If the Difference is in the Details, Should Equitation Riders Be Allowed to See Their Scorecard?

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o win an equitation class, riders must produce seamless tracks with quiet aids and elegant poise to impress the judges. This we know. The class is pinned, ribbons are handed out, and everyone moves on to the next show. But what made the difference between all those nice rounds? How do riders know what the judge liked and disliked about their round? How do they know what to improve upon? In many cases, it’s a mystery. 

The American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge, presented by Whitethorne, is doing things differently. Offering an open dialogue between rider and judge, this educational event for juniors and amateurs promotes the development of horse and rider to further their horsemanship skills by receiving judges notes and scorecards following each round of competition. 

This year’s edition of this unique equitation event, held during Blenheim EquiSports’ June Classic 3, saw 94 junior and amateur riders looking to gain invaluable experience and mileage with feedback from judges Cynthia Hankins and Diana Carney. Junior rider Payton Potter was the ultimate winner, while the title of Noëlle Floyd Most Improved Rider was awarded to Alison Raich. 

Payton Potter wins the 2019 American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge, presented by Whitethorne.

Equitation has long been considered a stepping stone in developing a strong foundation of horsemanship and effective riding, but is it still a relevant division? Is the lack of transparency in score-keeping holding participants back? We got the inside scoop from the Whitethorne Equitation Challenge’s biggest players.

What the Judge is Looking for With 2019 American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge Judge, Cynthia Hawkins

What do you look for in a winning equitation round?
Cynthia: Position is priority number one as that relates to being able to efficiently and effectively communicate with your horse. The moment one enters the ring, you are making a first impression. It’s good to see a rider enter with confidence, looking like they have a plan, set their pace, and answer the questions of the course in a seamless, effortless fashion. It takes years of hard work to create a ride that has, as George Morris says, the look of “the art of doing nothing.”

Emma Raith focuses on the course designed by Karen Healey.

How important is it to provide constructive criticism for riders to improve over their next rounds? 
Cynthia: The uniqueness of the Whitethorne class, providing constructive criticism, gives riders and trainers another perspective. The judges offer a different two pair of eyes to see something in their effort that, perhaps, with a small change in position or ride, might be an “aha” observation. It might also serve as a reinforcement validating a habit a trainer has been trying to correct to no avail. “Pace” or “under-paced” was a common theme on the cards. Many riders put finding a distance before pace, track, and balance. Without those three elements of the ride, the task of relating to/measuring the upcoming jump is left to chance.

What do you wish every young equitation rider knew?  
Cynthia: “To Equitate” is not a verb; it’s not posing at the task of riding. Riding purposefully, with a solid leg and seat foundation, an elastic and sympathetic arm and hand and a forward-thinking connection with your horse will yield results. 

The Benefits of Feedback With Most Improved Rider, Alison Raich

How does your foundation in the equitation ring benefit your riding and what is the most important thing equitation has taught you? 
Alison: Just this past year I began competing in the jumpers. I attribute a lot of my early success to the foundation I received from the equitation. The equitation taught me how to be smooth even when I’m trying to be tidy and go fast. It also helped me learn how to manipulate my track to set up the course more efficiently. Without the equitation I would never have been able to transition and move up in the jumpers so quickly.

Position is priority number one ...

What was the most important lesson you learned from this class and how will you apply it moving forward in your career?
Alison: The most important lesson that I learned is that each round is a clean slate and a new opportunity to have a good round. It is easy to let yourself spiral downwards when things don’t go as planned. Having the presentation from the mental coach [Erika Westhoff, M.A.] before round three really helped me come to the final round with a positive perspective. 

How do you handle your nerves and the pressure before heading into the ring
Alison: One of my techniques to control my nerves is to literally tell myself out loud that, “I got this.”  If I hear it, I start to believe it! I also remind myself that I should focus more on having fun than winning because that is why I am really here. 

Equitation Takeaways With Whitethorne Winner, Payton Potter

What has equitation taught you about handling pressure?
Payton: I’m a very anxious person. For Whitethorne, my plan was to treat the class like a hunter derby, where I could just have fun and enjoy the challenges of a more technical course. Competing in the equitation has allowed me to acknowledge that even when my nerves kick in before a big class, once I go in the ring, I can settle and focus.

Laila Klinsmann scored a 94 in phase one to finish in ninth place. 

Does the equitation play an important role in the hunter ring for you? What’s the biggest similarity? 
Payton: The biggest similarity between the two rings is that they require special attention to detail. My time in the equitation is a way to practice for handy courses and prepare myself mentally for the higher pressure classes. I use the equitation to practice being efficient, smooth, and consistent. My equitation horse has a very round jump, like a hunter, which also gives me an opportunity to practice body control and precision. Because of equitation, I started applying all the things I learned to both my hunters and the green horses I’ve been able to catch ride this year. 

Function follows form in all rings.

What do you think you’re learning in the equitation ring now that will benefit your riding moving forward? 
Payton: The equitation ring has taught me a lot about having a steady pace, smooth track, and good body control. I plan to keep applying these things to my hunter rounds and use them to give me an edge in the handy classes. Some of my goals include being competitive at all the finals, continue bringing along my hunters, and riding on a college team. I hope to be involved in the sport for the rest of my life. 

The Long-Term Value of Equitation With Winning Trainer, Leslie Steele

This is the third year of the American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Callenfe. What are your thoughts on how educational events like this impact the larger equitation community?
Leslie: I believe that Whitethorne is instrumental to educating the larger equitation community. The opportunity to look into the minds of the judges as they are evaluating each rider’s round helps trainers and riders to understand what they are thinking, what they are watching for (especially with certain tests that were asked in the course), and how they evaluated both mistakes and brilliance. 

Find out what Sam Walker has learned from top equitation trainer, Missy Clark.

How important do you regard the equitation for riders? Do you believe the equitation provides a strong foundation of riding for a future career in the jumpers?
Leslie: Function follows form in all rings. The equitation teaches riders how to put together solutions. Whether wanting to finish in the hunters or jumpers, every rider must learn how to execute track and think about the problems a course poses. 

How has the equitation managed to remain a staple tradition in American riding?
Leslie: I believe the equitation has evolved alongside the jumpers and the hunters, while our basic forward seat position remains the basis of success in every ring. Today, all of riding is more technical and the questions asked are more advanced; however, the fundamentals that begin in the equitation have always and will always be a staple in American riding. 

Read this next: Welcome to Amateur Status: 3 Skills You Already Have That Will Help You Transition From Equitation to Jumpers

Feature photo by Sportfot.