The eventing community continues to buzz with potential solutions after Team USA produced a less than stellar result at this year’s World Equestrian Games: Do we need more Thoroughbred blood? A better training program for young riders? Additional experience in Europe?
What about how we source and produce our horses? Miners Frolic — the now retired British team stalwart who won three Olympic medals, team and individual gold at the 2009 Europeans, and team gold at the 2010 WEG with Tina Cook — first gained fame as the reserve 7-year-old champion at Le Lion de’Angers in 2005.
Le Lion consistently showcases horses that go on to achieve major victories on the international stage, like Michael Jung’s fischerRocana FST, who won the 6-year-old championship in 2011 before going on to win individual silver and team gold in Normandy. Thomas Carlile’s Sirocco du Gers won the 7-year-old championship last year before winning Boekelo this year.
And those are just a handful of success stories from Europe’s young event horse championships. With the introduction of the USEA’s Young Event Horse Championships, the U.S. now has access to a program that possesses the same spirit of intent to develop horses with the potential to one day represent their country.
And the participation is encouraging. This year, 37 total horses competed in the Young Event Horse East Coast Championships at Fair Hill, with 20 competing for top honors in the West Coast Championships at Galway Downs this weekend for a total of 57 4- and 5-year-olds qualifying for and competing in the finale.
The horses hail from a variety of backgrounds. Amber Levine’s Otter Pop currently leads the 4-year-old division after his career as a racehorse didn’t pan out. Though he earned less than $10,000 on the track, he’s now aiming for the 5-year-old championships next year, which offer a $17,500 grant to Le Lion for the U.S. bred horse with the highest score between the two coasts.
Ruth Bley imported Frankfurt from Germany, while Judy McSwain bred Fleeceworks Royal, a full sister to Kristi Nunnink’s R-Star and ridden by Tamie Smith, here in the U.S. Both horses are currently tied for the lead in the 5-year-old division on a score of 40.7, with the champion set to be crowned after this morning’s jumping phase concludes.
Bred, bought, imported — is there one right way to source an upper-level horse? Tamie knows there are a variety of different opinions on that subject, but she’s personally made a concerted effort to produce her own horses since a bad fall in 2011 made her reevaluate her philosophy.
“It wasn’t on a horse that I brought up the levels when I had that fall, and I just said, ‘You know what? I need to stop and revaluate, and I need to not care about the fact that I’m not riding an Advanced horse, because I need to make them myself and make them my own,” she said.
Tamie hasn’t had a four-star horse since she took Chaos Theory to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2009, and she said while it’s been tough not having a horse at that level for so many years, she doesn’t think cutting corners is the answer. “The problem is I think we get a little bit desperate because we want to be at the top,” she said. “It’s not that a horse isn’t talented and capable if you didn’t produce it yourself, but you don’t have the same partnership as if you brought them up from babies.”
Sandra Auffarth campaigned Opgun Louvo as a 6-year-old just starting his FEI career all the way through to winning individual bronze at the 2012 London Olympics and individual gold at the 2014 WEG, not to mention two team gold medals at those championships. Though that’s just one recent example, it’s nothing to sneeze at.
“I really believe the key is making our own horses,” Tamie said. “If you look at the statistics even in America, we’ve bought million-dollar horses, and the best we could do at WEG was an 8th-place finish. And that’s not good enough. It’s great, but it’s not good enough. I think if Boyd (Martin) had ridden Shamwari from the time he was young, he would have won.”
Earl and Jen McFall of Dragonfire Farm are going one step further than merely producing their upper-level prospects, as they’re also breeding them. “Our goal is to start producing top horses in the United States so people don’t think they need to go to Europe to buy a nice one,” Jen said.
Whether to source from Europe or support breeders in the U.S. is another hot topic, and Earl knows a lot of riders currently end up crossing the pond to source their prospects simply because the market is more saturated there. “Right now if you’ve got the money, you go to Europe because there is a higher concentration of nicer horses, but we’d like to offer an alternative,” Earl said. “Our goal is to make it more of a legitimate argument to consider buying in the U.S.”
Buy or breed? Made or green? U.S. or Europe? The debate will undoubtedly continue. For now, it’s encouraging to see horses from a wide variety of backgrounds competing in the USEA’s Young Event Horse program, which is helping to provide valuable exposure for horses that might one day represent Team USA on the world stage. And that’s something we can all applaud.