East Dorset, Vermont — The six-week Vermont Summer Festival hosts a bevy of competitive divisions across hunters, jumpers, and equitation, with equitation quickly becoming known as the show’s strong suit. Riders who grew up competing on the Vermont Summer Festival circuit have gone on to win the nation’s most prestigious equitation finals, including the ASPCA Maclay Medal, United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) Show Jumping Talent Search, and the Pessoa/USEF National Hunter Seat Medal.
Among the top trainers who have groomed their riders for success at the Vermont Summer Festival are Bobby Braswell, of Terrapin Hill Farm in Ocala, FL, and Missy Clark of North Run in Warren, VT. Between them, countless riders have gone on to become equitation champions, and many of those riders started out competing on the six-week circuit of the Vermont Summer Festival at Harold Beebe Farm in East Dorset, VT.
“Almost all of my students who have won finals have done this circuit,” said Braswell. “It’s quite a significant number who have been here showing and have gone on to win. It’s one of those circuits where the kids learn to ride. It’s almost like an equitation boot camp.”
The “boot camp” atmosphere is fostered by top-tier competition over six weeks of showing. Braswell described the longer circuit as an opportunity for his riders to intensely focus on improving their skills. Braswell and Terrapin Hill typically spend five weeks at the Vermont Summer Festival each summer, during which he relishes watching his riders’ progress over the course of their stay.
“It’s a tough circuit to win at. A lot of the kids who have become winners of the finals have come through here, so you’re going against that level of rider,” Braswell explained. “I see a big difference by the end of the circuit. It works out really well, especially for maybe your second string kids who learn a lot by coming here.”
He continued, “It’s expensive to show anywhere, but it’s probably a little less expensive to stay here and show for the whole summer and work every week. It’s really easy to get kids on a schedule of work here. They get up and do their lessons and the equitation (classes) go right away. They get immediate feedback for what they do.”
The town of Manchester also provides the environment for an ideal balance of work and play, according to Braswell.
“When the kids come here, it’s a fun town to be in, but it’s not what I would call a ‘wild town’ to be in. When they’re here at the show, they’re here to show. They pay attention and they learn. There are other shows where you may have good competition, but you also have lots of distractions at the same time,” he remarked.
Braswell is commonly seen in the early hours of the morning giving his equitation riders lessons in an extra schooling ring, where he will often set up courses and work on last-minute adjustments before they show. The early morning lesson is a staple of the equitation scene at the Vermont Summer Festival and one of Braswell’s most valuable tools.
Nikko Ritter, whose many equitation accolades include winning the 2007 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East, fondly remembers his sunrise lessons as a junior competing at the Vermont Summer Festival.
“It’s light at five o’clock in the morning, so we always had lessons here early,” said Ritter. “I remember coming here since I was 12 or 13 years old, waking up at five a.m. for lessons before the equitation classes. There was always a lot of competition here. Just being able to compete with everyone at the top levels is important so you can refine what you’re doing (before finals in the fall).”
Ritter believes many riders with their eyes on an equitation championship title use the Vermont Summer Festival to sharpen their skills as they approach the fall indoor competition season, noting, “I think everyone uses this show as their schooling show to come and really refine everything. All the big equitation barns come here and you always had the competition, but you also had a lot of classes that you could go in at the beginning of the week to school your horse.”
Ritter now comes to the Vermont Summer Festival as a young professional, eager to share his skills and knowledge with his young riders. He is based out of Lionshare Farm in Greenwich, CT, where he works with 1996 Olympic silver medalist Peter Leone.
“I started with Peter Leone and Lionshare this year, and we’re building up some equitation kids,” said Ritter. “This is a great show for them because there are classes for everyone and I can bring clients who maybe aren’t prepared for the highest levels so they can get better. Even the Maiden Equitation division had 26 riders in it, which is really important for my youngest students.”
Ritter deeply values his own start in equitation, believing that coming up through the equitation levels is the key to success for any rider wanting to be competitive at the upper levels.
“I think equitation gives the basis of riding,” said Ritter. “It’s important that you learn line and track early, and the equitation helps develop that. It helps you jump into a line and know where you are. In my opinion, most of the kids should come up through equitation, at least for a time, to get the poise and to be able to know where they are on course so they can be successful in higher levels.”
Hillary Simpson, who won week four’s $30,000 Mount Equinox Grand Prix with Arkansas, was also once a young junior learning the ropes at the Vermont Summer Festival.
“It’s always been a good equitation show, even when I was qualifying for finals as a kid,” said Simpson. “All the big barns were here with the top juniors. Everyone was here, so you had most of the top competition. All the players were in Vermont.”
Simpson, who won the 1996 USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals, believes a key to attracting highly competitive large-scale barns is the setting of the show.
“The key to a lot of summer shows is finding a location that is friendly for the rest of the family members who aren’t horsey, so that they’re willing to either let you go for six weeks or are happy to come along,” she explained.
Simpson was also excited to see the addition of ‘Equitation Tuesdays’ to the 2013 Vermont Summer Festival prize list. ‘Equitation Tuesdays’ provide another opportunity for riders to earn points towards qualifying for finals and can also give them their first taste of big-league equitation competition.
“It’s a nice way to take some of the younger riders who are just starting and let them experience some of the major equitation classes. The Tuesdays give some of the younger kids a little bit of a shot because they don’t have to play with all the big boys,” she smiled.
Another equitation champion that has returned to the Vermont Summer Festival as a successful young professional is Julie Welles, a former student of Missy Clark who has returned to her roots at North Run as an assistant trainer.
Welles, who placed third in the $30,000 Mount Equinox Grand Prix on July 27 with Bazooka de Muze, has a long list of equitation accomplishments to her name. In 2005, she won the USEF Show Jumping Talent Search East and WIHS Equitation Finals in addition to placing third at the Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Medal Finals and fifth in the ASPCA Maclay Finals.
Welles spent the last four years working for internationally ranked show jumpers Laura Kraut and Nick Skelton, traveling back and forth to Europe to compete their younger horses. The skills she learned as an equitation rider were critical to being hired, and enabled her to compete successfully for top riders.
“When you have young horses, line and track aren’t the issue,” said Welles. “You couldn’t think about that; you had to get to the fence and know automatically what you’re going to do. You have to think on your feet. In equitation, you go in to do the test and have to do lines you’ve never walked and you have to go with the flow.”
Now back with North Run, Welles looked forward to returning to the Vermont Summer Festival where she has competed since childhood, noting, “It was so nice to come back here. It’s so relaxing and people enjoy being here. You wake up every morning excited to go to the show. It’s nice to come back to a horse show that you know. I’ve been coming here since I was in the Equitation 11 and Under classes, so it was like coming home.”
Welles also enjoys seeing her own students making their way through the world of equitation competition at the Vermont Summer Festival.
“I get to help them through what I went through, and it is fun,” she said. “You have to enjoy it if you want to do well. It’s fun to see the younger ones trying to get in the groove and get the experience and the mileage. It’s so much different to move up to 3’6” classes. The courses get technical and it’s a higher level of riding. It is great to see them improve.”
Missy Clark and North Run are synonymous with equitation championships and top-tier success. Clark described her summers at the Vermont Summer Festival as a great foundation for all of her riders.
“It’s a great training ground,” said Clark. “It is good mileage for a lot of kids and it’s a good time of year. The season is winding down, so it’s the time when you might need to grab some extra points and the show serves a lot of good purposes. It’s good competition, there are great courses, and it’s a great venue.”
Clark echoed Braswell’s sentiments that the show provides excellent opportunities for improvement, saying, “It’s nice to have this concentrated couple of weeks. You come out of here and you definitely see the improvement in the younger ones, which is nice. Any mileage you can get will hone your skills. It’s nice to be here and be able to do that over great courses.”
For Clark, the equitation division is a stepping stone for young competitors during the formative years of their riding careers.
“It’s important to have those molding years as a rider that they can fine tune their skills. Position is very important. If you don’t have the proper position, you’re not going to have the balance to go on and jump bigger jumps. Learning all the details like proper flatwork and line and track and everything you learn in the equitation division will serve riders well,” Clark commented.
To find the value of an education in proper equitation, Clark says to look no farther than the world’s most successful competitors.
“I use a lot of the world’s best grand prix riders as examples for my kids,” states Clark. “Mclain Ward is one of the poster people for equitation. If you see any picture of him, he could still win the Maclay Finals today. I think if you look at the history of our sport in this country, there’s been a huge group of grand prix riders that have come through the equitation ranks. I think it’s a proven commodity that does its job.”
While not all riders are destined to become successful professionals, the time they’ve served in the equitation ring will provide them with plenty of skills for life beyond the show ring.
“Every life lesson you need to learn is right here,” said Clark. “You have to be relentless. You have to be dedicated. You have to be strong. You have to be resilient. You have to be so many things that will serve you well later in life. It’s not for the weak, that’s for sure.”
Braswell agreed, “It’s not what all of them do. A lot of them will go on to college. I tell them all the time, ‘horse shows will always be here.’ Missy and I will still be out there. It’s one of those constants in life: death, taxes, and we’ll be out there teaching kids in the equitation ring!”
The first five Saturdays of the Vermont Summer Festival feature a $30,000 Grand Prix. The $50,000 Vermont Summer Celebration Grand Prix will be held during the sixth and final week on Saturday, August 10. The weekly $10,000 Open Welcome Stake, Presented by Manchester Designer Outlets, is held each Thursday. The hugely popular $5,000 3’3” Hunter Derby is also held each Thursday for the first five weeks, with week six featuring the $15,000 Hunter Derby.
The Vermont Summer Festival is a proud member event of the Show Jumping Hall Of Fame, the Marshall & Sterling League, and the North American League (NAL). Please e-mail us or visit our website for more information about the Vermont Summer Festival.