Tryon, NC – October 18, 2020 – Typically set at the historic United States Equestrian Team (USET) Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, the 2020 Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East welcomed 63 competitors to a different venue, the Tryon International Equestrian Center, after the COVID-19 outbreak forced a change in its location. Rising talent kicked off the first of four phases of competition Friday, October 16, with the open flatwork phase, followed by the second phase, gymnastics coursework, taking place Saturday, October 17. Competition concluded Sunday with the third phase, stadium jumping, followed by a work-off between the top four competitors. In the end, it was Elli Yeager who claimed the coveted championship title.
The equitation final plays a key role in the Show Jumping Talent Search Final, which dates back to the 1950s. The prestigious program provides an opportunity for athletes under the age of 21 years old to showcase their abilities as potential international representatives of American show jumping at the highest level. With a strong focus on the principle that “form follows function,” riders are expected to navigate their horse over a jumper-style course while maintaining the forward style of riding, demonstrating both correct equitation as well as speed and precision.
For the first phase, judges Hough and Cox saw eight groups of riders complete the flat phase where they asked each to demonstrate a series of tests. Skills that were showcased included shoulder-in, shoulder-out, collecting and lengthening of stride, a half-pass to the quarter line and back to the rail, and a flying lead change to the counter lead. Following Friday’s portion of the competition, Dominic Gibbs & Cent 15 took the early lead with a flat phase score of 94.
Hough and Cox set an 11-obstacle track for Phase II of competition, posing difficult tests for competitors to tackle, including holding the counter lead following the first fence. Riders also had to navigate their way through a series of bounces followed by riding through three sets of flags as noted by a solid line marked on the course map. With points in the second phase of competition weighted as a 1.5 multiplier, Ava Stearns made her way to the top of the leaderboard with Acer K after riding to a Phase II score of 91.
Sunday’s Phase III over fences course tasked riders with completing a 12-obstacle jumper-style course within the 75 second time allowed to test their precision and adjustability. Unique to the Talent Search final, riders are asked to clear a water obstacle, an important skill to master when advancing on to higher levels of the sport. Following Phase III, Ava Stearns led the class after earning a score of 92 for her impressive round. Yeager moved up to the second place position with a Phase III score of 90, followed by Taylor Griffiths-Madden in third with a score of 85. Zayna Rizvi rounded out the top four riders that would advance on to Phase IV with her score of 89.5.
The top four riders returned to the fourth and final phase of competition with a clean slate and a new eight-obstacle track, set to a 50-second time allowed. In addition to riding their own mount, each rider would showcase their skills on each of the other competitors’ three horses. With just two minutes to warm up and the help of each of their respective trainers, riders had to quickly acclimate to their unfamiliar mounts before heading into the ring. The top spot was open for the taking with little room left for error.
With three out of the top four under the tutelage of North Run’s Missy Clark, Stearns, Yeager, Griffiths-Madden, who is trained by her step-father Franke Madden, and Rizvi worked their way through each ride with style and skill. The winding track included a well-built triple bar to start off, rollback turns and long-approach oxers that left plenty of room for error. However, it was Yeager who was unwavering in her riding, producing four seamless trips aboard each different mount. Cox and Hough rewarded the 18-year-old rider for her consistent rounds and adaptability between each horse, ultimately setting her apart from the rest and leading her to the top of the podium.
Yeager’s partner, her own Copperfield 39, was also awarded the “Grappa” Best Horse Trophy, deemed by the judges to have been the best horse of the competition over the course of the two days. The 14-year-old Holsteiner gelding consistently proved himself with every rider, jump and course throughout the weekend. The Leading Trainer Award was presented to North Run’s Missy Clark and John Brennan.
Sunday’s competition concludes the 2020 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East. Over the course of the next year, a new collection of young riders across the country will partake in the Talent Search Program, ultimately aiming to earn a spot at the 2021 East or West finale event in the fall. The Talent Search Program seeks to challenge and educate the young and junior riders of today with the hopes that they may become the next generation of show jumping professionals, thus laying the foundation for future international success.
FROM THE WINNER’S CIRCLE
Elli Yeager – Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East winner
On her win:
“My goal was of course to come out on top, but to have some fun, consistent rounds because it’s my last year and it’s with my best friend. This was always the hardest class for [Copperfield 39] and I. We would win the Medal and the Maclay at WEF and then be fifth in the USET, so this one is definitely going to stick with me forever and it’s really special.”
On Copperfield 39:
“[Copperfield 39] and I have known each other for so many years it just clicks when I get on and go in the ring. He showed last weekend [at Dover Saddlery / USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals,] so we had an easy week, we only rode him once a day, so he had a relaxing week because he’s the easiest to prep. We just had to keep him happy.”
On the biggest challenge:
“The flat phase is definitely the hardest for [Copperfield 39] and I. Missy [Clark], John [Brennan] and I have worked a lot on that. We changed his bit, we haven’t had a jumping lesson, just flat lessons, because that was our biggest concern.”
On advice from trainer Missy Clark before the Phase IV:
“Just to ride, we all know how to ride, so just to go out there and be calm. Everybody knows how to jump these horses and they were all amazing, so she just told us to go ride. We went over the plan, but that’s about it.”
On training with North Run:
“North Run has a ton of experience in the jumpers and I was really looking to excel in the jumpers. I was watching everyone run with it [at North Run] and I was like, ‘That’s exactly what I want to be doing.’ I went there and I sat down with Missy [Clark], I told her, ‘I want to be consistent in the jumpers like all of your kids are’ and that’s what happened.”
On her plans for the future:
“My plans are really just to start to move up in the 2* and 3* classes and become more solid internationally and in the national classes as well.”
Ava Stearns – Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East reserve champion
On her reserve championship:
“Coming in, I really haven’t been competing a lot because I’ve been at college, so my goal this year was to fix my mistake from last year, which I was second place last year. I had a time fault in the final four. My goal this year was to have solid rounds and correct my mistake from last year.”
On the biggest challenge:
“It was a little challenging today to make sure you stay under the time and stay smooth while doing it. That was something I had to think about going into the ring.”
On Acer K:
“He’s the best. We won last year’s Maclay Finals and we were second place here as well as second place at [the Washington Equitation Final], and now second here again. He’s 9 years old and last year was his first year doing the equitation. We got him at the end of WEF 2019 and he really stepped it up and did the equitation finals for me. There’s really no other horse like him, he’s the best.”
On Phase IV:
“The final four has always been a challenge, riding horses you don’t know. I quite liked my round on [Acer k], he’s perfect and I know him quite well. I made a small mistake on Elli [Yeager’s] horse [Copperfield 39], I had a swap. Then, luckily for me I had Taylor Griffiths-Madden’s horse [Mac One III] before she had him, so I had ridden him before. Finnick, who is Zayna [Rizvi’s] horse, he’s in the barn so I’ve seen him go a lot, so I quite like those two rounds. I think we had fantastic horses in the final four this year. I was more confident switching this year because that is the format we use. I was lucky that every horse in the final four I am familiar with and I’ve seen go a lot. That goes for all of us, it was a tough final four this year.
Zayna Rizvi – Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East third place
On her third place finish:
“This is actually my first USET finals so I was just wanting to have a good first experience. I wasn’t expecting to be in the top four at all but I am so happy with Finnick he was so perfect. Today my first round I was so happy with it. I thought I did everything well, like the water and the triple, the bending lines, I was definitely the most proud about that round.”
“This is my third year with Finnick, my sister rode him before I did. He has taught me everything I know about doing the equation, I have learned so much from him. He is the best horse ever, he’s like my best friend. I love him so much. He’s a little bit of a smaller horse compared to most equitation horses, he’s not slow and lopey he likes to gallop and that is how you have to get up the lines. When I first started riding him that was definitely something that I struggled with, getting all the strides, but now I feel like we have clicked and worked it all out.”
On her goals for the future:
“I am looking forward to the [Washington Equitation Final] and Maclay FInals, definitely. In the future, next year I hope to come back and maybe even do better!”
On the biggest challenge:
“Flatting has always been our hardest category for me and Finnick. We’ve worked a lot at it this year, we played around with bits. The first day was definitely the hardest day for me but I thought I did pretty well considering it was my first flat phase at [Talent Search Finals]. Yesterday I think I did well but I definitely could have done better. Today [Finnick] was perfect, I think I rode great, and it felt really good to go out there and do what I know we can both do.”
Taylor Griffiths-Madden – Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals-East fourth place
On finishing in fourth place:
“I felt a lot of pressure because I knew I could actually win an equitation final, which I never thought could happen, but the pressure was also off at the same time because I had already accomplished one of my goals. So just having that on my record already is an amazing thing to have. I just wanted to have a solid week here and have good rounds.”
On the biggest challenge:
“Maybe the flat phase. We had to change the bit because he sometimes gets a little low, so it was actually a new bit for us on the flat phase. I was hoping it was going to go well and luckily it did. The jumping is his specialty so I knew for those phases I had a good chance.”
On the Phase III stadium jumping course:
“I was really happy with that round today, even though I had two time faults, I just thought that was one of my best rounds. All the jumps were good. It was a little slow but I can always work on that.”
Missy Clark – North Run Trainer
On having three riders in the top four:
“I’ve had three in the final four, Taylor [Griffiths-Madden] obviously works with Frank and Jennifer Madden, but I have been involved in that, [Mac One III] came through me and I have helped her quite a bit over the years. It’s been a bit of a team effort with them and they are the best to work with. So today was pretty cool! You’re rooting for each rider equally, it’s no different strategy. It’s the same information you’re giving everyone and you want the best for all of them. I thought they all rode amazingly well. Sophee Steckbeck was sixth, she also trains with Brain Feigus who is so thrilled. Hallie Grimes was in the thick of it but she had a time fault, but she rode beautifully. I could not have been more thrilled with the way the entire group rode today. It was a special day.”
On this year’s Talent Search Finals:
“Obviously the whole arrangement is completely different for everybody – 2020 is not a normal year, no exclusions for anyone. Since COVID and having to deal with that, it was so wonderful of Tryon to be able to step up to the plate and host these three final events, meaning the [Dover Saddlery / USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals] last week, the Talent Search this week and the [Washington Equitation Final] next week. That was different, but I have to say everything went so well. The flat phase they held in the covered ring and then this final phase in the [Tryon Stadium] and it was fabulous.”
On her coaching strategy in Phase IV:
“We had a little bit of a pep talk in the schooling area before we came into the arena for the final four and I just said, ‘Take no prisoners, let’s just do it!’ They all knew each other’s horses a little bit so we were able to talk about each horse prior to getting on. The biggest thing for me, and if they haven’t done the final four, typically they will accrue a time fault, just because the time is generally snug. So I kept stressing to all them not to have time faults, and no one had any so that was great.”
On building a partnership with Elli Yeager:
“She’s been great to work with. We’ve gotten to know Elli and her horses, and it’s been an easy transition. We’ve focused on a lot of flatwork for Copperfield because personally, for me, I do a lot of flatwork myself in the tack. I honed in on that and Elli knows that horse so well that the jumping part was always going to be the easier part, and it is with her on that horse. She would typically have a little bit of difficulty putting that horse in front of her leg and in a frame. We initially worked on that and it didn’t take us too long. By the end of the [Winter Equestrian Festival] it kept improving. She was good on the flat, she was really good with her extensions but the lateral work he resisted a little bit so that was a bit reflective in her score for the flat. We all have done this long enough to know that you don’t have to be on top in the flat phase, you can be somewhere in the middle and have the ability to keep moving up which is what Elli did.”
Archie Cox – Judge
On what they were looking for:
“What we were looking for was strong, confident, forward thinking riders that could think for themselves. We asked different questions, a forward ride, a conservative ride, and the top four riders did it beautifully.”
On the challenges they created:
“One of the biggest challenges is thinking for themselves and the forward ride. The time allowed, we made it pretty tight. The rails are very important. The rails should stay up, especially in a championship. The challenges are thinking for themselves, riding forward, making good decisions and they did it wonderfully. They made our jobs easy.”
Lauren Hough – Judge
On what they were looking for:
“I think I made it pretty clear in the meeting with all the riders and trainers that I believe strongly in riding what suits your horse best. I’ve always done that riding at a high level. If you have a little horse you add a stride, if you have a big horse then that suits you better. I think all these four really understood that well. Zayna came from way below on day one, the other three were always in the thick of it, but it goes to show that in a championship you can be in the middle of the pack on day one and you can still win an individual medal. You could see from the moment they picked up the canter they wanted to win, and all four of these guys showed that all different times throughout the championship.”
On the courses they created:
“I spent a lot of time on that gymnastics and I sent Archie a lot of pictures and I really wanted to ask questions that I didn’t care if they did four or five, but if you didn’t do the four well or you didn’t do the five well you were penalized. Today, I never thought they would do seven strides in the first line, but if they did it well, no problem. If you did the eight well no problem.”
On judging as a former winner:
“It was always my favorite final. You get the elite of the elite, and the young kids that ride in this class will be better riders from it. I’ve always really enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed the aspect that you have to think for yourself a little bit. The trainers are here and they are present, but their job is to do all the work at home and these kids have to show what they are made of when they get here.”
On Elli’s performance:
“Her jumping round was phenomenal today and every single horse she got on you could tell she appreciated them and she sort of rode them the way they wanted to be ridden and they all jumped beautifully for her.”