Candid Thoughts on the 2021 USEF Medal Finals—and What We Must Try to Change

Geoff Teall. Photo by Hillary Oswald


As we head into the fall season with all the many equitation finals, I would like to have an open and honest discussion regarding the USEF Medal Finals held in the fall of 2021. I offer this not in defense of our decisions as judges that day, nor even as an explanation, but only in an effort to share our perspective on one specific and important class.  

When you accept an invitation to judge any class, you accept that invitation knowing you will do the best job possible, especially a class of this importance. Each judge comes to the task with their integrity intact, along with their own personal background and history on which they will base their opinions. Tom Brennan and Emil Spadone are top horsemen with great knowledge, successful careers, and indisputable integrity. We could not ask for more qualified people to be coming up the ranks to continue as our judges for the future. I believe that I have also earned the right to my opinions, and consider it an honor to have judged
this particular final with two such qualified people.

At any level of horse show, there are going to be good classes and bad classes. For those of you who do not judge, there are also classes that fall into place easily, making them easy to judge. There are others that do not fall into place and are extremely difficult to judge. Essentially, this is the same as most things in life–some days are better than others, just as some performances are better than others. 

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the USEF Medal Finals in 2021 fell into the latter category. This is not to discount, in any way, the quality of the riders or their performances as a whole. We had an extremely strong group of riders. Any one of the riders who had a good day and made it to the second round, or ultimately received a ribbon, should be very proud of their accomplishment on that day. There were many other top riders for whom things did not fall into place in this particular class. They can be equally proud of their many other accomplishments throughout their junior careers. 

There are so many elements that go into the final outcome of these extremely important and visible classes. Some of these elements are under the control of the judges, and many are not. As in any aspect of the things we do in our lives, sometimes all of these elements fall neatly into place, assisting us to get to our desired result; and on other days, it seems as though all of these elements are working against us.  

In spite of careful preparation and much dedicated effort to get ready to judge these classes, there are always variables that you cannot prepare for that can significantly affect the outcome of the class. Where you are sitting is always a major factor, as well as whether or not the jumps are coming directly at you or directly away from you. In different classes, and in different years, the amount of control you have as a judge over the courses themselves can vary. Add to that all the different things that you do not have any knowledge of, let alone control over, that seem to present themselves at just the wrong moment. 

These can be seemingly unimportant things such as which jumps you might have left in the ring to work with, whether or not the schooling areas are still set up, whether the loudspeaker system be heard by the exhibitors outside of the arena, etc. These are just examples of a few small things that can have a significant negative impact on the class you are judging if they go wrong.  

We experienced several of these difficulties during our class last fall, making our job to place the class more difficult than usual. Having said that, I do know that after working through these difficulties, when the class was finished, we were comfortable with the decisions we made.   

Based on our opinions, our vantage point, and having watched these riders over their performances in all the rounds and tests, we were satisfied with how we pinned the class. Ultimately, we felt that we allowed the riders themselves to determine the order in which it was pinned, which is as it should be.  

Emil puts his thoughts on the class and the outcome into words very succinctly when he says, “In the end, we asked the best two riders in the class to decide the top two placings, and they did…we only recorded the result. Some agreed, some did not, but those who did not should have still maintained a level of professionalism that they would expect if the situation was reversed.”  

As we head into another fall season with many important horse shows and finals ahead of us, I think it is important for all of us to not only hear this point of view, but to also understand it. Riders, parents, and especially professionals need to know that they are not the only ones making huge sacrifices and major efforts for these events. Judges, managers, and other officials and staff members are all doing the same. 

I believe most involved in our sport behave well. I also believe there are some who do not. More importantly, although most of the professionals in our sport fall into the first category, there are too many top professionals who fall into the second one. All of our top professionals act as the leaders of our sport. For better or worse, these same professionals serve as role models not only for our students and clients, but also for our younger and less experienced professionals. 

We need to treat each other with the respect that we each deserve, and that we would expect in return. For the sake of our sport, it is imperative that we identify those who act professionally, and begin to emulate them. We have some top people working and officiating at our major events this fall, and my hope is that they will be treated with respect for the job that they will be doing. 


The discussion continues on The Plaidcast. Tune in to hear more of Piper and Geoff’s talk, including these soundbites from Geoff…  

Leading by Example  

“We all watch and imitate people who are successful. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. We need to be very careful about what we do, how we do it, and why we do it—at every moment and with each decision. It’s very difficult, and it’s very important.”

“I think that as professionals we need to lead the sport by example, and lead the sport in the direction it should go. I’m not sure it’s going in the right direction.” 

The Right Thing to Do  

“The most important thing for me is that I always start by asking: What’s the right thing to do here? Is it right for the horse? Is it right for this person to show in this horse show? Is it right for this person to move up in this division? The questions are infinite, but the real question of ‘What is the right thing to do?’ is what’s important. If you really look at a situation, and determine to the best of your abilities what is right, and you do that, it will work. It might not work instantly, but it will absolutely work out over time.”    

Hear more on the #Plaidcast at

*This story was originally published in the October/November 2022 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!