By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

The judges for the weekend’s Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East were serious about the mandate of the competition: a step on the pathway for athletes to represent the country in international competition.

So they made it a real test, showing the mettle of those in the starting field of 57 who aspire to ride for the U.S. team one day. The competition is a hybrid of equitation and jumpers, with knockdowns and time penalties counting in riders’ final total.

The top four—winner Ellie Ferrigno, runner-up Ava Stearns, third-place Sophee Steckbeck and fourth-place Dominic Gibbs–all raised their hands when I asked if they had international ambitions.

Sophee Steckbeck, third in the Talent Search, with Ava Stearns, second; Dominic Gibbs, fourth and Ellie Ferrigno, the winner. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

“The cream of the crop rose to the top and the ones that weren’t quite ready for it had their faults,” said Sue Ashe, who officiated at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone with her daughter, grand prix rider Molly Ashe Cawley. Molly’s daughter, Taylor, spent Saturday winning the World Champion Hunter Rider Pony Challenge at the Capital Challenge show while mom was busy judging in New Jersey.

The Talent Search has four phases, and even the opening flat segment Saturday morning was no soft touch. It was done completely without stirrups, and posting to the trot proved a bit challenging for some. The idea, Molly said, “was to put the horses together and get the right connection.”

A bigger challenge came that afternoon with the gymnastics phase, which had riders counter-cantering a loop toward the seventh fence, an oxer, and doing a serpentine at the counter-canter to the eighth obstacle, a vertical. Both fences were set at the 1.15-meter maximum for the class, and not everyone was up to the task.

A look at the difficult gymnastics phase.

“The counter-lead wound up being more of a pickle than it was meant to be,” said Molly, adding “I wish the counter-lead hadn’t been such a deal breaker,” while noting the point of the gymnastics was demonstrating “finesse to lengthen and shorten.”

Sunday morning was devoted to jumping a course, designed by the judges with the help of Olympic medalist Conrad Homfeld, a master at such tasks. The route was deemed “fabulous” by trainer Missy Clark.

The concept yielded the top four, who came back this afternoon to jump a shorter course on their mounts, with the idea of doing the same on their rivals’ horses.

With four phases, anything can happen, and it usually does. The water jump in Sunday morning’s jumping segment, for instance, often causes a bit of trouble. This time, several riders had their horses refuse out there. Included in that group was Nora Andrews, the leader after the flat phase. Then during the Final Four, Dominic was riding Sophee’s Itteville, who knocked himself on the wall obstacle. A few strides later, the horse started limping and it seemed as if he were badly injured.

“My initial reaction was shock. I didn’t know what to do,” recalled Dominic. “Then I heard everyone in the stands screaming, `Get off, get off, the horse is hurt.’”

We all feared the worst, but the chestnut eventually walked away with his groom and the show veterinarian thought perhaps he had just banged himself. He made a quick recovery, because Sophee rode him back into the ring for the awards ceremony shortly thereafter.

Sophee Steckbeck on Itteville. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

Everyone wondered how the situation would be resolved, since Itteville couldn’t continue in the rotation. But show manager David Distler explained that everyone’s round on their own horses would count, along with two other rounds, for a total of three scores rather than four, while only the first round (Sophee’s) on Itteville counted and the scores on him did not count for the others who rode him.

That eventually left just one point between Ellie, on Discovery-O (she had been fourth coming into the final four) and Ava (second coming into the final four), who rode Acer K, at 269 and 268 respectively. Sophee, the leader after the first three phases, wound up with 224 and Dominic—who had a knockdown and time penalty in his initial round—finished fourth on 203. He did get a championship ribbon, however, as his attractive black Belgian-bred former jumper, Cent 15, won the Grappa Trophy for best horse in the final.

Dominic Gibbs on Cent 15, Best Horse of the final. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

Molly wishes there were more young riders involved at the higher levels of the sport, and would like to see young people follow the big names in the jumping world and learn from them. Ellie, a 17-year-old high school senior from Newtown, Conn., who won the Region 4 Maclay title, immediately responded, “I watch every grand prix I can, because there’s always something to learn from that.”

Champion Ellie Ferrigno with judges Sue Ashe and Molly Ashe Cawley, trainer Val Renihan, Emily Smith of Platinum Performance and Daisy Farish, last year’s Talent Search winner. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

“We refer to her as `The Encyclopedia,’ ” said her trainer, Val Renihan, because if there’s any competitor in the world the folks at her barn want to know about, Ellie can tell them.

Ellie Ferrigno, Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East winner, on Discovery-O. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

Molly isn’t a fan of the 1.15-meter maximum height for Talent Search fences that is in place this year. Previously, it was 1.20 meters, but the number of riders in the final had declined because not everyone has a horse capable of jumping 1.20 meters. The difference between the two is slightly less than two inches.

“I feel like they’ve dropped it down. It’s supposed to be (for) the kids who want to take the next step to the next level,” Molly said.

“Nobody’s going to water it down from here when you make the step to the next level. You can go from 1.15 meters to 1.50 or from 1.20 to 1.50. You have to get some grit. It’s not preparing better for the future of the sport by making it smaller and easier.”

Trainer Andre Dignelli saw it differently, saying that going down to 1.15 is bringing more people to the Talent Search. At 1.20 meters, he said, “I think if they weren’t careful, this class could near extinction. There were a lot of people here, there was atmosphere, there was good riding, there was more participation.”

Even at 1.15, the Talent Search is still a challenge, and the top four were ecstatic to have finished as well as they did.

“It’s such an unbelievable opportunity that we’re able to do a class like this,” said Ellie.

“We’re being watched on the great stage to be able to go on to do bigger things. I feel so honored to be able to take the top spot.”

Ava, 18, an Auburn University pre-med freshman from Chilmark, Mass., who won the Region I Maclay title and trains with Missy and John Brennan, said, “I appreciate this class because it shows off the fundamentals and has you work on flat work and the basics that make everything you build on top of better.”

Ava Stearns, the runner-up in the Talent Search, on Acer K. (Photo©2019 by Nancy Jaffer)

Sophee, 16, of Clarksburg, who trains with Brian Feigus and Andre, said, “It puts you on the map to go further in the sport.” A 16-year-old junior at Notre Dame High School, she was first in the Maclay at the Devon Horse Show this year.

Dominic, 16, lives in Colts Neck with his trainer, Stacia Madden. He won the 2018 Hamel Equitation Finals and was making his Talent Search debut.

He said of the Talent Search, “I think it’s a really wonderful class to have the opportunity to prepare you for the larger classes and be accurate and show your riding skills.”

A very interesting fresh face on the scene, he started riding in Colorado. His trainer there, Karen Catov-Goodell, saw such potential in him that she sent him to Katie Prudent. He did the jumpers with Katie, but she felt he needed an equitation specialist, which is how he wound up with Stacia. He won the gymnastics with an impressive 98.

Dominic had to present a case to his father, Gordon, a physician, about why he should be allowed to show in Florida. His mother, Erin, was behind him in his dream.

“Because I love horses, I get it,” she said, noting it was harder for her husband to let him move away from Colorado, but he agreed.

Dominic originally wanted to be either an astronaut or a physician, but it’s obvious to him now that he’s heading toward a career as a professional horseman.

This is a copy of an article that originally appeared on Nancy Jaffer Equestrian Sports and is reproduced here with permission. ©2019 On The Rail LLC and Nancy Jaffer. All rights reserved.