A Stable Story: El Champeon Farm

By Jackie Freundlich McFarland

Söhnke ‘The Happy German’ Theymann
This is a tale of a faraway place where a young German has happily landed and is now spreading his wings. Many of us know the name El Campeon Farms, but may yet not know Soehnke Theymann.

El Campeon is certainly the home of champions. The multi-faceted farm continues to host clinics, film sets and commercial shoots, and without question is one of the finest equestrian facilities in California, if not beyond.

And now back to Soehnke (which is the English translation for Söhnke). Certainly destined for greatness, he is named after a famous German Olympic Medalist and Chef D’Equipe, Sönke Sönksen. He comes from a family with a strong equine background – his parents own a breeding farm in Dortmund, are both Grand Prix level riders and his sister has ridden on the German Dressage Team.

I was introduced to Soehnke a few seasons ago and although also from German descent (Freundlich means friendly), admittedly I had a hard time remembering this very German name. So to break the ice, I asked him how to say it and if there was another name he went by. Zunkah is how one might translate it phonetically, but to those who have gotten to know him in the show ring call him ‘the happy German’ as coined by our very own Janet Fall. And he explained that others, like Sophie and Ty Simpson, simply call him Tim.

EqSol: So you’ve been around horses all your life. What age did you start riding? Competing?
ST: Growing up on a 150-acre horse farm, there were always horses around. I was five when I started riding and was showing by age six or seven on ponies in both dressage and jumpers. I competed up to Level 5 in dressage, and rode in my first Grand Prix when I was 16. When I wasn’t competing as a junior any longer, I started to focus more on the young horses, getting our offspring ready to compete and sell.

EqSol: Did you always want to ride, teach and train?
ST: I went to school for Farm Management but then I got an unbelievable opportunity to work with Eva Gonda at El Campeon and really enjoyed it. I always had a few customer horses on the side, but now I am getting more involved in teaching. I really love the whole process of developing a horse and rider from the ground up, and customizing a training program that fits them.

EqSol: What do you see as the similarities and differences between American and German riding styles?
ST: The German style is based on dressage. Straight from the books – the classic system. The whole idea is to raise horses to jump well from a dressage background. I am also very focused on the horse’s fitness; making sure that when they start the show season they are 110% fit for the job that we are asking of them.

The American system is based in the forward seat. Riders evolve faster here – there are a lot of great trainers heavily involved in the process of the rider’s education. The process teaches riders to be very competitive in the show ring. I observed this when I came to work in West Palm Beach directly after high school. I was impressed with the style and could see that there are different ways than those I had learned to achieve top results.

EqSol: How does your German background shape your adaptation to the American system?
ST: We, the horses and the riders, strive for goals for the year and work towards that in our program – at home and at the show. We get an education every day – a lesson, flat ride or in the show ring. It’s a system we plan – it can change of course – but always looking towards the goal.

For example if we want to be competitive in the big class on Saturday, we may decide to ride the class on Wednesday slower to develop confidence for the horse. So we prepare in the previous classes to achieve the goal for that week.

EqSol: What do you see as the similarities and differences between your experience with California and German horse shows?
ST: At a number of the European shows, you trailer in, ride in four or five classes and leave that same day. I love how here you can spend the week and really gear up to your goal for that week. And there are great venues here in California – who wouldn’t love showing here?

EqSol: Going on your third year at El Campeon, what are your goals for 2010?
ST: To be as competitive as I can on El Campeon’s All Star. I brought him along from a 6 year old to the Grand Prix and at the end of last season I earned my first World Cup points on him. We will continue competing in the World Cup Qualifiers.

And to develop a nice string of competitive horses and clients at all levels. Becoming better horsemen, jumping solid rounds and achieving our goals. Of course it’s serious sport but we also have a good time.

EqSol: El Campeon is a fabulous facility – how do you take advantage of preparing for the show ring there?
ST: It’s unbelievable, the most amazing facility I’ve ever been to. From European walkers, the grass Grand Prix field, the all weather sand arena, indoor, you can’t prepare better than here – and I’ve been to good facilities. I am so very thankful to be here, you can really bring horses along here without over-showing them.

Even with the major storms that we had last week, we didn’t miss a day of training and fitness. We rode in the indoor during the downpour, but the outdoor arena was ready for riding within 12 hours after the last rain.

EqSol: So on to important things…what is your favorite American food?
ST: There are too many! Let me think… In & Out Burger – I must admit that I love that place. Also the Mexican influence, there are no Mexican restaurants in Germany. I do sometimes miss my mom’s German cooking.

EqSol: And how do you like the SoCal lifestyle?
ST: I love it. It’s laid back. People say that I don’t seem like a German because I am so laid back – so I fit right in! I think that’s why Janet called me ‘the happy German’ my first season in Thermal and it stuck. Of course I am so thankful to have this amazing opportunity – to live and work in southern California, at a facility that is second to none and with a great team of people.

Danke schön Söhnke! We always enjoy getting to know the people behind the names. Best of luck achieving your goals and continuing to live the dream at El Campeon!

Weekends Well Spent

By Jackie Freundlich McFarland

Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum Clinic
Each year as the holidays approach, competition is on the back burner and clinics abound. We cover two in this newsletter, but we know there were also well-attended George Morris clinics up and down the west coast. For those who wrapped up the year learning from some of the world’s best, we commend you.

As mentioned in this issue’s A Stable Story, El Campeon Farms is an ideal setting for equines and equestrians, which holds true for the Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum clinic hosted by Oak Grove Stud on November 20-22, 2009. Combine fabulous southern California weather, great footing, focused riders, devoted auditors, delicious food with Michaels-Beerbaum and the results are remarkable.

We spoke with several riders who participated at varying heights and observed Sunday’s session. Riding at the 1.20m level, Michael Whang excelled tremendously. Encouraged by his trainer Duncan McIntosh, this was Whang’s first clinic. Kenneth Vinther decided he and his young horse Cagney, who participated in the 1.30m level, couldn’t miss the chance to learn from one of the best riders in the world. Recent winner of the USHJA’s EAP National Training Session and top junior rider Ricky Neal also discussed the challenges he faced during the clinic that ultimately taught him more than the aspects that went smoothly.

Day 1: Friday Focuses on Flatwork
Michael Whang explains, “The theory of forward, back and sideways to explain the specifics of flatwork helped me feel how the horse reacts to the aids, how to become one with the horse.”

“She worked a lot on simplifying the flat work, so whether moving up or collecting, the horse reacts readily from the leg,” commented Kenneth Vinther.

Day 2: Saturday Solidifies Style
Riders maneuvered several gymnastic exercises from a single trot fence to trot in-canter out combinations to four oxers each with one stride in between. Vinther loves how these exercises teach the rider balance and rhythm, and the horse to think and learn from mistakes without the rider’s interference. With Meredith on the ground, it was a tremendous learning experience.

Day 3: Sunday Seals the Deal
The format on Sunday was a culmination of flatwork on Friday and gymnastics work on Saturday, where both horse and rider learned about preparing for what was to come on this final day. Everyone warmed up solo on the flat. Meredith set one jump in the arena for warm-up and instructed each rider to tell her how they wanted to warm up the horse, from type of jump to height to what approach and when they were ready to go. Sometimes the rider was asked about their choices, other times they were advised to alter their warm-up.

With Cagney, Vinther decided to use trot poles in front of the warm-up jump to achieve a lighter more balanced horse without pulling. Since the young jumper can get heavy, when a strong rebalancing was needed, it was encouraged as long as there was a softening. The results were nothing short of amazing; the horse is bursting with talent. He jumped around the 1.30m course beautifully. Vinther admits that he has the perfect training situation at home. His wife Karen is a dressage trainer, so when he is on the road for CWD the horse is well schooled on the flat.

During the three day event, Vinther learned by both on and off the horse and took home some valuable reminders. “I learned from riding in the clinic, but also from watching the other riders while listening. I was reminded to ‘listen’ to my horse, to not just go through the paces. I have been lazy about correcting his ‘playing around’, but Meredith reminded me to stay focused and be disciplined.”

Whang was pleased with the connection he established with his horse on the flat on the final day. “My warm up on Sunday directly correlated to what I learned on Friday. My horse reacted to it well, he was calm and in my hands, accepting every aid, including my seat.” However the butterflies in his stomach were fluttering at full force when he went to perform in front of his peers and clinician in the arena. The 1.20-1.25m course was higher than he had ever ridden on this horse. After a relatively smooth warm-up his ride began and his nerves were replaced with a keen sense of focus. After he finished a flawless round, Meredith simply said, “There is not much to say about that ride. Excellent. Good riding, good training.”

California-born, now German citizen, Michaels-Beerbaum is a solid example of focus, determination and keen competitiveness. She’s proven her methods are successful through her success aboard numerous mounts, most notably the super-talented Shutterfly. For those who participated and those who watched, it was not only a weekend well spent, but potentially the chance of a lifetime.


Conversations with Course Designers: Jack Robson

By Jackie McFarland

Jack Robson

I was thrilled to have another fascinating conversation with yet another person who plays a significant role in our horse show world, actually one of this week’s World Cup Officials, President of the Jury Jack Robson. Robson has spent more than a quarter century working as a course designer, technical delegate and jumper judge.

EqSol: What is your horse history?
JR: Actually I don’t come from a horsey family. I’m a northeasterner – born in Massachusetts and have lived in both Connecticut and upstate New York. I’ve been in California for about 18 years.

My first career was as a machinist, making microchips before they were in vogue. One day a friend of mine who worked for Barney Ward in Brewster, NY in the early seventies called me when he needed a hand. So I said sure. Turned out I liked it a lot and stayed for seven years. You could say it was a turning point in my life.

A Fort Reilly Calvary School graduate at Barney’s taught me how to ride. I jumped up to 1.40m. When I realized I couldn’t afford to have horses, I chose to stay involved by working on the jump crew. My career progressed from there.

EqSol: How did your career as a horse show official progress?
JR: Frank Chapot helped me get my judge’s card. I was at the Saratoga Horse Show and Frank asked me if I was interested in getting my card. I said, ‘Yes sir.’ So he threw me a clipboard and a watch, said ‘You’re working on it’ and walked away.

Frank was my mentor in both judging and course design and I can’t thank him enough. He opened many doors for me.

EqSol: And as a course designer?
JR: I assisted and worked with Frank, Bert de Nemethy, Pamela Carruthers, Robert Jolicoeur… all those guys. I was both a jumper judge and course designer by the early eighties. I was one of the first course designers listed when the AHSA chose to include them in the roster. Then I got my FEI-C (candidate judge) and had that for about 12 years. Now I have an FEI-I (International) card as both judge and course designer.

I love course designing. When you ask fair questions and get good answers it’s a great feeling. I get to see all types of courses as a judge, learning each time. As a judge I get to watch the best jumpers at all levels – it’s the best of both worlds really. Then I can practice what I’ve learned when I design. I get a chance to design about ten times a year. And I judge about 30 weeks a year.

EqSol: Some of your favorite horse show memories?
JR: [smiling] When Pamela C and I got jumped in Cleveland. She was designing and we were sitting on the wishing well discussing the next class. She looked over her shoulder and said nonchalantly in that British accent ‘Be very still’ as the horse proceeded to jump over us.

In the early eighties Mason Phelps modeled The Newport Jumping Derby in Rhode Island after Hickstead. It was a big field. I remember Anthony D’Ambrosio’s horse leapt straight down the steep hill (instead of walking down) – it was maybe sixteen feet down. He landed flat on his stomach, got up and in two strides jumped the vertical. Rodney Jenkins got hung up on the Irish Bank. Buddy Brown wore a helmet cam with a Super 8 attached; he almost broke his neck.

The Tijuana Jockey Club hosted a horse show. That was fun.There was a zoo on the infield of the track. The show was on the grass field right beside the zoo. You waited for your class next to the lions and elephants.

EqSol: And your future plans?
 Possibly the WEG. That would certainly be an honor. I will continue to work with Blenheim EquiSports and the Langer Equestrian Group in California and Colorado. HITS Arizona, HITS Ocala and Spruce Meadows might on the roster next year. In any case I’ll keep trying, improving my game. The sport evolves and you have to keep up with it.

Thank you Jack and thank you Emma (Jack’s Jack) for playing ball with Chloe.

Extracurricular Activities

By Jackie McFarland

iViva Mexico!

After exhibiting in southern California for the summer season, we wish the Mexican riders well on returning to their beautiful country. Certainly not going home empty-handed, this group of equestrians earned countless ribbons and quite a bit of prize money during their six-week stay, including wins and top ribbons in the last five grand prix events. Details are in this week’s highlights and in previous newsletters.

Two of these top show jumpers, Olympians Enrique Gonzales and Antonio Chedraui, also wear show manager hats down in Mexico with their respective companies Equsport and Coapexpan. Wanting to find a way to promote their shows, Enrique and Equsport partner Federico Fernandez approached Monica Ward, well-known not only for her position with Allon Fine Equestrian Clothing and J2 Rolling Meadows but also for her social skills, about hosting a small gathering in Del Mar. Once Monica embraced the idea, it was full steam ahead.

Monica took this opportunity to organize a few great sponsors and convince them that it was time to thank their patrons. This get-together now rapidly expanding into a larger gathering with big party potential, would not only help promote the shows in Mexico that many international riders know and love, but also give a few select sponsors a chance to say thank you, with no strings attached. Just come and have fun. And in today’s economy that is a welcome invitation.

So fast-forward to last Sunday night. Allon Fine Equestrian Clothing along with CWD Sellier, EquiFit, inc, and ShowBiz Magazine came together brilliantly to honor the Equsport and Copexpan horse shows and hosted the best party of the season, if not the year. The West Coast equestrian set needed a great soiree and this group of sponsors endured a last minute venue change and still delivered. There were goody bags that included awesome sweatshirts produced by Allon, great information on the 2010 Mexican Circuit, a cool EquiFit, inc. catalog, CWD swag and a ShowBiz magazine. Plus tasty Middle Eastern morsels, a belly dancer who entertained while wearing a lit candelabra on her head, a fabulous DJ that rocked the house, especially after 10pm, and of course great company. What does that equal? A smashing success.

Thank you Equsport and Copexpan, Allon Fine Equestrian Clothing, CWD Sellier, EquiFit, inc. and ShowBiz magazine for generously hosting this memorable event. 

Laura Listens

By Laura Ware

About a month ago, I wrote a really sad story about the death of my favorite horse of all time – Tustin. Fortunately, not all is lost, and though I have had to gain some patience and take a step down from the height at which I was previously competing, my parents were gracious enough to purchase me another jumper.

In the middle of April, my mother (who is also my trainer) and I traveled to Europe to find a promising young jumper prospect that, ideally, will eventually enable me to compete at the Grand Prix level. The trip was exhausting, fun, emotional, and a great mother-daughter bonding experience. Plus, I learned how to read a map really well – nothing like trying to find a hotel in a foreign country in the pitch dark to encourage the development of this skill! After what seemed like sitting on a zillion horses and driving every back road in Holland and Belgium, we were able to narrow our list down to three promising prospects – a five year old French gelding (Westin), a five year old German mare, and a seven year old Dutch mare. A multitude of traits caused us to choose Westin as our first pick. Even though he was a little younger than I had hoped for, he was ride-able, intelligent, and sweet…just like Tustin.

So with a clean vet check and one more test ride by the dealer (we had only tried him indoors, and wanted to make sure someone we trusted saw him jump around outdoors), we bought him. The two weeks between the time we arrived home from Europe and the time we wired the money seemed like an eternity, and he finally arrived in California during the first week of May. The day that my mom picked him up from the airport happened also to be my prom night, so I saw him for maybe five minutes before having to run off. Half of the people at our barn had already picked out his name before I even got to sit on him! Once he was mine, I absolutely fell in love with him. The first time I rode him at home, he acted wise beyond his years – didn’t spook at a single thing in our arena, essentially he behaved like a perfect gentleman. And he was super fun to ride!

After a few weeks of training him up a little bit at home, we took him to his first southern California show. We only did two Low Children’s Jumper classes and one Children’s Jumper class, but he jumped around the East Grass Field at the Oaks like he had been doing this forever. He’s such a game little horse. He’ll try anything I ask of him, even if I make a few mistakes. After a successful go at that height, we decided to start showing him in the Five Year Old Jumpers. What a great experience for me! Even though I’m not getting to jump as big as I had been with Tustin, being able to gallop around the Grand Prix field in my white breeches doing the Five Year Old Classics is every bit as thrilling as it was in the High Junior Jumper Classics. Warming up with and competing against Grand Prix riders on their young prospects makes me feel special, because, like them, I feel I’m now a good enough rider to train my own young horse. The “optimum time” classes are challenging – you really have to pay attention to the strides and turns the early horses in the class take, even more so than you would in a regular speed or Sec. 2B round. Learning to ride this type of class adds a new variable to my development as a rider and riding a smart, green horse like Westin is especially rewarding. I feel like every time I get on him he is more ride-able than he was before.

Now, I love Westin dearly and truly enjoy riding him, but I really wish he wasn’t mine. I wish I hadn’t made the trip to Europe last April to buy a horse, because that was a direct result of Tustin’s death. I wish I still had Tustin, who had already undergone the long and sometimes frustrating process of becoming a trained horse. Admittedly, if I had the option, I would prefer to be competing with my friends in the High Junior Jumper classes and chasing Prix Des States money rather than training a young horse during my last junior year. Every time Westin does something that isn’t absolutely perfect (lucky for me, this is rare), I end up comparing him to Tustin, and then I grumble “Well, Tustin never would have had that rail,” or, “I wouldn’t have made that mistake on Tustin,” which is unfortunate, because Westin doesn’t deserve this. He’s a fabulous horse.

A few weeks ago, after a Five Year Old class that didn’t go as well as I had hoped, I came out of the ring complaining to my mother about how Westin just didn’t match up to Tustin. One of my mom’s clients overheard this, looked right at me, and set me straight. “Laura, listen to yourself whining and moaning. I can remember hearing the same complaints two years ago about Parker (my hunter.) ‘Oh Parker won’t do this’ and ‘Oh Parker can’t do that’. Well look at him now, Laura, winning classes right and left. Westin will turn out just fine.” I am still a kid, often immature and impatient, but even I am old enough to know that her assessment is absolutely right.

After all, when I have my silly, little-girl dreams about becoming a Grand Prix rider, it is no longer Tustin who I am riding in these dreams. It is Westin.

Photo: Laura Ware and Westin © Cathrin Cammett