San Juan Capistrano, Calif. - The third time in the top 10 of the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals - West was the charm for Halie Robinson. Having placed second and fifth in years past, Robinson rode with precision, consistency and previous experience that earned her the top call in this year's challenging four-phase competition.
USEF Talent Search judges, Andre Dignelli, of Katonah, NY, and Patricia Griffith of New York City, designed the courses with Anthony D'Ambrosio serving as Technical Delegate. Well-suited for their roles, Dignelli won the prestigious class in 1986, and has since taken countless riders to success at this level; Griffith was second under Dignelli's tutelage in 1998 and has been a part of Dignelli's Heritage Farm since 1997. D'Ambrosio has been a technical delegate as well as a course designer at venues all over the world.
Friday morning's flat phase asked riders to demonstrate knowledge of the elementary principles of dressage training as they affect a show jumper's performance. Divided into three groups, riders were tested with half-pass, counter-canter, flying lead changes and other exercises. The gymnastics phase asked riders to apply mastery of that flat work to jumping patterns, including the skills of shortening and lengthening the horse's stride while riding the track, which proved challenging for many.
Aboard Caracas 89, owned by Elvenstar, Robinson earned high scores in the competition's first two phases, the flat phase and the gymnastics phase. With her cumulative 217.5 score going into the jumping phase, she had 16-point lead, which helped her maintain a top position. However once the top four were named, they each started the Final Phase with a score of zero.
Jayme Omand, Emma Catherine Reichow and Natalie Dean joined Robinson in a work-off patterned like that used in the World Equestrian Games. The final four rode a shortened course on their own horse, then on each other's horses. After the 16 rounds were complete, all handled the questions asked on the different mounts without major fault. To all who watched, including the judges, Robinson dominated this phase.
"It's always nice when the winner is so obvious, even to the crowd," commented Griffith. Dignelli concurred: "Our winner was clear and away the winner. She rode beautifully throughout all phases: accurate and she has a beautiful style." An elated Robinson promised she'd be working on her pace. Currently studying abroad in Europe, she had flown home specifically for the Talent Search. She called Caracas 89 "the sweetest horse I've ever met and he tries his heart out no matter what." He's also a miracle. This was his third show back after having a 27-pound "artifact" tumor removed in February.
For her prestigious win, Robinson received the Denali Memorial Perpetual Trophy, donated by Mrs. Maya Z Hamburger. Caracas 89 earned the Gulliver Perpetual Trophy, donated by Karen Healey, as the best horse per the judges. Jim Hagman received the Leading Trainer Award, donated by Mr. Hugh J.B. Cassiday III. Hagman also credits all those who work at Elvenstar, including those not pictured in the presentation photo below, Kay Altheuser and Rachel Mahowald.
Reserve champion Jayme Omand topped the flat phase and recovered from challenges with the gymnastics exercises to finish in the top four. The 21-year-old credited her lifelong trainer Kelly Van Vleck for preparing her and her relatively inexperienced jumper, Zador, specifically for the USEF Talent Search. Schooling courses with S-tracks and striding options were the substance of their summer and it paid off. Regularly riding unfamiliar horses as a member of the Texas Christian University NCAA Equestrian Team was a big help in the horse-swapping final round.
The youngest of the final four riders by several years, 15-year-old Emma Catherine Reichow had never competed in this final and came into the competition with no expectations. She felt her spot as an alternate for the Zone 10 North American Junior Young Rider Championships and its difficult courses helped prepare her for this event. A student of Harley and Olivia Brown, Reichow likened the USEF Talent Search to the NAJYRC Championships because "you need to be consistent and get the job done."
Both Reichow and fourth-place finisher Natalie Dean have aspirations to represent the United States in international jumping. Dean trains with Butch, Lu and Guy Thomas of Willow Tree.
U.S. Show Jumping Youth Chef d'Equipe DiAnn Langer commented that riders ought to target the USEF Talent Search early in the year and tailor their practice and show schedule to prepare for its unique tests. She emphasized that the program is a prestigious step in the pathway of the sport's young athlete development program.
The format of the Talent Search has evolved considerably since it originated in the 1950s, but it has always been a method for identifying and helping prepare young riders aspiring to represent the U.S. in international jumping competition. McLain Ward (1990), Lauren Hough (1994) and California-born German rider Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum (1986) are among the Talent Search winners who went on to become show jumping Olympians. Several winners of the West Finals are major players on the Grand Prix circuit, Joie Gatlin (1982), Richard Spooner (1988), Kirsten Coe (1996) and Kasey Ament (2004) among them.
"It really gave me a leg up in my career," said Dignelli, as it put him on a track to his current role as one of the country's top hunter/jumper trainers.
Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals - West
Place - Rider - Trainer(s) - City, State
1. Halie Robinson - James Hagman - Santa Barbara, CA
2. Jayme Omand - Kelly Van Vleck - Sacramento, CA
3. Emma Catherine Reichow - Harley Brown - Menlo Park, CA
4. Natalie Dean - Butch, Lu and Guy Thomas - Palo Alto, CA
5. Kaitlyn Lovingfoss - James Hagman - Canyon Country, CA
6. Natalie Templeton - Robyn Stiegler and Sophie Simpson - Silverado, CA
7. Gabriela Pattinson - Devon Gibson - San Juan Capistrano, CA
8. Christina Vail - Kelly Van Vleck - Sacramento, CA
9. Carolyn Salas - Butch, Lu and Guy Thomas - San Jose, CA
10. Clea Caddell - Jill Humphrey - Carmel, CA