It may look as if the U.S. Equestrian Federation has dumbed down the finals of the Platinum Performance Show Jumping Talent Search by lowering the fences, but those involved in making the decision say it ain’t so.

The impetus for the federation’s jumping sport committee to change the fence height from 1.20 meters to 1.15 meters for the 2019 finals was the fact that entries in the East Coast finals, which always has more competitors than the West Coast version, were down last year to a mere 33 starters, from 52 in 2017.

Run over two days, with a flat phase, gymnastics segment, a course of jumps and the Final Four that involves switching horses, the Talent Search is the longest and most demanding of the fall equitation finals. The class is designed to discover riders who have the ability to someday represent the U.S. internationally, the way previous winners such as McLain Ward, Richard Spooner and Charlie Jayne have done.

According to the USEF, the Talent Search program “plays an important role in developing jumping athletes by encouraging Junior and Young Riders to develop the skills that lay the groundwork for future international success.”

With that in mind, lowering the fence height may seem “counter-intuitive on many levels,” acknowledged Lizzy Chesson, the USEF’s managing director of show jumping. But she explained the class is “really not meant to be a horse contest, it’s supposed to be a riding contest.”

She added, “I don’t think it’s a dumbing down thing, I think it’s being realistic about where this sits within the pathway, and there are many other opportunities in the pathway on the jumping side of life.

“This is one element of it. Before this, we didn’t have these youth Nations’ Cups available in this country for people to have these steppingstones. This is realizing and adjusting within the opportunities that we have now. The format is still very special and tests more than what the other finals do.”

With so many big show jumping classes available now, using horses who can handle 1.20 for the finals “was not necessarily on the highest priority list. The height shouldn’t be the precluding factor for someone to be able to get into the finals.” The idea, she said, is “to focus on the riding and not necessarily on the horsepower.”

The new specs were formulated by the Talent Search Task Force after “feedback from key constituents.”

“We originally thought when we put it (the finals) at 1.20 meters it would raise the level, but in doing that, we had unintended consequences,” said Olympic medalist Beezie Madden, a member of the task force.

“We had some good riders who were left out because they didn’t have the means to have a horse for it. People felt they didn’t have a horse capable of doing 1.20 meters, so a lot of people didn’t even try to qualify,” she noted.

The pipeline seems healthy to her.

“We have more young kids capable of doing championships and Nations’ Cups,” she continued, noting there were riders in the under-25 range who did 5-star Nations’ Cups last year.

“I think we’re preparing them better than we have than in the past…we have so many jumper divisions.”

The concept of 1.20 meter fences “was an experiment,” said Lizzy.

“However, “we realized it left a lot of people not being able to participate because of horse power and that wasn’t the aim of it. We want to see the talent,” Lizzy commented.

A case in point: Only one of the top four in the 2018 finals used their own horse; the other three finalists leased or borrowed mounts capable of handling the class’s demands.

“I am very sensitive to being able to see talent without having to have the massive horse power behind it,” Lizzy said. “At that stage in an athlete’s career, I think we need to be cognizant of that.”

Another change for this year’s finals will permit judges to put a 0.90-meter trot jump at the beginning of the gymnastics phase. A few years ago, the recommendation was that no trot fences would be allowed in the gymnastics.

Trainer Stacia Madden, whose students have won the finals many times, noted after the 2018 East Coast finals that the gymnastics had “historically been kind of a sticky wicket,” saying that segment often relied on gimmicks.

However, some of the judges “really missed having the option of using a trot fence to test in the gymnastics,” Lizzy noted.

I thought part of the reason for a trot fence was to have it woven into the course. That’s the way it often is done in the ASPCA Maclay finals, run over 1.10-meter fences with horses who usually are equitation specialists. It is a test to see if the rider could slow the horse down to take the obstacle, then resume the rest of the gymnastics at a canter. It speaks to adjustability and responsiveness, in my view.

Lizzy responded, “The counter-argument to that is that many of these (Talent Search) horses are competition horses and they know they’re competing and they don’t trot in the middle of a competition.” Those doing the specs for the Talent Search “didn’t want it to be about the horse being unsettled because they’re used to cantering throughout the whole thing.”

I was skeptical, but Lizzy said, “Some of our top people believe this, so I have to believe it. These jumping horses won’t trot in the middle of a course. Even if you’re the best rider in the world, you can’t get them to trot.”

~ Nancy Jaffer