Earning A Degree in the Liberal Arts* of Horsemanship
By Erna Adelson & Jackie McFarland
*“The term ‘liberal arts’ is a… curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing intellectual capacities…”
Preceding 2009’s Horsemastership Clinic last month, George Morris addressed the eight attendees. Practical Horseman’s Sandy Oliynyk was lucky enough to report directly from the sidelines. According to Oliynyk, Morris was clear about his mission. “We have a problem today and that’s called horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show, horse show. That’s competition,” he said. “That’s competitive education. That isn’t basic education. That isn’t necessarily horsemanship or horsemaster education.” To Morris, it is clear that true horsemanship is not merely a trade, or a means to an end, but a true liberal arts education that encompasses much more than the ability to perform in the show ring. “Knowledge is power,” he continued. “I’ve always loved education. And still by my bedside, I always have a horse book. Don’t ever underestimate education.”
Although now a freshman at Princeton in New Jersey, we spoke with the west coast equestrian at the clinic, Sophie Benjamin, who is known for taking her equestrian education seriously. A working student for a good portion of her junior career and the winner of the 2008 USEF Talent Search East, Sophie claims that if she had to give up the competitive aspect of the sport to sustain a future with horses, she would. “For me personally I wouldn’t want to do this if it wasn’t about mastering all the horsemanship. At one point when I thought I might not be showing – I realized I still always wanted to be involved with horses.”
Sophie began preparing for the clinic long before she got to Wellington. She had to overcome the December rain in Southern California that put the rings on her home turf under water. “I compensated by going to the gym as much as possible, doing strength and cardio exercises similar to riding. I reviewed some of my favorite books, including Practical Horseman’s Book of Riding, Training, and Showing Hunters and Jumpers. I rode as much as I could without stirrups once I got back to Florida – only four days before the clinic. So even though I panicked a little bit, I was prepared.”
Sophie’s experience as a working student also prepared her for the tight schedule during the five-day clinic. Since the chef d’equipe himself would be abroad, he did not host the clinic as in years past. Instead each day featured a different top-caliber riding clinician as well as demonstrations from veterinary, barn management, and other equine related perspectives. She and the other riders also had the advantage of a small, close-knit support group. “We all pushed each other to do our best, and we really had a lot of fun together,” Sophie recalled. “We shared grooming stalls, everyone helped each other before and after. There was no complaining and no hand-holding.” Just lessons, a lot of lessons.
Orientation: Beginning Each Day with the Walk
The first clinician was Dressage Olympian Robert Dover. Dover gave a lecture prior to the outing, planning a vision for the day. Dover emphasized that as a rider you should be conscious of what you teach the horse on every ride. He also set the tone for the bigger picture when he affirmed that as a rider, “You feel all opportunities inside the walk.”
According to Sophie, this was one of the most difficult days of the program because it required the riders to completely re-evaluate their position at the most fundamental level. Each student spent nearly an hour with Dover working on a 20-meter circle. “It took a really long time to loosen up since we’re so set in our equitation positions,” Sophie explained. She remembered that one of the most helpful techniques for improvement of a stiff position was taking a deep breath and focus on using your core (stomach muscles).
She analyzed Dover’s advice about what some consider a casual aspect of the ride: “Not only should you be giving aids even at the walk so that you could step into another gait within a stride, but as a rider you should be thinking about your goals and progress even at the most basic gait. Everything stems from that foundation.”
Course Work: A Day in the Ways of Our Nation’s Best
Once the foundation was established, the eight young riders were challenged and inspired by show jumping greats and Olympians Anne Kursinski, Laura Kraut, Beezie Madden and McLain Ward. On the first day, Kursinski began the teams on the flat and then graduated to gymnastics in pursuit of the automatic release. “My favorite day,” said Sophie. “I’ve been trying to get the automatic release down for years. Anne talked about the whole body position, not just the arms, which really helped.” On the flat, Sophie also noticed that there were marked changes in her equitation after drills with the Olympian. “Anne had us turn our hands over on the reins – the last time I did that was when I was 9 years old riding ponies!” She said. “From this session I have more tools for working on my position at home.”
With Laura Kraut, the riders tested their mettle and their mounts’ rideabilities over a solid 1.30-1.35m course in a nations cup format. Even though some horses and riders were newly paired – Sophie had been riding her horse, Remonta Haron, a sale horse of Federico Sztyrle’s, for just a few days at the time. “It was intimidating at first, but the horse I rode really stepped up and we all agreed afterward that this day was the most fun,” Sophie recalled. “We walked the course, told Laura our plan and she offered critique but she really trusted us and was very positive. She left the major decisions up to us and stressed that course strategies should be individual to a team of horse and rider as well as what works best for the team.”
By day four, the students worked on feeling the ride with Beezie Madden – only it wasn’t just the horses they were molding, but their mental game. Sophie found that for her, “it was really hard to keep all your strides even, to hold the track and meanwhile be able to look in but stay out.” Beezie encouraged the riders to try different things, to think and strategize the ride. “I kept counting strides and not looking or riding the track, which I need to work on. It’s about feeling, planning, measuring strides – the art of separating mind and body, and in my case not overanalyzing. I remember realizing that this the real thing – this is how Beezie Madden prepares for the Olympics.”
On the final day, McLain Ward advocated an “American” style of riding and worked on how your body influences a horse’s jump. “McLain is a huge inspiration for what he’s accomplished at such a young age. He was different from the others,” said Sophie. In fact, “He wanted us to do crest releases after we had been working on automatic release all week!” But McLain made a strong case for his system. Sophie recalled, “He was very open, explaining ‘I am the son of a horse trader, I’m different than some of the others. But I have a system that works for me. These horses need you to communicate with them clearly and consistently. There are a hundred ways to train a horse – find your way and stick to it.’ ”
The Final: Applying the Intensive Sessions to Real Riding Life
As a nation and on the west coast, 2008 was a year of victories. This success stems from a solid program while on and off the horse. The clinic included barn management, animal behaviorists, farriers, nutritionists, veterinarians – all essential ingredients to success. As for her own progress and personal program, Sophie Benjamin is very much still a student. “I am gathering as much information as I can. I love to watch and learn, soaking up the knowledge so when I’m ready I am able develop my own program. All of our questions about mastership of the whole horse were answered, I can’t think of a week spent more productively.”
Finally, Sophie commented on the importance of this type of program to the bigger picture – the goal of creating a caliber of riders as true horsemasters and to continue the excellence of the sport. “Everything came together so well. I appreciate the USEF and USET support of young athletes and upcoming efforts by the USHJA. I hope to give back in the same way,” she said.
And as it should be, the student is inspired to continuously learn and aspire to become a master of the art. The art of true horsemanship.