In their search to fill the newly-created position of Young Rider Development Program (YRDP) advisor, Jump Canada ultimately chose Beth Underhill as the successful candidate. A veteran of Pan Am, Olympic and World Equestrian Games with both team and individuals medals to her credit, Underhill was first named to the Canadian Equestrian Team in 1990. At her Beth Underhill Stables in Schomberg, ON, Underhill is committed to helping the next generation of show jumping athletes come up through the ranks.

Talent identification, support, and mentorship will be some of Underhill’s main responsibilities in her new role. Along with committee members Laura Balisky, Dayton Gorsline, Hyde Moffatt, Marni Von Schalburg and EC’s manager of jumping, Karen Hendry-Ouellette, she will work closely with young riders, trainers, parents, and owners with an eye to developing competitive individuals and teams for FEI competition.

Horse Sport caught up with Underhill at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, FL, where she has 10 horses competing, including a number of students’ mounts, some of her own developing young horses, and campaigners such as Viggo and Cadermie. On Feb. 5th, in her first outing as YRDP chef d’équipe, her team of carefully-chosen young riders placed a very close second in the Artisan Farms Under 25 Team Event.

Opportunities beyond the hunter ring

Underhill explained what prompted the launch of this initiative for young jumper riders. “What we saw happening in the last 10 years is less participation and results. Part of that is because the sport in general has become so much more sophisticated and expensive and I think it’s not on people’s radar. Kids go through the hunter ranks and equitation and they maybe don’t realize at 12 or 14 or 16 years of age that there’s an FEI Children’s Nations Cup. There are other opportunities.

“We’re trying to get them thinking about it a little bit sooner, and provide opportunities for them to compete, whether here in Wellington or in Lexington or in Europe when we get developed to that point. Our goal is to prepare them for the senior team and to give them the same responsibilities. We want them involved and knowing what it means to be a team member from a young age.

“The other thing that’s changed in the last few years has been the Under 25 that Artisan Farms began and it’s really caught on – not just in Wellington; there are shows all across the US. We felt that the Talent Squad/Best Ever – the previous series – was a little tired and needed to be revamped, and this is a natural step for us to follow through with what is happening in the rest of the world.”

Identifying the talent

To get more youth invested earlier is one of the goals of this multi-faceted program. “Obviously, this is a gradual process, but we have done several things already to try and create some excitement. First of all, riders under 25 can sign up – they can be as young as 10 – so we have a master list. We are now starting to narrow down the focus a little bit. We just put out a survey where they tell us what horses they have, what their winter plans were – for example Thermal, Wellington, Ocala, staying at home – and what their goals are. So we are just starting to identify the kids and get them thinking about this and talking to their parents and coaches about what they’re looking to accomplish.

“When I chose the team for the Under-25 [at WEF 4], it was from people who had signed up, riders that I’ve been watching, and also sourcing. I’ve made calls to people out west and said ‘there’s an opportunity here to compete.’ I’m trying to be proactive; I went out west to a meeting with the kids at the Royal West show just to get them thinking about this nationwide program.”

A rankings list to call their own

An important part of the YRDP is having a national and provincial ranking list, which is in the works for 2016. “I’ve talked to Craig Collins about what he can do to help with the program he already has in place,” said Underhill. “Ultimately, we would like to have these kids not only identified, but also ranked. That’s going to give them goals and create something for them to think about in their long-term career as opposed to just ‘now I’m doing the metre-ten.’

“The problem is, they’re jumping a lot against adults – the way our sport runs, you may have a 14-year-old in the metre-ten and a 30-year-old jumping in the same class. We need to pull those results and identify the young kids and what they’re doing, and what we expect them to be doing at a particular age.”

In addition to an important social media presense being developed for this program by Equine Canada, Underhill said that Collins had another idea to keep kids engaged. “We’re hoping to ultimately have a phone app where they can see their results after each show, so that they know exactly where they stand in the program. That would create a lot of anticipation.”

It takes a village

One of the main concerns will be making the series enticing and finding financial help for the kids who need it. “There is a bursary program in Jump Canada already, and there is also one available in the Talent Squad, so there have always been bursaries in place, but that is certainly part of our mandate,” said Underhill. Other plans include increasing prize money and finding sponsors for a series. “It’s created a lot of excitement with people wanting to help this happen. The series final will be at the Royal Winter Fair and we are planning at least two standalone classes. It’s already getting a lot of traction. We’ve had a lot of positive feedback from individual sponsors and series sponsors, so we’re really hopeful about that.” Underhill also wants the provinces involved in terms of some financing, help with some tech support, education opportunities in the form of workshops and clinics, and fundraising elements.

Mentorship and a feeling of community and support is crucial for this program to work. Underhill said, “I’m trying to be very open; I send out emails to people, I talk to the kids at the shows, I talk to the trainers. We’re trying to be visible and let them know that myself and my committee are available to answer questions, they can send us videos, and so on.

“Even just getting the clothing; when they make the team they’re all going to have a jacket with the Young Riders logo on it. They each get a cooler. Things like that create a sense of pride and accomplishment.”

Riders, parents, and coaches who are interested in getting involved in the Young Rider Development Program can visit
under Programs/Youth Programs to register or for information regarding the identification process, education, and upcoming events.