Oct. 10, 2005 -- What I like about the U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search East is that there are no foregone conclusions. Competitors have to make it through four phases over two days if they're going to place in the top four, which means a lot can change (read: "Go wrong") during the course of the class. Not only are the fences higher (3-feet, 9-inches) than in the other equitation finals, but the gymnastics portion often throws prominent contenders for a loop.
This year, the flat and gymnastics phases were combined on October 8, which, if you live in the Northeast, you'll remember as a torrentially rainy day. I was amazed at the poise with which the kids handled less-than-ideal conditions at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation's Gladstone, N.J., training center. But some played it safe, staying in the comfort zone as they splashed over three main lines of fences, instead of collecting and extending their horses to the extent that judges Karen Healey (who designed the courses) and Conrad Homfeld would have liked to see. (Conrad pitched in beautifully after getting the call to judge at the last minute. Mark Leone decided not to officiate days before the finals because his brother, Peter, had some students in the competition.)
Speaking of the gymnastics, Karen said, "I expected a few more brilliant rounds and there were a lot of safe rounds, with the weather and the footing, more conservative than I would have hoped."
That may have backfired on some competitors yesterday, when some had problems on the 15-obstacle morning course that determined who the riders would be for the final four finale. A good preparation would have been collecting and extending in the gymnastics, rather than just relying on the strides that came up naturally.
Example: Yesterday morning, horses had to clear a tight one-stride double combination six strides from the water jump in the big sand ring behind the historic, red-roofed USET stables. To get the six, you needed to hold your horse and keep him up in the bridle so you could clear the water successfully. But horses that weren't comfy collecting sometimes balked at the water jump. That's what finished Emily Hock, the leader after the flat/gymnastics phase.
Last to go in the morning session, she was having a great trip when her horse stopped at the water, just four fences from the end, and she went flying. Splash. See what I mean about no foregone conclusions?
So the standings were reshuffled after all 56 starters had jumped yesterday morning's course. Julie Welles, a student of Missy Clark and Linda Langmeir from Connecticut, moved from third to first; Maria Schaub of New Jersey, who rides with Frank and Stacia Madden, remained in second; Maggie McAlary, a New Hampshire resident who is one of Andre Dignelli's students, moved up from seventh to third on the 20th anniversary of Andre's victory in the competition. Another of his riders, Natalie Johnson, an NYU freshman from Connecticut, had the biggest leap, from 10th to fourth.
Sorry to ruin the suspense, but that's the way they finished, too, at the end of the day. It was an incredibly evenly matched ride-off. Each young woman rode a bay horse, and of course they all had the same dark jackets (though Julie's had a bit of extra style with red piping around the collar). If you weren't an expert, you probably wouldn't have been able to make head or tail of sorting out the final four in the first round.
However, Natalie finished herself off early, riding Maggie's horse, Mid-Accord, in the second round. (The finalists jump the course on their own horse, and then take everyone else's over the same route.) She got in wrong at the last fence, the "B" part of a one-stride combination and her mount smashed through the oxer with his front legs, sending rails flying.
Maggie's falling out came in the last round, on Natalie's Chagall. She had the planks that topped 4A and B down, and got close to a vertical two fences later. Maggie was "unfortunate with the rails," said Karen. "One, maybe you could have gotten away with," she added with a smile.
It was tougher to separate Julie and Maria. They both handled each horse well, though I overheard Julie confiding to someone on the phone that she thought she didn't ride the horse she used in the class, Lando, a bay cutie done up in a mudtail, as well as the other horses. Maria was up on Orion, who was loaned to her by last year's winner, Brianne Goutal. Brianne, having won the class already, was ineligible to ride in it and instead helped the Maddens and their students, and presented awards at the end of the day. Without the loan, Maria wouldn't have been able to compete, since her own horse has been laid up for a year and won't even be ready to take part in the Maclay finals less than four weeks from now.
I thought Maria's upper body position was impeccable. She never flopped on her horse's neck. I took a gazillion photos, and in each of them, she looked great. Julie, reserve champ in the Maclay finals last year, also rode beautifully. I wouldn't have liked to be Karen and Conrad in terms of making the decision of who got her name engraved on the beautiful silver trophy, but they seemed up to the task.
Not that it could be called an easy task.
It was, judge Karen said, "as good a final four as I've ever seen." And, she added, "Any one of the kids in the top 10 or eleven could have been in the final four."
The riders all looked at ease with how they did and helped each other, giving hints on how to handle their mounts. Interestingly, all the finalists but Maria (who lives in Zone 2) will be on the Zone 1 team at this weekend's Prix des States competition at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. They take the team thing seriously. They even have a team song, "Dont Cha," which Missy sings, but apparently not too well, since she didn't want to offer a rendition for us. However, she managed to warble a few stanzas for Animal Planet, which is doing a piece on the equitation finals.
I'm taking a brief break from the finals and heading off to Vegas. Next weekend, I'll be sending my postcard from the $1 million World Invitational, the richest two days of show jumping ever in the U.S., and America's first 5-star jumper show. No one quite knows what to expect, but you can count on getting the scoop right here on EquiSearch.
Editor's Note: Alex Maida of Danville, Calif., won the 2005 USEF Talent Search Finals West on September 25. Natalie Rae Medlock of Orange, Calif., was the reserve champion.