Inside The Nationals

“A horse will do anything its rider will ask of it. Not every talented rider will earn an appearance at a national horse show or world cup competition. A rider needs more than talent, drive, dedication, discipline and resources to reach that level. They need those intangibles that takes them to the next level as a rider.”

It is a teaching point Mark and Trish instruct their riding students, regardless of level, in their hunter program. Before reaching that point, every student must learn a skill set featuring strong, sound fundamentals in horsemanship. It is learning to ride and learning to understand a horse – how it thinks, actions and reactions, its response to pressure and stress, and learning its physical limitations. Learn and know all of this, and more, along with knowing how to properly care for one, it is the first step in becoming a true rider.

A national horse show is the one show a rider simply cannot add to their calendar.  Earning a slot in a national is a recognition in the level of riding. Simply, a rider needs a body of work in riding excellence. It is more than a history of riding in AA rated shows and winning blue and red ribbons. It is more than rankings. Equitation matters, consistency matters, and competitiveness matters. Outside the show ring, it is the work in the off-season and preparing for a new season, practice sessions between shows and at shows, and the work off-saddle. It is a commitment to a work ethic, and always working to improve show after show and year over year.

Las Vegas Nationals: the hotel-casino side of the South Point

For five days in November, Las Vegas loses its “Sin City” moniker, replaced by “Show Jump City“. The South Point Equestrian Center becomes the center of the horse world and the FEI World Cup tour in North America. In the local sports, it is the lead story. Names of riders, only known in the jumping world, are mentioned in the same breath with top athletes from other sports.

8:00 pm Saturday, Nov 19

The most anticipated event of the Las Vegas Nationals was almost ready to begin – the FEI Longines World Cup Grand Prix. The field consisted of 33 World Cup jumpers and 7 riders from the USA horse show circuit, all qualified by their finish in the Welcome Jumper Speed Classic held two nights earlier. In the filled arena, the atmosphere and the anticipation was absolutely electric. A few of the top riders have been interviewed about their chances and what it would mean to win the marquee event. They all agree it will be a challenging event. Adding to the challenge, the course design by Guilherme Jorge. Having designed the jumper courses in Rio, he is known for his technically demanding but fair courses.

Though many of the riders are from the USA, it is truly an international field with riders from the UK, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Egypt, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. It is a mix of Olympic riders, seasoned professionals, hot-shots and rookies. If there is one trait the entire field shares, it is their high level of confidence. It is the one sport which each rider knows the field of competition is even, that anyone can win the event.

horse barn: our neighbors from North Carolina

Among the rookies are my three girls, four others from the USA horse show circuit, and four mid-season entrants making their first appearance on the World Cup tour. The rookie group was told they will not appear in the final, official results unless it is a top-ten finish. It is an oddity within the FEI rulebook fine print in how points are awarded and rankings are ordered. Within the rookie group, it is not much of a concern since riding in the marquee event is a reward in itself.

While the stage is larger, the expectations greater, the aim was to treat this event, this ride, like any other event. Each rider goes through their normal routines. Those riding in the top half of the draw were warming up in the arena next door while the Parade of Nations and other pre-event festivities unfolded. The background music ends, a hush settles on the audience, the PA announcer begins his introduction of the event.

A Call to Ride

The first five riders are called. Tara, riding fourth, is ready with her bay, Cameron. A little nervous as always, but with a squeeze of her hand she flashes a smile. They are led down the tunnel to the holding area just off the arena floor. The first rider of the event proceeds directly to the “hole”, the location just before heading into the start area and the in-gate. When its her turn in the hole, Tara mounts up. She is all business. The smiles are gone, the slight nervousness is gone. Her aim, be the leader going into the intermission as the top half of the draw finishes. It is a tall order, but achievable.

Riding into the start area, Tara whispers words of sweetness into Cameron’s left ear. It is a breathtaking, surreal moment. The arena is SRO full, with the scoreboards showing a live close-up of her face and that of Cameron. Below it, her competition number, name and country – 389 Westin, Tara Scott USA. The overhead scoreboard shows the ranking for the event. The first three riders occupy first, second and third place. Places four through eight are blank. The PA announcer, reading her formal introduction and giving Cameron’s formal name, Tara has tuned out everything as she awaits the signal that she may start.

She and Cameron starts. Tara’s eyes are already focused on fence #4 as they clear fence #1. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear. Clearing fence #16, they have a clean ride. It is polite applause from the audience. When Tara’s time flashes on the scoreboard, a few cheers are added to the applause. It is 72.19 seconds, nearly three seconds ahead of the now second-place rider. She has turned heads. Tara knows many more riders are yet to come. It is a course that can be completed in the 72 second range when the girls did their walkthrough earlier in the evening. In riding the course, Tara has learned a few “tells”, information she hopes to relay to Elizabeth and Deborah.

A waiting game, Tara begins to check off names. Two riders are DNF, one retire. Through 12 riders, her time is holding up. Though her nearly three-second lead is being chipped away, the audience is wondering if Tara, a little known rider, has opened the door to an upset in the making. Still waiting in the wings are Elizabeth and Deborah, with Elizabeth scheduled as the second to last rider before intermission. A very sharp WC rider takes the lead at 72.11 seconds.

Two riders later, it is now Elizabeth in the start area. Scantly studying the overhead scoreboard, she has tuned everything out. Her eyes are a study in concentration. Lilith is ready to go. Elizabeth strokes Lilith’s neck to calm her down. A timer issue is causing a delay, but wasn’t too long. They receive their signal they may start.

Elizabeth and Lilith: making 1.50 m jumps an optical illusion

Fast out of the in-gate, Elizabeth quickly clears Lilith over fence #1. With information from Tara, Elizabeth is setting an aggressive riding line by looking farther down the course. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear, fence #5 clear. A few of the other WC riders have taken notice of Elizabeth’s aggressive riding line. She has ridden the course cleanly with Lilith in near-perfect rhythm. The audience is enjoying clean ride after clean ride. When Elizabeth’s time of 71.78 is posted, a rousing round of cheers follow. If this was a baseball game, Elizabeth would have to come out and doff her hat. What she has done is lay down a challenge to the riders yet to come.

Building Anticipation –

During the intermission, the warm-up arena is busy. The first ten riders of the second half of the draw are slowly walking their horses. In the show arena, the excitement is building in the stands. They know the best riders are yet to come, many competitive in this branch of the WC tour. For the moment, Elizabeth is first and Tara is third. A couple of riders complimented Elizabeth and Tara for riding well. The usual questions are asked: where they’re from, whom are they training with, how long they’ve been riding, and do they plan to ride internationally or on the WC tour in North America. Naturally, they ask how good is Deborah. Both say she is very good.

With intermission finishing, the call for the first five riders is given. Leading off this group is Deborah. Every rider following her is a top-tier rider. In the hole, Deborah is boosted up onto her champion, Comet. Riding into the start area, Deborah scans the course. Her expression, pretty but icy.

Like Elizabeth, Deborah is fast out of the in-gate and clears fence #1. She is riding the same aggressive line and looking farther down the course. Fence #2 clear, fence #3 clear, fence #4 clear. Coming out of fence #5, a slight bauble but they’re fine. Deborah finishes the course cleanly. She has a feeling the bauble at fence #5 cost them precious time. When her time of 71.73 is posted, Deborah is amazed. Back in the warm-up arena, Elizabeth and Tara high-fives her.

The top riders follow. They are the ones the audience have come to see. The next rider betters Deborah’s 71.73. In the unofficial results, Deborah finished 12th, Elizabeth tied 14th and Tara 16th.

The Mixer

It is well past 11:00 pm, but in true Las Vegas style, a late-night mixer among the riders and fans of the World Cup tour follows. The riders of the moment are the top five finishers – Christian Heineking (GER), Enrique Gonzales (MEX), Tina Yates (USA), Jamie Barge (USA) and Hanna Mauritzson (SWE). The mixer is a little networking, a little socializing and plenty of horse talk.

Autographs are exchanged, including some fans asking for autographs from my girls. They loved seeing them ride so well, and holding their own against the more experienced professionals. When asked if they’ll be riding at the WC level anytime soon, they reply it would be a while, noting plenty of work and gaining experience still needs to be done.

Many of the conversations among the riders are one of mutual respect and admiration. Conversing with my daughters, the more experienced riders were very complimentary of their talent and potential. They encouraged them to stay with their plan and timetable in gaining experience and polishing their skill set.

The best compliment – they belong.

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4 thoughts on “Inside The Nationals

    • Thank you, Tim.

      Their ability to hang with the more experienced professionals says much about the talent they possess. As a whole, they enjoy working hard in anonymity rather than developing openly where everyone has expectations of them becoming elite professionals. The anonymity keeps the personal expectations and disappointments lower, and keeps the motivation higher.

  1. Great write up! From following along on your blog about your three talented riders, I was half holding my breath reading this, hoping and rooting for a good outcome. What an accomplishment, of all of them! Incredible close finish.
    I can’t imagine the tension, as a parent, watching all of this from the stands…
    Well done every one! I’d say they represented the rookies above and beyond!

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