Tuesday, Jun. 11, 2024

A New Look At Our Young Horse Programs

Our columnist traveled the country judging young horses this spring and discovered a lot of talent and topics to discuss.

This year has offered me and my judging colleague, Lilo Fore, an opportunity to get a “panoramic” view of some of the best young horses in our country.

The Young Horse Program in the United States, sponsored by Markel Insurance, is based on the Fédération Equestre Internationale principles of bringing a horse to maturity in his training.


Our columnist traveled the country judging young horses this spring and discovered a lot of talent and topics to discuss.

This year has offered me and my judging colleague, Lilo Fore, an opportunity to get a “panoramic” view of some of the best young horses in our country.

The Young Horse Program in the United States, sponsored by Markel Insurance, is based on the Fédération Equestre Internationale principles of bringing a horse to maturity in his training.

Horses qualify in specified competitions for the championships in Verden, Germany, in August, and for our national championships in Kentucky in September. To lend continuity to the results and avoid shipping young horses all over the country to qualify, the U.S. Equestrian Federation assigns the same two judges to spring shows in three locations, one on each coast and one in the Midwest.

Another assigned judge meets them at each venue, and the three judges work together to come up with the best horses to qualify for the two championships.

Working with Lilo is always a delight. She’s a knowledgeable horsewoman and trainer with many years of experience standing breeding stallions of her own. Plus, she’s a great shopper with a quick sense of humor, both assets if you have to spend lots of time together!

Our journey started at Lamplight, a fabulous facility close to Chicago. I hadn’t been there for years, and I was thoroughly impressed by the compact, but not crowded, layout and the beauty of the show grounds, which were groomed to the nines and in full spring bloom.

Unfortunately, we had few horses entered in the classes, which was attributed to the late spring this year, preventing training outside to get the horse ready. There were several talents among the ones who did attend, but they tended to tiptoe around in the sunshine as if they weren’t quite sure how to act in the big outdoors. What was pleasant to see was that the U.S.-bred horses were able to hold their own against the imports.

The second show was Flintridge in California, outside Burbank. Here Mother Nature thought up a different angle and almost drowned us the first day. The footing looked scary but in fact was never slippery or dangerous thanks to the diligent work of the grounds personnel.

The horses were plentiful and well in gear, and each division sported an outstanding winner. The 5-year-old champion was a lovely black bay stallion name Sandomere (Sandro Hit—Romina, Ramiro’s Match) who charmed us from “hello” with his elasticity and soft connection, capably piloted by Merrie Velden. By the last test, the youngster was a tad bored with the scenario, which showed up with occasional resistance to the aids. Thus he lost some valuable points in the final class, but that didn’t stop him from taking the top honors with ease.

Star Youngsters

The 6-year-old division winner was a surprise to Lilo and me. We had both seen Willy Arts and his redheaded lady in the ring a couple of weeks before. At that time, she was full of herself and had not much use for Willy’s ministrations. Between shows there appears to have been a taming of the shrew, and when that girl cooperates, she’s something else!


Valeska DG is her name. She’s by Krack C and out of Polimbria by Farrington and was bred in the United States by DG Bar Ranch. Not only did she take the 6-year-old championship, but she also achieved a high enough score to qualify for Verden. If she does go to compete in Germany, we cannot be sure her mood will be just peachy, but with her agility, power and presence it’s unlikely that anybody will miss the fact that she was there.

Raleigh was our last stop, and again there were plenty of lovely youngsters to strut their stuff in North Carolina. A large, black Hanoverian mare with liquid motion and lots of volume in her gaits took and kept the lead in the 5-year-old group. Ronatella S is her name, by Rotspon out of a Raphael mare, ridden by Joe Sandven and owned by Helen West.

She impressed us greatly with her willingness, but she’s currently in the state of development when her size was in some ways hindering her ability to balance. This one, in a year or two, should be something to behold!

The 6-year-old winner was the horse that represented the United States in Verden last year as a 5-year-old: Cabana Boy, owned by Hilltop Farm and by their stallion Contucci out of a mare by Bordeaux. The breeders are Dough and Shannon Langer.

In a smooth and confident manner, Christopher Hickey presented the bay gelding, who won hands down, but narrowly missed the cut-off score for Verden. Some hesitant flying changes and a bit of strain maintaining the power and balance in the medium trots were the weaknesses. Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise, since repeated trips to Europe are taxing for a young horse.

Now Cabana Boy and the other horses who were close to making the cut can get the time and peace to be prepared for the step up to the Developing Horse division, instead of traveling back and forth over the Atlantic. Hopefully, they will all show up for the national championship in Kentucky and compete head-to-head there!

Listen To The Horse

About eight years ago, when the Young Horse tests for 5- and 6-year-olds were first introduced at an FEI seminar in Germany, the judges were a bit taken aback by the 6-year-old test, and they expressed their concerns.

The prominent trainers present assured us that any 6-year-old worth his salt should easily be able to handle the step up within the year. After watching and judging within the program since then, I still feel, as did many of the judges present, that the move from the 5- to the 6-year-old test is quite a demanding task.

Whenever I have a talented 5-year-old to work with I tend to press on, and if the horse is ridden by a student, I will encourage him or her to get on with the program. However, that same horse may well be overwhelmed by the requirements of the 6-year-old test. If that’s so, it’s time to chill and listen to our horse. After all, when that same horse is performing at Grand Prix, do you think anyone will give a hoot whether he won the 6-year-old championship?

From judging the same horses in consecutive years, I know that some individuals sail onto the next level with ease, while others become completely paralyzed and cannot deal with the “fast forward,” never mind how talented.

Consequently, it’s the responsibility of the trainer to protect the young horse that’s not ready, skip the following year and let the horse mature at his own pace.


At Raleigh I had the opportunity to spend some time with the people who made it all possible: Lisa and John Seger. At every Young Horse event and certainly for every championship, Lisa and John are right there observing, supporting and presenting awards.

They represent Markel Insurance, the main sponsor for our entire U.S. Young Horse USEF Championship program, and they love their job!

I asked them what they would like to see to move this already successful agenda to an even higher level.
Six years into the program, it would make sense to investigate what’s happened to our horses that have moved through the divisions and perhaps “graduated” into the levels beyond Prix St. Georges. The young horse classes are intended to introduce the 4-year-olds to life outside their own barn, and to help the 5- and 6-year-olds to develop according to the pyramid of training. If the program works, we should be able to recognize quite a few alumni in the FEI classes. It would be helpful if we could develop an easy method to stay in touch with past performances and keep tabs on the progress of all our “kids.”

At the moment, most young horses competing are imports, but an obvious national goal will have to be to send U.S.-bred horses to overseas championships. In the long run, it makes little sense to return to Europe with young horses that were produced there.

In order to stimulate breeding in the United States, there has to be more credit given to the breeders (mare owner by the time of conception) we have here, as is the custom elsewhere.

When a horse does anything worthwhile in Europe and a mention is made in the media, it’s always accompanied by the name of the owner and breeder. When a famous horse is retired, you will find his breeders standing in the spotlight along with riders and owners. This hardly ever happens here, where breeders are the forgotten important link who get little, if any, credit.

Having only U.S.-bred horses represent us in Europe will support our breeders, and so will making it customary to always mention the breeder whenever a horse is successful.

Green horses need help from experienced and competent riders. The blind leading the blind ends up in confusion, delay and possible injury. It’s slowly becoming understood by U.S. owners that if you invest in a lovely young horse, you need to also invest in his continued education.

We saw several examples again this year of fabulous talents that were unfortunately presented by novice owner/riders. You would think that since these people were smart enough to buy such great horses, they could see beyond today and get the right jockey to start and compete their horses to show them off to their best advantage. Or perhaps they just don’t know where to find help.

If that’s the case, the USEF/U.S. Dressage Federation ought to compile a listing of available young horse trainers with a record of successfully bringing horses along. This would assist the owners in locating and contacting the trainer they could trust to educate their youngsters. The time spent waiting to show the horse will be well worth it once the owner is ready to take over the ride on a properly prepared horse. Being on the same page is a good thing! 

Anne Gribbons

Anne Gribbons moved to the United States from Sweden in 1972 and has trained more than a dozen horses to Grand Prix. She rode on the 1986 World Championships dressage team and earned a team silver medal at the 1995 Pan American Games. An O-rated dressage judge, based in Chuluota, Fla., Gribbons serves as co-vice chairman of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee. She started contributing to Between Rounds in 1995.




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