USHJA’s Emerging Athletes Program – Zone 10’s Level I Training Session

By Laura Ware

Back in October of 2008 I was excited to read that the USHJA was creating the Emerging Athlete’s Program (EAP). Geared towards discovering and teaching young people who are dedicated to becoming the best riders and horsemen possible, I was happy it began while I was still young enough to participate. The application, which I eagerly completed, contained questions about academics, extracurricular activities, and riding accomplishments. I was thrilled to be chosen to participate in the 3’6” section on my young jumper Westin.

The clinic, given by Melanie Smith Taylor, was split into three sections: 3’, 3’6”, and 4’, with no more than eight riders each. The first day, we did trot rails, a circle of four jumps, and a relatively straightforward course. The trot rails were spaced one step, two steps, then one step apart, and the circle of jumps was set so the rider could put either two or three strides between the fences, which were actually just small flower boxes with potted plants as standards. Melanie really focused on increasing our awareness of our horse’s feet. She had us do an exercise where we would back up four steps, go forward four steps, and then decrease the amount of steps until we were just shifting our horse’s weight forward and backwards, without actually moving their feet. The idea was that this shifting of our horse’s weight at the halt would be similar to the feeling of rebalancing our horses back over their hindquarters while cantering on course.

The second day, the exercises were more technically challenging and Melanie was a bit more demanding. I loved it. Of course, I had my fair share of problems, but I learned so much about what I need to do to improve myself and my horse, and being able to figure my way out of some of the problems presented improved my confidence in my riding abilities. Similar to the first day, we did more trot and canter rails – Melanie had been unimpressed with our performance over the trot cavaletti the previous day. We also practiced exercises that forced us to dramatically lengthen and shorten our horse’s stride. In our flatwork, we cantered over a long bounce to a short bounce at one end of the ring, to a short one stride to a long one stride, all ground rails, at the other end. During the 3’ session, I stood next to the rails so I could re-position them as the horses displaced them, and I felt bad every time I had to close the gap between them – they were set so short! Though Westin had been really good with the trot rails, we had some problems with the cantering elements. He wasn’t keen on the idea of putting his feet between such closely placed poles – he found it much easier to just take one big, awkward leap over them! However, after a few corrections, he figured out how short he needed to make his stride, and did the exercise quite well.

Over the jumps, we practiced long gallops to singles, accompanied with short turns. Melanie instructed us to ride to each fence with a particular distance so the task upon landing would be easier to accomplish. The amount of discipline the lesson demanded was starting to wear on Westin and at times he became a little resistant, but overall he performed well over the jumps. It was fun being able to gallop down to a single oxer, and then do a pretty prompt turn right afterwards, which six months ago Westin probably couldn’t have done. Immediately after our last jumping pattern, Melanie asked us to do a small movement to keep our horses thinking. She asked me to place my horse’s front feet one step to the right, without moving his hind end. Westin wanted nothing to do with this! He threw a small temper tantrum as Melanie was going on about how none of the riders in my generation are able to do something as simple as place their horse’s feet, and I was really starting to sweat. “How do you expect to adjust for a distance if you can’t even move your horse’s feet at the halt?” she asked us emphatically. A little light illuminating the significance of flatwork went on in my head. I’d never thought of this, and I was frustrated with myself for not being able to do something so simple. She continued explaining this particular failing to me as well as the rest of the group, even using her pen to demonstrate my incorrect turn effort. Just when it seemed she was going to give up on me and continue with the clinic, I thought to myself, “Westin, you are going to participate” and sure enough, he did and we did it! Being able to move my horse’s hooves one step to the right may not seem like a great achievement, but I was proud of both of us for finally figuring it out. Though I had to take some heat for being unable accomplish the task initially, I was truly pleased with our eventual success.

The end result of the EAP annually is that the pool of riders chosen from each zone will be narrowed down, after more training sessions and a Nation’s Cup-style competition, until there are just two, and the top two will each receive a grant for one month’s worth of training with a particular professional. Through this experience I gained perspective, learned a lot and came home motivated with some new exercises to practice. EAP provides a unique chance for young competitors to learn from top professionals and grow as riders. If you’re under 21 and aspire to be the best rider possible – I highly recommend that you apply for the 2010 program.

Conversations With Equestrians: John French

Anthem to Zen with John French
By Jackie McFarland

A well-known name in both the hunter and jumper circles, John French is famous for his style in the saddle. Some weeks ago spectators and exhibitors alike were surprised to hear, literally, another side of John when he sang the National Anthem in front of a World Cup Qualifier crowd. Speak softly but carry a big booming singing voice is just one of the interesting aspects to this multi-faceted equestrian.

Certainly successful as a hunter rider, a handful of years ago John also proved he has what it takes to win at the international Grand Prix level. Over a five-year period, John went from Rookie Grand Prix Rider of the Year to qualifying for the World Cup Finals, placing in Britain’s Hickstead Grand Prix and representing the US on Nations Cup Teams in Great Britain, Belgium, Spain and Sweden.

In this conversation we not only wanted to delve into John’s vast equestrian knowledge and experience but also learn a bit more about who he is through a series of questions from A to Z…

Anthem: So Week II of this year’s Desert Circuit you sang the National Anthem in front of hundreds of people. Many questions spring to mind – how long have you had a passion for singing? Do you have any formal training? Have you ever sung the National Anthem in public before? How did it feel? Would you do it again?

John: When I was 10 or 11 yrs old I was one of 400 kids that tried out for this folk ensemble group. We had to sing the National Anthem for the audition. Only ten kids were picked, I was one. We performed all over as a group, I really enjoyed it. My parents didn’t really get involved, so I decided to drop it and focused on riding.

We had a singing coach when I was a part of the ensemble. I remembered learning the National Anthem for the audition, but had not sung it since age 11. I wanted to see if I could do it – so I off-handedly mentioned it to a client that I would like to. Turned out HITS needed someone, the word got out that I would do it and I thought ‘I can’t back out now…’ At least it was in front of friends and people I knew – but I was still super nervous. My mouth was getting so dry while I was standing there waiting.

Sometimes you have to take risks like that – do something beyond your comfort zone, it makes you a stronger person in the end. Next time I’m nervous before a class I will remind myself – ‘John, remember when you sang the National Anthem? Can’t be that bad.’

Favorites: Do you have a favorite memory from the show ring? A memorable ride among the thousands you’ve ridden?

John: Probably my most memorable ride was in 1985 at the Washington International Horse Show – I was riding a horse named Ice Palace in the Regular Working Hunter Handy class at night. I had gone back to the hotel to change, it was rainy, there was traffic and I missed my place in the order. When I finally got to the ring, there were only five rounds left. It got worse, I had forgotten my hat, so I had to run up and get it. The horse’s owner was angry, it was a mess. On top of that, the course was challenging, full of twists and turns. So I ran up to the stands to watch a few horses. Jumped two jumps in the schooling area and then had to go in the ring. I didn’t have time to be nervous; I was trying to remember the course, going from jump to turn to jump to turn… It was amazing – everything fell into place. Rodney Jenkins had the leading score and he was standing at the back gate. When the crowd cheered after my last jump, he mumbled, ‘Sh–.’

I had won! Rodney was 2nd, Katie Monahan was 3rd, Charlie Weaver was 4th. There has not been a bigger win in the hunter ring than that one for me.

Finesse in the Saddle: An avid performer, you’ve won in the hunter ring on both coasts, at all the top horse shows on a number of different horses. What advice can you give to a hunter rider on how to achieve that winning round? Tips to finesse the ride?

John: You have to go in and be confident. Pick up the pace right away – don’t doubt yourself. To have a winning ride, you can’t think ‘am I going to find the distance’ you have to let that go. When you are tentative it interrupts the flow. Let the doubts go out of your mind – that’s when you ride the best. Take risks – believe in the ride.

In the show ring you do want to finesse the ride – try to get relaxed in your body – relaxing your muscles will carry over to your mind. If your body is relaxed your mind will follow – so if you choose to be relaxed and breathe, that will in turn finesse the ride.

Idols: Whom do you consider your idol – equestrian and non-equestrian?

John: Idol – let’s see… my equestrian idols would probably be… ones that are no longer riding. The one I have the most respect for on the ground and as a rider is Bernie Traurig. He is so insightful. Also Patricia Heuckeroth – she is such a horsewoman. And another is Kathy Kusner – not only as a horsewoman but also because of what she’s doing now with Horses in the Hood*. She’s giving back and I have a lot of respect for her. [*a non-profit organization that offers 5-day riding camps to inner-city children in Los Angeles, learn more at]

Non-equestrian idols – Jack Kornfield* – do you know who that is? He’s a spiritual teacher. And the Dalai Lama. [*A practitioner for over 40 years, one of the leading Buddhist teachers in America. Author of many books and CDs, he is also the founder of The Spirit Rock Center in Woodacre, CA.].

Nerves: Do you ever get nervous? Any advice for dealing with nerves?

John: Oh yeah – I always get nervous. When I do there are certain things I do to un-nerve myself. One is to remember to enjoy the process – have fun. Smile and think how lucky I am to do this. Mistakes are not the end of the world – it’s a horse show! Another is I remind myself that it doesn’t help to be nervous about something I can’t control – a ride happening in the future – so I let go and focus on what I can control which is being in the present during the ride. Yet another is I pretend no one is watching, that I am just schooling. I don’t go out thinking that I am going to win – or that I need to beat somebody else. Just do the best I can – ride better than the last time.

Sometimes when I’m on a really good horse, I’ll go in and pretend I’m somebody else on a different horse – depending on how the horse needs to be ridden, then I’m not nervous because I’m not John French, I’m somebody else!

I rode in the clinic with McLain – he definitely taught me a few things. So when I went in the jumper ring after that, I pretended I was McLain. It went well, first class on a horse I hadn’t really shown before I won, beat Richard. Then I only had the last jump down in the Futures.

Relaxing: Since you spend a majority of your time riding and competing – when you do have spare time what do you like to do? How do you relax?

John: I live in a really super quiet place – an old western mission town – San Juan Bautista, population about 1,700. Walking down Main Street, you would think there is going to be a shoot out in one of the saloons. I can relax, no hustle, bustle of a big city. I don’t get a lot of free time – when I do I go on retreats. I’ve been on four retreats.

Winning: What’s your approach to winning? Losing?

John: I’ve learned to get perspective – center myself – which can be difficult when you are always competing. A few years ago I was winning but not happy. I would win this big class or award but I felt nothing. I was essentially depressed. I wasn’t certain if I wanted to keep riding.

I went to a retreat. I learned that I wasn’t alone feeling this way – it’s not you alone against the whole world – but everyone is connected in feeling and wanting the same thing. To be happy. But that has to come from within. So I gained perspective.

It is so easy to get caught in that winning cycle. But the winning can’t be the only reason. You can’t be happy – achieve true happiness just from that. When I put it in perspective I let go of the winning as the reward. I remembered that I ride because it’s my passion, I love it. That is happiness.

Zen*: The path of enlightenment… Can you tell us about your interest in Buddhism and how that helps you? [*school of Mahayana Buddhism asserting that enlightenment can come through meditation and intuition rather than faith]

John: That’s a hard question. In the big picture, so many other religions tell you what you can and can’t do. But Buddhism is about a state of consciousness, seeking that greater interconnectedness, it’s a way of thinking. Things happen for a reason. Buddhism helps you learn about these lessons presented to you and to seek the path of enlightenment.

In order to achieve that state of consciousness, I practice the ability to acknowledge the nerves, the stress and then let go. Sometimes I meditate before a special class, when there are too many things going on in my head. I try to do some yoga and meditation in the morning in order to clear my mind.

Nurturing Young Talent

2009 USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Level I Training Sessions

The United States Hunter Jumper Association, Inc. is pleased to announce the 2009 USHJA Emerging Athletes Program. Level I Training Sessions, offered in Zones 1-10, begin in April. Please note that the application deadline for Zones 1 and 3 is February 23, 2009 and Zone 10 is March 23, 2009.

The mission of the Emerging Athletes Program is to develop and implement a system of identifying and nurturing talented young riders, by providing them with the support and assistance necessary to facilitate the opportunity to reach their full potential by creating a national program as a pipeline to international competition. The Emerging Athletes Program will provide young riders in our sport with the opportunity to learn from our country’s top professional riders and trainers.

The Training Sessions will evaluate the rider’s horsemanship, knowledge and riding ability. Following each Level I Training Session, the clinician(s) will evaluate the riders and create a ranking list to determine which riders will be invited to participate in the Regional Level II Training Sessions. After the Regional Level II Training Sessions, a select group of riders will be invited to participate in the National Training Session. The National Training Session will include extensive instruction with riding sessions, nutritionists, veterinarians, blacksmiths and sport psychologists. This session will culminate in a Nations Cup type competition for the riders. The top two individuals selected from the National Training Session will receive a grant for one month of advanced training.


• The Training Session will be divided by fence height: 3’, 3’6 and 4’0
• A maximum of eight (8) riders will be accepted per height section
• Applicants can be up to 21 years of age
• Applicants must be a current member of USHJA in good standing

Eligibility: Athletes interested in applying for the Level I Training Session must be able to display proficiency in completing jumper style courses over the respective fence height specified in the application.

Application Procedures: All interested riders must complete and submit the application for the Level I Training Session along with the application fee to the USHJA within the posted deadlines. Applications will be reviewed and accepted based on the information provided, including but not limited to merit, competition record and recommendations.

• Applications must be submitted on the official USHJA form and accompanied by the application fee in order to be considered complete. Only completed applications will be considered. All applications will be date stamped upon arrival in the USHJA office.
• Riders will be notified a minimum of 30 days before the scheduled training session if they have been accepted into the program. A waiting list will be created for each Training Session. Should a rider not be able to attend, the next available rider on the waiting list will be contacted.
• Once accepted, riders must return their acknowledgment of acceptance with payment of the Program Fee within fourteen (14) days of notification of acceptance.
• Riders may only participate in one (1) Level I Training Session per each EAP qualifying year.
• All horses must have proof of current vaccinations and a valid Coggins as specified by their state of origin.

USHJA reserves all rights to determine the specifications, requirements and application procedures for the Emerging Athletes Level I Training Sessions and the selection and designation of host sites and athletes remains the sole discretion of USHJA.

For a complete listing of application requirements, application and deadlines please visit:


All participants are to provide transportation and accommodations for the rider and horse to and from the training session.

Stalls will be available on-site. Riders are responsible for bringing their own hay, grain, buckets, shavings, etc. for horse. Any applicable stall fees are to be paid directly to the host site.

Riders are responsible for horse care – including grooming and tacking up – for all phases of training sessions. Grooms will not be permitted.

Dress Code for Training Sessions:

• Riders are to ride in buff breeches, tall boots and ASTM/SEI approved helmets
• USHJA will provide all riders with polo shirts to be used during the training session

All horses must be serviceably sound before the start of the Training Sessions on all days in order to be eligible to participate.

Level I Application Fee: $25

Fees are to be paid directly to USHJA and must accompany the Application in order to be considered for the program.

Level I Program Fee: $225

The Program Fee must be paid to USHJA within fourteen (14) days of acceptance into the program.

Please contact Melanie Fransen at with any questions.

2008 USHJA Annual Meeting

A to Z at USHJA
By Jackie McFarland

We all expect interesting changes due to the economic climate. However our industry is hot to trot – attendance didn’t appear to be light at this year’s USHJA Annual Meeting in Nashville, TN. The interaction at the rule change forum, in committee meetings and regarding program implementation was lively and positive. USHJA is taking big strides for our discipline and participating members are playing a big role.

The meeting covered a wide range of topics over a four-day period. The following is a brief overview of a handful of the impressive developments happening with this five-year-young hunter jumper association.

Hard work for HJ

The staff, board members and committee members of USHJA are working diligently on behalf of the hunter jumper discipline – from the grassroots to high performance. It takes an incredible amount of effort to build a brand new organization for a discipline steeped-in-tradition that wants to evolve to new levels. That said, even the traditionalists are opening their minds and participating in some very forward thinking.

Unruly Ruling

Rule changes are a key element of these annual meetings. Seemingly mundane, these sessions can get quite animated as various individuals speak their mind on details that are important to their passion and potentially their livelihood. Covering topics from measuring ponies to splitting an equitation class to heights of Low Junior Jumper Classics, these minute details are important to hunter jumper exhibitors at all levels.


2008 was the inaugural year of the High Performance Hunter. In the form of the USHJA Hunter Derbies, chosen A-rated horse shows hosted these special hunter derbies throughout the country. Not only did hunter, jumpers and equitation horses step up to compete for the money, the points and the fun, but spectators gathered in droves. To watch hunters! The program returns in 2009 and will culminate in the first final in Kentucky this August. The top 75 horses on the money-qualifying list will be invited to a unique two-day competition, offering fabulous prize money and awards to grooms, riders, trainers and most importantly owners. The first International Hunter Derby of 2009 is during Week III of HITS-Thermal with another during the Championship Week. Winter circuit derbies will be held in Ocala, Gulfport and Wellington.


New! Although the details of the program may change as it evolves, the Emerging Athletes Program offers an unprecedented opportunity for young riders at various levels to learn from some of our nation’s top show jumpers. As Committee Co-Chairman Melanie Smith states, “…this program will provide a stepladder for young talent to reach their goals of riding on a team representing the United States someday.” An applicant needs to ambitious and assertive, however they do not need to have competed in ‘A’ horse shows or have a high level horse. So spread the news! Riders who show talent on horse’s with limited abilities, young horses, difficult horses… as well as pony jumper riders all are encouraged to apply. Almost three hundred chosen applicants, twenty-four from each zone will participate in their zone’s 2-day clinic – eight at 3’, eight at 3’6” and eight at 4’. Some of our nation’s top riders and trainers will run the clinics. Participants will do all their own work from horse care to course setting, learning about the skills of riding well from the ground up. A group of twelve from each of the twelve zone clinics will then be selected to participate in one of four regional clinics, narrowing it down to forty-eight riders. The next twelve chosen from the regional clinics will be participate in a week-long intensive session, culminating in a Nations Cup type competition. And the top two from this session will be invited to train for 30-days with an experienced trainer.

EAP offers education for hundreds of riders that they otherwise may never have dreamed of garnering. Not to mention discovering young talent that these top trainers may never have otherwise seen. Auditors and volunteers are welcome – check with the clinic host for details. Since this program is just spreading its wings, watch the USHJA web site for the specifics and for application information.

Trainers Certification Program

Calling all trainers or those who aspire to be trainers – now there is a certification program brought to you and endorsed by some of the nation’s best trainers. It is a voluntary program, intended to enhance trainer credibility and offer ongoing education. The time for this concept to become a reality is way overdue.

In 2005, the USHJA formed the Trainer Certification Program Committee in response to an overwhelming interest from membership. Now that it’s coming to fruition, many have expressed skepticism regarding this new program… And the question is why? Are the critics afraid of how much that they know or don’t know? This group has spent countless volunteer hours over the last three years arguing, developing, changing, discussing, meeting and finally agreeing to create this program. Were they not thinking about what is best for the industry? For the horses and for the riders and for ultimately the trainers? Hopefully all will step up to the plate and participate. Yes, there are hundreds of trainers who should be ‘grandfathered in’ without having to pass Level 1 – but as George Morris expressed, why should they want to? For many trainers Level 1 should be easy to pass. So stay tuned – the USHJA Trainers Certification Program will begin June 2009. Applications and enrollment procedures will be released in May 2009.

Capital Campaign

Amongst all the other happenings, including creating the USHJA Foundation, USHJA’s staff has grown at an alarming rate. In order to make the transition as well as develop a nationally recognized headquarters at the Kentucky Horse Park, USHJA seeks to raise $6.5 million in the next 24 months. As we know raising capital is a challenge these days. Consider this an investment in your discipline’s future. They’ve developed creative ways to give, for example buying a brick or a bench for the garden. Sponsors

Although I could write more, I am going to conclude with thanking the sponsors and donors whom without we would not have High Performance Hunter Derbies or a new Courtyard and Gardens for USHJA. At the risk of forgetting one, we won’t name them all here. Suffice to say from A (ASG Software) to almost Z (World Equestrian Brands), thank you!