We’re All In This Together

May 27, 2010 - 6:45 AM

Our columnist reflects on the World Cup controversy and what teamwork means to our sport.

This spring we witnessed one of the most controversial FEI World Cup Show Jumping Finals in the history of the sport. The U.S. riders had picked up where they left off at the 2008 Olympic Games and started out strongly, with Rich Fellers and Flexible winning the first leg of the World Cup. McLain Ward and Sapphire earned second-placed ribbons in the first two legs for the overall lead.

Then, at the drop of a hat, we watched in disbelief as Sapphire was eliminated from the final round for hypersensitivity. Due to the Fédération Equestre Internationale rules, there was no appeal allowed. Many riders, trainers, owners and horse lovers were outraged that this situation could occur anywhere in the world!

Even though only one rider was directly affected, the outcome affected many, many more people due to the nature of our sport. For a horse and rider to get to the brink of a World Cup title, it takes a group effort of mammoth proportions.

And it’s that teamwork that becomes more important as you rise up the levels. No matter which discipline you do with your horses, you’re a team with your horse, trainer, barn workers, veterinarian, blacksmith, staff members and the list goes on and on. Working as part of a team also offers important life lessons that you’ll carry forward for the rest of your life.

Sum Of Its Parts

In the 1960s, the American Horse Shows Association (now the U.S. Equestrian Federation) had a program for pony riders prior to the development of the Pony Finals. In this program, pony riders competed in a team event against riders from Canada and Great Britain.

The competition included a model class, an under saddle and one round over jumps. Our riders trained as a team at Old Salem Farm in New York. How fortunate these riders were! George Morris was the chef d’equipe one year and Gordon Wright was another!

The finals were held in Canada, England and one year at the Fairfield County Hunt Club in Connecticut. Two of my friends competed on these teams and cherished the experience.

Susie Blaisdell won the individual large pony division all three years on Highfields Tulip. She said all of the riders really had a sense of teamwork. They were shocked one year when the British judge felt all of the ponies’ legs during the conformation! Sound familiar?

Pam Carmichael Keenan, the mother of junior phenom Lillie Keenan, competed as part of the team and said it was one of the best times of her winning career. As the pony finals grew, this team concept was eventually dropped.

Today, there are many outstanding programs like this in our country that help riders achieve their goals and improve their riding skills. It’s so important for all of us as trainers, teachers, riders and owners to support these programs.

One shining example is the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association program. Don Stewart and I judged the IHSA National Championships in Lexington, Ky., May 6-8. What an amazing show! The horses (all on loan) were fantastic as were the riders at all levels.

These college students all qualified at their regional championships, and they competed at the Nationals aboard horses they’d likely never ridden. The horses worked long, hard days, and all of the students came prepared to compete. Again, teamwork was key to their success–coaches, fellow students and, most importantly, the horses they drew to compete on were all in sync.

In the coveted USEF/Cacchione Cup class, for the best individual open equitation riders, Don and I tested them at each stage, and the cream rose to the top. The best four riders switched horses and jumped the same course again, where the ribbons fell into place.

We learned that the individual winner, Lindsay Sceats of Mount Holyoke College (Mass.), rode without her stirrups for a month prior to the event. That kind of dedication will take Lindsay very far in whatever phase of life she embarks upon.

The teams from all of the participating colleges had banners up all over the arena, and they enthusiastically cheered on each team member! What an important program for our young riders to participate in. They certainly learn how to be a part of a team, much like our Olympic riders, and they absolutely understand there’s no “I” in team.

Other Opportunities

Then we have the International Show Jumping Young Rider Tour, which just began in Europe. The shows include the Eindhoven CSI (the Netherlands), May 13-16, the Reims CSIOY (France), May 28-30, and the Wierden CSIOY (the Netherlands), June 3-6.

Trainer Ralph Caristo is the chef d’equipe for the first part of the tour, and he’s no stranger to teamwork. Ralph led the USHJA Zone 2 team to more North American Junior and Young Rider Championships gold medals than any other coach in history.

Ralph knows how to teach our up-and-coming riders what it’s like to compete on a team representing your country. What could be more important, no matter what you end up doing in your life’s career? These riders will always be able to look back on their team experiences and draw upon these skills no matter where they end up, whether at the Olympic Games or as an executive in a corporation.

Likewise, Melanie Smith Taylor has once again kicked off her USHJA Emerging Athletes Program, a wonderful opportunity for young riders to learn and grow in a group setting. She and her committee will choose 12 riders from across the country to participate in a final at the end of the year.

This program teaches these young riders about horsemanship and exposes them to the vast array of professionals who are vital to the well being of horse and rider. When the chosen 12 arrive at the final event, they’ll better understand teamwork, have improved their riding skills and horse care education.

Here again, at the finals these riders will be partnered with horses new to them. At these types of competitions, there are no excuses. You must get on and be a rider—you have to feel what’s going on with each new horse you climb aboard. You have to think for yourself for that moment—the flatwork, the jump, and the track—and rely on the preparation you’ve had to develop a partnership with the horse.

We have an array of wonderful programs for young riders to prepare them for team competitions and expose them to the network of support staff necessary to achieve success at the highest levels.

Historically, Americans have had a variety of team competitions to hone their skills, and today’s young riders are fortunate that so many top professionals are giving back to the sport to ensure we have a deep pool of educated and talented riders for our future championship teams.

Despite the disappointment many Americans faced in the aftermath of this year’s World Cup Finals, we must remain proud of our team members and the interconnected web of talent that got McLain and Sapphire where they are today. I hope this unfortunate incident propels us to even greater strength! And I’ll be looking forward to the 2011 FEI World Cup Show Jumping Finals when I hope a U.S. rider will return home a champion.

Susie B. Schoellkopf serves as the executive director of the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center, which is the home of the Buffalo Equestrian Center and SBS Farms in Buffalo, N.Y. An R-rated U.S. Equestrian Federation judge, Schoellkopf has trained numerous horses to USEF Horse of the Year honors, including Gabriel, Kansas, Big Bad Wolf and GG Valentine. She started writing Between Rounds columns in 2002.


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