Some of the country's top young talent faced off in a mock Nations Cup competition at the conclusion of the 2012 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, Jan. 3-7 in Wellington, Fla. FEI course designer Anthony D'Ambrosio set a testing course, which gave participants a glimpse of what their future might hold as a member of the U.S. show jumping team.
Riders divided into four teams of three, with a member of the gold medal-winning Pan American Games team acting as chef d'equipe for each trio. Kent Farrington's team included Taylor Harris, Samantha Ramsay and Michael Murphy; Christine McCrea coached Meg O'Mara, Natalie Crane and Wilton Porter; Samantha Schaefer, Jacob Pope and Katie Dinan rode for Beezie Madden; and McLain Ward worked with Carly Anthony, Sarah Milliren and Lillie Keenan.
"Nations Cups are one of the most important parts of our sport and young riders need this exposure and practice," said Madden. "Most of the time, our sport is an individual competition. But with Nations Cup and championships like the Pan Ams and Olympics, it's a team effort, and there's pressure involved in representing our country and the sport. We have to practice being part of a team, right down to traveling together and working together, to encourage cohesiveness. I think a big contributor to our success at the Pan Ams was our positive team dynamic."
Each chef d'equipe briefly discussed their strategies for placing their team members in particular spots of the order of go, noting the importance of choosing a capable lead-off rider who has the confidence to tackle the course first and set the tone for his or her team. "The second rider may be the least experienced competitor or on the greenest horse so they can watch a few others go without getting too nervous," said Madden. "The final rider of each team must be strong, experienced and riding a dependable horse, because they are anchoring the team and feel the most pressure."
Riders then walked the winding course one last time with their chefs d'equipe. During the course walk, Ward reviewed the course for the audience and explained the intricacies of the route. "This is a lot of what we worked on during my session this week: riding the line," he said. "Pay attention to factors which may affect it, such as passing the in-gate and the horse's tendency to bow towards it. And remember to trust your line. I see this with inexperienced riders all the time—they don't ride the line they walk."
All fences were impressive (maximum height 4'6"), and riders had to navigate precise striding, bending lines, rollbacks, a tricky triple combination, and a spooky liverpool into a tight two-stride combination. One of the most challenging lines was a large oxer with only five strides to the water jump, followed almost immediately (six strides) by an airy fan vertical. Ward told his team members that composure and preparation for the line would be as critical as the actual execution. "I want my horse in front of my leg before I get to this first oxer, because I'm not going to be able to make up that much impulsion before the water," he said. "At the same time, since you are getting a lot of impulsion, you have to be aware of the front rail over the water. But you can't land in a heap and chuck everything at the horse here because for sure they'll knock that vertical down."
Ward also noted that much more goes into a successful round than just the fences, emphasizing how important it is to properly prepare for a round from the moment a horse and rider enter the ring. "It amazes me how many people have poor entrances into the ring," he said. "They're not seeing what their horse needs to take a look at, they're disorganized, too slow, or rush through it. Your entrance should be planned out as well as the whole course."
As riders mounted, so did the excitement level. Farrington reminded competitors that they must keep their focus on the task at hand in order to effectively prepare themselves and their horses. "When the warm-up area is hectic, don't let your mind get rattled," he coached his riders. "As I'm flatting, I'm already thinking about my course so I can be prepared for the lines that are coming up. I want to be confident not only in where I'm going but that I have a real plan about how I'm going to execute the lines."
When competitors began tackling the course, each chef d'equipe observed and then critiqued their rounds, explaining the nuances that affected how the performance unfolded. It quickly became clear how riders could put lessons learned during the week to good use, especially how body position affected their rounds; knowing when to wait for a distance and/or add a stride; and the importance of their horses being consistent in the bridle, the foundation of which is built via flatwork.
The rounds were relatively uneventful with only a few rails and time faults incurred and just one refusal into the triple combination. Riders returned to the ring in reverse order of standing after the first round to jump the same course a second time. All four chefs d'equipe agreed that even though the course was identical, it didn't mean it would necessarily ride the same. "Lines always ride a little shorter in the second round because the horses have been around once and may be a little more aggressive," Ward said. "So take a deep breath, make any necessary corrections, and basically ride like you did in the first round. Trust your horses."