Today we find ourselves about a week away from Presto’s first Young Event Horse class (knock on wood, because horses) so I figured now was as good a time as any to talk about the things I actually like about the program and the classes. I’ve rarely been hesitant to share criticisms or complaints about either the FEH (Future Event Horse) or YEH programs and my experiences with them, but I’m willing to admit that I’ve probably been a bit slower with praise. There are definitely things that I don’t like still, for sure, mostly centered around the extremely subjective nature of it or the schedule/availability. But, ya know, let’s maybe go a little deeper into it than that and look at the real meat of the classes and what they’re offering.
First and foremost, I was lucky enough to learn a ton about YEH and how it’s judged long before I ever had a horse of the age to participate. I’ve participated in two YEH judging seminars (they’re not just for judges!) and two FEH judging seminars and spent multiple days looking at horses, sitting with judges, and having detailed discussions about what they’re looking for and how they should score. Is there anything more satisfying than doing a mock-judging exercise at YEH Championships and having most of your scores come within .2 of Marilyn Payne’s? I think not. Highly recommend those seminars to anyone, even just for the benefit of honing your eye.
So, what are the benefits of YEH really? The most obvious one is experience. It’s cheaper than a full blown recognized horse trial, and in a more condensed format (the jumping phase is 5 showjumping fences followed immediately by 10 cross country fences, more like a derby format), so it’s a quicker and easier day. Often these classes are a lot smaller and held either on their own day or the day before a horse trial, so the atmosphere is considerably smaller and less busy, and more laid-back. It’s a great way to get some easy miles on a young one without all the to-do of a full blown event.
The particular rules of the classes are really geared toward fairness to young horses too – like for instance the fact that you’re allowed and even encouraged to school the water before your horse’s round, or let the horse look at/sniff the fences. The classes are meant to be confidence-building, so they allow the horses to take a little bit of a peek at things beforehand. You can also see the attempt at building confidence in the basic YEH specs:
The obstacles should be straight forward, inviting, and age-appropriate for the youngsters. If possible, the last fence should encourage a horse to gallop and jump out of stride (an ascending fence with a round profile, a good ground line, and preferably with brush).
The jump specs and speeds are smaller/slower earlier in the year, and then go up a bit in the later part of the year, building up to Championships.
Also something that a lot of people don’t realize is that the dressage test isn’t REALLY a dressage test. Not as we know it anyway – the scoring is completely different. Take a look at the scoresheet.
Notice something missing? Like… all the movements, for instance? Yes, they do perform an actual dressage test, it’s not just a rail class, but the test isn’t scored per movement. They aren’t looking for picture perfect geometry, on-the-letter transitions, etc. They’re looking for brilliance. Quite literally they are looking for the best moments of walk, trot, and canter that the horse shows them during the test, and scoring that. Sure, you want the horse to be obedient and consistent in the bridle and responsive to the aids, but those things show up down there as part of the rideability score. Remember after all that the YEH classes are looking for talent, so they’re judging the quality of the horse based on what was shown to them during the dressage test, they aren’t judging the test itself. I think it’s a little bit easier for young horses to shine in this format, where little green mistakes are forgiven, or at least weighed less heavily, and the rider can really RIDE and show off the horse without worrying so much about blowing a movement.
The jumping phases are judged more like a typical dressage test really, in that they get a score per jumping effort and then some overall collectives:
In some ways I like this and in other ways I don’t, there are pros and cons, but I do think it’s the most fair and consistent way that they’ve come up with so far (it’s changed in the past few years). Granted, it is still judged by a human being, and even the best judges have their biases and preferences, so one person’s 3 could be another person’s 5 and vice versa. They do, overall, like to see a really confident, bold horse that is quick and clever and careful with it’s feet, jumping out of stride and always forward-thinking.
What it really comes down to is whether the individual horse is ready for classes like this. Some are, some aren’t, and that’s okay. What I like is that there are plenty of options among all the different USEA programs. Keep in mind, the YEH classes are geared more towards pros being that the entire goal of the program is to find potential future upper level horses – there is another program, the New Event Horse or NEH, that is geared more toward the “every man”, for horses that are new to eventing. Those classes are looking for genuine, rideable, safe horses that are suitable for an amateur or junior at Prelim and below. But for a fairly talented young horse with a good rider that has been in a semi-consistent program, the specs of YEH are well within reach.
Four-year-olds should be competent at the Novice level. Early in the season, we encourage organizers to provide very inviting courses that are closer to Beginner Novice. By the end of the year, courses should be comparable to a strong Novice event, and include a few Training level obstacles. The YEH Championship will have up to four Training level fences for the 4-year-olds, and the 5-year-olds will have up to four Preliminary level fences.
If you have a 4yo that just isn’t physically or mentally ready for that, aside from the NEH program there’s also the option of doing the 4yo FEH class instead. The FEH only does w/t/c under saddle (which is run as a rail class, not a dressage test) and then conformation, and at championships they freejump in the chute. So really, there are a lot of options for green horses between the 3 programs if you care to utilize them, depending on what type of horse you’ve got and where they’re at in their development.
The most common thing I see is people criticizing the fence heights of the YEH program, but I think we also have to understand the aim of the program and that YEH is really for the potential upper level youngsters that are with pros… ones who find Training and below to be a complete breeze, are being ridden well, and certainly aren’t challenged by those heights. If the horse isn’t that, or just isn’t there yet in it’s training, one of the other options is probably more suitable, but there are also plenty of horses for whom YEH is perfectly suitable as well… something that’s already been proven a bit by YEH horses that have gone on to future upper level careers.
If I was riding Presto and he’d been at home rather than away at training for 4 months with a pro in the irons, there’s a 0% chance he’d be trying his hoof at any YEH this year. I’m not that rider. A NEH class, sure, a 4yo FEH, maybe, but I know my limits and they stop before YEH. I wouldn’t have been able to produce him in a way that meant he was ready for that yet. Of course, I’m not the one riding Presto at the moment and he has been away at training with a pro, plus he’s got a BN horse trial and a Novice horse trial under his girth already. I’ve seen him, with my own eyeballs, pop over his first couple Training XC fences so nonchalantly that it looked like he was out for his usual afternoon stroll. So, do I think he can tackle a YEH class? You bet. Do I think he could score well? Meh, it depends entirely on the day and what the judge in question sees.
The tricky part about Presto is that he is nonchalant about everything and rarely impressed by anything, which I think will make it hard to give him great scores. Plus he’s just now learning how to gallop properly, it’s not quite there yet. Really I think it’s hard to tell exactly how much ability is in there, at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a judge feels the same. Plus, like… uh… I didn’t breed him to be an top level professional’s horse, so… no skin off my back if they don’t think he’s up to that standard lol. He deserves a shot at it though, I think, and I certainly feel like the class is easily within his ability and training at the moment. Most importantly though, even if he scores abysmally he’ll get to go back to the barn with one more experience under his girth and he will have had a chance to see the dressage rings and the water before the full horse trial on the weekend (which he’s also doing). It’s a win-win to me, no matter what, and that’s where I think the YEH classes have a lot of value.