The History Of The Big Eq

By Erna L. Adelson

The Search for the Best is Back

As the qualification period for the USEF Talent Search gets underway, rankings reveal the top of the nation’s leading equitation contenders. Each day spent training, preparing and competing will culminate, for some, in a mark on the storied history of the sport. Equitation has certainly evolved over the years, from the days of Jackie Kennedy Onassis to last year’s Sophie Benjamin and Hannah Selleck, though competitors remain true to the heart of the sport—the bond between horse and rider. It is this special bond that defines the membership of the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF). Since 1917, the Federation has been dedicated to pursuing excellence, promoting growth and providing a safe and level playing field for both its equine and human athletes. In this tradition, the 2009 USEF Talent Search will, of course, reveal the potential bearers of the crimson coat in international competition, but it will also indicate something more, something innate that materializes with the chemistry unique to horses and riders.

The OG of the Big Eq
Before the name George Morris was synonymous with horsemanship, the second president of the Association of American Horse Shows, Mr. Alfred Maclay, was the authority on the rules and regulations used to license members and venues. In 1927, these policies filled a six-page pamphlet. Though now they are much more extensive, the original sentiment is still referred to upon evaluation of candidates today—and Maclay’s legacy as a horseman lives on in the medal final that bears his name.

Much of the terminology surrounding the Talent Search stems from the days of Maclay’s tenure. The nickname for equitation classes as ‘Medal Classes’ has stuck almost 80 years since riders were first awarded medals for their achievement in winning an equitation class. The newer nomenclature, the “big eqs” refers to the classes in which riders show to qualify for several national championships, especially the historic and coveted USEF Talent Search, USEF Medal and ASPCA Maclay Championships.

The Star Search is Born
The USEF has several fundamental responsibilities as the governing body of US equestrian sport: The USEF trains, selects, and funds our United States Equestrian Team, licenses equestrian competitions of all levels across the United States each year, and encourages growth among newcomers as well as the coming generation. The Talent Search was started in 1956 by the U.S. Equestrian Team (now the USET Foundation) as a USET Medal Program in order to fulfill the cultivation aspect of their duties. In 1982, the Medal Program incorporated year-end finals as a further goal. In 1994, the USET decided to combine the USET Medal Program with the USET Show Jumping Talent Search Program. This name change better reflected the focus of the program by asking developing riders to meet a more difficult set of standards than required in other competitions, thus helping to prepare them for berths on future international show jumping squads.

The Show Jumping Talent Search Program became part of the USEF’s Show Jumping High Performance Program in 2005. The Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals attracts the nation’s top Juniors and Young Riders in head-to-head competition. The Finals are open to U.S. citizens 21 years old and younger who have qualified through their placement in Platinum Performance / USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Classes and include a matrix of phases to test entrants’ skills in the show jumping arena, including equitation, speed over difficult courses and gymnastics, derby-style terrain, and a ride-off.

Graduates of the program include some of the top competitors and trainers on the circuit today, each doing their part to inspire and train the next generation of equestrians.

In this week’s final 37 riders will vie for the title. Last year’s West Coast winner, Hannah Selleck, just returned from the Spruce Masters where she competed against the best and brought home prizes. On the East Coast qualified riders will compete on the weekend of October 4th-5th in Gladstone, NJ. Now a sophomore at Princeton, California-based Sophie Benjamin won the coveted East Coast Finals in 2008.

The George Morris Horsemastership Clinic 2009

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.

Conversations With Equestrians: Karen Healey

Karen Healey talks about what it takes to win
By Jackie McFarland

In our last horse show issue (LA National, November 2008) we spoke with Susan Artes about Sophie Benjamin. Sophie’s success is wrapped up in a series of key values and beliefs including commitment, never quit, hard work, focus, graciousness, guts and so on.

This issue we spoke with Karen Healey. Well-known for her success in all arenas, Karen has a keen eye for developing horsemen as well as for finding the right horse.

Although not her ‘official’ trainer, Karen worked with Sophie in the equitation arena, including her in lessons, keeping her on horses, referring her catch rides, and helping her at the rail. Sophie credits Karen for providing her with the fundamentals and finesse that both led to her success in the equitation ring, and also in the jumpers.

JM: As Sophie’s mother explains, it ‘took a village’ of great people to open the doors for Sophie’s growth as a rider and a person. How did you meet Sophie?

KH: Sophie came to me at age 10 – I gave her a horse to ride for the Onondarka Medal Finals, which she won. They were a great match; she bought the horse and rode with me for some time. Last spring she rode a green horse for me and did a great job and won several classes.

JM: Sophie quietly took the East coast by storm winning the 2008 USET Talent Search. She rode a horse named Sir Neel who came from you. Tell us about Sir Neel and how you matched him with Sophie early on.

KH: Elizabeth Dickinson had a very nice horse to sell who was a little green and I knew that Sophie needed a horse for her final junior year. She always had talent and feel, and as she matured she began to understand the process involved in making a horse. In developing young horses, there is no instant Jell-O; if you don’t enjoy the process, you will not achieve the results. Sophie took the time and continues to do so, and her results show it. She has experienced many ups and downs, good days and bad days.

JM: We titled this “what it takes to win.” Can you explain how you instill this in your students?

KH: Dedication, dedication, dedication. And then some talent (she laughed) and the right horse. When it comes to a big win – the sun and the moon and the stars need to be in the right place. Probably 15-20 kids have the ability and desire to win a major finals, only one will have the right horse, the right course, and the right luck on that day. Even if it doesn’t all fall into place, it doesn’t mean you’re any less of a rider – your entire junior riding career is more important than one day.

JM: As you mention, success is in part matching a rider with the right horse. That’s true in a purchase but even more interesting in catch-ride situations. How did you decide to match Hannah Selleck with WC Swing –winners of the 2008 USEF Talent Search West – and Catherine Newman with Class Action – winners of the 2008 WIHS Equitation Finals?

KH: Two entirely different scenarios. Hannah had winning the USET Talent Search as a goal. Last year (2007) we didn’t have the right horse. In my opinion Carol’s horse, WC Swing, is a world-class equitation horse – particularly for that class. That was a distinct decision – I believed this pair had all the qualities to win and Hannah had been close many times. Matching a great horse with a rider that has both feel and style. That was a calculated decision to winand it paid off.

Navonna’s horse, Class Action, was a pre-green horse in August. My big goal was to give him miles at Indoors. I had worked with Catherine before; she is a tremendous talent and a great kid. This was clearly a win-win, a nice horse and she would give him a good ride. Otherwise the horse was going to do nothing for three weeks and then do the Maclay finals. In this case I had no expectations to win – but she suited him beautifully and he rose to the occasion. The stars were aligned! It is true, if you pair a world-class horse with a top rider – you greatly up your chances for the stars to align. And the results were more than a win; it also gave him solid experience in the ring.

JM: What advice can you give to up and coming equitation riders with medal final aspirations?

KH: Stick with a program and believe in it. There are many good trainers – find a trainer and a program that you believe in. Evolving through a program is essential. Even with the greatest talent – you
still need to grow through learning the process.

Be realistic. Take what you can from the day. It’s not about winning every class but to learn from your mistakes – sometime the most disappointing days are the most important for your riding. So persevere, continue, you have to like the work, the ups and the downs and be able to put it in perspective.

Most top trainers will take the time to help talented kids. If they are really willing to work, we are willing to step in. Dedication and desire and a work ethic really go a long way. That approach can take you further than just plain talent. Having those attributes can go a long way to taking you to the top.