Full Circle: Riding, Training and Now Judging the New England Equitation Championships

This year, I had the great honor and privilege of judging the New England Equitation Championships, the biggest regional championship in the country. This was a very special opportunity for me because it is where I rode as a junior and later attended as a trainer with students. To return as a judge and now a father — I was particularly moved by the camaraderie of all involved: the riders, trainers and officials. Judging is always a difficult task, but every score that riders received this weekend was carefully considered and in the end it was exciting to see the cream rise to the top.

During the competition, the panel of six judges that I was honored to be part of (Betty Oare, Diane Carney, USHJA President Mary Babick, Otis Brown and Ken Krome) gave each rider a score in the first round, which was then totaled between all of the judges’ scores. There were 187 riders in the junior class and 171 adult medal riders. The course was excellent, designed by Ken Krome, who also judged, and allowed the riders to showcase their strengths.

2016 New England Equitation Championships judges (left to right): Diane Carney, Otis Brown, Mary Babick, myself, Betty Oare and Ken Krome.

I have been so fortunate to judge alongside so many great judges and learn from them and what formula they use to determine their results. It is a hard task to quantify each rider based on their ability to execute the course and interpret it for both themselves and their horse, while also judging the position and how it relates to the overall performance and its appropriateness for their decisions.

First and foremost, I was judging the overall performance and then relating it to the group of riders as a whole. When scoring riders, there are basic numbers given to mistakes that occur, and this is helpful in quickly determining where the rider will fit in the standings. If and when more mistakes happen, deductions are made from the base score that was determined at the start of the trip. Sometimes the rider may not make any major mistakes, but there is an overall understanding of the level of the rider that also determines where they fit. This usually relates to their understanding of pace, path, position and execution of their plan as well as the overall feel that the rider has and the connection between leg and hand.

The top 25 riders who returned for the second round in the junior medal seemed to have a good overall feel — some more than others. A lot of kids, you could tell, would sometimes get lost and that would obviously affect their score. Sometimes their position was weak in some way and that would also affect their score. That being said, the rider with the best feel can still make mistakes that will separate them from the rest. These kind of mistakes include adding, which is an automatic 66, or subtracting strides, lead changes, cross canters and rails.

We followed the USHJA equitation committee’s guidelines for judging rails by deducting four points from the score for each rail. Then, when the top four came back to test, the judges were to pin the class by moving riders up or down on their cards, weighing the first and second round scores as well as medal test performance. We all put in our two cents for the top four test. I wanted a counter-canter, other judges wanted a trot jump as well as a hand gallop so we incorporated all three things in the test.

We did not know the order each panel had chosen so the results were not known to us until minutes before the results were given. In the end, it was Abigail Brayman, who was in third place after round two, who won!

The top finishers had a clear understanding of connection and skills. They understood their pace and they knew their horses really well. If they’re smart riders as well as skilled riders, they know where to do an inside turn and where not to do an inside turn or open the stride here and not open it there. The top four riders were riders that were impeccable at executing the course as it relates to their horse. They didn’t all do the same strides and the same things. They did what they were supposed to do and they did it well. The biggest challenge, as you become more sophisticated and evolved, is understanding what the course designer is asking of you and then relating it to your skills and your horse’s strengths and weaknesses.

View from the judge's stand during one of the course walks at the 2016 New England Equitation Championships in the Eastern States Coliseum.
View from the judge’s stand during one of the course walks at the 2016 New England Equitation Championships in the Eastern States Coliseum.

As both a rider and trainer, I like to have a score. I think it not only helps the rider and trainer but it also reduces the subjectivity that comes with judging. As a judge, I like the accountability that it places on you. You must be opinionated and confident in your decisions.

Obviously it’s not the Maclay. It’s not 3’6″. It’s not going to be quite as hard. You’re not going to have everyone from all over the country, but those top four riders could win any final. They were good. Annabel Revers was amazing! Katherine Bundy — we gave her a 94! These kids were polished; they could win anywhere. Of course then, of the 187, you could also see kids that this was a stepping stone for. They had more of a defensive position, meaning they really micro-managed and were slightly behind the motion versus the top riders who were in more of a vulnerable position and, as a result, got more from their horse and it was more fluid and very easy and organic in the way it came to be — there weren’t so many gears being shown.

My advice to riders trying to get to the big equitation finals is simple: take your irons away. That’s what I did. When I was at that level, before my first finals in the early ’80s, I never saw my irons, but it works. When I have students going in to indoors, I take their stirrups away as well. If I were preparing someone now to be a contender, I would do the same thing. You’ve got to. Even the kids with the best horses have to. Having been to the big equitation finals as a competitor and coach, I know and understand what’s on the line for these trainers and riders. It takes commitment on all levels. Commitment of time and commitment to doing things that other people aren’t willing to do. You could definitely see that commitment in the ring from the top four. Their positions were flawless.

On the bigger picture, while we were waiting for the results, after announcing fourth and third place, Abigail and Ava Stearns, the top two finishers, started holding hands in the line-up. It was really sweet and very much encompassed exactly what the week was about. The kids would clap for each other, even when others were beating them. Having kids myself, it’s wonderful to see that. The overall feeling of the horse show is so positive. If my kids decide to do this and go far with it, this is definitely a horse show I’d want them to strive to compete in. It’s a horse show that I think everyone should try to emulate.

Ava Stearns (left) and Abigail Brayman (right) holding hands in the line-up as they await the results.

The New England Equitation Championships is all about true horsemanship. It’s a horse show run by horsemen who love the sport and are interested in promoting junior and adult riders as well as enforcing the importance of good horsemanship skills.

From Tuesday when we had our judges meeting to Sunday when we left, I bonded with the five other judges. We had a great time. I enjoyed all of them. It was like going to a retreat for five days and they treated the judges like kings. The horse show was run very proficiently. They know what they’re doing. They’ve done this for 41 years and it shows. I look forward to going back in the future, whether it be as a trainer, judge or parent cheering from the sidelines.

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