By US Equestrian Communications Department
San Juan Capistrano, Calif. – With a record number of entries at this year’s Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – West, reaching the top of the leaderboard required exceptional skill and smart riding across four phases of competition, and Zoe Brown proved that she has what it takes. The 16-year-old from Redwood City, Calif., piloted The Original, a 2014 Belgian Warmblood gelding owned by her father and trainer, Harley Brown, to victory from a field of 44 competitors.
Talent Search Finals comprises four phases: flatwork, in which riders are evaluated on the rail in groups of seven or eight; gymnastics, with a course that requires quick turns and lengthening and shortening of the horse’s stride while maintaining rhythm and balance; show jumping over a grand prix-style course that includes a Liverpool and water jump; and a ride-off where the top four competitors complete a course with their own horse, then switch mounts to ride the same course on each of the other three top horses.
The competition format is set up to have riders use their own knowledge and experience to create a strategy for each phase; trainers are not allowed to school the horses for the duration of the competition, and only the riders are permitted to walk the courses. This year’s competition was judged by Jack Towell and Jack Hardin Towell.
Brown and “O.G.” started off strong with a sixth place standing after the flat phase on Saturday morning and came back to win the gymnastic phase and move to the top of the standings heading into Sunday. After a Phase III shakeup at the top of the leaderboard, Brown came back with four strong rides in Phase IV to secure the win.
“I was most nervous for the flat phase, so once I got that out of the way, the pressure was eased a little bit,” said Brown. “I was not expecting to go out and win the gymnastics phase, so I just had to keep my cool and keep calm under pressure.”
At just seven years old, The Original is already proving to be an exceptional equitation mount. He was named Best Horse by the judges at this year’s Finals, an honor that comes with The Gulliver Trophy, donated by Karen Healey.
“My parents found him for me at the end of last year,” said Brown. “Thermal was my first show with him and we had a really great start together and clicked well. It hasn’t been easy with him getting used to the equitation ring, but he’s already a pro. He’s pretty special.”
In addition to the overall champion title, Brown was awarded the 2021 Sportsmanship Award presented by Hollow Brook Wealth Management. This award is given to the rider who demonstrates good sportsmanship throughout the competition, selected by competition stewards and schooling supervisors.
Ella Dyson (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) catch-rode Constance and Elisa Broz’s 2007 Holsteiner gelding, Cetello, to a reserve champion placing. Dyson is trained by Cassie Belmont of Belmont Training Stable.
Dyson’s ability to think on her feet came in extra handy during her Talent Search Finals experience, as commitments in the other rings kept her from walking the gymnastics course.
“I wasn’t able to walk the gymnastics phase, so I was kind of thrown into it, not really knowing what to expect,” she said. “But I think there were so many tests in the course that you just had to ride off instinct and feel, which I think is really important for us to be able to practice, and it showcases all of these really special riders and their abilities.”
Another Cassie Belmont student, Elisa Broz (Freedom, Calif.) finished in third place with Constance Broz’s 2008 Holsteiner gelding, Clooney 62. Broz was a member of the team representing Zone X at this year’s North American Youth Championship and sees Talent Search as an important step in young riders’ development.
“I think this class is very special. There have been some very influential riders who have won this competition,” said Broz. “I think it’s a great step in the pathway that USEF and USHJA have put on, and I think it’s creating riders that hopefully will have bright futures.”
Rounding out the final four was 19-year-old Trent McGee from Granada Hills, Calif., with Kristina Cain’s 2014 Oldenburg gelding, C. Everest. McGee is trained by Archibald Cox.
“It means a lot to me [to make the final four at Talent Search Finals]. You just look around and see some of the past riders who have done this final and done well, and it’s quite a phenomenal list of riders,” said McGee. “Being in that conversation is great, especially since I wasn’t even expecting to do this competition just a couple of weeks ago. It was a phenomenal experience and I’m just happy to be part of a long list of great riders.”
USEF Show Jumping Young Rider Chef d’Equipe and Technical Advisor DiAnn Langer was on the grounds to observe the riders throughout the competition. She sees the development of youth riding and training on the West Coast as moving in a very positive direction.
“It’s amazing, the growth in California for this particular final, and the quality of riders, horses, and training was incredible,” said Langer. “I’m very excited about the progress and the potential that I saw here.”
Langer explains that Talent Search is an essential part of the U.S. Jumping pathway program as it helps identify riders from the youth and equitation ranks who have the qualities that make good team riders for the future.
“Talent Search is an important part of the pathway because it really tests a rider’s potential to analyze the course on their own, to be able to handle the gymnastics, and most importantly, how they are on the flat,” she said. “We really want a workmanlike rider who is able to make things happen, and how you find it is by setting up situations like this, with the flat, the gymnastics, and the jumping and then the changing of horses.
“We find the changing horses very useful as this country is so big, and there are just so few of us scouting out there to see who’s doing what,” Langer adds. “Then when there is a decision to be made about Youth Olympics, having been able to ride other horses and quickly get used to them and figure out the best way to ride them is very important. We’re looking not only at riders’ stats and how they’ve been successful, if they’ve been riding other horses. So, it’s good for us to see, and it’s a fence height that’s in a range that’s quite doable.”
For youth riders who aspire to compete in Talent Search, Langer advises getting serious about flatwork.
“Being successful the first time out at Talent Search is rare,” she said. “So, the sooner you can get into it and start jumping bigger fences, the better, and the flat work is the most important part of learning that. Talent Search represents everything that we’re looking for in American forward-style riding, and having it be successful here and be successful on the East Coast really gives us a big pool. I think we’re going in the right direction with the pathway.”
The 2021 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East will take place in Gladstone, N.J., October 8-10.