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  Is the rule outdated for today’s riders?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


8 thoughts on “the 2016 USEF Medal Finals

  1. You make some good points. I’ve always thought it was interesting that the Medal Finals specifically has the judges design the course. I would like to think that the calibre of judges and their many years of experience would lead them to design a fair course for finals. On the other hand, I think the consultation of a licensed Course Designer would be prudent.
    I had a rider go around the course. It was her first time at Finals. She made a mistake in the combination but her horse took care of her and she (and the horse) didn’t pay a big price, other than a couple of icky distances. She finished strong and had a positive experience. There were other riders with more experience than she has, that didn’t fare so well.
    I agree that 100 refusals is too many. What if we had a less experienced horse? Should we not attend? I know it’s supposed to be the best of the best, but for this class, where you have riders from around the country, some of whom just barely qualified, and some of whom are from less competitive areas, I would hope that the course would educate the greener ones and allow the excellent ones to shine. And yes, it’s very much like the Olympics, where you have riders from nations of different proficiency. I know there are many at the very upper levels of the equitation world who think that the ones that don’t have a shot at placing shouldn’t even be there, but I don’t agree.
    I didn’t mind the crazy combination in the middle of the first course. I had a bigger problem with the massive oxers on the end. If you didn’t have a very scopey horse, you were launching across them. I gasped enough times during the first 20 riders, I can’t imagine how many more times I would have, if I stayed to watch all of it. Riders barely hanging on, horses getting hung up. I was amazed to see so many horses try their hardest over those jumps. It took a lot of physical skill and strength (on the horse’s part) to do those jumps well.
    The other portion that I questioned was the edict that whatever number of strides you did from the combination to the straw bales, you had to do the same number again on the way back from the straw bales to the combination. If we are truly grooming riders for the upper levels of the sport, doing what the moment calls for, as well as what suits your horse, should be the order of the day. Sure, dictating the number of strides can be a way to challenge the riders to plan in advance, but we know that good riding requires adjustments to those plans to suit the situation. At the judges clinics, we are constantly reminded that stride counting shouldn’t matter and that if it’s beautiful and it suits the horse, it should be rewarded.
    I also found the second course to be a good one. Riders had a chance to shine and there was a beautiful flow to it. I wish my rider had gotten the chance to jump that course.
    At the end of the day, the cream did rise to the top. The ones who were tested were excellent riders. The riders who made it to the second round surely deserved to be there. But the first course did take a toll on many, and I, too, feel bad for the horses that had to struggle. There will always be some horses and riders who are overfaced in this situation, but it’s important to take a look at the numbers on the whole and figure out if this is the direction we should be headed in.


  2. I like both the article and the comment and as a jumper I find the same in a jumping world… I absolutely HATE when amateurs and their horses are faced with this “kick-rip face off” rides. when it is not for anyone’s benefit. I also welcome any opportunity to talk to a course designer… the high ranking one. They are usually very friendly and can teach you many things. They can make the course very challenging without this push-pull and only have about 4-8 clear rounds out of 30+ and it is not the height or width of the jumps either. It can be the line, where and how the jump is positioned and even colors at certain part of the day/indoor lighting when shadows fall… Devon Fall the first jump was a low but what I call “toothless” where if you do not ride to it or do not show it to the horse when you get in a ring you chance a refusal. no, nothing spooky but something that many horses look at.. so it is not just hunter, EQ world, jumpers suffer from it too… I think new USEF Rules must call for some edu for course designers. Submit your suggestions now!


  3. I agree Del. We ask judges who never design a course to all of the sudden design out national finals. They are supposed to consult the CD but it’s ultimately the judges who come up with it. I also see the diluted finals reeking of politics. There is NO way to judge 277 riders fairly and I believe that at this level when you have that many kids to judge it is where the real politics in our sport emerges. We want Everyone to get to compete in the finals but maybe a better qualification process to eliminate the riders who really should not be there prior to the final. I think when you have 277 riders to judge you spend more time taking notice of the know. Riders than the lessor know. This to me is the pinnacle of Politics. Just listen to all the back stroking during the awards ceremony. It’s a who’s who pat on the back. Can a dark horse ever win one of our finals? Not in my mind.


  4. Pretty sure there was a major course designer involved in the creation and building of this course. There were many options on this course, and really only one line that dictated a certain number of strides. Unfortunately some of the weaker riders decided to make the most difficult choices that were beyond their abilities. Why feel the need to do 6 strides when there is a 7 or even an 8 option the would not have been penalized and offered a smoother (easier?) presentation to the jumps. Riding this course by rote wouldn’t work for the most part. Rider’s had to make decisions based on what was happening under them. This was a national championship, and overall as usual the cream rose to the top. And out of 277, very few hit the dirt. And I hope many trainers and riders dust themselves off and go home and practice the basic skills of leg and seat to hand.


  5. This article is very well written, but I respectfully disagree completely with the statement about the course being “too tough”. The course did exactly what it was designed by the judges to; weed out those who were not prepared and reward those who ready.

    It’s hard enough to judge 100 equitation rounds over a straightforward course, 276 is impossible. The qualification system is the problem with this class, not the course.

    Out of the 100 or so that had refusals, I would say at least half shouldn’t have been there in the first place. At any other final they would have been weeded out by a regional competition but wait, the Medal doesn’t have that. Just win enough points and you can go.

    However, not all horse shows are created equal. You can qualify in one zone against lighter competition and with easier courses than you can in another. That doesn’t mean you’re ready to face this test. I know that firsthand.

    In 2005 I won enough points to qualify for this class in 4 horse shows. Was I ready? Hell no. Did I go anyway? Of course. My horse and I could answer any question given to us where I showed, but our Medal Finals journey ended at fence 10A. That course asked questions I was unprepared to answer. I shouldn’t have been there. In fact, a “R” judge in the stands asked me why I was there. I wasn’t a prominent equitation rider, I was not under the wing of a seasoned equitation professional, and I had not competed with the best until that day. But I qualified, so I could be there.

    I would do it all again. The experience was humbling to say the least and inspired me to work harder to develop my riding career. I was not at the top of the sport and did not have the actual qualifications to be there, just like many of the riders this year.

    Don’t blame the course, it’s designed to filter out the best of the best. The judges want to see those riders do really well, and those who weren’t ready never have a chance to begin with. This formula has been used since the inception of this class, and it works. If you want to change how that happens and see less tragedy, then there should be a stricter qualification guideline, like the ASPCA class uses by having regional events. You may see heartbreak at that class, but nowhere near the level as the Medal. It’s just the nature of the beast, if the level of riders can’t be seperated before the big day and actual final, this is what you get.

    Just like life, being prepared will take you far, being unprepared will not. I learned that lesson from this class. Anyone who doesn’t walk away with that lesson after This class should consider a new sport. This one can be humbling sometimes. That doesn’t mean it’s too hard.


  6. Interesting article, interesting point of you. Jack, I totally agree with your point of view on this however. I thought the course was terrific. No one was hurt, no horses were hurt. The uneducated paid the price, but that is what a major equitation finals should do. It is not just about a “pretty” rider, it is about a rider who can be pretty and still make decisions. I honestly believe that. And although we often do feel that eq is way into politics, I thought this course allowed the course to cull the riders, not any political opinions.

    I had a “child” in this class, a no-name rider. The child did not ride with a big eq trainer, in fact has spent most of her riding years ‘catch training’. There are huge advantages to this, as you get things said from many points of view, and who knows which words will make the lightbulb go off. But, this is a child who maybe goes to 6-7 A shows a year, we haul ourselves, she figures out what to feed and how to supplement, all of her tack and attire come from ebay, she has never had a groom, she does her own clipping, and she does her own braiding….did it between the 6am walk and when she had to go warm up. THIS WORKS as long as you take advantage of every learning advantage you can find, every clinic, every IEA team, every EAP opportunity. And this makes it possible for a no name kid with a no name trainer on a retired non eq horse to pay for and fight her way to Harrisburg, and have a successful day. She LOVED the course. She LOVED the questions it asked. She did not have to haul on her horse’s face nor jump some enormous fence out of his scope. She had to THINK, and DECIDE, and BALANCE and have LUCK. Luck is always part of any athletic event.

    So, it was a perfect storm for her. And not for others. But I think it was due to preparation. And execution. And she made the standby, and she is happy to end her last junior appearance at Harrisburg on a high note. The course allowed it to happen.


  7. One of the main points of the article- which seems lost on the dissenters- is the concern for the horses. The ‘cream’ rose to the top from being able to jump enough jumps, and courses to be that good(yes, some riders are naturally just more talented). No one should underestimate How Hard the equitation horses of the ‘cream’ work. Like after every finals, now trainers are going to go home and setup harder, and harder courses for horses to jump and jump and jump. Many of the top 15-20 riders have several horses to practice on. Many in that same category probably have broken ones at home from so much practice, And some were probably newly acquired or on loan because of over use. Why are equ horses so disposable? If u qualify on a specific jr hunter you can’t substitute it for another. Somehow the system cares Very little about the thing we say we love- Horses.


    • Yes thank you! Finally. I know the harsh realities equitation horses live in and most people see two minutes of their lives at one time. I need people to understand this somehow. I really am not concerned about the kids themselves having a bad round but the horses are in an entirely compromising position. People are taking my view as something completely different like I want to dummy down the courses to help the kids. That’s simply not true. Thanks for your comment. It came at a really good time.


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