Of all the equitation finals of the year, perhaps none are as challenging as Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals. Over a period of two days, the competition’s four phases test a variety of skills and culminate with a final, high-stakes ride-off among the top four contestants. For 19-year-old TJ O’Mara, watching his sister Meg compete in that ride-off (she took second place in 2012) was the moment he knew he wanted a piece of the action himself.

“My first year [competing] was 2012, and that was the year my sister [ Meg ] did it also. When I saw her get second, that’s what really propelled me to try to win the class,” TJ jokes.

Last month, the first Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – West (September 21-23) took place at Rancho Mission Viejo Riding in San Juan Capistrano, California, crowning Halie Robinson of Santa Barbara, California as its champion. Previous class winner Andre Dignelli (1985) judged and designed the course alongside previous class runner-up, Patricia Griffith.

This weekend, another previous Talent Search Finals winner (1990) and the world’s #2 ranked rider, McLain Ward, will judge the class’s East Coast competition alongside Jimmy Torano at the USET Foundation headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey. The stated goal of the Final is to prepare the country’s top Junior and Young Riders for the intensity of international show jumping competiton, and its results speak for themselves.

Aside from two-time Olympic medalist Ward, other winners of USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals include American-born German Olympic medalist Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, Olympian Lauren Hough, and former U.S. Grand Prix Rider of the Year, Richard Spooner.

For O’Mara, who rode to victory last year in Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East, that’s just the point. “I love how jumper-orientated this final is. Most of the past winners of this class have gone on to compete in international grands prix, which is where I’d like to be one day, and I had a little bit of a taste of it this past year. But definitely, winning this class was on my bucket list,” he says. “It did take five years [laughs], but it finally paid off!”

In Phase I, riders are judged on the flat and asked to demonstrate knowledge of the elementary principles of dressage training, including collection, extension, shoulder- and haunches-in, and counter-canter. Those skills are put to work in Phase II, when the riders take on an intensive gymnastic course, complete with short turns and required adjustments in stride length and canter rhythm. Phase III includes a show jumping course over grand prix-style fences, some of which include challenging elements such as a grop, ditch, bank, and open water. Phase IV, the final round, is whittled down to the top four riders in the competition. Each jumps a test on their own mount, and then on each of the other mounts in the class. For O’Mara, that is the 2016 moment that stands out most in his mind.

“The previous year [in 2015], I was in the final four, but I got my nerves worked up, and I sort of was just galloping around on every horse,” he says. “I wasn’t really trying to make it look good at all. Going into last year’s final four, I just had to tell myself to relax, and to have confidence in myself and the team behind me, and to trust my eye and my feel and to make the best out of it.”

Having moved up to the CSI2* level himself earlier this year at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida, O’Mara says that his background in equitation has been essential to preparing him to move up through the ranks—and Talent Search Finals in particular.

“All the equitation classes are sort of based on how good it looks and the fluidity of [your ride]. But this final really prepares you for the time allowed and riding on the right jumper pace, how to ride the open water properly…so there’s a lot of elements that go into international grands prix that are incorporated. Things like the gymnastics phase, which gets a horse jumping well, and then the flat phase, which gets you that rideability.”

O’Mara, who is in Gladstone himself this weekend to help prepare his 2016 winning mount, Kaskade, for this year’s competition, says USET Foundation headquarters is one of his favorite venues. “It was nice to get back in the ring [here] and the facility is amazing—it’s so historic—so it’s great to be here,” he says.

“Having this be the first final that I won really makes it special to me, and I just love the atmosphere.”

As to what advice O’Mara would give to this year’s field of competitors, TJ cautions that in order to be successful, it’s important to keep the class’s unique format and scoring system in mind. “My advice would be to them that it doesn’t really matter if you’re winning after the first day, because the last day is what counts the most. The scores get multiplied higher and higher each phase,” he explains. “The scores go back to zero for the final four, so really, anyone in that top four can win. You don’t necessarily have to be the leader of the class to win this final.”

“I would [also tell them to] just take it step by step, and have faith and confidence in your ride.”

 Get a behind-the-scenes look at the competition all day today (Saturday, October 7) when TJ O’Mara takes over the USEF Network Instagram. All four phases of the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals – East, beginning Saturday, October 7, at 8:00 a.m. EST, will be featured on the USEF Network. Non-members can sign up for a free Fan Membership to watch the competition with the promo code: TSEast17. 

You can learn more about the Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals here