The Benchmark Program is Giving Young Horses a Leg Up in the World

Four times per year, a group of trailers pull into El Sueno Equestrian Center early in the morning to unload their wide-eyed charges. Horse anxiety fills the air at the Southern California facility as five, six and seven year olds get their first look at a ring full of unfamiliar jumps, hear the static from a loudspeaker warming up, and smell new barns filled with unknown horses.

But what they haven’t entered into is the intensity of a competition, or the financial pressures that come hand in hand with attending rated shows in the United States. Instead, they’ve arrived to jump a new height, perhaps school over a liverpool, and learn how to be a show horse, all under the umbrella of the innovative Benchmark Program.

Compared to its European counterparts, the U.S. is still woefully behind in the development of young show jumpers. In Europe, young horses are able to easily gain the miles they need with accessibility to affordable, high quality day shows nearly every weekend.

But in the U.S., the quality of day shows (aka schooling shows) is sub par, and to take a young horse to a rated show for experience means committing to at least a thousand dollars in fees. It leaves trainers with sky-high costs, and little motivation for owners on a budget to commit to investing in a young horse. However, thanks to a small group in Southern California, that problem became the catalyst for the Benchmark Program.

With ProEquest Pro Lisa Westin, whose Thunderstruck Farm is based at El Sueno, famed clinician and course designer Linda Allen designed a series of rallies based on the European model: pay a yearly membership and entry fees in the $20 range. Travel to a new venue, jump a legitimate course at your horse’s level, and build a results record.

Allen frequently clinics at Thunderstruck Farm, and late night dinner table discussions during clinic weekends evolved from bemoaning the fact that horse showing has become an extreme finance sport, to coming up with the answer.

“It’s slowly catching on,” says Westin. “It’s a lot more feasible when you can haul in with a trailer full of horses, jump around in a competition environment and go home with enough money left over to do it every weekend.”

Westin emphasizes that the Benchmark rallies aren’t shows, but rather a chance to gain experience in a show environment. Riding multiple rounds at the same height is allowed and welcomed, as is schooling your horse at a new height. The Benchmark program’s website tracks first round results online, giving participants a –yes- benchmark with which to build their horse’s resume.

The day’s classes start at the highest level, 1.30m, and work their way down to 0.75m. That way, a horse tested at a new height can also enter a lower class to reinforce its confidence and re-school over the same course. A results record and the opportunity to video over a full show course are valuable takeaways for owners developing young sales horses.

“We’re trying to give people opportunities to get out there and get experience, and not spend their kids’ college tuition to do it,” adds Westin. “The hot topic now is on horse shows in general and who they cater too. Twenty years ago we had schooling shows with good smaller options. Now you have the 0.75 and walk trot at the big shows and that’s great, but you shouldn’t have to pay show fees to trot four times around the arena.”

For their part, some shows are making the effort to offer affordable options to trainers with young horses. This year at the Bleheim EquiSport's June Classic series in San Juan Capistrano CA, the 5 and 6 year old classes were offered at no charge with a discount on stabling fees.

“That was great. Shows need to do more things like that to get these young horses out there and showing,” says Westin.

2012 marks The Benchmark Program’s second year, and with three more Benchmark Rallies scheduled this year, Westin sees the program attracting more participants and high quality young horses.

With Allen’s direction, she hopes that the Benchmark Program will catch on in more locations throughout the country.

“We want it to franchise out,” Westin enthuses. “We want people to get interested throughout the country and say ‘hey, I want to do that too!’ All that we require is that the facility meets the expectations of what it should have as far as footing and safety.”

Will we still be comparing ourselves to Europe in the years to come? Probably. But with the growth of the Benchmark Program, we are slowly closing the gap.

Are you in the Southern California area? Attend the next Benchmark rally, on July 8th at El Sueno Equestrian Center in Somis. Visit the Benchmark website for more information, and follow the rallies on Facebook.