October 2016 - Candid With Karen: Medal Mania
Written by by Karen Healey
Saturday, 01 October 2016 05:51

Ride your horse well & don’t crack under the pressure!

by Karen Healey

There is nothing quite like the pressure of a medal finals, as those contesting the current season of finals know all too well. Whether it’s the regional, younger age medals like the 14 & under Rosewood and PCHA Horsemanship Finals or the recently-held Maclay Regionals that qualify riders for a national championship back East, there’s a lot at stake.

Whatever medal or medals you target, preparing for them is something that happens all year. That’s the first way to reduce some of the pressure. My approach has always been that my riders should not see something in any finals that they haven’t practiced at home. I always set courses at home that reflected what they would see, and more, at home, so that when they get there it’s easy.

Most of the year, we practice elements of a course at home—pieces and patterns, not a whole course. But, ideally, I like to get the kids home for a week before a big final and set an actual full course. That week, the riders walk the course, do their warm-up as they would on the day of competition and jump the full course.

Technically, the at-home courses would be as challenging, or more, than I expected to see in the final—based on the class specs and, often, being familiar with the course designer. But they would not be higher. I’d typically keep the courses at 3’3”, even for a 3’6” medal. By definition, a lesson includes repeating the exercises and the horses don’t need that extra wear and tear of jumping at their maximum height repeatedly.

The day of the big class is not the time to try anything tricky in the way of preparation. On the day of the final, you just want a nice warm-up, to walk the course and to tell your students, “Look, you’ve done this before. You can do this.”


The priority is to help the riders stay relaxed, to give them whatever they need to get into their own zone, to tune out the commotion and to actually be hearing what I’m saying. The tension in the schooling ring can be quite high and with all that’s going on, sometimes the challenge is getting the rider to listen to my voice and let me help them with what they’re doing.

Early on, I brought in a sports psychologist, Dr. Ken Ravizza, to work with my riders going into the medal season. He works with professional athletes and Olympians in various sports and I think at first, 25 years ago, he didn’t quite understand what I was talking about with the pressure of a medal finals. I had him come out and sit with my riders at a show, before a finals, and it was then that he understood it.  I’ve heard several Olympians say their big medal finals as juniors were the most pressure they’d felt as equestrians and that doesn’t surprise me.

Some riders have the temperament to handle it better than others and some need some help. The most common thing I’ve always told my students, no matter the final, is that your first responsibility is to ride your horse well.

You have to forget about the results. The results will happen.

Critical Development Step

Over the years, there has always been some complaints or suggestions that equitation and medals have become an end unto themselves, rather than a preparation for going further in the sport.

I’m an adamant believer that these divisions promote a foundation of riding that teaches them to ride a track and a rhythm, to ride smoothly and accurately. They aren’t a be all and end all for riders, but they are critical to every top rider’s development. People have said 2012 Olympian Reed Kessler skipped the medal divisions in favor of a concentrating on jumpers when she was a junior, but that’s not true. She stopped the medals earlier than most do, but she did them and was very competitive in them, from a young age. They all did. McLain Ward, Kent Farrington, Meredith Beerbaum, Lucy Davis.  They’re all products of this system.

Another thing that medal finals do is teach kids to produce on the day, with one horse, in one class. This is a critical skill at the highest levels of our sport. It’s a very different scenario than having a string of jumpers to ride throughout the day, or several in one class, and often hunters to campaign in another ring, and having so many chances. Instead, they have to walk in prepared to win with one horse.

Although we have a lot of medal classes, I think most trainers are good about helping their students target the right ones and most understand that qualifying for them should be done on a normal show schedule, not point chasing.

Having realistic goals and taking satisfaction in achieving your own personal best are important. If you’re targeting the Maclays Regionals in September after only moving up to the 3’6” medals in June, be aware that you are competing against riders with a lot more mileage and experience. Feel good about your personal best and know that next year you won’t be as intimidated.

What medal you should target all depends on where you are in your riding career and your circumstances. Going back East for a national final is not an option for everybody, so it’s nice to have the regional finals that we do.
One thing for sure is that a rider and a horse cannot stay in peak form from the second week of August to the first week of November, which is the time frame encompassing all the local, regional and national medals. Some of our 14 & unders are qualifying for their age group medals and also the bigger ones like the Maclay and the USET Talent Search West and for that, you really need to have two horses – especially for the USET, which requires a jumper type horse, for sure.

Author Karen Healey is one of our sport’s most accomplished teachers and coaches. She worked for George Morris in the early 70s and has carried on his teachings ever since, along the way coaching 100-plus-and-counting medal finals winners. NAJYRC medalists and international stars including Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum are among her protégés. Karen shuttered her California training barn at the end of 2015, after 34 years, and continues to work with riders in lessons, clinic and coaching at shows through Karen Healey Training. For more information, visit www.karenhealeytraining.com or e-mail Karen at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Photo: Paul MasonEvolving Talent Search

Some of our medals are evolving. For example, it’s going to be an interesting year for the USET Talent Search. (The West Finals were set for Sept. 22-24 in San Juan Capistrano, and Karen is set to be a judge/course designer, along with Kirstin Coe, of the East finals, at Gladstone, N.J ., Oct. 7-9. Cynthia Hankins and Schuyler Riley were set to judge/course design the West Finals.)

I’m on a USEF High Performance Jumping sub-committee tasked with evaluating the Talent Search and we’ve been having a debate about the gymnastics phase. It stems mostly from the fact that it wasn’t clear what was wanted in that phase. The Talent Search overview states that this phase is supposed to show riders demonstrating the skills they exhibited on the flat over an “intensive gymnastic course with quick turns and shortening and lengthen of their horse’s stride while maintaining rhythm and balance.”

Now that the fence heights are a solid 1.2M and this is clearly a jumper-oriented class, there is agreement that we don’t want them having to do things like pull up and trot over jumps. That doesn’t happen in a jumper class.  So this year, Beezie Madden and Anthony D’Ambrosio designed eight gymnastic patterns and we judges/course designers have to incorporate three of them in the gymnastics phase.

That requirement prevented me from using a gymnastic element of my own design in Gladstone – because of the size of the ring and the number of jumps involved. We’ll see how that goes.

We’ve also talked about getting rid of the gymnastic phase in favor of a speed round in which speed is as important as going clear; typically with substantial deductions for going over the time allowed and bonuses for being under. Historically, our riders have a hard time with this round at the World Cup and World Equestrian Games. We are always playing catch-up. So, that’s something in discussion for the Talent Search, too.

Congratulations to everyone who’s already solved this season’s pressure puzzle with a medal win or good placing and best of luck to those still in the hunt for these big wins. They are stressful but worth it.

We’ve got some great riders out West. Let’s go kick some East Coast butt!