Zoe Brown, the 16-year-old daughter of Australian show jumper and trainer Harley Brown, topped a record field of 44 entries to win this year’s Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final—West, held Sept. 24-26 at Rancho Mission Viejo Riding Park (California).
Zoe, Redwood City, California, piloted The Original, a 7-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding owned by her father and trainer, through the four-phase Talent Search Final.
The competition is comprised of: flatwork, in which riders are evaluated on the rail in groups of seven or eight; gymnastics, with a course that requires quick turns and lengthening and shortening of the horse’s stride while maintaining rhythm and balance; show jumping over a grand prix-style course that includes a liverpool and water jump; and a ride-off where the top four competitors complete a course with their own horse, then switch mounts to ride the same course on each of the other three top horses. The format is set up to have riders use their own knowledge and experience to create a strategy for each phase; trainers are not allowed to school the horses for the duration of the competition, and only riders are permitted to walk the courses. This year’s competition was judged by Jack Towell and Jack Hardin Towell.
Zoe and “O.G.” started off in sixth place after the flat phase Saturday morning but came back to win the gymnastic phase and move to the top of the standings heading into Sunday. After a shakeup at the top of the leaderboard in the show jumping phase, she came back with four strong rides in final ride-off to secure the win.
“I was most nervous for the flat phase, so once I got that out of the way, the pressure was eased a little bit,” Zoe said. “I was not expecting to go out and win the gymnastics phase, so I just had to keep my cool and keep calm under pressure.”
In addition to the overall champion title, Zoe was awarded the 2021 Sportsmanship Award, recognizing a rider who demonstrates good sportsmanship throughout the competition, as selected by competition stewards and schooling supervisors, and “O.G.” was named Best Horse by the judges at this year’s West Coast finals.
“My parents found him for me at the end of last year,” said Brown. “Thermal was my first show with him, and we had a really great start together and clicked well. It hasn’t been easy with him getting used to the equitation ring, but he’s already a pro. He’s pretty special.”
U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Young Rider Chef d’Equipe and Technical Advisor DiAnn Langer was on the grounds to observe the riders throughout the competition.
“It’s amazing, the growth in California for this particular final, and the quality of riders, horses and training was incredible,” Langer said. “I’m very excited about the progress and the potential that I saw here.”
The talent search is an essential part of the U.S. show jumping pathway program as it helps identify riders from the youth and equitation ranks who have the qualities that make good team riders for the future, she said.
“It really tests a rider’s potential to analyze the course on their own, to be able to handle the gymnastics, and most importantly, how they are on the flat,” she said. “We really want a workmanlike rider who is able to make things happen, and how you find it is by setting up situations like this, with the flat, the gymnastics, and the jumping and then the changing of horses.
“We find the changing horses very useful as this country is so big, and there are just so few of us scouting out there to see who’s doing what,” Langer continued. “Then when there is a decision to be made about Youth Olympics, having been able to ride other horses and quickly get used to them and figure out the best way to ride them is very important. We’re looking not only at riders’ stats and how they’ve been successful, if they’ve been riding other horses. So, it’s good for us to see, and it’s a fence height that’s in a range that’s quite doable.”
The 2021 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals—East will take place Oct. 8-10 at the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey.