Q: Why do riders who are competing in the U25 division continue to compete in the equitation? Isn’t the whole point of the equitation division to prepare them the skills to move up to bigger heights?

A: This is a question I get asked a lot and, as a trainer, judge, and parent, my answer varies according to which hat I’m wearing.

As a trainer, we want our students to be at the top of the sport, which takes a ton of time-in-the-tack practice. Being on one horse or even a couple in the higher jumper levels—1.30m, 1.40m, U25, Grand Prix—you barely get to really practice over fences because most horses at this level don’t jump much at home. You typically want to save their legs for the days they compete.

This, in turn, limits the rider’s opportunity to hone their jumping skills. So many top trainers will push their junior students to keep equitation horses in the loop so they can stay “in the ring” and continue practicing (hopefully) challenging tracks. Then, to keep these juniors competitive in the equitation ring—as what trainer doesn’t want to win?—each junior then has to carry multiple equitation horses, too.

Many American trainers strongly believe that this system builds the foundation for young riders and sets them up to be highly successful. It’s also a very lucrative cycle for trainers. Buying and selling equitation horses has a much higher return than most sale horses.

So what began as a solution to a real challenge—needed time in the tack—becomes for some a self-perpetuating cycle fed by ego and wealth. It is possible, hopefully with an open conversation with the trainer, to get some off this merry-go-round, but it takes a huge leap and the majority of top trainers in the U.S. push hard against it.

Now as a judge, you sit in the judge’s box and you watch juniors who ride at a high level make huge silly mistakes because they are trying to be “perfect.” You see the lack of softness and feel in their riding that the pursuit of perfection brings out and you wonder—why?

Why would trainers continue to allow the “perfect” picture to destroy the already well-polished rider? These kids already know the path, the pace, the connection, and the balance that equitation teaches. So why let that feel go away because mentally they are trying too hard to win?

How many great jumper riders successfully place in the top 10 at Eq Finals and then go on to be top Grand Prix riders without having to relearn the feel that they lost in the equitation ring?

Sitting as a judge, I sometimes hope these kids will move on and let the up-and-coming riders learn the path of equitation and be rewarded and then they could move on too. I also hope the course is quite complex so I don’t have to judge solely on position, as too many can do the normal course.

It’s as a mom in this sport that the equitation path is most confusing for me. Like most parents, I’ve always strived to give my child all I could. I looked at the top of the sport, as I feel most do for direction, thinking they know best and saw examples of high performing riders that are successful products of the equitation path.

I’m also bombarded with information telling me this is The Way. Countless articles are written about young riders in the equitation ring, more than any other junior division. You hear of colleges pulling kids straight from the equitation finals and competitions. You want your kid to have these opportunities, so you follow the path.

Your kid thrives and loves it until the day comes they are in a lull and don’t know why they can’t move on or change it up. You try speaking to your trainers about these thoughts, only to get knocked down. You try to make sense of the financial and mental toll it takes on your family. In your mind, you know you have to do what’s right for your kid.

And sometimes that means jumping off the equitation merry-go-round. Sometimes it means hard, hard choices. But, at the end of the day, it’s the parent, not the path, that knows what’s best for your kid in the big picture of life, and by the time your kid is at the end of their junior career, they probably know what’s the right path for them too!

The American system makes parents feel that the equitation path is The Way, maybe even The Only Way. But the fact remains, the path is your family’s path! After all, does USA truly have a system that works for ALL? And at what cost is that path…

So, now you know why you often see U25 riders in the equitation ring. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is: should they be there?

Do you have a question for hunter-jumper trainer and judge Dana Hart-Callanan? Send it to news@horsenetwork.com for consideration in a future column.