Wednesday, May. 22, 2024

Young Riders Are Falling Through The Cracks

Allowing young riders—not just juniors—to compete in the CCI* division at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships would be a boon to the sport.

I went to the U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting and Convention, held Dec. 2-6 in Reston, Va., to support a petition to raise the age eligibility in the CCI* championship division at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships.

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Allowing young riders—not just juniors—to compete in the CCI* division at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships would be a boon to the sport.

I went to the U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting and Convention, held Dec. 2-6 in Reston, Va., to support a petition to raise the age eligibility in the CCI* championship division at the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships.

While the current age range is 14-17 (juniors), many eventing enthusiasts would like to see it opened up to include riders ages 18-21 (young riders). Much to my surprise, however, the motion to discuss the petition was not well received.

I’m confident that eventers are trying to promote their discipline, help it grow and make it a better-known sport throughout the United States. And we’re implementing precautionary rules to make our riders and horses much safer.

So I thought to myself, “Why are so many people opposed to this petition?” Why wouldn’t we want to welcome as many riders as possible to the NAJYRC?

Many young riders aren’t prepared to do a CCI**, the level set for their age-range championship, by the time they turn 18. For many of these riders, a CCI* championship is much more within their reach. Why would we force them to do a two-star or nothing at all?

Furthermore, the NAJYRC is always undersubscribed. Since 2006, more than 30 of the available spots on U.S. teams at the championships have gone unfilled. My own Area VI, comprised of California and Hawaii, happens to have one of the biggest rider populations in the country, and we were unable to send a full one-star team.

Clearly the U.S. Equestrian Federation has planned and budgeted for almost double the number of riders who have actually participated, but so many Areas always send “the last man standing.” It’s not very often that there’s an actual selection process, because the pools of eligible riders from which teams can draw are so small. They would certainly be much larger, and boast better-qualified riders, if we allowed 18- to 21-year-olds to enter.

It Seems Simple

Opening up the CCI* division at the NAJYRC seemed logical and simple enough to me, but not everyone agreed. I started asking questions, and I heard many reasons why 18- to 21-year-old riders shouldn’t be allowed to compete in the one-star cham-pionship there:

  • “It’s an elite competition, allowing only the best riders in the country to compete in a championship. It’s a way to recognize talent and future USET riders.”
  • “If they changed the eventing rules, the Fédération Equestre Internationale would have to change the age requirement for all the other equine disciplines at championships.”
  • “Riders who are 21 have many more years of experience, so they have an unfair advantage competing against riders who are 14.”

But I wasn’t immediately satisfied with those reasons, so I started researching each of these concerns.

First off, I’ll share a quote a friend of mine said to me: “If you put a dime in a bucket full of pennies, it’s still easy to spot where that shine is coming from.”

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The cream of the crop will rise to the top no matter what, and allowing more riders to enter the NAJYRC isn’t going to hinder USET selectors in their scouting. In fact, it will likely help them.

This is evident by the current young riders we see on our developing rider list. Many of them got a leg up from the NAJYRC, but many didn’t. I know several riders, including myself, who were never able to compete there due to age limitations. They’re not only high performance riders but have ridden on teams representing the United States and other countries.

Why should we, in effect, punish those young, talented riders who perhaps just got a late start? Or maybe their horse got hurt, and they had to try again next season. Or maybe they just don’t have the mount that has what it takes to compete at a CCI**.

But these riders may still have what it takes to go on and represent the United States in international competition someday. We ought to be investing in their futures, not denying them the invaluable experience of competing on a team at the NAJYRC. We can’t afford to have some of our potentially best competitors get left behind.

Then we go on to the FEI issues. Would all the disciplines really have to change their championship age requirement? Although this seemed like a legitimate argument and one that would basically stop all efforts to go forward with this petition, this, fortunately, is not true.

Each discipline has its own by-laws that separate it from the others. Therefore, it’s possible to put different age restrictions on each discipline, i.e.: if the FEI were to change the heights in show jumping, that rule change wouldn’t affect three-day eventing.

In addition, eventing is the only sport that has qualifications to compete at each level. If a rider were to buy a CCI** horse, she wouldn’t be able to immediately start competing at the CCI** level. In the other disciplines, you’re allowed to begin competing at whichever level you wish.

Certainly the FEI and all others involved will acknowledge that the eventing qualification requirements imposed by our national federation for the sake of safety do impact all candidates’ ability to qualify. This is especially the case for our 18- to 21-year-olds, as U.S. leaders intended to encourage more time at the lower levels to gain the necessary experience.

Finally, we come to the potentially unfair advantage of 21-year-olds compared to 14-year-olds. I definitely believe this is a legitimate concern, but it could be easily addressed by only allowing 18- to 21-year-olds who have not competed above the preliminary/one-star level to contest the championship.

Including this group of young riders would not disenfranchise our juniors.

What’s Best For The Sport?

Attending the USEA Convention this year was quite inspirational. The association inducted five individuals into the Hall of Fame, and as each was honored in an induction speech, I began to notice a pattern: each one of these great men and women had specific beliefs about how to make the sport of eventing better, and they’d followed through in executing their beliefs for their entire lives.

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When I look at the supposed reasons why we can’t change these one-star age criteria, not one of them seems to be aimed at improving this sport we all love so much.

The bottom line is that the United States is not a country that breeds children who are put on their first pony before they can walk, or a place where everyone learns to ride regardless of whether they continue it as a career or just a hobby. Unlike in some European countries, owning, riding and breeding horses just isn’t a part of our overarching culture. Therefore, I believe we have a responsibility to our youth to give them the best education
possible. And increasing this age limit will certainly increase their opportunities for education.

As parents of a 13-year-old daughter, my husband and I are looking forward to her move up to preliminary soon. She’s schooled at the preliminary level, participated in Pony Club, been active in the Area VI Young Rider Program and served as a groom for her Area’s team at the NAJYRC. We’re confident that she’s ready. Like my daughter, I also needed to wait to compete in my first preliminary until I was the appropriate age.

But a part of me also wonders why our organization allows 14-year-old riders to compete at a CCI* championship. A rider that age would only be eligible to compete at the preliminary level for seven months before he or she contested the North American Championships. I believe every year we see young riders competing at a level for which they’re simply not ready.

I have a student who’d been competing in the hunters and jumpers and only began eventing two years ago. She competed in her first CCI* this fall and rode in the long format to get a better understanding of the sport and her horse. She’s competed successfully throughout the year at the preliminary level and is riding an experienced two-star horse.

Is my student capable of moving up to intermediate? Yes, she’s competent and qualified. But just because she’s on an experienced two-star horse, capable of riding around at the intermediate level and qualified, doesn’t mean she has the experience to make a quick decision if something happened.

In addition, my student will be turning 19 in the spring. That means that under the current rules, even if she’s not ready for a CCI** this summer, she’ll be “too old” to contest the CCI* championship at the NAJYRC. She’ll be caught out, just like so many others.

For many riders, competing at the NAJYRC is their lifetime riding goal. It has been and will continue to be a spectacular showcase of our best talent. But at the same time, many of our medalists never went on to compete above the one- or two-star level due to jobs and children.

Even if they don’t turn out to be future Olympians, how many more long-term supporters of our sport might we have if we looked at the NAJYRC as more than just a way to identify elite athletes?

Let’s try to have an open mind on this subject and truly think about what’s best for the sport of eventing, as well as what’s best for our next generation of riders.  

Tamra Smith is a professional eventer who has competed through the advanced level and is currently on the USEF Developing Rider List. Her training business, Next Level Eventing, is based in Murrieta, Calif. Smith is also a wife and mother of two children.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. “Young Riders Are Falling Through The Cracks” ran in the January 1, 2010 issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

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