Photo: The gold medal-winning reining team at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. From left: Tim McQuay, Tom McCutcheon, Craig Schmersal, Shawn Flarida, Chef d’Equipe Jeff Petska.
Interview by Colleen McQuay and C.W. Medinger
The U.S. Reining Team, led by Chef d’Equipe Jeff Petska, became the first in the history of world championships to win a gold medal in reining at the 2002 World Equestrian Games (WEG) in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. The team also won gold and silver in individual competition. Petska spoke with Equestrian Living magazine from on the road in Las Vegas.
When did you begin your life with horses?
At birth. I grew up on a ranch in Nebraska, and we always had a lot of horses around. So, I’ve had a passion for them ever since I can remember. I was fortunate enough that I always had access to them. I did some high school rodeo, and I think I trained my first horse for the public when I was probably 13. I didn’t get exposed to the actual horse-show world until I was about 20.
How did you become the Chef d’Equipe of the U.S. team?
I had moved to Texas to train rope horses and ride colts. While I was there, I started dabbling with reining and had a little success. Then, as the reining progressed, we had the opportunity to go to international competitions. Around 2001 when we started cranking up for the world games, Colleen McQuay put my name forward to be a possibility to become the chef.
2002 was the first time reining was in the World Equestrian Games, and the U.S. won the first gold medal. How did you put that team together?
At that time it was new to everybody. We had a finals at Gladstone, and that’s how we chose the team, purely on the competition aspect of it. As far as selection of the team, I didn’t have much involvement at that point, because it was all so new. Even up to the day we picked the team, we were still in a state of flux with who was going to be chef, and then the riders had a meeting, and they said that they decided they wanted me to do it, and they’ve been stuck with me ever since. So, we took our top-placing riders, and that year it was Shawn Flarida, Scott McCutcheon, Tom McCutcheon, Craig Schmersal, and Craig Johnson was our alternate.
How would you compare reining events in other countries to those in the U.S.?
Obviously, the logistics are more difficult when we take a team overseas. We’ve got a tremendous amount of things to cover, and we’ve got a phenomenal staff. That’s the great thing about doing what I do: the group I do it with.
I actually prefer to be overseas. When I can get the team a little more isolated, there aren’t as many distractions. They’re not as familiar with their surroundings, so they’re more apt to listen to me. We also go a little early, and it allows us a little bit of time to start to mesh together. My group goes from being individuals—which is how we compete in this sport— and becomes a team. They watch each other, they get a little more familiar with each other’s horses in schooling, and they talk to each other about what they’re doing and seeing. For me, that’s probably the most enjoyable part of it, just seeing them as they start to become the U.S. team.
Is there a team strategy, or is it left up to the individuals to determine their own plan?
Each individual. These riders are pros; they’ve been doing this a long time. They know the horses intimately, they know what it takes to get them ready. They work closely with United States Equestrian Team’s veterinarian, Dr. John Newcomb, who is phenomenal. He’s a huge, huge part of our team and very instrumental in our success. Our main thing is keeping the horses sound and happy and comfortable.
How will you select a team for WEG in Tryon?
We’ve already started the process. We’ve had qualifiers where our riders go across the country and show to meet their minimum requirements. Then in Tryon, we’ll have a kind of test event, but it will be our final. Once we get there, it’s a two go-around. There’s the first go-around and then a final, and those two combined scores will determine who will make the team.
What countries are your toughest competitors?
All of them, now! We won the first WEG by a country mile. It wasn’t even close. We’ve been fortunate to win gold at all of them so far, but every year it just gets tougher and tougher and tougher. There are countries out there that are really working hard at it; it’s a real focus for them. The Canadians have been in it from the beginning, so they’ve always been good competitors. As far as the Europeans, just start ticking them off. The Italians, they’re always a very talented bunch; they’re always a threat. Belgium, Austria, Germany, the Brazilians, they’re going to field a good team this year. So many of those riders have either worked in the U.S. or have come here and learned from our people, and so the level of competition is tough. What’s always been an advantage for us is that we’ve always had a bit bigger pool of riders and horses, and that allows us to pick a strong team. But those other countries are good. They’re not just good, they’re excellent. They’ve really come a long way
What will be the restrictions on the horses once the team has established?
Once they make the team, our riders and owners sign a lease agreement where that horse comes under the control of the USEF and myself as the chef. It isn’t like we take possession or micromanage what they do, but they sign an agreement stating that they understand that the horse is under our control and his purpose from then on, with everything that’s done with him, is to prepare him to give us the best opportunity to go to WEG and win the gold medal. A team gold medal—that is always our top priority.
What are some of the difficulties reining has experienced, and what would you tell people about the sport?
I think with any association, there are growing pains trying to keep it current and keep people involved. A lot of that—and for any judged sport—revolves around the judging. So, there’s always discussion and work to be done there. The thing with reining is that it’s just so competitive, and it takes such a good horse. I think it’s just horse recognition, getting that right horse for that right rider, and having enough good ones.
I’ve never had a rider who was on one of our teams and didn’t try to get back on another one. That tells you a lot about just how much that experience means to them. I have not had a rider yet, no matter how much they’ve won, that the first time that they go through the gate under the flag, they’re not a little bit nervous—or a lot nervous. I really try to remind my riders to enjoy the moment, to recognize where we are, to really relish it, and not get too wrapped up in just the competition part.
When things come together and we’re successful, and we have the opportunity to stand on the podium and see our flag raised and hear the national anthem, and know that I had a small part in it… there are not many people that ever get an opportunity like that, and it’s never wasted on me. I mean, I’m a country kid from the sand hills of Nebraska. Because of horses and the opportunities that they’ve allowed me, I’ve been able to do some amazing things and meet some amazing people.
Each United States Equestrian Team is led by a Chef d’Equipe who is a combination leader, coach, and manager. Meet them in this series of features created in collaboration with US Equestrian.