The Path To Grand Prix Is Paved With Hard Work

Feb 22, 2012 - 11:54 AM
Many young riders with limited finances have big dreams of riding on the U.S. team. Photo by Kat Netzler.

Finding the way to an international team without a big pocketbook might be difficult, but it’s not impossible.

Nick Novak bent forward, laying his weight over the young bay mare’s back, every nerve listening to her, waiting to see how she’d react. Gradually, he swung a leg over and settled into the saddle for the first time.

Novak nudged Rendezvous 22 forward, encouraging her in her first steps under saddle, and patted her on the neck. They started out at the walk, but Novak has big plans for Rendezvous. It might be a long journey, but he’s mapped out their way to the grand prix ring.

Not many grand prix riders break their own prospects, jump their first cross-rails and teach them their leads. But this is the way Novak, 23, is doing it. He can’t afford to go to Europe and buy a young jumper already navigating courses or a seasoned schoolmaster. He has a burning desire to compete at the top, so he’ll make his own grand prix horse.

Novak, who hails from Poplar Grove, Ill., has already done it once. His first forays into the grand prix ring came on YB Blue, a solid citizen he brought along from a green 5-year-old to a consistent performer in smaller Midwest grand prix classes.

“He had never jumped anything that big and neither had I, so we were both learning at the same time,” Novak said. “Every experience in the ring was a new learning experience. Whether I had 16 faults or was clear, I always learned something new. Obviously some days were good and some were not so much. We progressed along and just kept getting better and better.”

That same year, when he was just 17, Novak broke his first baby—Rendezvous. Now 9, the U.S.-bred (Roc USA—Roving Minstrel) won the 2010 Young Jumper Championships 7- & 8-year-old Midwestern League Finals. Novak plans to show her in the 1.40-meter division this year and eventually move up to 1.50-meter classes and the grand prix level.

Last summer, Novak also got some grand prix mileage with Springfield Tennessee, an older horse given to him by Lauren Tisbo.

“I think of it as everybody has their own path they have to take,” said Novak. “Is it frustrating sometimes when I see people who have multi-million-dollar horses and can get new ones any time they want? Yes. But at the same time, I don’t mind working and figuring it out on my own. I’ll get it done.”

It’s Really Tough

Everyone wants to believe that the fairytale can come true, that a young show jumper with talent and visions of Olympic gold can find his way to the top despite a modest checkbook balance.

Elizabeth Letts’ recent book about the famous Snowman epitomizes that dream—a struggling young professional horseman finds a bargain horse, believes in him and conquers all, winning fame and glory at the biggest shows. But in today’s show jumping world, significant challenges face young riders with limited pocketbooks.

“It’s very hard to break into the top rankings of grand prix. That’s something we’re struggling with in this country, especially when it comes time to field teams for Europe and look at the next generation of high performance riders for international championships,” said Michelle Grubb, who has served as chef d’equipe for U.S. developing riders Nations Cup tours in Europe.

“We need to try and find a way to increase the numbers of people who have a horse and are ready to go over there and compete. It’s a concern for our industry,” Grubb continued.

The transition is still challenging, but a bit easier, for riders with financial backing. They can buy grand prix mounts and fund their seasons in Europe. But for a young rider coming out of the junior ranks without the support of a generous sponsor, things can look bleak.

“It’s really tough. There are very few opportunities out there,” said trainer Missy Clark, who has shepherded quite a few junior riders into the grand prix ranks. “The expense of it is the prohibitive factor. But anything in life is doable if you’re willing to work hard.

“Todd Minikus is the epitome of the working professional who works long hours every day, and he takes a shot with unproven horses and gets it done. That’s one way to do it. The other way is to keep working as an apprentice and start at the bottom like we all did and see where it gets you,” Clark continued.

Novak has chosen to forge out on his own. He’s somewhat under the wing of trainer Nancy Whitehead, his mentor since his teenage years. But he runs his own business, bringing young horses his family has bred along as prospects and sales horses and taking in horses for training and sales.

Callie Schott, on the other hand, chose to apprentice, working as an assistant rider for top show jumpers John and Beezie Madden. And she’s brought a Madden-owned young horse, Wrigley, up through the ranks to the grand prix classes.

Finding A Way

The process of top riders mentoring young riders isn’t as common in the United States as it is in Europe. Many of the European show jumping stars—such as Christian Ahlmann and Marco Kutscher—got their start under the wings of veterans like Ludger Beerbaum. They rode young horses and sales horses and gradually worked their way up to serving on international teams at championships.

But part of what makes that system work is the showing infrastructure in Europe. “Most of the time in Europe, a top rider will have a younger rider or second rider in their barn because when they go to a show, they only take three or four horses to that show. You have to have someone keeping the second string going and bringing along the younger horses,” said Grubb.

“Those are the opportunities over there for young riders to gain experience and possibly go on and find a sponsor or have a shot to get into the big time,” Grubb added. “Over here, trainers go to a horse show with all the horses. There’s no separation, since there are all the divisions at all the shows. Some barns will take 100 horses to a horse show. And our top riders tend to ride more and have less second riders and young riders.”

The expense of showing in this country also deters top riders from supporting a younger rider. “There’s no possible way I could do that now,” said Olympic rider McLain Ward at the open show jumping forum hosted by the U.S. Equestrian Federation on Nov. 7.

“I can’t spend $2,000 or $3,000 a week for a young rider to make a mistake, which we all do. I can’t afford that cost,” Ward said. “It’s much easier to just do it myself. If I could send that kid into the junior jumpers or the young horse classes and it cost me $500 a week or a more realistic price, I might be willing to take on the kid who won the Maclay Finals or another young rider who I’d be glad to support. But I don’t see anybody doing that anymore; it’s very rare. It’s too expensive.”

Schott, 25, is one of the lucky ones. In January of 2009, she applied for a job with the Maddens. She grew up as the child of a local hunter/ jumper trainer in Versailles, Ky., and she’d watched the Maddens but never met them. Schott sent them a video and interviewed over the phone.

“Since they’d never seen me ride in person, we agreed that I was going to come try and be a rider, but if it didn’t work out, I might be demoted to a groom. I knew I had a job in Florida, but that was all I was guaranteed,” Schott said. “It’s every person’s dream to ride for Beezie Madden. It was very intimidating. But I showed up every day and kept plugging away, watching and learning as much as I could, trying to prove that I could do it.”

Talent Plus Hard Work

When Schott started with the Maddens, “no” wasn’t part of her vocabulary. She scrubbed water buckets, raked aisles, groomed horses and did whatever needed to be done. “I think some people might be overwhelmed with the amount of work and commitment that it is to run a barn, but I’ve grown up like that my whole life. I’m used to spending my Christmases mucking stalls or staying up with a colicking horse,” she said.

And she approached every day ready to soak in knowledge. “When I started, John told me to keep my eyes on Beezie, and there would be days when I just followed Beezie everywhere and watched her. It was so valuable,” Schott said.

Schott proved to the Maddens that she was a talented rider—and committed. She assumed more and more responsibility, riding and teaching more and doing less barn work. They rewarded her in May 2010 by offering her the opportunity to develop Wrigley, an investment horse they’d bought. Schott and Wrigley have been in the ribbons in the Artisan Farms Young Riders Grand Prix series at the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival and were second in the $50,000 Vermont Summer Celebration Grand Prix last year.

Novak is no stranger to a pitchfork, either. He feeds, grooms and does whatever needs to be done. “I wrap my own horses because I don’t trust anyone else to do it. I enjoy being part of the whole process,” he said.

Both Schott and Novak live by a principle Clark sees as fundamental for success. “You have to be willing to work hard and start anywhere. Perseverance goes a long way,” Clark said.

Talent is a prerequisite, but it doesn’t mean much if a rider doesn’t put in the effort. “If you keep plugging away, you might have some opportunities come your way. But I think that patience is something that’s lacking in this game for many people. It takes a long time. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s a lot of hard work,” said Clark, who started out teaching beginner lessons in her mother, Doris Clark’s, training business. 

“I’d shown in Florida as a junior and all that, but I didn’t start out [professionally] showing up at Florida or Devon or the World Cup Finals saying ‘I’m here!’ It took time and lots of hard work to get to that point,” said Clark. “I think the majority of the kids who are coming out of the juniors at a high level are aiming for the top level, but I think they don’t look toward the fact that maybe they have to go start at a lower level and plug away there for a while like most of us who are my vintage did. We didn’t just show up at these shows. It took me until I was in my late 20s before I even had three people who would come to Florida. They shouldn’t think that there’s no value in starting lower and plugging away at it.”

Stretch Yourself

For young riders on the road to the top, it’s valuable to know when to step back a bit—and when to push on.

Schott graduated from college in the fall of 2008 with a business management degree and declared herself a professional horseman. She could have hung out her shingle in her home territory of Kentucky and had a busy life on the local circuit. But she wanted something more. “I wanted to have a shot at someday riding internationally, and I think I had to step it up a little bit to do that,” she said.

“When you’re young and ambitious and you have a dream to go to the Olympic Games or ride for the U.S. Equestrian Team, always try to set your goal higher and always try to compete in shows that require you to stretch yourself,” said Grubb. “When you’re winning in the juniors, step up to the 1.40-meter classes and see how you do against professional riders at the same height.

“But by the same token, test yourself at a level where you have a chance to be competitive. Don’t just go in a higher class to jump around. To be of any value at all to high performance teams, you need to be able to win! So, win at your level, then step up. If it gets too hard, step back again for a bit, then step back up.

But always set your goal a bit higher and reach. Comfortable isn’t enough. Without endangering yourself or overfacing your horse, you need to stretch yourself to do something that’s more challenging.”

Novak is well known on the Midwestern circuit and shows at WEF, but he knows that to achieve his goals, he’s going to have to think bigger. “I haven’t really shown on the East Coast yet, so I’m thinking about doing that after Florida and getting new contacts that way and promoting myself more,” he said.

Both Schott and Novak are heeding Clark’s advice. “You have to be a realist,” Clark said. “You might think ‘Here I am, and I want to be a famous grand prix rider; it needs to happen now,’ but it takes years for most people.

“The great thing about show jumping is that most grand prix riders are really coming into their prime in later years. There isn’t really a shelf life, like in some sports. If you’re 33 or 40, it doesn’t mean you’re too old for the game,” she continued.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more like it, consider subscribing. The original version of “The Path To Grand Prix Is Paved With Hard Work” ran in the Feb. 20, 2012, Show Jumping issue. Check out the table of contents to see what great stories are in the magazine this week.

Category: Horse Shows

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