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.