San Juan Capistrano, CA – June 21, 2017 – Over seventy junior and amateur entries took to The Oaks International Grand Prix Field for the inaugural American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge, presented by Whitethorne. Moving up from eighth to first, twelve-year-old Stella Buckingham earned an impressive win aboard Nom de Guerre.
The inaugural class took place over three phases, with Day One featuring the jumping phase over a 3’3″ Hunter Derby type track plus an educational presentation and Q&A phase with all riders, trainers, and judges that evening. Day Two all competitors with a score of 60 or better returned for the second round, followed by a work-off of the top six scoring riders.
Georgy Maskrey-Segesman, owner and operator of Whitethorne, a premier hunter-jumper sales barn, created the class with the goal of providing more education for equitation riders on the West Coast. “I’m looking for it to be something that’s enjoyable and educational and something that people can walk away from and say, ‘Wow, that was a great experience. I want to do it again.'”
The courses in the challenge were designed by Karen Healey. She also served as technical delegate and was on hand as a mentor to all participants, along with mental skills coach Tonya Johnston. Honorable judges Bernie Traurig and Stacia Madden presided over each jumping phase and provided written comments for each competitor alongside the open numerical scoring format.
After a mandatory riders’ meeting and subsequent warm-up round in the morning, Phase One officially began on Tuesday afternoon when 71 competitors set out to tackle the expansive course, which asked questions of adjustability, pace, and fluidity around bending lines and tight rollbacks.
Katie Browne, who rides with Elvenstar, sat second after Phase One. “My goal for the entire course was staying on pace,” she said. “Jump number one was a big hay wall covered in ivy, and I knew I had to get my gallop and set my pace from there.” Her plan paid off as she navigated the trickier elements of the course and earned a score of 84. Katherine Dash, a student of Brookway Stables, led the pack after the first round with a score of 85.
Phase Two was conducted at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel, that evening. Riders and trainers attended a video presentation of “Equitation – An American Tradition of Excellence,” which included slow motion videos of five winning rounds from recent years of the Maclay Finals. Traurig commented on how they handled each portion of the course, i.e., using combination of direct and indirect rein aids to keep a horse straight to the trot fence, or influencing the landing to land on certain lead, or choosing to land then swap to counter canter, to show off skills.
Afterward, Tonya Johnston gave a “Mental Skills” presentation and then Traurig, Madden, Healey, Johnston, and Maskrey-Segesman answered inquiries from the riders. The unusual opportunity to receive such extensive feedback from the panel highlighted the educational components of the class and gave riders numerous options for improvement in the third phase the following morning as well as a new perspective on equitation.
Phase Three commenced at 8am on Wednesday morning. All riders with a score of 60 or better from Phase One were invited back, bringing the entry total for the second day to 61. The course for the day’s competition took center stage, featuring a prominent square of hay bales interspersed with jumps 1, 2, 4, 5, 9, and 10. The rest of the fences in the twelve-element course were incorporated in a series of carefully measured lines, a delicate scoop-fence bounce, and a daring hand gallop finish to the final oxer.
Many riders had trouble navigating the hay bale square of elements, as well as the bending lines and rollbacks twisting into the single outside line and bounce. The lightweight wooden rails making up fences 9 and 10 also fell multiple times. Riders who were able to successfully balance their horses’ stride and impulsion throughout received well-earned solid scores from judges.
Sitting eighth after the Phase One, Stella Buckingham finished Phase Three at the top of the standings after a strong second jumping round of 86.5 led to a combined score of 168.50. Yesterday’s Phase One winner Katherine Dash sat in close second after a combined score of 168, Kate Abajian in third with 167.50 total, Katie Browne fourth with 167, Miela Gross in fifth earning 165.50, and Juliana Ball rounding out the top six with 165.25.
The top six riders were required to canter directly from the lineup to fence 1, canter fence 2, counter canter fence 3 and canter fence 4, then halt. They were then asked to back their horses 3-5 steps, pick up a canter to 5, counter canter 6, and return to the line. Work-off scores were not announced and riders performed directly after the previous one had finished.
Returning in reverse order, Ball went first, picking a more conservative track but missing the last counter canter to fence 6. Gross went second and completed all aspects of the test, followed by Browne, who chose to demonstrate a clean halt to pick up the first counter canter and a fluid track throughout the course. Sitting in third, Abajian chose a daring inside turn to the first jump which resulted in an unfortunate refusal. Dash and Buckingham both rode precise and direct tracks throughout.
After the six riders had completed the shortened work-off course, the top twelve were brought back for the awards presentation. Announcement of the winner was held until last, with third going to Dash, second to Browne and ultimately the big win to Buckingham, trained by Katie Gardner.
Generous prizes were awarded to the top riders and trainers, including $10,000 cash to the winning trainer; a Butet saddle and cooler, EquiFit jacket and horse boots, a $300 Rococos certificate, Blenheim cooler and pewter plate to the winning rider; Butet tack, EquiFit jackets and Rococos certificates to second and third; plus ribbons, Butet caps and Valencia Saddlery Gift Bags to the top twelve. After an enthusiastic victory gallop led by Buckingham, the top six riders, trainers, and the Q&A panel of trainers and mentors from the Phase Two came together for the press conference.
Georgy Maskrey-Segesman summed up the experience. “A year ago when I first thought of the idea… I had no idea it would develop into what it was over the last couple of days. I am absolutely in awe and humbled by all the people who came together [for this],” she said. “We’re capable of changing our sport and capable of adding to it, giving back, offering opportunities, and I think that’s really important.”
Blenheim EquiSports would like to thank all the sponsors and individuals who put tremendous time and effort into this inaugural year. Congratulations to all on a job well done. More competition excitement still to come this week at Blenheim June Classic III, including the West Coast Pony Hunter Challenge, presented by USHJA Zone 10, a USHJA National Hunter Derby, presented by Taylor Harris Insurance, the Six Bar Challenge, presented by Park Place Foundation, the Markel Insurance Grand Prix and Interactive Mortgage U25 class.
The American Tradition of Equitation Excellence Challenge, presented by Whitethorne
Place – Rider – Horse – Trainer/Stable – Rd 1 Score/Rd 2 Score/Overall Score
1. Stella Buckingham – Nom de Guerre – Katie Gardner/Q of E Farm – 82/86.5/168.5
2. Katie Browne – Vancouver – Jim Hagman/Elvenstar – 84/83/167
3. Katherine Dash – Need I Say – Archie Cox/Brookway Stables – 85/83/168
4. Miela Gross – Exquisite – Emily-Esau Williams/ EE Show Stable, Inc. – 80.5/85/165.5
5. Juliana Ball – Santanita LS – Tammy Chipko/Shelburne Farms – 83.25/82/165.25
6. Kate Abajian – Lambada – Lee Flick/Bridgeport Farms – 80/87.5/167.5
7. Emma Crosbie – Quadro d’Ag – Emily-Esau Williams/EE Show Stable, Inc. – 81/84/165
8. Payton Potter – Pacord – Leslie Steele/Acres West – 83.5/79/162.5
9. Camille Leblond – Graffito – Alexis Silvernale/Aleron – 75/87/162
10. Alexa Leong – Cintas – Jill Humphrey/JH Sporthorses – 73.5/86/159.5
11. Taylor Griffiths – Let’s Go – Jim Hagman/Elvenstar – 82.75/75/157.75
12. Grace Tuton – Lautento – Sherry Templin/Sherry Templin Training Stable – 75.5/82/157.5
The Top 6 riders, judges, and mentors were asked by members of the press about their thoughts on the class and their takeaway on their experiences.
Question for the Top 6 riders: What was your greatest takeaway during your experience in the class?
Buckingham: I really thought it was beneficial to see the comment card and get the feedback from the judges. Yesterday one of the comments on my card said to work on my release so I took that feedback and incorporated it into today’s class.
Browne: One thing I took away from this class was that I perform my best when I’m having fun, which I never really knew before. I made myself smile even when I was nervous. Have fun first and the rest will follow!
Dash: The comment cards were very beneficial because it was nice to see what the judges thought about my rounds and why. And then having fun – I think all six of us had a blast.
Gross: I just got back from my first year of school, so I wanted to have fun and enjoy riding my horse. Being able to get the feedback card and take that in to the next round was very beneficial, as well as seeing the video in last night’s presentation.
Ball: I think my favorite part was being able to break it down into phases. The first round you were able to get the feedback and apply it into your next round, and learning from that really helped me through my second round and the work-off. And also as Tonya was explaining, it’s your attitude going into the ring – if you have a happy attitude and you go into the ring having fun, you’re going to lay down a better course.
Abajian: I really found the Q&A with the judges last night very helpful – what they said and the advice they offered was great.
Question for the panel: Where did you see improvement or what did you take away from the class format?
Traurig: We were really impressed at the improvement in many of them was obvious. From what we discussed yesterday, a few tips here and there – it doesn’t take much: Put your foot in the stirrup further, release a little more with your hands, don’t post in the canter – it’s nice to see that this works. It goes back to what we said the first day in the riders’ meeting about correct basics combined with beautiful quality riding style, which every single one of them exhibited out here.
Madden: When one of the kids asked what we were looking for [in last night’s Q&A] I was really hoping to see improvement because it was definitely something that was on my mind. I felt like this situation was a little bit more of a clinic situation that turned into a competition because of the interaction that was between the riders and judges. I think the judge’s perspective has a lot to offer the kids and I really liked the opportunity to do so. I hope this format takes off and that some of the bigger classes will be able to have a little bit of the same template to them. I think it’s important for riders to know that a good competition begins with good confident riding and that’s what we’re all hoping to see the riders aspiring to do. I’m a little sad to go to a normal horse show now!
Healey: Watching the course that I built, I was very pleased with it because it really did allow the riders to gallop. I was afraid it might be too twisty-turny but I thought the riders used their feedback well and for the most part all were significantly improved today.
Johnston: I think that this class set a wonderful environment for learning. Every class is an opportunity to learn rather than seeing it as a pass-fail. As soon as I got out of the car this morning the riders were coming up to me and asking questions and that’s great. That’s what we’re here for and I think what Georgy was envisioning in the educational component. Hopefully that can continue and you guys can bring that with you as you continue to compete on the road towards becoming the best rider you can be.