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.