The addition of Junior/Young Rider divisions to the 2021 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® means that riders like Hayley Jonkman have an exciting new incentive to compete.
By Jennifer M. Keeler
When Hayley Jonkman first qualified for the 2016 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® with a First Level wild card score earned aboard her eventing pony named Love Bug, she was only 15 years old and didn’t even know what the “Finals” were. But her trainer, Jennifer Conour, encouraged Jonkman and her family to make the trip to Lexington and made the talented junior believe she belonged there among the nation’s best.
Since classes for youth weren’t offered at the Finals, this meant that Jonkman shared the First Level competition ring with decorated professionals more than twice her age in the Open division. “I’m not going to lie – riding against all the Open riders was very intimidating,” Jonkman remembered. “They are all professionals who are paid to ride horses, and I’m there on a $3,000 asthmatic Chincoteague pony that has lots of attitude.”
Nevertheless, the junior rider from Lafayette, Indiana was not deterred. Building upon that initial experience, Jonkman qualified for and returned to the Finals twice more with Love Bug, culminating in a triumphant ninth-place finish in the Second Level Open Freestyle in 2019.
“Just qualifying for the Finals was awesome, but to come back year after year and landmark my progress against the country’s best meant so much,” Jonkman explained. “I remember lining up for the awards ceremony where there were these professional riders aboard fancy Warmbloods, and then there’s me on my 13.1-hand pinto pony. I’ll never forget cantering around the Alltech Arena for the awards ceremony with that top ten ribbon with my mom and all of my college equestrian teammates who had driven down to Kentucky cheering me on. It was our proudest moment.”
But now juniors and young riders like Jonkman will have their own spotlight at the US Dressage Finals. For the first time, the 2021 event will offer a Junior/Young Rider division for Training through Fourth Levels*, and Jonkman thinks this could be a game changer for many youth.
“I hadn’t really considered trying to go back this year because I’m so busy with school plus I have a new mare I’m working with; but I have to say that, with the addition of a Junior/Young Rider division, it’s much more enticing,” said Jonkman, who is a full-time student at Albion College in Michigan studying geology and paleontology. “Having the ability to compete against my own age group makes me feel like I have more of a fighting chance to do well and could definitely impact my decision as to whether or not I’d come back. I hadn’t even thought about the Finals this year, but now that I know about this change, it will make me think twice.”
So what prompted this change? USDF President Lisa Gorretta explained that the intention to eventually include a Youth Division was discussed way back in the original planning of the Finals. Over several years, the level of participation at the qualifying Regional Championships in the junior/young rider divisions grew to the point where the division was thought to be sustainable at the Finals as well. An implementation task force was formed to discuss the myriad of details and to make a recommendation to the USDF Board, who approved the change and announced the good news at the 2019 Adequan®/USDF Annual Convention in Savannah, Georgia.
“Remembering that as a national head-to-head championship, the US Dressage Finals is the culmination of all of the hard work and achievement of those riders who qualify from the USDF Regional Championships program,” Gorretta noted. But until now, junior and young riders have gone through the same qualifying process as open and adult amateur competitors plus paid the same Regional Championship qualifying fee for each ride (which contributes directly to pay for administration of those programs as well as prize money). So, Gorretta pointed out, youth exhibitors paid their fair share each show season, but didn’t have their own place to shine at the grand finale – the Finals.
“To get here, we had to get enough youth riders participating at the Regional Championship level, and we believe we have reached that tipping point,” Gorretta added. “Now we’re really looking forward to a full-fledged JR/YR division with representatives from the majority of regions at this fall’s Finals.”
Now in her final year of Junior/Young Rider eligibility, 20-year-old Jonkman is thinking about coming back to the Finals yet again to now ride in the new JR/YR division and would encourage other dressage youth to also fully embrace the chance to go to Lexington and compete among their peers.
“I’m not a rider who had the opportunity to compete in the FEI divisions, as the FEI Junior and Young Rider programs were honestly outside of my family’s financial means, as well as the physical abilities of my pony. So by having the opportunity to qualify and compete for national honors at the lower levels at the Finals was very special for me,” Jonkman said. “I definitely think the Finals are worth the work and effort to go to because it’s such an incredible learning experience. Even if you don’t do well, the pride you get from just making it there is worth it and motivates you for the next season.
“Going there and seeing all the incredible horses and riders I competed against was inspiring, and being a part of the ‘big stage’ was invaluable, especially for someone like me working my way up the levels on a non-Warmblood,” Jonkman concluded. “We’ve come so far together – Love Bug was abused before I got her, and she threw me countless times growing up. But I learned that all of your hard work and hundreds of hours of training CAN pay off, and even a teenager on a little Chincoteague pony can go to the Finals and be among the top ten in the country.”
*Starting with the 2021 US Dressage Finals, Juniors and Young Riders will have the opportunity to compete in a combined JR/YR division for Training through Fourth Levels. Juniors and Young Riders entering an FEI-level test or any freestyle at the Finals will still be required to compete in the Open division.