Putting Riders on TrackJuly 17, 2020
By emphasizing horsemanship and a defined standard, the Athletic Equestrian League helps equitation riders understand the judging process
By Christina Keim
Longtime collegiate coach Sally Batton founded the Athletic Equestrian League (AEL) a decade ago with one main goal: to establish a format of equitation competition that was based on objective criteria. Initially founded with high school aged riders in mind, today the organization offers competitive opportunities to English and western riders from first grade to adult, emphasizing education, accessibility, and practical horsemanship skills. But it does so with a twist; all riders receive an explanation for the scores they receive.
“We all know that equitation judging is subjective, because even though there is a standard, judges have their individual preferences,” explains Batton, who retired in 2019 from her position as the equestrian coach at Dartmouth College after a 35 year career. “The need I saw was for a method of competition that is more objective, where riders are compared to a standard only, not to each other.”
The AEL combines elements from the traditional equitation world, interscholastic/intercollegiate style showing and dressage competition to create a fusion that exemplifies some of the best aspects of each. In a typical equitation class, the judge must rank the performance of each rider. While major mistakes are easy to score, riders giving similar performances can be hard to separate. Judges must consider subtle variables to create their ranking; sometimes, the winner makes mistakes but is still the strongest of a weak group. But more often, riders can finish out of the pinning even with a strong round. In traditional equitation classes, the results don’t always reflect the quality of the rider’s performance.
“This can leave riders, parents, and coaches confused about what went wrong, when in reality, many things could be going right,” says Batton.
In AEL competition, riders are assessed against a detailed list of criteria, and each rider receives written feedback from the judge herself. Riders are sorted into one of five levels based upon their previous riding and showing experience, and they compete on horses loaned by the show host. An English rider’s score is determined by her performance on the flat (40%), over fences (40%), and in an unmounted horsemanship practicum (20%).
In the flat phase, riders are asked to demonstrate level-appropriate skills in a group, such as halts, two-point position, sitting trot, or the hand gallop, receiving a score for each movement; there are also mandatory point penalties for wrong diagonals or leads. Jump courses are condensed and ride more like an equitation test pattern than a traditional course. For example, riders might jump a line, change directions, halt, then jump the next fence from the hand gallop. Judges score each element separately and provide comments on the rider’s overall performance. Riders get to take home their score sheets and share judge comments with their coaches.
“Coaches and riders have the opportunity to see what they need to work on,” says Batton. “In AEL, you are really riding against yourself, and trying to get a better score each week.”
In creating the AEL show format, Batton also listened to parents, who were often frustrated by both the costs and long days associated with traditional showing. AEL riders compete in athletic attire, usually team wear like a polo or sunshirt, and riding pants, half chaps or boots, eliminating the expense of traditional show clothes. ASTM/SEI approved helmets are mandatory for riders of all ages. Because of the “catch ride” format, competitors do not need to bring a horse. Entry fees are usually between $60 and $75 for all three phases.
An AEL competitor performs all three of her phases back to back. Riders first complete their flat phase as a group, leave the arena mounted, and then immediately return individually to perform over fences. When the riding is done, competitors proceed to their unmounted practicum, a phase Batton believes to be of critical importance to the organization.
“Equine professionals and coaches kept telling me that they wanted more of a focus on horsemanship in showing,” says Batton. “I included the unmounted practicum, which is based on the Certified Horsemanship Association manual.”
The AEL format has proved popular with riders over a wide range of age and experience levels. Riders in first through third grade compete as individuals in the Minis Development Division, while the scores of riders in grades fourth through twelfth will earn them individual placings and may also count toward their team’s total score. The top scoring rider from each team in each of the five AEL levels counts toward the team total. Teams may be made of riders attending the same school or those based at the same barn. Adults in the AEL compete in their own division as individuals.
The AEL hosted its first shows in 2010 in New Hampshire, and interest quickly spread throughout the Northeast. Today, the majority of teams are still based in New England and New York, but there are also squads in Virginia, California and Ohio. In 2019, the organization launched AEL western, and in the fall, hosted their first international AEL Collegiate Invitational, at which 80 competitors from top college equestrian teams in the U.K. and U.S. kicked off their seasons. Moving forward, Batton hopes to further expand participation in AEL Collegiate competition.
The AEL season runs from June 1 through mid-May each year, giving all programs the flexibility to host practices and shows on a schedule that works best regionally. Though the 2020 AEL Nationals, scheduled for May, have been postponed indefinitely due to the pandemic, members are already working toward their goals for the new season. Because the AEL is still growing, athletes only need to compete in three competitions to qualify for the National Championships.
To learn more about how to participate or even start a team of your own, visit the Athletic Equestrian League website at athleticequestrian.com.