Dec 10, 2021

Creating a Le Lion Atmosphere in the U.S. with Proposed 6- and 7-year-old Championships

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
Samantha Franklin, Tim Holekamp, Marilyn Payne, and Tamra Smith. USEA/ Leslie Mintz photo.

Identifying and recognizing the up-and-coming top horses in the U.S. pipeline was the end-goal in the Redefining the 6- and 7-Year-Old Pathway discussion at the 2021 USEA Annual Meeting & Convention today. Looking at similar programs internationally, longtime young event horse supporter and USEA Young Event Horse (YEH) Committee Co-Chair Tim Holekamp led an open discussion regarding potential opportunities to better follow and fuel the development of the future superstars of the sport. Judges, organizers, and competitors alike chimed in with alternating perspectives all dialing down to the same question: how do we work towards preparing horses for the atmosphere of Mondial du Le Lion here at home?

Holekamp opened up the evening session by recapping the current state of the young horse programs in the U.S. Aside from the current 4- and 5-year-old YEH Championships on both coasts, there was no way to track the success of those horses in their 6- and 7-year-old years. Upon suggestion of the YEH Committee, the USEA Board of Governors (BOG) instituted the 6- and 7-year-old leaderboards which are recognized each year alongside the annual end-of-year awards such as the divisional champions. The goal of adding in an additional leaderboard champion for these 6- and 7-year-old horses was to include a functional and easy to maneuver system utilizing tools already in place at the USEA and to have an additional way to recognize the horses working their way up the pipelines.

However, as panelists Holekamp, YEH ) Committee Co-Chair Marilyn Payne, five-star eventer Tamra Smith, and Morven Park leadership team member Suzanne S. Musgrave , identified during the discussion, there are further needs to tweak the system to allow those promising young horses the opportunity to rise through the ranks in a similar manner to the International Championships held at the Mondial du Lion in Le Lion d’Angers, France.

“As accurately as possible, we need to identify the most exciting 6- and 7-year-olds at the level,” said Holekamp. “It needs to be economically efficient for the rider. There needs to be geographic equity. We want it to be relatively easy for the USEA to operate, collect the data, advertise the outcome, and do things that encourage people to take part in the system. In terms of fairness, we need to be accurate. It cannot be random. If you were to have only three horses come to a national championship, the accuracy would be fairly low. If you had 30, it would be high. Those are the things we need to fit into our thinking as we work our way toward tweaking this system. That is the point of this discussion.”

The data is proving that YEH graduates are working their way up the ladder. Looking at data compiled over the last 10 years, in the first five years of that 10-year bracket, there have been 64 former entries competing at the CCI3* level, 52 at the CCI4* level, and 10 at the CCI5* level.

“A 20% success rate of those former 5-year-olds making it to five-star may seem a little poor to you,” Holekamp chimed, “but we are still early in the game in these horses' careers. They are not that old. This is not the end of their careers by a long shot. We are doing it pretty well, we are not doing it wrong. We need another two niches in the ladder that are attractive for people to compete for.”

Holekamp presented a few options to the attendees for consideration in hopes of receiving support or further ideas from the crowd for ideas to present to the USEA BOG. By far, the most supported option Holekamp mentioned was to host two national championships, one on each coast, at the end of the year. The biggest question called forward for discussion, however, was should that championship be offered in a short or long-format?

“When you are talking about the stamina of a high placed champion, I don’t know how you can do that if they cannot withstand a long-format,” Smith spoke up in favor of a long-format championship.

Payne agreed with Smith’s stance, “In order to do the long, you have to qualify anyway at the short, it should be a requirement to complete two shorts to compete at these championships anyway. And at those shorts, we have organizers like Morven Park who will hold a 6- or 7-year-old competition on its own and you could offer prize money, not as big as the prize money you would offer for the championship, but it gets the word out and gets people already thinking that something is going on here.”

In response, Musgrave spoke about the young horse classes that they offered in 2021 at the two and three-star level. “We built it out as ‘come see the future stars of the sport,” said Musgrave. “It was really a draw and that was something we had not expected. So we encourage everybody to give it a shot.”

As the discussion continued, the audience began getting involved as well. “What feels important to me,” one attendee spoke up, “is that we need to celebrate young horses, 6- and 7-year-olds in the United States. It’s a no-brainer that we should have a national championship at each level, on each coast, and that it would be long-format. Because that is what a championship is.”

Smith offered an interesting perspective which sparked a great discussion: due to the progression of many horses’ careers offering a long-format may wind up being a numbers game as many horses may not be ready for the long-format at that age. But if you want to truly recognize those special up-and-coming stars, then the long-format is the way to go. The general consensus was that horses can be wildly successful in the short-format atmosphere, but may never succeed in the long-format which can separate the cream of the crop from the rest of the herd.

Holekamp felt that with appropriate sponsorship which could result in significant prizes, that the excitement for producing horses through these championships would build on its own. Securing those sponsorships, however, would be the most crucial task.

Concerns related to the viability of a long-format championship in terms of entry numbers were clear, but it was obvious the room was in favor of making the proposed championship a true test of skill and training similar to Le Lion. While recreating the atmosphere at Le Lion might be the initial challenge due to the event’s wild success and popularity in Europe, similar to the popularity of the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event here, those passionate about the development of the sport and the career of these Olympic prospects agreed that offering the quality and level of competition was the first step.

“Currently, there is no place in the world that can prepare a horse for Le Lion other than Le Lion,” Smith followed. “Unless you go to Boekelo. Those are the only two facilities in the world that are like those. We need more atmosphere and bigger crowds, but it is not our culture, unfortunately. You have to know if your horse is the type of horse to go to that event and will it teach them and benefit them or will it set them back? You just can't prepare for anything like either of those events until you go there.”

In relation to the topic of atmosphere, Musgrave shared that there are already discussions in the works for how Morven can shake things up in 2022 to offer a bigger, better experience all for one end-goal: the development of the horses. “One of the main reasons we decided to host the young horse classes at Morven was to prepare our young horses to go on and do greater things. We are trying some new things for 2022 to create more atmosphere so that our horses are ready to go when they are called out to go. So often, our horses don’t get that here, especially at the FEI levels where more atmosphere is often a part of those competitions. It does help prepare those young horses and as organizers, we have the opportunity and responsibility to make that happen for our horses at all levels, but especially our young horses.”

As the discussion wound down at the end of the session, one thing was clear. There is a want and need for more ways to produce these younger horses through the levels in a championship atmosphere here on home turf. A bicoastal championship late in the year seems like it could tick off one of those boxes if the atmosphere could be addressed. From a competition perspective, the long-format was the favorite of the group and Payne summed up the session with one thought regarding the future of these proposed championships in relation to the future of our sport as a whole:

“If I had an owner that wanted to put money down for a rider to buy them a horse, they aren’t going to buy the horse who won the shorts, they are going to want to buy the one who won the longs.”

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The USEA Annual Meeting & Convention takes place each December and brings together a large group of dedicated USEA members and supporters to discuss, learn, and enjoy being surrounded by other eventing enthusiasts. The USEA organizes multiple seminars in addition to committee meetings, open forums, and tons of fun! The 2021 USEA Annual Meeting & Convention is taking place at the Hyatt Regency Albuquerque Hotel in Albuquerque, New Mexico, December 9-12, 2021. Click here to learn more about the USEA Annual Meeting & Convention.

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