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MARS Essex Horse Trials has a new date and is looking for sunshine

By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

MARS Essex Horse Trials has a new date and is looking for sunshine

The MARS Essex Horse Trials is moving to a new date for 2020, hoping that a switch from June to July will offer better weather for the event.

“We’re really just trying to improve the odds,” said Ralph Jones, who co-chairs Essex with cross-country course designer Morgan Rowsell.

The sun finally shone for the Mars Essex Horse Trials after days of rain, but organizers are hoping for more good weather with a date change.

A wet spring and an unusual amount of rain during the week of the 2019 competition at Moorland Farm in Far Hills drenched the ground. That was disappointing for the debut of the Advanced division at Essex, a longtime New Jersey fixture which was revived in 2017 after an 18-year absence from the calendar.

Organizers did what they could to deal with the mud, postponing the Advanced stadium jumping from Friday evening to Saturday so the turf could dry out a bit. But it was still difficult going for dressage and show jumping, while the cross-country route also had deep spots, prompting some riders to scratch.

For 2020, Essex takes over the dates of the Fitch’s Corner, N.Y., event, which was discontinued. The new July 18-19 date “fits in better for the riders in sequencing different competitions,” according to Ralph.

“The one pickle we have is the lack of an all-weather arena at Moorland Farm. If we don’t have an all-weather arena, we are limited to what we can do,” said Ralph.

Essex co-chairs Ralph Jones and Morgan Rowsell.

While 38 riders entered the Advanced this year, 26 scratched after assessing the conditions.

Ralph thinks the riders will be willing to have another try at Essex.

“Essex was dealt a bad straw,” said Lauren Kieffer, the Bates U.S. Eventing Association’s Leading Lady Rider of 2019.

Ralph commented, “My instinct is they give us a pass because of the weather, but they’re not going to give that to you forever,” he said.

Philip Dutton, who ran a lower-level horse at Essex this year, scratched his Advanced mount, Z, who this weekend at the U.S. Eventing Association convention was named the Standlee Western Forage USEA Horse of the Year and Advanced Horse. The Olympian said the cross-country going was heavy.

Although July can be hot, he likes the idea of the new date, noting, “It’s the weaker time for Advanced events, so it could work well on the calendar, especially if they can aerate the cross-country so it doesn’t get too hard.”

The problem with grass for the other phases is that, “In dressage, everyone goes in the same spot, and the same with the show jumping.”

When it rains, that makes the footing difficult. In the future, he said, events are “going to have all-weather surfaces at some stage. If they want to stay relevant and stay competitive, they’re probably going to have to do that, and it’s not easy to do.”

Guy Torsilieri, who co-chairs the October Far Hills Race Meeting at Moorland, said about trying to solve the footing situation for dressage and jumping, “We have multiple options. We understand there’s a need for consistent footing when it gets wet. We’d like to keep the turf, but that may not be realistic.”

He explained there is consideration of improving the turf with a long-term project, but observed, “in some cases, that might not work.” Another possibility involves discussing partnering with the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation in Gladstone, a five-minute drive from Moorland, so the Advanced show jumping and dressage could be held there.

While the ring behind the Foundation’s stables is what first comes to mind when the facility is mentioned, Guy brought up the arena at Pine Meadow, part of the Foundation property which has been used for driving over the years.

“Should we look at renovating Pine Meadow,” he wondered. Using a ring at the Foundation would mean trailering the horses, albeit for a short distance, which is not always popular with the riders.

But he also mentioned the idea of an all-weather ring at Moorland, although that is not a solution for this year. But Guy noted for that concept, “it’s not the capital to put it in; it’s the business plan to make it work going forward. All options are on the table and I think you have to approach it that way.”

Ralph noted, “We’re trying to figure all this out. The riders don’t really like to go to two locations,” he pointed out, adding, however, “We could probably do it in a transition year.”

Moving the event into July makes it a little more predictable. If the turf stays dry, Morgan said, Advanced will go first, and get the best footing as a result.

Will Coleman and Obos O’Reilly handled the footing to win the Advanced division at the Mars Essex Horse Trials.

“For our purposes this year, we will irrigate, we will aerate, we will sand it–whatever we can do to get the best turf possible. We’re concentrating on having a successful event at Moorland, but we’ve got to have a backup plan.

“We had 14 inches of rain in June. Three years in a row we had rain, that’s just the way it works now in June in New Jersey.”

Even if it’s hot, the ground won’t suffer. “We can make hard ground soft,” said Morgan, but the corollary is that no one can do the opposite with wet ground.

Morgan noted the entire Preliminary division ran cross-country last year “and it was great. But when you get to the 4-foot level, you’re asking a horse to jump out of some soft footing and the consequences are quite a bit different than jumping 3-foot-6.”

Chris Barnard, who designed the Essex show jumping courses, thinks July will work.
“It might be a little warm, but I think it’s warm everywhere. When the ground gets that wet for the show jumping in the field, it’s tricky.” On the other hand, he pointed out “If it’s too hard, they (the Essex contingent) have the equipment and staff to get the equipment better.”

Boyd Martin, who won the featured Preliminary Essex section on Luke 140 this year but scratched Advanced, said of scenic Essex, “It’s a phenomenal event, everything we dream of in an event as a rider.”

Boyd Martin on his winning Preliminary mount at Essex.

The U.S. Eventing Association’s Rider of the Year likes the date,. He also commented, “If Essex could come up with an all-weather surface, it would really guarantee a sensational event. Everyone wants to go to Essex because it’s one of the best events in the country. We all want the best for our horses, too. To be able to compete with dressage and jumping on a synthetic footing would surely make it an international venue.

“I feel terrible for the event because they put on the greatest of great shows but the footing was bottomless. We love these horses and they’re worth so much money now, we can’t chance riding them in knee-deep mud. We had unbelievable amounts of rain. That’s uncontrollable. You get that amount of rain at any event and it really changes things.”

Ralph was asked by Morgan, who co-chairs the Jersey Fresh International Three-Day Event at the Horse Park of New Jersey, to join the board of that event. Jersey Fresh was started to fill the gap after Essex bowed out following its 1998 edition. It will be part of the selection process for the Tokyo Olympics, where the discipline gets under way on the last day of July–when conditions there will be a lot hotter than in New Jersey.

To find out more about Essex or volunteer, go to

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.

An inside look at the lives of U.S. equestrian stars

By Nancy Jaffer, originally posted on

“Riding for the Team,” the new book from the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, made its formal debut at the Washington International Horse Show over the weekend.

There was a real buzz as people lined up on the concourse of the Capital One Arena for a book-signing session featuring U.S. team show jumpers Kent Farrington, McLain Ward, Margie Engle and coach Robert Ridland. Laura Kraut, who was judging a class at the time, earlier in the day autographed books to which the other signatures were added. All of these folks are, of course, featured in the book.

Kent Farrington, McLain Ward, Robert Ridland and Margie Engle with Nancy Jaffer. (Photo by Emily Rider)

I edited “Riding for the Team” over the last two years (you may have wondered why I was so busy) and am thrilled to help tell the inside stories of medalists in eight disciplines: Show jumping, eventing, dressage, vaulting, driving, endurance, reining and para-dressage. What it took to get to the top is laid out in detail along the 292 pages of this volume published by Trafalgar Square. Although the course of the athletes’ careers was different, in each case they had the determination to overcome failure and discouragement, as well as a unique brand of persistence and aspiration in common.

This book is the third in a series. The first, “The USET Book of Riding” came out in 1976 under the guidance of the late Olympic gold medalist and USET chairman Bill Steinkraus. It marked the USET’s twenty-fifth anniversary and presented the history of the transition from Army teams to civilian equestrian squads in representing the country.

I edited the second book, “Riding for America,” published in 1990. At that time, the USET only dealt with four disciplines—show jumping, eventing, dressage and driving, so the great performers of the era between 1976 and 1990 were highlighted. For this book, 28 years later, we have expanded to include all the FEI (international) disciplines, and the people in it are those who made their mark after 1990.

I was fortunate in knowing many of those who appear in the book before I began talking with them about their stories, so that helped when deciding where to focus for their part in the volume. The themes for some were easy to decide. How could you write about Rich Fellers, for instance, and not zoom in on Flexible, the plucky little stallion who won the first FEI World Cup Show Jumping finals for the U.S. in 25 years, and then went to the London Olympics later in 2012.

Debbie McDonald talked about how the dressage scene has changed since she started out, after she had a bad fall while jumping and decided to switch disciplines. Four-in-hand driver Jimmy Fairclough spent 40 years working toward a team gold medal, and finally achieved his goal at last year’s FEI World Equestrian Games. Becky Hart started from scratch with a free horse and wound up as the only three-time endurance world champion. Gold medal vaulter Devon Maitozo explains why he stayed in his sport as an adult, when so many vaulters quit after their teens.

Robert and Margie give their signing hands a little break. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy

Eventer Derek di Grazia tells of his transition from rider to course designer, with an eye toward his gig laying out the cross-country route at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Vicki Garner-Sweigert relates what it was like to be a para-dressage pioneer and win gold at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, the first to offer equestrian sport.

With the Olympics coming up next summer, it’s interesting to gain insight on those who have had past successes at the Games, while reading about the candidates pointing toward 2020. They include dressage rider Laura Graves, eventer Boyd Martin and all the show jumpers who fans met in the autograph session, as they point toward Tokyo. Para rider Becca Hart, the first U.S. rider in her discipline to medal at the world championships, is looking at making the team in Japan for her fifth Paralympics.

Of course, there are great photos to illustrate the stories, and many pieces have photos from the athletes’ early days that you won’t have seen previously. The USET Foundation’s Sara Ike worked diligently to obtain and organize the photos, which was quite a task on its own.

Nancy Jaffer with Sara Ike. (Photo by Lawrence J. Nagy)

Here is the link if you want to order the book. You can also go to the USET Foundation’s website, Proceeds from sales of the book benefit the USET Foundation in its efforts to support athletes giving their all for our country in the Olympics, world championships and other major competitions around the globe.

Meanwhile, if you want to find out more about what went on at the Washington International, the only U.S. show in the heart of a major American city, click here for my story on Practical Horseman’s website.

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.

The Talent Search was quite a test for those who want to represent their country

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.

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