Every year, the National Horse Show plays host to the ASPCA Maclay Final, which showcases the top junior riders, many of whom have aspirations of representing the U.S. in international competition.
Hundreds of junior riders compete each year in regional qualifiers for the chance to qualify and ride in the Maclay Finals. It’s fair to say that this competition is the most prestigious for North American riders under the age of 18. Past winners include Bill Steinkraus, Frank Chapot, Bernie Traurig, Conrad Homfeld, Leslie Burr, Erynn Ballard, Victoria Colvin, and many more top riders and trainers. Winning this class is a big deal, the riders and trainers work incredibly hard to compete in this one.
An unusual situation occurred during the Maclay Region 8 qualifier for riders from California, Nevada, and Hawaii, which was held on September 15 at the Blenheim Fall Tournament in San Juan Capistrano, California. The class was stopped after only 12 riders had competed.
Six horses had already refused at fence #2, many in a dangerous fashion. When a horse starts to leave the ground at a fence and then suddenly stops, it is very difficult for the rider to stay on as they are already in the motion of jumping. This had happened with multiple, highly trained horses and some of the best young riders in the country.
The seemingly simple and innocuous fence #2 in the course was wreaking havoc and unintentionally crushing the dreams of the kids who had worked for years to be in the ring at this moment.
At the center of this maelstrom is Geoff Teall, a highly respected American trainer and judge. In March of 2017, Mr. Teall was appointed Chair of the Maclay Equitation Committee.
I found this quote by him that I find to be an interesting foreshadowing of recent events.
“My goals for the committee this year are two-fold,” said Teall. “We are in the process of re-writing the Maclay specifications with a fresh set of eyes, which is a huge project. We would also like to continue the initiative, started by Susie Humes, to organize the Regional Finals and make them as uniform as possible and level the playing field for the participants.“
Teall was at the California Regionals and witnessing the problems live when he was faced with a very difficult decision: allow the class to continue or take measures to fix the problem. Teall graciously shared with me his viewpoint on the class and his reasoning behind the hard calls that were made that day.
Jay Duke: Set up the moment. Talk through what happened leading up to the decision to stop the competition.
Geoff Teall: I walked the course, and it looked great. We started the class, and it went fine for the first two horses but the third horse slammed on the brakes at fence #2. When the 12th horse went in the ring and stopped at that same jump, it was the sixth horse to refuse that fence. At that moment, I stopped the class because 50% of the horses had stopped and two riders had fallen off, all at the second jump.
This was particularly unusual in that so many things went so wrong so early in a class. In my mind, I had two choices: stop the class or continue and possibly have a rider become hurt or a horse injured.
JD: The picture of the fence looks fairly innocent, an oxer with flower boxes underneath. As a very experienced trainer, what do you think was causing the problem?
GT: The boxes were black and shiny. When I walked the course all the lights were not on so the lighting was different. Once the lights were all on the glare from the boxes caused the problem, it was catching the horses’ eye very late, leading to a sudden refusal. If the horses had been spooking early, the riders could have dealt with the challenge, but they literally did not see the flash of light off the boxes until they were leaving the ground.
JD: So you’re watching this prestigious class with many horses and riders that you have personally judged and know to be accomplished, competent, and well trained. So far the competition has been a disaster as a whole. What do you do next?
GT: I walked over to the gate and stopped the class. I consulted with the course designer and the two judges on their opinion and they were unanimous that restarting the class was the right thing to do.
Author’s note: the show stewards were aware of the circumstances and present but not directly involved with the decision. This is alarming to me as they are present to make sure all the horses and riders are safe and there is fair play at all times. Why were they not consulted? (I attempted to interview both show stewards, but they were either not allowed to comment or were unwilling to for this article).
JD: Now you are in uncharted territory. You have stopped a National qualifying class and no matter what you do, there are going to be consequences. You were in the spotlight, what did you do next?
GT: We gave the 12 who had already ridden an option to re-ride. Eight chose to ride and four of those qualified (for the Maclay Final). My first reaction was from an instinctive horseman position to correct the jump, it was not a training issue or a riding issue.
Author’s note: Of the 12 who were given this option some went near or at the end of the class. So now the original order of go has been drastically altered.
After looking at all the information and consulting with the National Horse Show committee, we gave four additional riders invitations to compete in the Finals. That was to compensate for the four who did not re-ride.
This was done to make the competition as fair as possible to all the riders who received an invitation to the Finals. Only one had difficulties at fence #2 after the boxes had been removed. In my opinion, the horse had been traumatized from jumping the fence the first time. How could you prepare a horse for this scenario? No amount of practice at home would make a difference.
JD: How do you feel today about your decision?
GT: This is my decision and I am 100% fine with this. However, if a child had ended up in the hospital, I would not be ok with that. There is a safety provision in the rule book for extreme circumstances. I confirmed with Bill Moroney the decision I made the next day and he agreed with the call.
JD: What are your thoughts on what is being said about these unusual circumstances?
GT: I stay far away from social media. It is interesting to me though that not one person who is commenting on this has contacted me.
JD: Did you consider starting the class from scratch with a new course?
GT: Due to scheduling there was no possibility for this. It was late in the day on Saturday, it was a private facility, judges had schedules, and trainers had schedules, starting the class all over was simply not an option.
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As I mentioned earlier, Teall is a top American horseman, highly respected in the sport. He has made many contributions to the industry and is a great person to have involved in The Maclay, which is an important class for North American juniors. He was obviously faced with a situation that could not be foreseen or anticipated and he had to make a snap decision.
I was not at the Maclay competition, so I cannot tell you what I would have done. But I will say that I have no wish to see riders get injured or horses be put in a dangerous situation. The decision to stop the class was the right one, in my opinion.
But there is a bigger problem.
There is vague protocol for this type of situation and it was not followed. First of all, there is nothing in the USEF Equitation rules to account for a situation like the one that transpired at the Region 8 qualifier. My source at USEF says that if it is not mentioned in the Equitation section, then the default becomes the Hunter section of the rule book.
HU109 states the following:
Except in case of inclement weather, broken equipment or similar emergency, a course must not be altered except by written permission of all exhibitors. If one or more original obstacles are rendered unusable during a class and no duplicate exists, management may substitute obstacles which approximate as nearly as possible the originals.
This did not happen. I read this rule to apply to a fence that has broken materials and cannot be replicated, so it does not directly address this specific circumstance. Nowhere does the Rule Book deal with a situation of a “dangerous” jump being altered for the safety of horse and/or rider.
* * *
I also interviewed USEF Course Designer Jasen Shelley, who designed the course for the class. Here are his thoughts;
JD: I understand this was your fourth year designing for this competition. Have you ever faced a situation with these unusual circumstances?
JS: No, this was a new one for me.
JD: What caused six of the first 12 horses to refuse the fence?
JS: Well, I’m thinking when we all walked the course the sun was still up and the lights were not on, so the fence seemed normal. When the overhead lights became the main source of illumination, there was a glare off the wall under fence #2. There was a light directly over the fence causing the shine. You could see the horses’ eyes caught the flash of light very late, either as they were about to take off or just after.
JD: When multiple horses hit the brakes, what were your thoughts?
JS: At first, I was trying to figure out what was going on. Initially, you’re thinking it’s rider nerves in such a big class. When it kept happening, I was confused. At first, I thought it was the tables near the wall but the horses weren’t looking that way. There was nothing tricky, didn’t really know what was going on.
JD: Geoff Teall stopped the class after the 12th horse and consulted with you. Describe that conversation.
JS: He called me. He said “We’re having issues, do you have a problem pulling those walls out?” I said “Absolutely no problem, let’s get them out.” It was not a question I was intending to ask. We want the best riders to win, not the bravest horses.
JD: Do you feel you made an error with the materials used on fence #2?
JS: In hindsight, yes. But not initially. Going into it should not have been an issue. Maybe if they had been a different color or not as reflective, the result would have been different. Geoff stopping the class when he did was the best decision to make, we did not want the outcome decided in that fashion.
Author’s note: As a Senior course designer myself, there is no way that this result could have been anticipated given the circumstances. Mr. Shelley was definitely NOT at fault.
* * *
Finally, I spoke with top equitation trainer Karen Healey about the class. There has been rumors that she was behind the change to the course, that the move was politically motivated. (I will refrain from writing my opinion on this, simply say that I greatly respect both Teall and Healey, they have earned that many times over their long and storied careers).
JD: Did you have riders competing in the California Maclay Regional?
Karen Healey: Yes, three riders.
JD: You have walked literally hundreds of Maclay courses. Did anything about fence #2 strike you as unusual or a potential problem?
KH: No, absolutely nothing. I really liked the course and thought it was well designed.
JD: What happened next?
KH: I watched the first two horses and all went well. I went to warm up my first student so I was unaware that two other riders had stopped, if I had known I would have had my rider address the jump upon entering the ring. My heart dropped when my student had a refusal. Then the next couple riders had major problems as well, the class was falling apart.
JD: Did you speak with Geoff Teall before he made the decision to stop the class and adjust the fence? If so, what was that conversation?
KH: I looked at Geoff after the 12th horse and we both had the same thought, this was a disaster. I said, “Is there anything you can do about this?” He stopped the class, spoke with the judges, the course designer; the stewards were aware of what was happening. The jump was adjusted and the class resumed.
JD: Were you comfortable with the decision that was made to adjust the fence and permit re-rides?
KH: Yes, completely. Perhaps in retrospect, it should have only been limited to the six riders who had an issue with fence #2.
* * *
There is even more to this story. The 12 riders who had already competed before the fence was altered were given the option ride the course again, a fact that has many people upset. It definitely is an unfair advantage to ride a course a second time.
On top of that, they were allowed to go near or at the end of the class. So the original drawn order of go is now in shambles. This can make a tremendous difference in any class, particularly in a judged event.
I also have learned that the trainer of one of the original 12 who chose to re-ride lunged the horse because “it was fresh” before the second ride. That horse’s rider qualified for the National Finals.
These three events scream of an unfair playing field.
Hopefully USEF, USHJA, The National Horse Show, somebody, anybody, will put in a rule for 2020 that has a clear code of conduct to deal with a situation as was experienced at the California Maclay Regionals.
About the Author
Jake Duke is a show jumping rider, course designer, clinician, and Canadian Equestrian Team member, who has represented Canada in Washington, New York, and Toronto. A four-time Canadian Junior Champion and Leading Rider at the Spruce Meadows North American Championships, Jay has an extensive background with horses of all levels and breeds. For more information about Jay, visit: jayduke.com.