November 2016 - The Gallop: Peyton Warren Tops Talent Search Finals

Serena Anand, Megan Hilton & Michael Williamson round out “final four” in evolving test of international potential.

article & photos by Kim F. Miller

In the rider’s meeting the afternoon before the Platinum Performance USET Talent Search West began, judges Schuyler Riley and Cynthia Hankins explained why this was one of their favorite medal finals: “You can be lucky and win a lot of medal finals, but this one, with four rounds, really tests the all-around rider.”

Champion Peyton Warren & Cazmir Z.

A reserve champion smile from Serena Anand.

On Saturday, Sept. 23 that rider was 18 year old Peyton Warren.

She excelled through the two-day championship’s rigorous four phases and praised a structure that rewarded effective riding over looking pretty. That sentiment was echoed by the rest of the riders in the Final’s top four: Serena Anand, Megan Hilton and Michael Williamson. All agreed, too, that they left with plenty of lessons to apply in their riding going forward.

The West Finals took place in San Juan Capistrano, Sept. 22-24, as part of Blenheim EquiSport’s International Jumping Festival.

From the 30-minute-plus flat phase Friday to the “final four” round in which each rode a jump-off course on their own, then each other’s horses, the four demonstrated smooth, effective riding throughout. With new levels of difficulty in place to qualify for the finals -- like jumping a 10’-water obstacle and solid 1.2M course specs -- Talent Search participation in the West has dwindled in recent years. But as Megan Hilton put it, “Nobody should be looking at the quantity of riders. It’s about the quality.” And there was no shortage of that in the starting field of 19.

The judges told riders to consider the flat phase, “as a lesson, not a class.” It was indeed that: a 30-minute work-out asking riders to demonstrate a finely tuned connection with their horse.

Working in groups of four or five, riders were asked to execute 19 movements and scored on each individually. They ranged from simple collections and extensions to one of Schuyler’s favorite exercises, which she borrowed from her coach Conrad Homfeld: Going to the right, but holding the counter-canter, leg yield to the quarterline, reverse circle (going left,) then half-pass back to the rail. Counter-cantering, shoulder-ins and outs and haunches-in and out on a circle were some of the other exercises.

The judges emphasized that they weren’t looking for perfection and that a fail on one movement would not dismiss anybody. Most importantly, Schuyler said they wanted to see how riders reacted and improvised. “At the top of the sport, stuff goes wrong. We want to see your instincts. So take a deep breath and ride!”

Each movement was scored individually and an overall score was added to arrive at the flat phase standings. Peyton, Megan and Michael were all within 1.5 points of each other, Peyton leading with a 97. Eventual reserve champion Serena Anand sat in the middle of the pack after the flat.

Scores from each phase of the Talent Search have a multiplier when factored into the overall results: the flat phase = 1; the gymnastic phase = 1.5; and the jumping rounds = 2.

The Gymnastic Phase

Megan Hilton & Cantoblanco

Michael Williamson and trainer Patty Ball evaluate the flat phase before MIchael’s turn.

Saturday afternoon the riders embarked on the gymnastic phase of the Talent Search, riding in reverse order of their standing after the flat.

Addressing concerns that it had been unclear what the gymnastic phase was really asking for, a High Performance task force initiated changes to it this year. Olympian Beezie Madden and course designer Anthony D’Ambrosio created eight course elements and the judges for the East and West Finals had to incorporate at least three. On-course halts and trot fences were discarded in favor of elements more reflective of a real course. Serving as technical delegate for the Talent Search, Anthony told us he was quite pleased with the new method. “I think it’s much better at teaching horses the elements that exist as they go up the levels.”

Using about two thirds of Blenheim’s Grand Prix field, the course started with a half-circle of three jumps, with the riders given the striding options of either four to six or six to four. The final four all took the first option: Peyton explained, “You always want to start the course on a forward stride.” Megan exhibited an especially smooth direct line four, to a bending six on her spectacular Holsteiner Cantoblanco, who wound up earning the Best Horse trophy at the end of competition.

An oxer-oxer one-stride was jumped both directions as a figure-8 centerpiece preceded or followed by bending lines in both directions. Toward the end of the 15-effort course, another line did double duty, a one-stride and a two-stride separated by a distance that riders were instructed to make a flowing five-stride going away from the in-gate. Next game a collection through a 90-degree turn to a three-part bounce, then back the other way through the line with instructions for a steady six in between the two combinations.

The point of the gymnastic phase is for riders to put the skills they’d demonstrated on the flat to use over fences and to prepare their horses for elements commonly found on Grand Prix courses. With very few exceptions, the whole field of contenders seemed well up to the task.

At day’s end, Megan’s lovely ride moved her up a notch, with Peyton next, and Serena making a big move up from the middle of the pack after the flat to sit third, and Michael fourth.

Rounds Three & Four

With the jumping phase counting double, several riders were very much in the hunt for a spot in the “final four.” Peyton and eventual fifth-place winner Halie Robinson were among few to go clear and without time faults over the 16-effort course. Rails were evenly distributed. Several bricks tumbled at the standard-less wall that was fence 5 and the final jump, a white rail oxer, took its toll.

Bianca Jenkins was one of two 13-year-olds to hold their own in the challenging class. Elli Yeager was the other.

The problematic wall in the main jumping phase.

Happily, the water obstacle did not claim any victims, as it has frequently in past years, and there were no dramatic crashes or eliminations, reflecting well on the strength of the qualifying process and the field of competitors.
Talent Search veterans Peyton, Megan, Serena and Michael made the final four, riding an eight-effort course on their own horse then on each other’s, a la the finals at the World Equestrian Games.

Having made most of her career as a catch rider, Peyton did a masterful job with everybody’s horse. She held Michael’s big white jumper Casco Junior in check and made the most of Megan elastic-strided Cantoblanco. She admitted to being extra happy that stablemate Serena made the final four with Itteville, an agile Belgian Warmblood Peyton had ridden on several occasions. All the rounds were impressive, not always elegant at every effort but getting the job done and sticking with whatever striding and track options they’d chosen. Serena finished as reserve champion, followed by Megan and Michael.

Unanimous Praise

Elli Yeager.

Megan Hilton & Cantoblanco.

The top four were unanimous in their praise for the tweaks to this year’s competition. “The point of this whole final is how to prepare for a jumping class,” noted Peyton. All agreed that the flat “lesson” was perfect prep for the gymnastic and the gymnastic was a perfect prep for Saturday’s final, with the first course riding as an expansion of the gymnastic’s striding and track tests. “It was a great test of horsemanship,” said Michael, to which all agreed.

Of Saturday’s course, “I love the way it gave us options,” said Peyton. “My horse (Casmir Z) likes to leave out a stride if there’s a half-stride count and jump off a forward step.” The line going down to the problematic wall, for example, rode most often in eight or nine strides. “I don’t think the judges would penalize us for either one: they were just looking for what was best for each horse.” Of the jump-off, Megan said, “It was good. Not too long, but enough tests that you really had to know the horse you were riding.” Before their rounds, each rider had two minutes and two jumps to get to know each other’s mounts.

As for the future, all aspire to the international competition for which the Talent Search is designed to identify and nurture potential. Both taking a gap year between high school and college, Peyton and Megan are targeting the U25 Grand Prix circuit. Serena, 21, is moving from her Orange County home to be a working student for Jill Humphrey at JH Sporthorses in the Sacramento area. And, Michael, 17, will hit the indoor circuit while continuing his quest to ride and spend as much time with his horses as possible. “I’m not in it for the ribbons or anything, it’s about the horsemanship.”

“I think we can all agree to that,” Peyton concluded. 

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 949-644-2165.

Serena Anand & Itteville.

Michael Williamson on Peyton’s Casmir Z.

Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals West

1.    Peyton Warren - Jill Humphrey and Alison Sherred - Rancho Murieta, CA
2.    Serena Anand - Jill Humphrey and Alison Sherred - Coto de Caza, CA
3.     Megan Hilton - Cara Anthony - Seattle, WA
4.     Michael Williamson - Patty Ball - Loomis, CA
5.     Halie Robinson - James Hagman - Santa Barbara, CA
6.     Elli Yeager - Tasha Visokay - Westlake Village, CA
7.     Jacqueline Vail - Kelly Van Vleck - Sacramento, CA
8.     Emma Marlowe - Leslie Steele - Calabasas, CA
9.     Hannah Janson - David Oliynyk and Kimberly Janson - Berkley, MA
10.     Samantha Gastelum - James Hagman - Trabuco Canyon, CA

Peyton on Michael’s Casco Junior.

30-minute flat phase on the final day.

The Talent Search as Part of the USET “Pathway”

Since taking on the new position of U.S. Show Jumping Young Rider Chef d’Equipe/Technical Advisor in 2013, DiAnn Langer has been focused on improving the pathway for young riders who aspire to represent the U.S. internationally. The USET Talent Search is a big part of that and making sure the competition keeps pace with the sport is a challenge faced by DiAnn and those working with her.

Two years ago, the qualifying process for the Talent Search Finals was changed to create three tiers in which the amount of qualifying points correlate to the difficulty level. The third and most difficult tier is a class held to Three Star specs, including solid 1.2M fence heights, a Liverpool and a 10’, dug-into-the-ground water obstacle. One Three Star qualifier win earns a berth in the final, while, for example, a fourth-placed finish in a One-Star earns just five of the 30 points needed to qualify for the West Final.

DiAnn acknowledges that the tougher qualifying standards have resulted in fewer entrants, and, that in the West in particular, it’s been hard to fill those most difficult classes. The lower numbers don’t bother her. This year on the West Coast the Finals field started with 19 riders and the East Coast Final was expected to have 62. “The people here (San Juan Capistrano) are the right people. They got themselves qualified so they are already exceptional,” she notes.

Participation numbers for the Talent Search have gone up and down over its 30-year-plus history, but there won’t be any lessening of the standards to increase numbers on DiAnn’s watch. “We have no intention of making it easier. We’re not backing down.”

Another part of her job is ensuring that the Talent Search offers value to current and future participants. “If you win, what kind of value does that give you? It enables us to keep track of them, but we also want to make sure we are exposing those riders to the global sport.”

At the Thursday afternoon rider’s meeting, DiAnn reviewed the USET’s developing rider goals and invited all to connect with her: to make sure she knew their ambitions, to weigh in on their strategies and otherwise take advantage of her and the USET’s expertise and resources. As of Saturday morning, no West Coast riders had taken that step.

Responding to complaints that the West has too few opportunities to earn points toward the Talent Search Finals, DiAnn wondered how many young riders were reaching out to show managers to see if there was something they could do to help those classes fill. In addition to good horsemanship, it’s clear that riders must take initiative in setting their career course.