The rebranded FEI/Adequan North American Youth Championship (NAYC), presented by Gotham North, is off to a much-anticipated fresh start in 2018.

In its 44-year history, the North American Youth Championship (originally the North American Young Rider Championships, and later the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships) has developed some outstanding equestrians. Olympic competitors such as show jumpers Kent Farrington, McLain Ward, and Laura Tidball-Balisky, eventers Holly Jacks-Smither and Karen O’Connor, and dressage riders Allison Brock and Adrienne Lyle all came up through its ranks.

For many years, the championship that started in 1974 at Joker’s Hill, Ontario, as an eventing challenge between Americans and Canadians was the premier equestrian competition in North America for 16-21-year-olds. What was then known as the NAYRC added dressage in 1981 and show jumping in 1982, the same year British Columbia hosted all three disciplines together. A junior division for ages 14-18 was incorporated in 2006. Reining (2008), endurance (2011), and para-dressage (2016) were also added. The championship is currently the only FEI-sanctioned championship held annually in North America, and offers young equestrians from the US, Canada, and Mexico an opportunity to compete as part of a team in a simulated Olympic event.

This year, show jumping will offer prize money for the first time, and the iconic Old Salem Farm in New York will host the dressage and show jumping championship as a stand-alone event from August 1-5. Many hope the changes will be enough to resuscitate the competition, whose value has diminished in recent years.

Participation and location challenges

While the championship continues to serve as a pathway to national teams, its importance has decreased over the last decade, suffering a serious decline in competitors. In 2005 there were 300 riders competing; 2012 had 261 riders; and by 2016 the numbers had dropped to only 175 riders. Eventing discontinued its Young Rider Championship (CH-Y2*) in 2015 due to insufficient international entries. In 2013, reining was discontinued, and endurance followed in 2016.

“It has been a championship lacking in enthusiasm,” laments Zone 4 show jumping chef d’équipe Kim Land. Land notes that in the last decade there has been little value for riders who medal. “Kids have to jump five rounds for what?” she asks, adding that for US riders there hasn’t been enough benefit associated with the medal.

Finding one venue to host all disciplines has always been a challenge. The championship has moved around from various venues in Canada to Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky, and New York. The venues did not always meet expectations, with one official describing the use of outdated materials at one location as inappropriate for a championship.

Last year, in 2017, the enormous expense (hundreds of thousands of dollars) of hosting the championship, as well as meeting the necessary requirements for all disciplines, proved too much for any one site, and jumping and dressage were set for Saugerties, NY. With no venue only a few months before the championship, eventing was almost cancelled. Fortunately, Sarah Broussard (a former Young Rider herself) of Kalispell, Montana’s Rebecca Farm, stepped up to host the championship in conjunction with their annual international horse trial, The Event at Rebecca Farm. Again this year, the venue will host an AJC and CICOY in conjunction with The Event from July 18-22.

USEA president Carol Kozlowski says the pool of eventing riders who want to compete in the championship shrinks every year, making it increasingly difficult to put teams together from all areas. “I’ve had riders and trainers tell me they didn’t see the benefit of having the championship as a goal. It’s frustrating,” says Kozlowski.

The eventing championship has struggled for many years with the tough FEI eligibility requirements for Young Riders which many blame for the 2015 cancelling of that event due to insufficient international entries. Attempts to change the eligibility ages to up to 21 for the one-star instead of the FEI 14-18 for one-star and 18-21 for two-star have not succeeded. “It hasn’t been a very friendly negotiation,” admits Kozlowski. “We just don’t have the numbers either here or in Canada that will support that. The world revolves around the FEI’s European model. From a geographic and demographic perspective, that’s not what we’re looking at.”

Statistics Canada reports a significant drop in teens aged 15-19 between 2006 and 2016 and an almost 20% drop in Canada’s youth population since the 1970s. Ontario Horse Trials Association board member and Young Riders Committee chair Deb Welna says that as a result of that shifting demographic, Canada is experiencing a large-scale attrition with young eventers, making it tough to field Young Rider teams for NAYC.

“There’s just a host of stumbling blocks,” adds Canadian chef d’équipe and Young Rider advisor Beth Underhill. Underhill suggests it’s difficult to get trainers behind the championship when it’s not in an attractive location and when it isn’t a show they feel will raise their student’s riding level.

Keeping pace with an evolving sport

The championship’s failure to keep pace with the evolution of equestrian sport plays an important role in the difficulties it has had remaining the pinnacle event for young equestrians. Young riders today have many more opportunities to compete at a high level with more FEI competitions, more five-stars in North America, and a lot more prize money. Additionally, many riders now travel to Europe for shows.

Determined to infuse the championship with excitement and energy and reinstate it as the premier competition for young equestrians, US Equestrian appointed a task force, with participation from Equestrian Canada and the Mexico Equestrian Federation, to address the shortcomings. The task force is reinvigorating NAYC 2018 with long-awaited improvements including $50,000 in prize money for the Junior show jumping, $75,000 for the Young Rider show jumping, educational events, livestreaming on USEF and FEI-TV, and live scoring for jumping and dressage. NAYC alum Georgina Bloomberg continues to sponsor through her Gotham North outfit and Adequan also returns as a sponsor.

The improvements have garnered a very positive response, with Land exclaiming “Finally! It will be an exciting championship!”

Underhill says the Old Salem location, “gives it a whole fresh face. It’s buzzworthy. It’s already getting traction. Recognizing that we can’t be all things to all people and can’t have all the disciplines in one venue is something that had to happen. The prize money reflects the importance of the event.”

“Not that prize money is what these kids are after,” adds US Equestrian’s Jennifer Haydon. “But with show jumping, prize money is how they define the star level in FEI. We haven’t had any and to keep up with the changing sport we needed to add that.”

Attempts to address faltering entries in show jumping were already underway prior to the rebranding with the 2017 addition of a children’s division for 12-14-year-olds. “Adding the children’s is a real positive,” remarks Land. “In North America, we have issues with kids staying in children’s jumpers, which is 1.10 [metres], for way too long. If we can get kids jumping 1.20 in the 12- to 14-year age range, they’ll have time to move up to 1.30 and 1.40 before they age out. We’re hoping parents will understand that jumpers are the Olympic sport. Not hunters. Not equitation.”

A valuable stepping stone

Despite all the frustrations with eventing, Kozlowski is quick to say that anyone who has experienced the championship understands its value. The FEI Nation’s Cup for Young Riders (CICOY2*) held instead of the Young Rider Championship has been successful and all US areas were represented at the 2017 Rebecca Farm championship. After the tremendous effort put forth by Rebecca Farm, organizers are expecting more competitors in 2018. “There’s a lot of fervor and enthusiasm going forward,” says Kozlowski.

Eventer April Simmonds, 20, of Uxbridge, ON, is one competitor who sees definite value in the event; she competed and medaled at five championships between 2011 and 2017. Simmonds says the most rewarding aspect for her is when everyone is trying their best “and you see the results as a team. It makes you very proud.” Simmonds hopes her experience at NAYC helps her qualify for the CET in the future.

Show jumper Tali DeJong, 18, of Golden, CO (Zone 8) competed as a junior in 2017, and also extols the tremendous value of NAYC. “I think it’s a really good stepping stone for younger riders to be getting the experience of grand prix-style courses while not having to jump the size of the grand prix jumps until you get to the Young Riders. It’s an introduction to the highest level of competing in show jumping,” says DeJong. She cites the camaraderie with all the competitors as one of the most rewarding aspects of her experience.

“For a lot of kids, it’s their first time riding in a Nation’s Cup. What you learn about yourself, about the pressure of being on a team, is incomparable,” notes Underhill. “The team spirit, the friendships that are made. What this provides for our young people is a life learning opportunity. It’s huge.”