Monday, May. 27, 2024

It’s Time To Consider Qualifying Criteria For Hunter/Jumper Divisions

Our columnist believes the sport should follow in the footsteps of the eventing and dressage disciplines as they develop and fine-tune qualifying criteria for moving up the levels.

Lately, equestrian sports have been facing considerable challenges with regards to horse and rider safety and welfare. I’ve been wondering if greater emphasis needs to be placed on this issue for both seasoned and new horse enthusiasts, especially our junior riders.
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Our columnist believes the sport should follow in the footsteps of the eventing and dressage disciplines as they develop and fine-tune qualifying criteria for moving up the levels.

Lately, equestrian sports have been facing considerable challenges with regards to horse and rider safety and welfare. I’ve been wondering if greater emphasis needs to be placed on this issue for both seasoned and new horse enthusiasts, especially our junior riders.

I know many in our world will con-sider some of the following as too much oversight and management of our sport, but I believe that we need to do our homework and have the confidence to say we’ve acted responsibly to govern our sport, by providing a safe venue for our horses and riders.

Our fellow equestrians in the sport of eventing have been taking a lot of hard hits lately with regards to horse and rider welfare and safety. Their experiences over the past couple of years—and the most recent accidents—has them confronting the problems head on and making some significant changes to how horses and riders advance up the ladder in their field of play.

The eventing community is examining their qualification criteria for moving up the ranks, and it’s made me ponder our lack of criteria for advancing in the hunter and jumper sport.

It seems to me that this is a good time to get ahead of the game by examining our sport and deciding whether we need a system of qualification to advance in the hunter and jumper arenas. Right now, the only qualification criteria for competing at a certain level is within the Young Riders program. In order to compete at the North American Junior And Young Rider Championships, a competitor and horse must have achieved a score of 4 faults or fewer over a course of either level 7 or 8, depending on the section in which they will compete.

Head-To-Head National Championships For The Welfare Of The Horse

Last year, the U.S. Equestrian Federation started to post the number of shows a horse competes in alongside the total number of points accumulated. This addition has been a real eye opener for many people, mainly our pony, junior and hunter breeding competitors. These are three areas of our sport where horses spend a considerable amount of time on the road showing.
There are several factors that contribute to this phenomenon: Our current system for determining the national champion, our Devon (Pa.) and fall indoor horse shows qualifying system, and the fact that there are more people competing and more shows in which to compete. 

Our pony and junior divisions require many, many more points to qualify for Devon and indoors than other hunter divisions. Therefore, it’s easy to see why horses and ponies in these divisions show extensively to obtain their top 15 shows.

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However, I was most surprised by the number of competitions that some of the hunter breeding horses attend. What happened to horsemanship and common sense? While not everyone in hunter breeding subscribes to this philosophy, the fact that even some of those responsible for the care and nurturing of tomorrow’s stars would even consider this avenue is rather disheartening.

I feel we need to reflect on whether our current increment system is the best way to accrue points for successful competition. It would be a good exercise to look at how other breeds and disciplines have structured their point systems.

Every year I attend the USEF Pony Finals the same thought crosses my mind. Why aren’t we using this competition to determine our national champion for each pony section? After all, this is a head-to-head competition with many of the finest ponies in the country.

To name a true national champion, the format probably needs some adjustment, such as adding another jumping competition to the agenda. Perhaps the first round is a qualifier for the second round or the scores from both rounds are added to the hack and model.

I believe this is something the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Pony Hunter Task Force should be considering. It just seems to make sense that a true champion is better found in head-to-head competition rather than who goes to the most shows and accumulates the most points.

I feel that this option is better than implementing a top-15 shows system for determining the USEF Horse Of The Year winners because it doesn’t promote running a horse’s legs off to win the top prize. This same idea could easily be adopted for all national hunter and jumper divisions.

There already exists several USEF national championships in both disciplines (for example, the USEF Junior Hunter Finals and the USEF Prix Des States). It would be
relatively simple to make the necessary adjustments to keep the tradition of these events while also creating a new aspect of each by recognizing the winner as the national champion. A title each horse would wear until a new champion was named the following year.

All of us, whether trainer, exhibitor, parent, competition manager, official, groom or spectator, have watched competitors going around the ring, holding our breath, hoping that nothing goes wrong that would result in injury to horse or rider. How many times have trainers felt the pressure to send a rider and horse into a class in which the combination is not fully capable of executing?

This pressure comes from several sources, including parents of junior riders, adult riders and our business in general. Parents spend a lot of money and want advancement for their child; adults spend their money and want a return on their investment. And as for our business, if a rider demands to move up a level and a trainer tries to keep a rider and horse at the level of their competence, there’s always another trainer who will be glad to have that rider in the barn and will also allow her to move up before she’s capable. So, for many trainers, to keep their business together they’re forced to compromise their principles and move the rider forward.

Feeling forced to advance a rider and horse before they’re capable is much different and must not be confused with challenging a rider and horse by moving them up to the next step when they’ve mastered their current level of competition.

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I believe one way to help mitigate this problem is to develop a system of qualification to advance in our sport. Much like the Young Riders program, riders and horses would achieve certificates of capability in order to be eligible to advance. A program such as this may only be needed for the upper levels.

Our friends in dressage have been developing qualification requirements for their sport, which prevents novice riders on experienced horses from competing at the advanced levels before the rider is capable of executing the movements.

This is something we need to consider in our world. We all strive to find the best mount for each student, and often the horse is much more educated than the rider, especially when the rider is a novice. However, just because the horse is capable, doesn’t mean the rider should be competing at a higher level than her ability warrants.

All of us in the equestrian community are responsible for this problem, and it will take all of us to get it under control through developing a plan that will allow for educated advancement and challenges for our riders and horses.

In the midst of thinking about this process, my eyes were opened by Karen Golding, U.S. Equestrian Federation steward, and Debbie Stephens, grand prix rider and trainer, to an issue that I’d not thought much about—the welfare of our professional horsemen. While our working professionals are pounding the pavement, our retired professionals are often a forgotten group of well-educated horsemen.

While developing a plan for qualified advancement, we need to look to our licensed officials for their input and to utilize the vast knowledge of our retired professionals to assist with determining horse and rider qualification. Instead of our retired professionals drifting into obscurity, let’s create a national program that employs these horsemen to work in combination with our licensed officials to assess levels of competence and determine eligibility to advance.

It will take considerable time to develop the qualifications and criteria for advancement in the hunter and
jumper disciplines, but I feel it’s well worth the effort. This type of program will advance the welfare of horses and riders while reducing the pressures on trainers to advance them more quickly than responsibly.
In addition to the prospect of receiving a certificate of capability at U.S. Equestrian Federation competitions, we should also contemplate the potential for hosting several horsemanship clinics per year in each of our U.S. Hunter Jumper Association zones. These could be two- or three-day clinics with our retired professionals as clinicians, and at the end of each clinic those riders and horses who are ready to advance would receive their credentials.

This program has a two-fold benefit for our equestrian community: It increases the opportunities for equestrians to receive their certificates and provides them the exposure to knowledgeable horsemen.

So many times in equestrian sports we’re playing catch up. Here’s an opportunity to deal with some issues in advance. Let’s take some time to really think about where our sport is today and where we need to be in the future. Get in touch with your representatives in governance and give them your input. Be a part of your future. 

Bill Moroney

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