Over sixty junior and amateur riders took to The Oaks International Grand Prix Field for the second annual American Tradition of Excellence Equitation Challenge, presented by Whitethorne. Home after her freshman year in college, twenty-year-old Nina Vogel aboard Pam Stewart’s Durango rode beautifully both days to earn a big win.
The class took place over three phases, with the first day featuring a jumping phase over a 3’3″ Equitation-type track and an educational presentation and Q&A phase with all riders, trainers, and judges that evening. On the second day, competitors took what they learned from day one and applied it to their ride in Phase 3, followed by a work-off of the top six scoring riders.
Georgey Maskrey-Segesman, of Whitethorne, LLC, founder and title sponsor of the event, made a point of explaining that this class is about education, and that winning is only a small part of the big picture.
The courses were designed by Karen Healey. She also served as technical delegate and was on hand as a mentor to all participants, along with mental skills coach Tonya Johnston. Bernie Traurig returned as one of the honorable judges, this year joined by Geoff Teall, who along with Robin Rost Brown will be adjudicating the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals this fall. Traurig and Teall presided over each jumping phase and provided written comments for each competitor as well as scores in the open numerical format.
After a warm-up round on Monday and a mandatory rider’s meeting on Tuesday morning, Phase One commenced. Sixty-five competitors set out to answer the questions of adjustability, pace, and fluidity around the course.
Riding early in the class, Rylee Shufelt set a high standard with a forward pace and smooth rollback turns, earning an impressive score of 95 points. Katherine Dash, who rode towards the end of the round, came the closest to catching that score with 89 points. Madeline James and Nina Vogel rounded out the top four scoring riders from Phase One, finishing with 88 and 86, respectively.
Phase Two was conducted at The Ritz-Carlton, Laguna Niguel on Tuesday evening. As they entered, riders picked up the judges’ comment cards from Phase One. Soon after, Tonya Johnston gave a “Mental Skills” presentation to the group. Then Riders and trainers watched a video presentation illustrating the history of traditional equitation riding. Traurig commented on how riding styles have developed over time, and which traditional techniques we can use today to further develop our riding skills.
Afterwards Traurig, Teall, Healey, Johnston, and Maskrey-Segesman answered inquiries from the riders. The unique opportunity to receive such extensive feedback from the panel highlighted the educational components of the class and gave the riders a unique leg up in the third phase the following morning, as well as a new perspective on the tradition of equitation.
Many riders found the second round course to be difficult, especially the bending lines, one ridden off the right lead in five or six strides, and the other off the left lead in four strides. Riders who were able to execute a forward pace and an automatic release, as discussed during Phase Two, with the horse between hand and leg throughout, received well-earned solid scores from the judges.
Of the six tested riders, Dash rode a beautiful work-off round, ultimately moving her up. Vogel also executed a solid ride, which maintained her lead for the win. After the work-off round, the top twelve competitors were brought back for the awards presentation. Announcement of the winner was held until last, second going to Dash trained by Archie Cox of Brookway Stables, and the victory to Vogel, trained by Katie Taylor of Durango Farms.
After an enthusiastic victory gallop led by Vogel, the top six riders, trainers, and the Q&A panel of trainers and mentors gathered for the press conference.
Two of the six who returned for the work-off and press conference had been in those seats the year before – Buckingham as the winner and Dash in third place. Not only did both return this year, and both earn top six positions, but each emphasized the influence the class had on their entire show season. Buckingham referred to her comment cards from last year before medal finals as well as when she went to compete in this year’s class.