BY NINA FEDRIZZI
Blink and you might have missed it, but late last month, word was shared across US Equestrian channels that big changes were in store for the 2020 USEF Junior Hunter National Championships. First on the docket: expanding the qualifying criteria for Junior Hunter Finals, which will now allow winners at “B”- and “C”-rated shows to earn a place in the Finals.
If right now, you’re thinking, “Wow, I’m in—tell me more!” or maybe, “Yikes, how with this work?” or even, “Hey, what’s Junior Hunter Finals?” trust us, we hear you. To help, we’ve gone straight to the source in the form of US Equestrian’s Director of Communications & Public Relations Carly Weilminster to find out more. Here’s the 411 on just what the Junior Hunter National Championships will look like in 2020, and how you (yes, YOU) can potentially get in on the action.
So, let’s start here: What are Junior Hunter Finals?
Each year, for almost two decades, more than 1,000 horses have qualified to compete at the bi-coastal USEF Junior Hunter National Championships. These took place most recently at Brandywine Horse Shows in Devon, P.A. (East Coast), and at the Sonoma Horse Park in Petaluma, C.A. (West Coast), during the month of July.
Riders at both events compete in three phases over two days: a Classic round, an Under Saddle round, and a Handy Hunter round. The Under Saddle phase accounts for 20 percent of the rider’s overall score, while the Classic and Handy Hunter rounds each account for 40 percent. Riders are separated into 15 & under and 16-17 sections, as well as Small and Large Junior Hunter divisions. In 2014, a new, 3’3” Junior Hunter section was also added. There are ribbons awarded for each phase, plus the big awards for Overall Grand Champions, Overall Reserve Grand Champions, and Best Mare. So how’s that for a start?
How have riders qualified previously?
In a pretty traditional way. Each horse qualified for the USEF Junior Hunter National Championship on either coast must have won a Championship or a Reserve Championship in an “A”- or “AA”-rated Junior Hunter Division… or they must have been ranked in the top-10 in their respective zones around the country. The good news: this method consistently qualifies the crème de la crème of Junior Hunter competitors from across the country. The bad news: this crème de la crème pulls only from a limited pool of individuals who can afford to show often and consistently at “A”- or “AA”-rated shows. Everybody else hoping for a shot at participating in a major hunter championship? Until this point, the odds were not in your favor.
How will the new 2020 qualifying criteria fix the problem?
Glad you asked—here’s the breakdown from US Equestrian’s Carly Weilminster:
“We collaborated to implement new specifications for the 2020 Junior Hunter National Championship in an effort to re-engage and support regional level horse shows, which serve as a qualification pathway,” Carly explains. “Athletes can qualify for the championship through their designated sections at Premier, National, and Regional I- and II-level shows, and will also be able to qualify by securing a top-10 position in their respective zone standings.”
Oh, yeah, meant to ask—what’s the deal with the ‘zone’-thing?
There are technically eight, Junior Hunter sections, or “zones,” broken up across the country, with the top-10 riders in each automatically receiving qualification for the nearest East or West Coast championship. “The ability for horse and rider combinations to qualify through their respective zones is [unique],” says Carly. “It’s one of the only USEF national championships offered where an individual’s identified zone can provide an avenue for qualification.”
So, greater opportunities for regional qualification, as well as multiple competition heights and age groups, means there’s more opportunities already to get your foot in the door at Junior Hunter Finals than there are at other national championships—is that correct?
You got it. And, according to USEF, expanding that idea even further is the goal in the coming year. “Expansion and inclusivity were the driving motivators and are the foundational purpose of these changes, as we collectively agree that there will be increased opportunity for deserving competitors to compete at the finals,” says Carly. ”The event provides an educational platform where participants can experience a highly-pressurized championship atmosphere, while competing against and learning from other top athletes. It’s an important developmental milestone and showcases each combination’s capability to adapt and perform at the highest levels within their age group.”
This all sounds super. But if I qualify, and if I go—and so does everyone else—does that mean I’m going to be horse showing in the Finals at midnight?
What, you don’t do your best, distance-finding work in the wee hours of the morning? Fair enough, but that’s a caveat that’s been accounted for, according to Weilminster. USEF is currently planning for an additional 10 entries per section in the championship, with an additional 20 slots opening overall—so, not necessarily a deal breaker. “When applied to past data, opening up the qualification added approximately 50 eligible horses from across the county to the list,” says Carly, adding that the task forces involved worked with the National Hunter Committee to ensure that the additional entries would be manageable, and not detract from the quality and prestige of the Championship. “Based on the data we have reviewed and analyzed, it will not have a significant impact on the length of the day, or the duration of the classes, nor will it negatively impede the overall management or organization of the event.”
Okay, last one. If this all goes off without a hitch, are we likely to see expanded qualifying criteria for other USEF championships—say, in the Big Eq or Pony Finals?
Great question! And the answer is… well… solidly in “TBD” camp. “We are always striving to find new and innovative ways to incorporate and expand opportunities for all levels of competitors, while providing access and a broadened qualification structure to these championship events,” Carly says. “We will continue to evaluate the best ways of accomplishing this goal and continue to collect feedback on other championships where this structure could be successfully applied in the future.”
Still with us? Learn more about this year’s new qualifying criteria at US Equestrian.