The first time I ever attended the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival I was 12. My father drove me to sight-see around the show grounds while we were in Florida on vacation. I drooled over the rows of vendors, the perfectly turned out horses, and the brightly decorated rings. I sat on the slope overlooking the Grand Hunter Arena and watched rounds of the working hunters, marveling at the smooth and even trips even over the bigger height.
When it was time to leave I had to be torn away from watching the jumpers. Always my passion, I could have sat and watched horse after horse lay down fast and tight rounds. I remember being in awe at all of the commotion. Horses trotting from ring to ring, riders hacking around with a cell phone to their ear, and dirt bikes and golf carts speeding past. It seemed like the equine equivalent of Manhattan: everyone had someplace to be in a hurry.
My second visit to WEF in the beginning of this January was very different. I didn’t drive to the front gate with my father; Val Renihan and I golf carted over and were stopped constantly by people saying hello to Val.
Riding to or from the show grounds with Val is always an experience that ends in the same way: me not realizing someone has stopped her to chat, trying to wait for her while my mount impatiently shuffles in place, walking in tiny circles on the bridle path while I get shot annoyed looks by people trying to get by, and then finally giving up and trying to communicate through hand gestures that I was going to head back.
My first week as a working student for Val was a blur. I just remember repeatedly catching myself smiling.
It seemed ridiculous that after years of seeing friends’ Facebook picture from WEF and having it in my head as this unattainable thing, I was now bustling around the show like everyone else trying to ensure everything ran smoothly. Being a working student for a show barn at WEF is a lot like waitressing. It all comes down to getting everything done as quickly and efficiently as possible without letting on to the fact that you are in any sort of rush.
Working for Val has been incredible. Val is one of those very lucky people who has made a career doing something she is both good at and thoroughly enjoys.
In her case, it is clear that she relishes teaching every bit as much as she is talented at it. The first night I met her she told me that coaching for the equitation classes was what she really loved.
Not only is she good at it, but it is something she can’t physically prevent herself from doing. Be it a rider trying a horse or professional showing her a sales horse, the trainer side of her is always turned on. Val has this way of teaching where improvement is the only option.
She has quite a few tricks up her sleeve for improving a rider’s equitation and overall position. For the slumped rider who won’t sit tall she has two homemade sticks that go in the small of your back behind your elbows. She has a pool float that hugs the neck and makes looking down impossible. She has wrist braces to keep the wrists from curling and duct tape to ensure a deep heel. Can’t keep your fingers closed around the reins? Hands too close together? Hands too far apart? Riding around the ring clutching a bit in your fingers can solve all of those in one fell swoop.
I have seen her implement multiple tools at once to help a rider understand what correctness feels like: stirrups tied to the girth so the toe could not rotate out, a crop in each hand to make the rider aware of what her hands were doing at any moment, and a stick behind the back to encourage a tall and upright position.
Val understands that sometimes habits are so ingrained that it takes a physical reminder to achieve the correct position. She conditions her riders’ bodies just like her horses’ bodies so that the correct position can become innate. Even in just a few short weeks I have seen riders improve at a rate I find astounding.
Val’s teaching is backed up by her team of truly talented professionals. While Val perfects the riders, Keri Kampsen campaigns the sale horses under Val’s guidance. With a long, lithe frame and an eye that seems more like premonition than seeing a distance, it is easy to see how she won the ASPCA Maclay Finals as a junior.
Amongst the employees of Findlay’s Ridge is barn manager Lindsay Skalak, who graduated from Julie Winkel’s internship program a few years ago. Lindsay’s knack for organization and planning as well as her horsemanship ensures that everything runs smoothly regardless if it’s a Tuesday where we have only one horse doing the warm-ups or a Sunday where we have every client with three horses each showing in a different ring all at the same time.
Of course, I cannot neglect the most well-known member of the Findlay Ridge team: Panda. Val’s Australian Shepherd has the kind of notoriety at WEF that many trainers and riders would kill for. I have seen many a competitor, child and adult alike make a bee line past Olympians, Maclay winners, and top hunter riders to get to Panda.
A consummate horse show professional, Panda parks herself at a ring and doesn’t leave unless told to. This has resulted in Panda occasionally being forgotten and having to get picked up by golf cart a few hours later, although it is hard to feel bad for her when you arrive and she is surrounded by a group of her followers.
One of the greatest things about Findlay’s Ridge is the atmosphere. There is a genuine friendliness between everyone that I didn’t necessarily think to expect in such a competitive environment. It is the atmosphere of a barn where at the end of a 60-hour week everyone still wants to get dinner together afterward.
Val’s clients are a selection of not only talented, but ridiculously kind people with a genuine love for their animals and amazing horsemanship. It is gratifying to see a barn where not only do all the girls get along but are also all genuinely friendly with each other. I’ve been lucky enough to be included in all aspects, whether it’s a Super Bowl party with Val, Keri, and Lindsay or attending a night class with Val’s clients. Everyone has been so warm and welcoming that it is has made my first experience at WEF far less intimidating and far more exciting than I could have imagined it to be.
Ryan Lefkowitz grew up riding in Westchester County, N.Y. where she discovered her love of the jumper ring. She graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2013 as an English major. While riding on the Geneseo Equestrian Team she bought and successfully resold her first project horse, a chestnut OTTB named Roheryn. She is thrilled to be able to combine her love of riding and writing by blogging for the Chronicle. She has written about her experiences involved in the IHSA and is currently blogging about life as a working student. Ryan is also one of the winners of the Chronicle's first writing competition.