Is the Equitation a Prerequisite to Professional Success?

Kent Farrington 1999 Photo © Al Cook

By Kirstie Dobbs and Hailey Johns

Equitation finals is arguably the most stressful time of year to be a junior equitation rider.  The pressures associated with equitation regional, zone, and national finals are enough to throw even the most seasoned riders off their game.  Why do we place so much importance on one’s success in the equitation finals?  Is the equitation a prerequisite to professional or amateur success? 

In order to answer these questions, we must first examine the intense pressure placed on junior riders to succeed in the equitation finals.  In the same way that high school students are often told that essays and standardized tests could determine their academic future, junior riders are often told that the equitation finals could determine their competitive future.  This pressure to be exceptional can come with unintended adverse effects such as severe anxiety and a devalued sense of self. 

Photos © Andrew Ryback Photography.

Furthermore, the immense amount of prestige and value that we as an industry place on the equitation finals could have long-term macro level consequences. It some cases, young people even turn away from riding after their junior careers in the equitation ring because of the “end all be all” mentality that often accompanies the year end finals. Many young riders compete at the finals, but very few will make the top ten or call back lists. The extremely competitive nature of the finals coupled with the mentality that they are the culmination of one’s junior career can leave young riders feeling disenchanted with competitive show jumping. The goal of this article is to offer some perspective on the “true value” of the equitation as well as insight to its normative implications for young competitors.

Photos © Al Cook

To start, we must ask ourselves, is the equitation the only foundation on which a successful professional or amateur career can be built?  In fact,  the equitation is found solely in the United States; the rest of the world competes only in a jumper format.  This is a differentiating point, and the results produced by American riders support the claim that the equitation is important to professional success.  Two of the top three ranked riders on the Longines Global Champions Tour, the highest level of international showjumping competition, are American riders.  These riders, Kent Farrington, currently ranked first, and McLain Ward, currently ranked third, both have strong backgrounds in the equitation.  Kent Farrington won the Washington Equitation Finals and the USEF Medal Finals during his junior years, and McLain Ward was only 14 when he won the USEF Medal Finals.  They are shining examples of how the equitation provides a necessary foundation for those looking to find success beyond their junior years.  Because the equitation focuses on the correctness of the rider down to the smallest details, it encourages perfectionism.  This extreme attention to detail is very important at the top levels of competition, whether it be on the Longines Global Champions Tour, at the USHJA International Derby Finals, or anywhere in between.  The courses seen in equitation classes, particularly the finals, also prepare riders for competition as professionals.  They are typically challenging and technical, like jumper courses, but they require precision and style, like hunter courses.  As the fences go up and the classes become more competitive, jumper courses require more precision and style and hunter courses become more challenging and technical.  However, at a more entry-level, the equitation effectively combines aspects of both.  The pressure faced by equitation riders at the finals is also preparation for the pressure that any top professional will face in the course of their career. If riders learn to cope with different stresses and pressures as  juniors, they will be better equipped to handle them as professionals. 

Photos © Andrew Ryback Photography.

While the equitation provides an undeniably solid foundation, is it the only route?  Top riders such as Todd Minikus and Ali Wolff are living proof that it is not a necessity for achievement.  These riders and many others have found success without a background in the equitation.  Todd Minikus has over 130 national and international Grand Prix wins, and Ali Wolff won Individual Gold at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championship and has been extremely successful since.  When we look outside of the United States, no top professionals have a background in the equitation.  From a global perspective, since the United States is the only country to employ the use of the equitation, it is clearly not the only path to professional success.  In fact, Belgium has the most riders ranked in the top thirty of the Longines Global Champions Tour.  Belgium boasts five top thirty riders, with no equitation background, compared to the United States’ three top thirty riders.  There are also other finals, in both the jumpers and hunters, that help junior riders learn to cope with immense stress and pressure.  Finals like the North American Junior and Young Rider Championship and Junior Hunter Finals carry just as much weight for many junior riders.  There are alternative ways to gain many of the unique experiences provided by the equitation, particularly the finals. 

Kalvin Dobbs. Photo © Elias Smith

If the equitation ring provides a sufficient but not necessary experience for promoting successful riding after a junior career, what other factors contribute to a rider’s success? After talking with young professional showjumper Ali Wolff, successful amateur rider Kalvin Dobbs, and accomplished professional rider and trainer Abby Blankenship, some common themes emerge. Despite their different junior backgrounds, with Wolff having never competed at any equitation finals, Dobbs placing ninth at the Washington Equitation Finals, and Blankenship winning the USET finals during her junior career, they all emphasized the extreme importance of broadening one’s education by watching other riders and listening to the horses. Dobbs says that good days and bad days in the ring do not have much relevancy to your long term success.  It is all about how you improve upon and build your relationship with your horse.

Abby Blankenship

So what advice does a young professional, a seasoned equitation rider and trainer, and a young amateur have for junior riders competing at the finals this year? Wolff encourages riders to understand that riding is all about building blocks. The equitation is just one building block on your way to your own defined version of success. Dobbs says, d“Equitation finals are the beginning of your riding career where you obtain important skill sets. They are not about the ribbon, so be present and do not focus on winning.” Blankenship reminds junior riders that the “equitation finals do not define you in this sport. They serve as a stepping stone to the next level in whatever direction you choose. Win or lose, you learn important life lessons either way.”

In conclusion, the equitation ring serves as a foundational platform in which to learn important riding skills, but an individual’s success in riding is dependent on so much more. The emphasis on a rider’s ability to broaden their education with feet on the ground is an important lesson. Improving and building upon one’s horsemanship knowledge should be a major focus of any ambitious rider.  There is no equation or formula that is proven to turn a junior rider into a top professional or amateur rider.  Each individual has a unique path that will lead them to where they are meant to be.  Follow your own path, and do what is best for you.  The equitation provides an undeniably solid foundation, but it is not a prerequisite for professional or amateur success.  There are many routes to becoming a professional and many ways to define success.  And for all of the junior equitation riders, whether you flourish or flop, there is a life after the equitation finals.