Stars and rising stars highlight USEF Talent Search Finals East

By Nancy Jaffer
October 8, 2017

Two of the biggest names in equitation headlined the weekend’s Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East, with Taylor St. Jacques (a star at Devon this year) leading the standings after three phases, only to drop to second in the final rankings after 2015 ASPCA Maclay winner McKayla Langmeier showed her prowess once again.

McKayla Langmeier won the Platinum Performance/ USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East on Skyfall. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

The two days of competition at the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation in Gladstone, N.J., ended with the special format of the Final Four, in which the top candidates after three phases (flat, gymnastics and a 12-obstacle course) rode their own horses over an eight-fence route, then took each of the other three participants’ mounts around it as well.

The Final Four is a real equalizer. For instance, while McKayla has had her mount, Skyfall, for five years, Taylor Griffiths, who finished third, had only met her ride, Caracas, last Tuesday. On the other hand, that big gray carried Halie Robinson to the West Coast Talent Search title last month, so he definitely had the right stuff.

No one was perfect in the Final Four. McKayla had a rail with Caracas and also a cross-canter mishap on a turn, but Taylor knocked down the second element of a wall-to-oxer double. That counted strongly against her because it happened on her own mount, the fabulous Charisma, who won the Grappa award as Best Horse in the final. Meanwhile, in the plus column for McKayla was the way she rode the first line in a neat nine strides, rather than a scrambling eight.

Taylor St. Jacques and Charisma. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

McLain Ward, who judged the class with fellow grand prix show jumper Jimmy Torano, called the Final Four concept “phenomenal,” citing the way it worked out at this championship. (Interestingly, the Final Four horse-switching for the World Show Jumping Championships, after which the Talent Search segment was modeled, has been dropped. It seems show jumpers are just too expensive these days to be swapped off.)

But it still works at the Talent Search.

“For me, it was exciting right to the very end. I think that’s the beauty of it; it changes, there’s ebbs and flows, it’s not one mistake and you’re out,” McLain said.

“Riders have a chance to rebound and fight back. Taylor fought back and made it very close. There was not a lot of room for McKayla to make a mistake, she had a beautiful last round and got the job done.”

McKayla was surprised to find out she had won. While she and Taylor St. Jacques were waiting for the announcement, neither was sure what the outcome would be.

Talent Search judges McLain Ward and Jimmy Torano work on laying out the final course for the class. (Photo copyright 2017 by Nancy Jaffer)

The Talent Search process is an educational weekend that serves riders on the rise who apply themselves. Taylor Griffiths is only 14; Abigail Brayman, who was fourth, is still polishing her resume. Nina Columbia used it to get a foothold on improving her position on the Big Eq scene. Nina, 16, of Kinnelon, was the top-placing New Jersey competitor in the field of 52, finishing eighth.

McLain said of Nina, “The girl was close all week, we thought the world of her. She had a nice way with the horse, a nice attitude, nice feeling.”

Nina got introduced to horses by the time she was three at the Smoke Rise Riding Club, where her grandmother, Barbara Columbia, also rode. Barbara was on hand to watch her granddaughter, along with Nina’s father, John Columbia, who drives her to lessons three times a week at Beacon Hill in Monmouth County, a long way from the family’s home in northern Morris County.

After riding with Robert Beck in Long Valley, Nina started taking lessons with Stacia Madden at Beacon Hill a year ago.

“She’s provided me with the most amazing opportunities,” said Nina, noting she also found her finals horse, Checkland.

Nina Columbia and Checkland. (Photo by Nancy Jaffer)

“He’s the most amazing partner, he saves me and he’s awesome,” said Nina, a junior at Kinnelon High School.

She made her Talent Search debut in 2016, but this time it was a different story.

“I’m taking the lessons I learned last year and applying them to this year,” said Nina. While it can be challenging to take part among a legion of top riders, she noted, “I’ve been really working hard. I’ve been thinking a lot. Stacia taught me to think, to plan, to take a breath. That’s what I’ve been doing, and it’s paid off.”

“Any time you’re competing against top riders, it brings your level of riding up to the next level,” Stacia said about Nina’s performance.

She takes pride in her student’s improvement.

“Everything is just starting to come together at the end of the year,” commented Stacia.

Nina is hoping to ride NCAA at college, and is interested in pursuing the horse business professionally, but first, she’s focusing on the the Medal and Maclay finals this autumn.

More items of interest:

  • The top 10: 1) McKayla Langmeier; 2) Taylor St. Jacques; 3) Taylor Griffiths; 4) Abigail Brayman; (Check out who trained them in the main story above); 5) Addison Piper (trained by Emily Smith); Alexandra Pielet (Val Renihan); 7) Carly Hoft (Don Stewart); 8) Nina Columbia (Stacia Madden); 9) Daisy Farish (Andre Dignelli); 10) Michael Williamson (Don Stewart).
  • The other Jerseyan in the finals, Emma Callanan of Tewksbury Township, also had a credible performance to move from 21st following the gymnastics phase to wind up 11th after earning a 90 that was the third-highest score in the Sunday morning jumping. She is trained by Dana Hart Callanan.
  • During the gymnastics phase, riders had to go from a one-stride double of verticals to a one-stride double of oxers in five strides. Later in the course, they had to ride the same line in reverse, but with six strides between the combinations. It was interesting to see how many riders ran out of room the second time and chipped at the first element of the final combination.
  • In the Sunday morning course, the water jump banked with mums was a bogey for some, but only a few in the top 15 had difficulty there, and all of them did clear it,  just not necessarily in great style.
  • McLain had words of encouragement for those who struggled: “Whether you were successful or not in the jumping course, I hope you learned something and you understood your own riding strengths and weaknesses and that of your horse better. Not everybody’s going to master it, but they should leave not feeling defeated. They should leave thinking, `This is what i need to do to get better.'”
  • The tests need to be reflective of the times and the standard of the sport. “We’re not preparing kids to go hunting anymore,” said McLain.”We’re preparing kids to jump the Nations’ Cup Final, and I think that needs to be reflected in all the equitation finals, in my opinion. Otherwise, it’s not relevant.”
  • McKayla is coached by her parents, Linda (also a Maclay finals winner) and Kenny, as well as Missy Clark. Missy also trained Abigail Brayman. Taylor St. Jacques is trained by Andre Dignelli, who judged the West Coast finals, and Taylor Griffiths gets her coaching from her stepfather, Frank Madden, and her mother, Jen Madden.
McKayla Langmeier with John Brennan; her parents, Ken and Linda Langmeier, Missy Clark and Emily Smith of Platinum Performance. (Photo copyright 2017 by Nancy Jaffer)
  • Discussing McKayla, Missy mentioned her “work ethic: A-plus; talent: A-plus; Dedication: A-plus; Interest level: A-plus. All of it. She has worked so hard for so many years and always is so respectful and polite and appreciative. She’s a good one.”
  • Everyone was thrilled to have judges of Jimmy and McLain’s caliber. “Not only are these two guys so knowledgeable, their level of passion is through the roof,” Frank Madden pointed out.
  • McLain got a laugh when he revealed the reminder to be kind that he wrote at the top of his scorecard, “Remember, your daughter might be here in a few years.”
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