the 2016 USEF Medal Finals

I don’t believe in Courses dictating the winners of hunter and equitation classes. What is to judge when it is a survival game? Anyone can judge it. In the jumper ring the course usually does dictate the winner, because you are jumping for a clean round, not for style, so no one cares what you look like, essentially. We see some very charismatic and unusual riding styles at the top sport all the time, but at then end of the day, clean fast rounds win the money. You aren’t being judged for use of aids and position. You only have to look to the French Showjumping team for good examples. Bosty won’t be winning any equitation classes against Kevin Staut, that’s for sure. However, both are winners.

The difference in developing a stylish rider through an Equitation Final is to push through riders with good composition, but weak aids, not punish the horse by inventing complicated questions only seen at the very top of sport. If you are a seriously dedicated Course Designer and set courses for Equitation riders all year long, you will know that it doesn’t take an overly technical course to weed out the weakest riders. Then judges will be able to concentrate on awarding actual equitation. Course Designers work very hard all year long, year after year, setting different combinations of jumps for different parts of the country for different classes. Just because you can RIDE a course, doesn’t mean you can BUILD a course. Those are two very different things. Course building takes forever to get just right, you have to practice a lot, you have to be licensed for it by the USEF, you need a mentor to teach you, but apparently at the most prestigious class of the country, those licenses are not required. How is this possible? Why do the rules not apply to the Medal Finals? Isn’t it a USEF rated show? If I were riding, I would want a licensed Course Designer to build my track. However, the rules clearly state the Judges MUST design the Medal Finals Class, but it doesn’t state WHY the judges must design it. And it does not require those judges to be licensed Course Designers.  Is the rule outdated for today’s riders? Is that the right direction to head?

Yes, I understand all of these questions asked this year of the 2016 USEF Medal Finals are questions we all should be able to answer, go forward here, add there, but this year there was a major difference.

What I hated about the course this year, is that it seemed to really punish the horses. It wasn’t ridable, and lacked flow.  Even if riders could muddle through, the horses were totally overwhelmed and maxed out to all of their scope. One moment they were being kicked hard to clear a giant over with zero approach and the next you had to pull their faces off to fit three strides into a two stride, which didn’t make any sense. Not in this ring, anyway. Maybe in an outdoor Grand Prix ring, but the PA Farm Show Arena? It is one of the smallest rings we ride in. You could set a course of cross rails and it would be challenging enough. The winner will still stand out. But when horse after horse after horse is excused after being trapped by the course itself, you know something isn’t right. The horses have little or no chance. Really high quality animals were put into a situation where no rider could just excuse themselves after a major fault. On the International Grand Prix Circuit, two rails will fall, and often the rider will save his horse and pull up. These young, inexperienced riders won’t know to do that. They will not pull up even after obliterating the second jump, with a  wave of the hand to the judges, despite there being no chance to make the cutoff. Trainers would not permit riders to just give up and leave. Later in the class, the judges were excusing riders for just one refusal over three, I am assuming because the time it took to get riders through three refusals was ridiculous, or because even the judges couldn’t stomach the carnage. I am not a supporter of punishing equitation horses. They endure thousands of jumps in their lifetime as it is and are not exactly protected, despite new rules being set in place for the future. So few of the 276 horses performed without some sort of stress from the questions asked, that I am surprised the ASPCA wasn’t there protesting. Those rails are not made out of PVC.


big crowd for this class


The Judges making the courses, based on what they want to see out of the class, seems like a dangerous precedent to set and unfortunately failed this year as we watched rider after rider attempting what could have been a jump off round in a million dollar grand prix in Saugerties. But these kids aren’t riding for any amount of money, much less a million dollars. However, the ones with Grand Prix experience certainly answered the questions on very talented animals. And in the end, the winner most certainly deserved to win.

If the idea of this class is to prepare the riders to become Grand Prix riders, what should we do for the ones who don’t have grand prix classes in their future? Tell them not to bother? Some riders could become very nice hunter riders, actually, but I’m not seeing any relevance with this class on a hunter rider’s resume, and if I had a kid entering this year on her junior hunter I would have probably suggested he or she scratch to protect the horse. I actually like when juniors can ride their hunters in an equitation class, I think it shows a well-rounded athlete in both horse and rider. I didn’t see any today.

The same applies for hunter courses in general, whether it is a derby, handy, or classic round. Let the judge do the job of actual judging the best horse, not let the course dictate the winners with rails, refusals, and general confusion. That is the point of having a judge in the hunter rings, after all.

Some don’t want the judges to actually have to provide their opinions too much for classes this large or even on the winners of these  eq classes, but then why do we even need judges? Someone has to pick the winner, and yes someone’s opinion does matter, because it is a SUBJECTIVE sport. Maybe a nice balance between the course dictating, and judge’s opinion would be healthier. Or, we could have a popular vote by audience participation. Like “the Voice”.

As far as the Medal Finals, I am sympathetic to the couple hundred kids who had no chance today, I have no explanation for you, and hope you didn’t have high hopes for this class. Life is tough, in a few weeks it won’t matter if you made it through or not, but for sure I am way more sympathetic toward the horses. My heart aches for them. Over 100 horses had refusals, which means at least 100 horses knew they weren’t able to help their riders. At least a 100 horses had their careers shortened even more today.

If we are going to keep Live Streaming up for the general public to get more educated, and more involved, we might need to rethink the licensing of the judges if they are going to continue building these major tracks. Or not, who knows. For almost three hundred competitors, there are three hundred opinions. Mine means little. In the past there have been judges who have elected to let the course designer design a track, and worked with them to tweak certain areas weeks in advance to get it all set. Those judges wanted to judge, not course design. Regardless of general opinions, I still believe the job of a Course Designer is a paid position for a reason. And I believe if you are getting paid to judge something as important as the USEF Medal Finals which calls 276 riders from all over the country to one venue, you should clearly be prepared to judge 276 riders on their equitation.


second course made more sense than the first

On the flip side, the second course for the top 25 riders called back was great and allowed the riders to be shown off a little, while still asking hard questions. It seemed like the audience breathed a sigh of relief when it was clear no one was going to see an untimely death in the middle of the ring. The pattern made sense, flowed, and gave a clearer sense that riders were going to be judged on actual equitation. The horses, for the first time, seemed to enjoy their jobs just a little bit.


top four called back for further testing , McKayla, T.J. Annabel, and Taylor


Whatever you believe should have been accomplished with this class, just remember the future depends on the horses willing to participate in these classes, without them, we are nothing.

We are halfway through a very busy fall season for horses, let’s hope the horses survive it.  The Grand Prix horses will probably be ok, the rest, I am not so confident about.

Good Luck everyone.


warm up ring