In the winter of 2011, Luke Olsen was confined to bed after a serious car accident. The 16-year-old distracted himself from the discomfort by watching rounds from top hunter and jumper competitions online, including the best trips from the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals and ASPCA Maclay Finals.
“At the time I was thinking ‘Wow, what if I ever did this?’ ” said Olsen, now 18.
It was pure fantasy for someone who’d only ridden at the local level. But the next year, just eight months after he jumped his first fence at 3’6”, Olsen walked into the ring at the Alltech National Horse Show (Ky.) to compete at the ASPCA Maclay Finals.
With help from top trainers, an understanding family and school, and plenty of hard work, Olsen leapfrogged from the novice level to competitive on the national stage in a very short period of time, finishing 22nd at the Region 1 ASPCA Maclay Qualifier. But Olsen’s goals were never confined to what happened in the show ring.
“I don’t just want to ride, I want to get my horse ready for the medal finals class,” he said. “I want to watch the other rounds, tack up my horse, towel him off, and ride him to the ring for a big class. I want to have a connection with him, taking care of him afterward and knowing I can go back myself and wrap him and unbraid him and do whatever it takes.”
Getting A Taste
Olsen grew up dabbling in eventing and 4-H with Nandee Willets from Pepperell, Mass. His parents were supportive of his horsey habit, but they didn’t have the means to finance it on a major scale.
Olsen’s first glimpse of serious competition started in the spring of 2010. He’d broken his foot when a horse fell on him, and he found himself with free time on his hands while he recovered. Bored, he emailed every grand prix rider he could think of to ask for a summer job, and Anne Kursinski was the one who replied.
As soon as his foot healed, his parents drove him from Groton, Mass., to Frenchtown, N.J., to spend the summer grooming at Kursinski’s Market Street. He’d turned 16 three days earlier, he didn’t have a car, and he’d never been to a major horse show. But he learned the basics and got to work at Lake Placid (N.Y.) and HITS Saugerties (N.Y.).
After the summer, Olsen wanted more, but fate had other plans. That January he was hit by a car in a crosswalk and thrown 57 feet. He broke his right tibia and fibula as well as five ribs. He suffered a punctured lung, and the doctors lost count of the stitches in his face after 100. Olsen spent a week in a hospital, then a few more in bed at home before gradually started getting back to school in a wheelchair.
As he recovered, Olsen started scheming how to get back to a top stable. He cold-called Melanie Smith Taylor, introducing himself as “just a poor kid who loved horses and dreamed of doing it big one day.” He made a point of travelling to meet Taylor in person, showing up to a clinic she was giving in Westport, Conn., when he was still on crutches. Taylor suggested he think about whom he’d like to work for, and when he came up with that list, one of those names stuck out: Jennifer Alfano.
Gung Ho And Eager
In some ways, it was an obvious choice, thanks to Taylor’s longstanding friendship with Alfano, and the latter’s background. Alfano worked her way up to star hunter rider status, growing up helping with her parents’ farm. She catch rode some but showed the same tough horse through five years of equitation finals. After grooming for Gem Twist for 3½ years—including at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games where he and Greg Best earned double silver medals—she eventually found her way back into the hunter ring. She’s been riding for Susie Schoellkopf’s SBS Farms since 1990.
So Alfano empathizes with the plight of talented kids with limited funds, but she’s not a pushover. She doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who think it’s all about time in the tack, and, in her experience, not all the young horsemen looking for a leg up understand the tremendous among of dedication and work involved to earn it.
“When Melanie called me, she said ‘Look, I don’t know the kid, but he’s very persistent,’ ” recalled Alfano. “All she could say was that he was very eager.”
When Alfano spoke to Olsen, she was distracted and too busy to give much thought to a green high schooler who wanted to learn the ropes. She offered him a position for the summer, but his leg wasn’t healed yet. By the time he called to set up a start time for the fall, Alfano had all but forgotten about him.
“Honestly, I knew we needed help during [The Chicago Hunter Derby] and the [Buffalo International (N.Y.)], so I figured even if he didn’t cut it, we’d have some help for those weeks,” recalled Alfano. “Sure enough, he showed up Sept. 1, all gung ho and eager, and I thought ‘Well, this can’t last. He’s just trying to make a good impression.’ But he’s the same now as he was then. And he persevered—that’s what struck me about him.”
Thriving Under Pressure
Olsen took advantage of an independent immersion program at his Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., which allows students to design their own curriculum around a related project. Olsen arranged to shadow a farrier and veterinarian, keep a blog, and he assigned himself readings from texts like Hunt Seat Equitation.
Olsen worked closely with Alfano and barn manager Jessica Liftin in an environment where hard work trumps all, and patience for excuses is limited at best. He was expected to work as hard as the rest of the staff, with equally long days. He wasn’t coddled in lessons either, and while Schoellkopf recruited a school horse for Olsen to practice on, riding wasn’t his priority.
A teenager could be forgiven for struggling under the pressure, but Olsen thrived.