Melanie Smith Taylor, who grew up in Tennessee and was one of the riders who moved through Bert de Nemethy’s training sessions at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, N.J.
Eventually, Taylor went on to the greatest accolades in show jumping with her most famous mount, Calypso.
“I was geographically removed from everything. I remember going to screening trials with Bert and not making it the first couple of times,” she said with a smile. “But to be able to have the chance to be noticed? That’s what matters.”
Taylor said her background makes her more interested and excited about the EAP and vested in its success.
“I’ve always loved young horses and helping young riders, giving them opportunities and seeing that potential. I love the naïveté of the young riders and horses, trying to develop them, build the confidence and experience. It’s very close to my heart. It’s the way I came up, and I would love to have had this kind of opportunity. I think all riders have a feeling of wanting to give back, and this is a way that’s important to me and that I can give back to something that’s true to my roots and close to my heart.”
Some riders may not be ready to move on to Level II, and that’s part of the plan. But all involved will have the opportunity to learn and improve their riding and horsemanship, which is the heart of the program.
“You’ve got to remember that these training sessions are grassroots and at the basic level. Some of these kids may be four, five, eight years away from competing at a higher level,” Taylor said. “Some might only be a year or two away. That’s the beauty of it. If they don’t make the cut this year, they can come back as many times as they want.”
All of the Level I Training Sessions will also be open to auditors. While riders can only participate in one Level I Training Session per year, they are allowed to audit as many as they want. Riders who cannot make the session in their Zone are allowed to ride in another Zone’s session as well.
Taylor plans to attend as many Level I Training Sessions as possible, and the committee believes that her oversight will help maintain consistency in the screening and decision-making process. Other committee members will also take part in choosing riders from these trials to advance to the Regional Level II Training Sessions.
The Regional Level II Training Sessions, which will be held in the fall at locations that are still to be determined, will be held over three to four days and will include horsemanship curriculum in addition to riding sessions.
A select number of riders will then be invited to participate in a five-day National Training Session. The session will consist of riding sessions, stable management, horsemanship and seminars with veterinarians, nutritionists, blacksmiths and sports psychologists.
The National Training Session will culminate in a Nations Cup-type competition. The top two individuals selected from the National Training Session will receive a grant for one month of advanced training, which is also yet to be determined.
Filling The Pipeline
Taylor noted that their long-term goal is to work with show managers to offer mini team competitions in conjunction with the program.
“We find now that the only experience young riders get in a Nations Cup is when they go on these Developing Tours as a team,” she said. “I don’t care who you are, riding on a team and representing your country is a lot different than riding as an individual. Experience makes a big difference. To really prepare our riders for the Developing Tour and Nations Cup League, it would be so nice for them to have prior team experience.”
While there are still details beyond the first level that need to be ironed out, the committee members are excited about the possibility of finding the next riders who will be able to move up the “show jumping pipeline.”
Taylor said, “All of these things are within the realm of possibility. We just have to get started. Then things happen—more people get interested, more people have ideas. Things start to work when everyone is thinking with a vision and thinking progressively on parallel tracks. Then we can connect a lot of the dots.
“I think that what the USHJA is doing here runs parallel to what the USEF is doing with the Developing Riders program,” she added. “This is just going to enhance those programs. It shows the way to make those future teams. They’ll all work well together.”
The “pipeline” idea is something that Beard touched on 12 years ago when he started the Developing Riders Program with Ike. That program has progressed and tours have been sent to Europe annually, giving up-and-coming grand prix riders invaluable experience. But for Beard, the EAP fills a hole that the Developing Riders Program could not.
“This is really part of a whole picture that Sally and I had originally planned, to have an entire program. [The EAP] helps tie it all together,” Beard concluded. “I think any successful sport has a structure, and I think this is a structure that will help make show jumping a lot better in this country. What I think it will do is strengthen the depth of riders. It is a good thing to have more riders to choose from.”