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.

The Transition From Ponies To Horses And The Leap From 3′ to 3’6″

By Zazou Hoffman

The pony hunter ring allows the rider to get a real sense of what the judge is looking for in a hunter. Because the classes are smaller, broken into small, medium, and large pony divisions, the rider and the parents can watch every round; i.e. the whole division from beginning to end. So you can see what the judge rewards in the way of conformation and form over fences as well as in the under saddle classes. From watching and studying the same ponies over a two or three day period, you will learn various judges tastes (each day the judges rotate rings) and can begin to understand what wins. Often it seems that only the “name” ponies, which tend to be the most expensive ponies, are rewarded, but there are exceptions. And here’s the thing–there is camaraderie at the pony ring that gets lost in Children’s Hunters where the divisions have a ginormous number of entries. Your brain would turn to mush if you sat and watched every round, sometimes over a hundred. You never really get to see what the judge wants. Watch and learn at the pony ring as much as you can.

Don’t be too quick to move out of the pony ring, but if you are getting frustrated with competing against the top ponies, try some pony equitation classes and pony medals. Use the pony ring as a place to learn. Take notes on which ponies win consistently, try to watch videos of the best pony rounds from the indoor shows. On the East Coast many of the best pony riders are in their late teens. The Green Pony division is beginning to emerge on the West Coast and there is a real need for competent riders to help train the ponies that show exceptional talent.

Having the chance to show large pony hunters is an advantage in the transition to horses. Large pony hunters actually jump the same height, 3′, as Children’s Hunters (horses). It is more challenging for a pony than it is for a horse to jump that height, and also to cover the longer distances between fences. So pony riders who successfully pilot a large pony around generally feel comfortable with the height and make the transition to horses more readily. After jumping a 3′ course on a pony, you are ready for the next leap onto a horse.

When I rode ponies, I had a couple of difficult ones. They taught me to be a tenacious rider, which got me noticed by other trainers. I was lucky to be asked to catch-ride many wonderful and nationally known ponies. At the same time my mother had a green hunter horse, Andy Warhol, who was ready to move into the Children’s Hunters. We learned together. He was Small Junior Hunter size, so as I advanced, so did he. This is where we learned about another great transition division, the Modified Hunters. At 3’3″ it is an obvious transition height into the Small Juniors, which are 3’6″. One consideration is that there is no prize money because it is an unrated division and there are a ton of competitors. It’s a great practice division, but it’s meant as a transition to the 3’6″. When I moved into the Junior Hunters I can’t say it was seamless, but I did it. The Modified Division helped.

Once again the Junior Hunter Divisions are smaller, as in the ponies, and I took advantage of this by watching and getting a real feel for what the judge was looking for. Here in California, especially at Thermal, we have some of the finest hunters in the country competing. It is amazing to see such great athletes, with flawless conformation and movement, beautifully presented. They are like the most amazing Breyer horse models, but you can go up and touch them and ask the rider questions about their personality and what it’s like to ride them.

If you are already competing on a horse, Children’s, Modified or Junior, take the time to watch the 3’6″ hunters. Watching has taught me a lot over the years, not only about what the judge is looking for but also about the ride.

Zazou Hoffman is a 16-year-old from Santa Monica, CA. As a 13-year-old, having only shown locally, she decided to apply for the Ronnie Mutch Working Student Scholarship. She won, which led to working with respected East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan. Through hard work and commitment, by Jan. ’07 Zazou was one of seven elite riders chosen to work with Olympic Chef d’Equipe George Morris in Wellington, FL. She has competed in the Medal Finals for the past three years. She counts her win at the Maclay Regional, her 4th in “the Medal” at Harrisburg, her 5th in the USET Talent Search East at Gladstone, and her 3rd in the WCE amongst her notable accomplishments.