Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023

We Need To Figure Out Where We’re Going From Here

As I reflect on the year that's just passed, it seems clear to me that our most important hunter event is the National Horse Show, which was held in New York City's Madison Square Garden for more than 100 years'except for six years in New Jersey at the Meadowlands'until 2002. So I'll discuss that show first, and then I'll talk about the BET/USETShowJumping Talent Search Finals-East (N.J.), which I judged this year.



As I reflect on the year that’s just passed, it seems clear to me that our most important hunter event is the National Horse Show, which was held in New York City’s Madison Square Garden for more than 100 years’except for six years in New Jersey at the Meadowlands’until 2002. So I’ll discuss that show first, and then I’ll talk about the BET/USETShowJumping Talent Search Finals-East (N.J.), which I judged this year.


The third event I’ll discuss is the New England Medal Finals (Mass.), along with the USA Equestrian Medal Final at the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg, a class I’ve attended for the past 35 years as a rider, trainer and spectator. The final event I’ll address is the Devon Horse Show (Pa.).


I have attended the National since 1966 as an exhibitor, a trainer and a fan. It was the best venue in our country, and we need to bring it back so it can once again be the premier event for our hunters, our international teams and our equitation students. There is nothing like showing in “The Big Apple!”


And there’s nothing like being able to watch international riders from all over the world. Comparing the different riding styles, and the different kinds of horses, is a healthy thing for every rider in our sport to do. Riding in that arena, which has hosted so many cream-of-the-crop sporting events, gives equestrians from all levels a unique perspective. Now all that remains of the National’for the moment’is the show held on Thanksgiving weekend in Wellington, Fla.


All athletes need to have a goal to which to aspire, and that’s what Madison Square Garden gave us. It gave our pony riders a goal to ride a junior hunter; it gave our owners a way to support our riders with a top hunter or a top grand prix horse. I doubt many people haven’t heard of Madison Square Garden and aren’t impressed by anyone’s accomplishment of showing in that historic arena.


I remember in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, when you arrived in New York City for the show, there were posters announcing it in every store, all over the city. Every cab driver was aware of the show. People who lived in the city were abuzz about it. I have friends who live and work in New York now, and they still say people are wondering what happened to this magnificent show.


It was such a magnificent show that if you hadn’t bought a ticket, you had no chance of getting in to watch it. The building was packed all hours of the day. The crowd went wild for Rodney Jenkins on Idle Dice and Ian Millar on Big Ben, and they grew to know all the international riders after the first night. Of course in those days, the press, particularly the New York Times, covered the show each day as both a sporting and a social event.


That’s why people planned on attending the show each year. For the ASPCA Maclay Final on Sunday, every Pony Club from the New Jersey, Connecticut and New York area came to watch. And every friend, grandparent and relative was there to watch riders from all over the United States and Canada because it was in Madison Square Garden!


We’re all to blame for letting this show nearly die before leaving the Garden. We need to pull it back on its feet and back to the city of New York. Plus, it’s time for all of us involved to think about the juniors who qualify for the Maclay. I think it’s a hardship for them to do their own regional competition, then ship to Maryland, for another round, then have to stay four more days so the final 15 riders can ride against each other in Washington, D.C., one final time.


The cost of shipping, accommodations and more is enormous. The juniors who have started college often can’t afford to miss classes, and the ones in high school also have a hard time justifying to their parents and teachers the time they’ve missed in the classroom. I realize that the Washington management was very accommodating to make it work this year, but I don’t think the way we did it in 2002 is the final answer. The National should return to New York, and it should host the Maclay Finals.


I didn’t attend the National in Wellington this year, but I understand that Mason Phelps, with Gene Mische’s Stadium Jumping team, did an outstanding job. The horse show was in the local newspapers every day, and the pomp and ceremony was back, complete with black-tie affairs. The ticket sales were off the charts.



But the main drawback I see to this venue is the date, on Thanksgiving weekend, the worst weekend of the year to travel. And many people actually like to spend this holiday with their families. Most important, riders and trainers from the Midwest, the Northwest, the West and even the Northeast cannot conveniently go to Florida after they’ve been in Maryland and Pennsylvania for the fall indoor shows there. If Mason and Gene can pull it off in Wellington, why can’t they do it in The Big Apple with the help of all of us?


Not For Everyone


The USET Finals-East are run quite well at another historical facility, the U.S. Equestrian Team’s headquarters in Gladstone, N.J. They bring the top junior riders together for two days of intense showing over three different phases.


It’s an event that isn’t for every rider or for every horse. It teaches the riders to learn as they try to answer three different riding questions. It teaches them to think on their own since the trainers aren’t allowed to ride the horses or to walk the courses. Consequently, the riders learn camaraderie, and they test the waters for their future in the jumper ring.


Walking through that grand, old building with history oozing from the walls makes you think back to the training center Bert de Nemethy set up for our international show jumping teams more than 40 years ago. We won many medals in those days, and we were contenders for the world to see. Should we go back to a system that worked, or should we keep reinventing the wheel? Are we too self-centered in our personal systems to find one that works to produce the best teams possible for our Olympic years?


For us, the Olympics are one of the few team events. Bert used to gather his riders at Gladstone to work with them and the horses for months, even years, before the championship. They worked together each day as a team. But today each rider has his or her own system, trainer and facility. They show against each other all year at different events, but they only become a team for the first time at championships like the Olympics. The riders who are now at that level believe they have to show in Europe to become competitive. But, years ago the European riders came here to show at the National, Washington and Toronto (Ont.) because they wanted to compete against us.


In Massachusetts, Joe Dotoli and his team have brought another Mason Phelps idea to life and created another top final in the New England Equitation Finals. The judging system of five judges giving separate scores was the first of its kind. Joe and his group have changed the system each year, but the format of five or six judges is still going strong.


This group was also the first to use a scoreboard in an equitation final, something horse show managers across the country have now implemented. But what’s really special is the team effort by the trainers from New England. It’s fantastic, something we need more of for special events. These trainers set the course, help with awards, and take part in running the show, with Joe at the head of a well-oiled machine.


The class is so popular that it grows every year. Remember, this is an event that one must qualify for in New England only’yet it grows by leaps and bounds and now includes adult finals that are equally as popular. Will this event continue in the future, when Joe and his team have ceased their involvement? Is there a younger generation to step into their shoes and take over the reins? Or are we again too self-centered to care whether we keep this event going for our future generations?


The judges at the USAEq Medal Finals in Harrisburg (Kip Rosenthal and George Morris) created a test that most of our junior riders simply couldn’t answer. Have we created puppets that can only show in equitation classes with traps and tricks or with set distances that allow them to do nothing but mechanically count?



I think this class is a great class, where the qualifiers all show on the same day, over the same course. It brings the riders from all over the country together for a test of good horsemanship.


But why do we not take an example from our Quarter Horse friends, who give the winners at their Quarter Horse Congress more prizes than they can take home, to motivate our juniors to learn? Where are the bridles, two-horse trailers, scholarships, riding clothes, horse products and more for the winner, and many more prizes for each ribbon winner? We need incentives to dangle in front of our young riders. I see too many juniors who throw up their hands at the end of their equitation careers and say, “I quit.” We need incentives to help them go on.


No More Factions


Last but not least is Devon, a show with history, “Where Champions Meet,” as the famous sign says. Devon has the ambiance, the audience and the importance to make it great. It offers classes from lead line, to the junior hunter classes, to the pony hunt teams, to the jumpers, to amateur-owner riders of all ages.


A championship or blue ribbon at Devon is important, partly because it’s the first time of each year that all the parts of our country come together after showing in their respective winter circuits. Fortunately, Devon seems to have a strong group of supporters who want to continue the tradition of this great show.


To preserve the greatness of this show and others, we have to stop thinking of certain factions of our industry as the enemy. We need to join forces to make our country have the best events in the world, to make better horsemen and women, and to highlight our horses and ponies. We have many other top events that I haven’t mentioned, events that need our help in any way possible.


But we’ve become a country of people who want to knock each other, rather than try to pull together and make it better. Years ago, riders showing in the junior division learned to clean stalls, braid, teach, ride, and drive the horse van or trailer. They worked their way up the ladder to become true professionals. But today I see many young professionals looking to skip steps’they want to just ride or just teach. Caring for the horse is a lost art. It’s too easy to just call the vet, rather than taking the time to learn from the vet or from our top horsemen.


Years ago, we had lesson shows and local shows; then, when you were ready, you went to B-rated shows. After you gained experience, you went to A-rated shows. Short stirrup riders didn’t go to the A-rated shows; they waited until they were ready for a small, medium or large pony. Then they moved on to the junior hunter division. Madison Square Garden, Devon, Harrisburg and Washington were shows they aspired to.


Now every level of rider goes to every AA-rated show. In sports like tennis, skating and swimming, you have to climb the rungs of the competitive ladder. But we professionals take everyone to all the shows. In years past most barns had two professional trainers, one that went to the A-rated shows and one that brought along riders and horses on a local level. And there were slots for junior riders who wanted to stay with the horses as a career.


And, always, everyone dreamed of riding at Madison Square Garden or representing the United States in the Olympics. Let’s all take a step back, review what each of us is doing, and make sure we’re headed in the right direction.








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