Our columnist believes this annual FEI championship reveals a weak link in the U.S. show jumping program.
As I write this column I’m following, via the Internet, the results of the Adequan FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships show jumping competition in Kentucky.
For me, this event has always been extremely special. For one thing, it’s the only Fédération Equestre Internationale Championship event held in North America in our discipline.
But even more important, it’s the only opportunity most younger riders have to take part in a true international championship event. The team element, the multi-day format with tension building every day, the pomp and circumstance that goes with a true FEI “event”—these are all of the things that most every participant I’ve spoken to feels has broadened her horizons and provided life-long memories.
Judging just from the results, however, I fear that it can be a very big step for many of our riders to go from what they do every week all year to this event.
The past two years, in particular, have produced very high scores for the vast majority of riders. Last year’s team results, for example, showed a silver-medal team score of more than 60 faults! Remember, this is the total of the team’s best three riders—the worst score was thrown out.
This year’s team competitions were almost as bad. While there were certainly some exceptional performances, the results overall show that what was asked of the horses and riders was clearly beyond what most could accomplish successfully.
For example, according to the scores in the junior team event, four of the nine teams were eliminated and one scratched. Two strong teams jumped off for the gold medal after attaining respectable 12-fault scores, but the bronze team had 37 faults and the only other team to finish had 76 faults.
Meanwhile, the young rider team event was even more disastrous. The score sheet shows no fewer than 21 eliminations over the two rounds. Considering that of the 47 riders who started on Day 1, only 37 started on Day 2, and a number of those didn’t start in the second round, this is a huge percentage of competitors who never saw the finish line.
For those who finished, you can imagine what the scores were when a total of 149 faults were accumulated by the three teams standing on the medal podium! Don’t forget, these were scores just from their best three riders; two riders from these winning teams were eliminated in a round as well.
We have top junior and young riders in this country; each and every one has full-time training, and most are mounted on exceptional horses with experience in the higher levels. So what in the world is going on? They certainly don’t post these scores at the other shows they attend.
A European Standard
No one should expect the NAJYRC to be just a regular horse show, though. Being an FEI event, the NAJYRC has a full set of special rules and specifications that go along with it.
The FEI is the sport’s world-wide organization, and its leaders hope to use these regional championships to achieve some universality in what a given group of riders or horses are doing at a specific level. Like everything with the FEI, the specifications and rules are driven by the acknowledged center of the sport, Western Europe.
As I’ve observed before in these columns, the various championships for younger European riders have been treated as one of the most important benchmarks for riders with aspirations to compete at the top. For generations the list of riders we read about every day, from virtually every European country, made their international debuts and honed their skills at European championships for ponies, juniors and young riders.
The junior and young rider events are huge affairs with 100 entrants in each division. Juniors jump 1.40 meters and not a bit more, but the young rider division is built fully to the 1.50-meter specifications.
These riders are completely prepared for a level of difficulty that far exceeds that of most of our national standard grand prix classes. This situation was made quite clear when last year Alfonso Romo (of La Silla in Monterrey, Mexico) invited the second- and third-placed young riders from the European Championships to his CSI events.
One of them made easy work of winning the first grand prix he contested, and both were strong competitors each time they rode into the ring against the senior riders. One went on to qualify for the Aachen CSIO***** (Germany) this year.
These young rider classes are clearly serious business for them. (As an aside, it’s interesting to note that a large percentage of the most successful riders, just like here, are children of professional riders. We’ll probably never know how much is genetic and how much is opportunity).
So, bully for Europe, but what about here? It would be wonderful to get from where we are now to what they’ve achieved in Europe with a large number of 16- to 21-year-old riders competing with success at the 1.50-meter level.
Yet, how do we accomplish this goal without some sort of plan?
For me, picturing riders on the floor and scores that sound more like basketball than jumping totals isn’t a good way to go about it. Jumping into it cold turkey once a year isn’t working for many, and I fear that too many will simply decide to forget it and stay within their comfort zone, thus missing out on all of the wonderful aspects of participating in this event.
For most every competitor who attended the NAJYRC, it took a great deal of effort and expense to qualify and compete. And I believe that every rider, not just the medal winners, should take home something positive from the experience.
Top European course designers, and even those who build in South America, are going to build to the same standard as they would at home. And as anyone who rides or builds knows: there’s definitely a difference between “1.50 meters’’ and 1.50 meters.
Our national standard grand prix classes only require two obstacles to be set at 1.50 meters, and at smaller events or when the standard isn’t particularly high, this is about all that gets set to that height.
If a strong 1.50-meter course, such as those at bigger European events, were to be set at most of our grand prix events I doubt that the scores would be a whole lot better than those shown at the NAJYRC. I didn’t see the course for the team competition for the young riders, but my guess is it was closer to the latter than the former.
Jumping this level of track takes even more than a good horse. It takes experience doing it. Getting that experience either takes access to a number of high-level horses—a single horse to ride just won’t cut it anymore at this level. Or else a rider and horse have to move up the ranks developing solid results together along the way.
It’s far different to buy a well-qualified horse, hop on and learn along the way at 1.20 meters, 1.30 meters or even 1.40 meters; to do it at 1.50 meters isn’t something that even the most experienced and talented international riders often do (at least if they want the horse to last a while).
A Positive Light
At a recent symposium for upper-level course designers held in Aachen, Germany, there was much talk about the importance of design to present the sport in a positive light, to develop horses and riders and to contribute to the longevity of the horses at a top level.
“Ugly pictures” were really frowned upon, such as those of falling or disheartened horses. Not only are spectators put off, but how many riders and their parents will look forward with eager anticipation to coming to an event where so many are plainly overfaced?
It would have left better images if the designer had built to the “softer side” of the specifications for the team event in which even those with the least experience must pull their weight for their team no matter what.
The individual final, where only the most successful get to ride, should be the place to really up the ante. This year there was a unanimous feeling that the team event far exceeded the individual in difficulty. It shows how difficult the team course was that only the top 15 riders carried fewer than 30 faults forward into the young rider individual final! The last one eligible for the final (best 60 percent in-vited to return) started with a fraction under 60 faults.
Though we want the event to be a challenge—after all it’s a championship—I believe this isn’t the way to go about developing riders to a higher level. Scores were high last year with the same European designer, and it seems like many riders didn’t return a year later much better prepared. This is an important event that shouldn’t be allowed to languish because interest is lost or those with in-terest but without the ability to buy high six- and seven-figure horses simply can’t participate.
I’d rather we find ways to encourage this set of younger riders–the ones that aspire to go as far as they can go in the sport. To do this our sport’s leaders and the U.S. Equestrian Federation need to be doing more to help prepare our riders to move up the ranks and develop the skills for success.
The rewards are high for junior riders, with many championships and year-end awards. Yet even for those who compete regularly in the 1.40-meter “high” section (and are lucky enough to live where a lot of those classes are offered), it’s a big change when that same 1.40 meters is built to a European standard and over four rounds of jumping in only five days. The jump to 1.50 meters is a huge 4″! Plus, handling the pressure of a multi-day event improves with practice, and our kids don’t get much of that.
It’s even worse for a rider reaching the age of 18—she either goes to the amateur-owner ranks if she can afford the stock, or else she turns professional. The amateur-owner route has the same downside as the junior program—and they don’t even have the Prix des States at the Pennsylvania National to aim for and learn from. Between these challenges and the demands of getting an education, many of our riders are lost during this period.
I believe that the amateur-owner division was created as the place for riders who do this sport for fun to compete against each other at a level where they feel comfortable. How does one division satisfy that need as well as the need of a rider aspiring to continue up the ladder?
It’s clear that the true difficulty level demanded by the NAJYRC means riders need to be prepared and able to cope with at least our national grand prix level. The problem is that the choice between gaining experience against the seniors in the grand prix and being a star in the amateur-owners isn’t always a fun one to make unless you’re sitting on something pretty spectacular.
Right now our aspiring young riders don’t receive recognition for their successes within our current system—no encouragement to forge on during a tough transition stage.
There are no easy answers, that’s for sure. We have many challenges in this big old country of ours, but I would hope that developing our riders (and our horses) for the future would be considered just as important as supporting our athletes that have already reached the top. We’ll need these new faces someday. It might be time for some creative, long-range thinking.