Three Disciplines, Three Takes on the North American Youth Championships (And Why They’re Still Worth the Hype)

Three Disciplines, Three Takes on the North American Youth Championships (And Why They’re Still Worth the Hype)

In the last three years, 23-year-old American show jumper Natalie Dean has climbed a lot of podiums. In early March, she took third place alongside the NetJets U.S. Jumping Team, finishing third in their first event of the year in the $150,000 FEI Jumping Nations Cup Wellington CSIO4*. In late 2021, a string of strong North American performances helped Natalie crack the top 100 internationally in the Longines Rankings for the first time. And not long before that, the Young Rider and Don’s Diamant earned Team silver and Individual bronze in the 2019 FEI North American Youth Championship in Old Salem, New York.

“In Zone 10, as a West Coast rider, it’s really the first opportunity that a lot of us have to go and compete on the East Coast,” says Natalie of her Young Riders experience. “I think the courses [in the Championship] are definitely designed to test you, but I think they really want you to learn from Young Riders. I think everyone comes out of there a better rider.”

A three-year veteran of the NAYC Young Rider program, it’s not hard to see a direct correlation between Natalie’s junior success and, just three years later, a covetable international career by any standard. But few trajectories are that straightforward.

For more than 40 years, the NAYC has been considered the pathway program for America’s Nations Cup, World Championship, and Olympic teams. The program earned a reputation for providing riders in show jumping, dressage, and eventing (and, for a short time, reining, endurance, and para-dressage) with a training pathway as well as vital experience competing as part of a high-performance equestrian team. Yet since the early 2000s, the NAYC has been plagued by serious issues, not the least of which have included declining participation, a lack of venues willing to host the Championship (even after eventing, with its cross country requirement, was left to its own devices in 2017), funding struggles, and more.

With each new year, it seems, the question of whether the NAYC is really worth the effort seems to rear its ugly head. And while (**spoiler alert**) the distinguished panel of experts we spoke with for this story unanimously agree that they are, we took a deeper dive into the individual disciplines to understand why.

By the Numbers

Full disclosure: this writer is not a statistician, and this is not a statistical piece. But I do see the value in using numbers to provide a baseline for discussion. So here’s the question at hand: If you’re a late-teen or early-20-something looking to become an international superstar one day—and you have the means to participate in the NAYC program—is earning a medal in the Young Rider division a good indicator of your future success in the sport?   

To that end, we took stock of the highest-ranked gold- or silver-medal-winning U.S. Young Rider Team members, and each Individual U.S. Young Rider podium finisher at the NAYC for a seven-year period (US Equestrian could only provide results for all three disciplines for the years of 2016-2019 and 2008-2010). We then compared those medal-winning riders to the top-ranked U.S. international riders at press time according to the FEI (the top 100 for show jumping and eventing; the top 87 for dressage) to find out who made the list.

The result? Surprisingly, exactly 8/100 Young Riders in both show jumping and eventing who medaled between 2016-2019 appear on the FEI’s list; an additional 3/100 for the same disciplines medaled between 2008-2010. The total number of medal-winning Young Riders for show jumping was 37; for eventing, it was 35. That means (unofficially, of course), that somewhere between 21 and 23 percent of kids that go home with a top medal at Young Riders in show jumping or eventing are likely to show up on an international ranking list one day. A handful these (think: Natalie Dean, Jessica Springsteen, and Jennie Brannigan) are currently in the top-100 in the world.

Those aren’t bad odds, especially given that a fair share of junior equestrians who ace Young Riders may go on to ride as amateurs or even quit the sport altogether. But the total number of dressage riders who medaled at Young Riders and went on to earn an international ranking doesn’t show the same relationship. In fact, for the small window we surveyed, the dressage numbers don’t show any relationship between medal-winning Young Riders in the years polled and the FEI’s current international ranking list.

Once again, the point of this exercise is simply to provide a snapshot of the numbers. Some riders on the current FEI Dressage list—#11-ranked Adrienne Lyle, for instance—did participate at Young Riders but didn’t medal. Others, like #50-ranked Anna Buffini, medaled at Young Riders but not during the years surveyed. That said, we can expect that these same, admitted pitfalls in the research would apply to additional riders not included in our show jumping or eventing totals as well.

So, what’s making up for the difference, and where do we go from here?

NAYC Dressage: Just One Piece of the Puzzle

Name: Lauren Sprieser

Creds: Young Rider Team Bronze and Team Gold Medalist; Grand Prix-Level Dressage Trainer

“It’s not like if you don’t go to Young Riders, you should kiss your career goodbye,” says Grand Prix dressage trainer Lauren Sprieser, who cites Laura Graves and Kasey Perry-Glass as prime examples of top talent that created their own pathways to top. But the lack of correlation between Young Rider medalists and the FEI’s ranking list did make sense to Lauren for one simple reason. “I think, particularly in dressage—which is a sport that takes so long to develop a horse up the levels—[the gap between] the Young Rider level and the international high performance Grand Prix for Olympic-level dressage is the Grand Canyon.

“You can be good at the Young Rider level without necessarily having a tremendous mastery of collection. The Grand Prix [level, on the other hand,] will eat you up and spit you out if you do not have an exceptional mastery of collection.”

Though Sprieser says the quality of Young Riders currently participating in NAYC Dressage has improved considerably since her time competing in the early 2000s, she has nothing but appreciation for the skills she took away from the program. “The gift of [the NAYC] is the ability to exude a lot of pressure, a lot of skills for time management, for horse management, for planning your season—all of these really important life lessons—and an opportunity to blow any one or all of those things, and to have it not really make a difference in your life,” she says.

“I think [Young Riders] is a tremendously wonderful place to learn a lot of lessons that aren’t necessarily about riding the test; there are the veterinary lessons, the timing lessons. I will also say that my best friends, to this day, are overwhelmingly people that I went to Young Riders with.”

And, for her part, Lauren isn’t particularly concerned about a potential lack of correlation between the NAYC and the international ranking list, or how long it may take a rider to climb the ladder—especially if they are producing that top horse to take them there themselves. “[I think] the real meat and potatoes of making future team riders happens less in the Young Rider competition arena, and more in teaching people how to make horses.

“The lion’s share of people at the Young Rider Championships [are] learning from school master horses. And, let me be clear, there’s not one bad thing about that. [But] unless you can afford the cost of buying something that could actually send you down the centerline at CDI Grands Prix, much less put you in the ‘[Senior] team-contention-area,’ it’s so astronomically expensive,” says Lauren who, alongside her students, has produced seven horses up to the Grand Prix level.

“Most people that are making teams [that aren’t in that financial boat] are doing it on horses that they’ve made themselves. And how do you get good at that? Young Riders is certainly one piece of learning how to ride the level, [but] it’s only one piece,” says Lauren, adding that working studentships were essential in helping her fill in the training gaps in her own career.

“Even if you master it all by 18, you still have to learn how to develop a horse to that level, and that’s a hard thing to do.”

NAYC Show Jumping: Expanding the Pathway

Name: DiAnn Langer

Creds: USHJA Jumping Technical Advisor, USEF Show Jumping Youth Chef d’ Equipe, and Youth Technical Advisor

Horse development also plays a role on the NAYC Show Jumping side, but it’s a problem compounded by numbers. To play at show jumping’s highest levels, athletes need not just one super-star horse, but a string. According to USEF Show Jumping Youth Chef d’ Equipe DiAnn Langer, this challenge begins to become evident as riders move up the NAYC levels. “It’s a big jump each time. The horse you have at [the Children’s] 1.20m level is not the horse you have at the Young Riders at 1.50m—it’s not even the horse you have at the Juniors in the 1.40m,” she says.

According to DiAnn, a horse that gets you onto the podium in the Young Rider Championship may not be your Senior Nation’s Cup Team horse, but it is a grand prix horse, capable of jumping the big classes at top venues around the country. Don’s Diamant, Natalie Dean’s Young Rider Team silver-medal-winning mount, for example, also helped her jump her first 1.60m class at the Hampton Classic that same year. That takes some serious horsepower.

“The horse that’s in the barn needs to keep evolving,” DiAnn says. “I remember that with my own daughter, and how difficult it was to move from horse to horse, because they become [friends].”

Given the cost of affording one horse than can jump 1.20m to 1.40m well—let alone a grand prix-caliber Young Rider mount and a support string of horses down the road—we should note here that show jumping, perhaps more than any other discipline, has an access problem. The reality of this issue is as evident in the NAYC ranks as anywhere else, where access to top-quality horses, and the ability to regularly attend far-flung and expensive qualifying competitions, is a requirement. That elephant out of the room, however, US Equestrian and the USHJA are working on programs to help grow the pathway for developing top-level show jumpers in this country from the bottom up.

In addition to the more introductory-level USHJA Emerging Jumper Rider and Zone Jumper Team Championships, DiAnn helped to spearhead changes in the NAYC to both build out the 1.20m Children’s division and add a Pre-Junior section to soften the gap between the Children’s and the 1.40m Junior divisions. “Getting the Children [ages] 12-14 [up to the 1.20m] level is a big deal in our country, since [many are] still doing the hunters [in competition at that point]. Pushing that goal forward has been important to all of us.

“We now are seeing the results of that, with our riders moving up sooner into the 1.20m [division] and sooner into the Pre-Junior [classes] at 1.30-1.35m,” says DiAnn, adding that this year’s program included 30 qualified child riders, compared to just a handful in past years. In her home state of California, DiAnn adds, the Zone Jumper Team Championship has helped to strengthen jumper divisions across the board, from 20 riders vying for NAYC team spots in the early years to nearly 60 today.

“It’s grown by leaps and bounds,” says DiAnn, who believes that following the USHJA/US Equestrian pathway into the NAYC is the best way to not only build critical team riding experience, but indicate your desire to become a future international player to the powers that be. 

“Your ability to raise your hand and be [part of a] team when you’re younger and you’re just getting started is important. Your results are very important,” she explains, adding that NAYC riders who demonstrate a willingness to travel nationally, at least once a year, are also prioritized.

“[NAYC for Young Riders] weighs heavily in the selection process, including going to the Youth Nations Cup Final. [And] that is a very important [steppingstone] for many who [go] off and [ride on] developing teams,” she says. Next up: consistent success at national-level grands prix and earning a spot (when there is one) on a CSIO3* Nations Cup squad. But through all of it, DiAnn says, she’s also looking for NAYC riders who take the initiative to further their education and show a willingness to improve, even and especially when things go wrong.

“At the end [of the day], they have to keep learning and keep adjusting in order to make their own personal team work well,” she says. “We stress that the ‘personal team’ is the first step to being on an [actual] Team.”  

NAYC Eventing: Timing Is Everything

Name: Mike Huber

Creds: Olympic Eventer, Pan American Gold Medalist, Veteran Area V Young Riders Coach

NAYC Eventing also has an access problem, but its concerns are more physical than socio-economic.

More than any other discipline, it is expensive to stage and run a NAYC Event, and only a limited number of venues in North America even have the capability to host one. “In the eventing world, it’s not feasible to make the NAYC a standalone event,” explains decorated U.S. eventer and former Area V Young Rider Coach of 20-plus years, Mike Huber.  

Mike says the problems only intensified after eventing was separated from the show jumping and dressage championships, which—without the need for a cross country course at their disposal—could more easily be rolled into existing FEI horse show itineraries. “The problem has been, because it’s in the summertime, for an FEI competition, there just aren’t very many [places] for them to [hold the eventing championship].”

Unsurprising given his long years of service to the program, Mike, too, is a firm believer in the NAYC’s value, as well as the value of its affiliate programs, including the USEF Eventing Emerging Athletes Program for riders 25 and under. “What makes Young Riders unique is that it allows riders to compete in a team situation, which I think is very valuable later on. The whole thing about going to train with a coach who’s maybe not your [regular] coach, and going to a strange environment, and training with other people [you don’t know, is key],” Mike explains. 

“[Also, it’s] having the chef d’equipe [explain] what’s best for the team [vs. the individual], and what route [on course to take] if you’re the first one out, and what you should do. I think riders learn a lot about that ‘team way’ that they would never think about [otherwise], and then they’re not surprised when they get onto a Senior team and are presented with those same [challenges].”

And, for an eventer that reaches a Young Rider CCI3*-level Championship, the climb to the top isn’t that far away. “The Pan American Games, now, have been brought down to the CCI3* level, so there’s a direct correlation there; it’s basically a lateral move [between Young Riders and the Pan Ams],” Mike explains. “Obviously, the Olympics and World Championships are different. But even at the CCI3* level, you see a lot of the same questions that are going to prepare you for the five-star level [down the road].”

That said, obtaining quality horses for upper-level eventing is also a struggle for riders hoping to move up the NAYC pathway and beyond. To that end, last May, the USEA extended the age limit for the Young Rider division from 21 to 25 years old; a move, Mike believes, that will help to make the program more inclusive for all. “There’s the theory that some people just get unlucky, and don’t have the horse [they need for Young Riders] when they’re 20 [years old]. And then they get that great horse when they’re 22, and then they can still get that experience, rather than missing out completely in the program, which in the past did happen,” he says.

Those few extra years, Mike adds, can make all the difference, not only in identifying or making-up horses with the capability to reach the three-star level, but to pick out riders who possess that rare recipe for international success. “It’s about giving everyone the chance, because there are some out there that aren’t going to be superstars, but you don’t always know that until you dig in a little bit. [The] bottom line is, the real stars are few and far between,” says Mike. “You’ve got to have the natural talent to be [great]. You need to have a good work ethic, for sure.

 “There’s bravery involved, self-confidence, etc. But having the talent and being able to put those things together on the right horses [is what needs to happen] in order to create a star.

“The Jennie Brannigans or the Will Colemans [of the sport], those are riders you just spot, normally when they’re at the Junior or Young Rider level. They just stand out, even if they’re not on the best horse.

You’re like, ‘Hey, that kid can really ride.’ If you’re the coach [or] even the [NAYC] Area coach, you try to get them to the right places [and on the right horses] so they can succeed.” 

Feature photo by White Fence Equine Photography.

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Written by Nina Fedrizzi

Nina Fedrizzi spends her days writing about horse sport, food, and travel. She began her career at Travel + Leisure and is a former editor at NF Style. When she's not tapping away on her MacBook, Nina can usually be found on a horse, sleuthing out the local pho, or refusing to unpack her carry-on. Watch her do all three on Instagram @ninafedrizzi.