The gauntlet has been thrown down. With the announcement that show jumper Beezie Madden is the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s 2013 Equestrian of the Year, the show jumping and dressage worlds are now tied for the number of times one rider has earned that title. Madden has now won the title three times (2005, 2006 and now 2013) and so has dressage rider Steffen Peters, who won in 2011, 2009 and 2008). The prestigious award is presented each year during the USEF’s annual meeting and Madden, of Cazenovia, New York, took her latest award during this year’s USEF Pegasus Awards dinner, held January 10. Madden was hard to beat in 2013. In addition to numerous wins throughout the winter season, she also earned the Rolex/FEI World Cup Final title in show jumping. But 2013 is now gone and a new year has begun and that means the dressage world has a new opportunity to recapture this coveted national title.
At the end of 2013, there were eight nominees vying for the USEF Equestrian of the Year honor and not a one of them was a dressage competitor. Peters was the last dressage rider to capture the title back in 2011. In 2012, the winner came from the hunter/jumper world – Rich Fellers.
Nominees for 2013 came from a number of other equestrian disciplines. In addition to Madden, nominees included Chester Weber (driving), Chris and Sonya Bickford (Arabian/Friesian), Liza Boyd (hunter), Jim Stachowski (Arabian), Rick Gervasio (Morgan), Bruce Griffin (Friesian) and Martha Rattner (Arabian).
So what does it take to become America’s top equestrian? Getting that honor isn’t easy. Obviously, the first step is to have a fair number of major victories during the course of the competition year, as Madden did. Every one of the eight nominees finished out 2013 with a long list of victories. Those competitive successes allowed each nominee to clear the first hurdle in becoming Equestrian of the Year, which is to win one of the USEF awards that allow them to be in the running for the big award. For example, the Bickfords won the Bill Robinson Trophy for driving horses and ponies. Boyd won the Emerson Burr Trophy for hunters. Stachowski won the C.J. "June" Cronan Trophy, Gervasio the Barbara Worth Oakford Trophy, Griffin the Norman K. Dunn Trophy and Rattner the Vaughan Smith Trophy.
The dressage world is not without good representation on the awards committees. USDF President George Williams sits on the USEF Ad-Hoc Awards Committee, which decides most of the awards, exceptions being the National and International Horse of the Year awards. These are decided by the Executive Committee, which also makes the final decision on the Equestrian of the Year from the nominee list developed first by the Awards Committee.
What makes it especially competitive for a leading dressage rider to take the top award is that in order for a dressage rider to get in the running, he or she must first win the Steinkraus Award. This award is given to a top rider from one of the three Olympic disciplines, which means dressage riders are competing against leading show jumpers and eventers to make the short nominee list for Equestrian of the Year. Once riders make that short list of nominees, then it’s a matter of getting broad support from the equestrian community.
“All the other categories – International non-Olympic, hunter, western, fine harness, etc. – are chosen the same way. Only at that point is the Equestrian of the Year open to popular vote,” said George Williams of the final process for determining the big winner. “The Horse of the Year is done in a similar manner. The main difference is that since there are no subcategories, the Awards Committee moves three horses forward in each category – International and National.”
Williams noted that while the dressage world had a good competitive year in 2013 and a good international presence, “our riders didn't win any individual international titles such as happened in jumping like winning the World Cup. If one Olympic discipline wins a World Cup, it makes it hard for the other two to win the Steinkraus Award that year.”
And what of the potential for the dressage world to regain the title in 2014? Williams is optimistic. “I suspect 2014 will be totally different. I'm sure we'll be nominating a dressage rider and a horse next year. Then when they move forward to the ‘popular vote’ phase we will need to enlist everyone on a massive campaign to ensure they win!”