Hunter Seat Judges Tony Sgarlata and Robin Rost Brown Weigh In on the 2023 IHSA Nationals

IHSA - 2023 Nationals - Judges - Credit Danielle Dunn
Hunter seat judges Robin Rost Brown and Tony Sgarlata. Photo by Danielle Dunn

The riders at the 2023 IHSA National Championship Horse Show were fortunate to have two of the top judges in the country to officiate. Robin Rost Brown (Ocala, Florida) stepped in at the last minute when Linda Andrisani had to cancel. No stranger to the IHSA, Rost Brown's son, James Fairclough II, won the Cacchione Cup in 2008. Tony Sgarlata (Raleigh, North Carolina) is a venerable USEF R judge who haS officiated all aspects of the hunter and equitation rings, including the International Hunter Futurity, numerous World Champion Hunter Rider events and UHSJA hunter derbies.

What was your overall impression of the 2023 IHSA National Championship? 

 Rost Brown: I was so impressed with the event, the presentation, the organization – it's spectacular. It really runs like clockwork. I love to see all the teams rise to the occasion. All the horses were so well prepared. That was really impressive. I think the level of riding has really accelerated. I came from New Jersey, so we were always at Centenary and such. There was always a great selection of horses, but everyone else seems to have risen to the occasion, so it's impressive.

Tony, you judged the IHSA Nationals in 2018. What did you think of this year? 

Sgarlata: I think the riders have been incredible. There are very good riders in these programs. The thoughtfulness behind which horses participate in which sections is amazing to me. I think the team that puts that together does an incredible job. You know, the horses are very appropriate for each section. I think for the last few years, I've only seen nice horses at IHSA. And, of course, the awards and the team spirit are a bonus to the whole thing. 

Rost Brown: I was really impressed (with the horses). I thought all the kids had a fair shot. 

So let's talk briefly about how the High-Point Rider, presenting the Cacchione Cup, played out. 

Rost Brown: Well, it was really exciting that after the flat work, all the kids that remained on top had had really good rounds over fences as well. That was really impressive that they carried over and stayed strong throughout the event. Then today, they just rose to the occasion. I think the most difficult element was the turn on the haunches for a lot of them. 

Sgarlata: That was a tiebreaker with a couple of them that we had very close. The horses would get stuck just a bit on the turn on the haunches—a little miscommunication for just a fraction of a second. But certainly, these kids have beautiful positions, good eyes and very good instincts—a lot of them. We have been very impressed with not only those qualities but the fact that they get on these new horses and they're patient. And interestingly enough, and Robin and I have talked about this, the girl that won the Cacchione Cup is the only one that circled when she came into the ring. As judges, we're OK with that. Be patient. Take your time. I don't know the horse, but the horse responded well and it gave her a moment to be on that horse. It was just an interesting observation from us as judges.

Rost Brown: And specifically, we didn't ask them to go directly to the first jump. Those horses just come from standing out there (in the ingate), so we want them to be horsemen and do what's best for the horse. 

The winner, Elizabeth Nevins from Boston University, also mentioned her circle in her interview. She likes to use the time she has in the ring. Her coach Phyllis Cervelli told her to use the time and use the whole ring. 

Rost Brown: Yes. 

Sgarlata: I think that's always good advice. You want to take your time with strange horses. We weren't looking for trick riding. They didn't always have to do the harder inside turn. Sometimes just simply being smooth and having style was enough to win a class. 

Anything else you'd like to say about your experience judging nationals? 

Rost Brown: We're thrilled to do it. We hope to do it again. 

Sgarlata: We're big fans of the HSA and the program and, of course, big fans of Bob Cacchione and everything he's done. It's a great organization.