Friday, June 29, 2012

SPORTS STORY >> Junior Olympics is next stop for Cabot equestrian

Leader sportswriter

After completing all qualifications and overcoming adversity at her most recent event, nationally-ranked junior equestrian rider Jordan Payton of Cabot and her thoroughbred horse, Slew’s Aftershock, have been selected as alternates to represent their respective team at the illustrious Junior Olympics next month in Lexington, Ky.

The Junior Olympics, also referred to as the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships, is the premier championship event for the one and two-star levels of eventing.

Eventing is the triathlon of equestrian riding, which consists of three different challenging events or phases.

The events are categorized as dressage, show jumping and cross country. Equestrianism is the art of skillful horseback riding. In order to be eligible for a spot on the Junior Olympic team, the riders have to complete at least five different one and two-star level qualifying events.

Once the horse and rider complete the five events, they then have to compete in front of a selection committee in a mandatory outing where the committee then chooses the members for the Junior Olympic team.

Only four riders are chosen to represent the team, but two more are chosen as well to compete in individual events.

In the mandatory selection trials that took place earlier this month at Texas Rose Horse Park in Tyler, Texas, Payton had an unfortunate disadvantage going into the event as she was unable to train adequately due to a minor injury Slew’s Aftershock sustained a week before the outing.

While doing routine fitness work the previous Saturday before the selection trials, Payton’s horsestrained one of his tendons, which aggravated a previous injury.

Payton’s horse was given the week off to recover from the injury, but the lack of practice time certainly didn’t help the duo as far as competing in front of the Junior Olympic selection committee.

“Basically it wasn’t anything major, but I didn’t even ride him for a few days that week,” Payton said about her horse’s untimely injury. “I was icing (the injury) twice a day to keep the swelling down and to keep him happy. I did not jump him all week leading up to the event, which was not ideal.”

In order to rehab Slew’s Aftershock, Payton had to limit the horse’s training to light dressage work, eliminating all jumps. Dressage is the phase of eventing that is the least physically strenuous on the horse and rider, but is considered the most difficult as the event consists of an exact sequence of movements ridden in an enclosed area (20 meters x 60 meters for international eventing, but usually 20 x 40 for a one-day event).

In the dressage phase, judges look for balance, rhythm, suppleness, and most importantly, obedience of the horse and its harmony with the rider. The challenge of dressage is to demonstrate that a supremely fit horse has the training to perform in a graceful, relaxed and precise manner.

Payton, who is currently the nation’s seventh-ranked rider in the Preliminary Junior Division of U.S. Eventing, makes no excuses as far as the obvious disadvantage she and her horse were faced with. But admits the situation wasn’t exactly beneficial to achieving the goal of being selected to the Junior Olympic team.

“It wasn’t the best condition going into the weekend, especially for me,” Payton said. “Jumping has so much to do with my sight, like the distances I see to the fences are very important. For the horse to clear the jump or have the best chance of clearing it and leaving (the rails) up, my job as the rider is to judge the distance to the fence.

“Whether I need to hold (the horse) or make the strides bigger to cover more ground in order to get to the spots I see. If I don’t process that with my eyes, it’s not very good. I really needed the practice. So, that was a major thing going into the weekend that prevented us from doing well I guess you could say.”

The next two phases of eventing, cross country and show jumping, requires the horse and rider to jump over several lower and higher level fences that are usually set up on a long outdoor circuit. Both events are timed and require both the horse and rider to be in excellent physical shape as the phases tests the fitness and stamina of the riding duo.

Scoring for these phases is based on the number of penalties the horse and rider tally during a phase.

Knocking down an obstacle, jumping an obstacle out of order, disobedience, fall of horse or rider, errors on course not rectified, and exceeding the time allowed are some of the mishaps that result in penalties.

The winner is the horse and rider with the fewest penalties.

Even though Payton and her horse had limited time to practice leading up to the selection trials, the two had a strong showing in the dressage phase to start the event.

However, the lack of practice time was noticeable in the show jumping phase, as their performance was less than stellar according to the standards of both Payton and the selectors.

The selectors initially ruled out Payton and her horse from Junior Olympic consideration after the show jumping phase, but after an excellent showing in the cross country phase the following morning, the selectors asked Payton to join the Junior Olympic team as the lone alternate.

Payton was a bit disappointed in the selectors’ decision, but was relieved after the final phase to see her horse looking like his old self again.

“I wasn’t sure if he was going to be sound after running cross country, because I felt that he tweaked it galloping,” Payton said of the horse she’s trained with and owned for two years. “I wasn’t sure the pounding and the stress from it would keep him sound. We all had to jog the horses out for the vet after we ran Sunday morning, which happened to be the same vet that had been taking care of him earlier that week.

“He jogged up and looked completely sound. Actually, he looked better than most of the other horses that are on the team. So, that was a bit relieving and we haven’t had a problem since then. He’s stayed sound and seems to be doing well, and (the injury) doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore, thankfully.”

Although Payton isn’t currently scheduled to ride at the Junior Olympics, she will travel with the team to Lexington, Ky., and is training as if she will ride.

If something were to happen that would prevent any of the current team members or their horses from competing between now and then, Payton and Slew’s Aftershock will naturally step in as the permanent replacements.

Payton trains with her horse six days a week at the prestigious Gold Chip Stables in Bartonville, Texas. Opening ceremonies for the Junior Olympics begin July 17 at Kentucky Horse Park.