Adult amateur riders bemoaning the passing of years don’t get any sympathy from Elizabeth “Liz” Benney. She’s71, but just seven years ago she switched from showing hunters to eventing, and she’s not showing any signs of slowing down.
“Nonsense. It’s not chronological age that’s important,” said this New-Zealand-born, tireless eventing enthusiast, who lives on a restored 77-acre farm in Upton, Mass., with her husband of 45 years, Dave.
“You’ve got to have a positive attitude and a good, safe-jumping horse,” she added. “Ride consistently with a good trainer, know your limits, then push yourself to your safe limit. And have fun–that’s what counts.”
Benney just wrapped up her best eventing season ever with In A Moment (“Minty”), her homebred Thoroughbred-Hanoverian gelding, 13. They finished on their dressage score at every one of the eight novice-level events they contested in 2004. The pair won one event, finished in the top six in five others, and earned U.S. Eventing Association Area I year-end honors in both the senior open and masters’ categories (third in each).
“Liz has grown up with horses all of her life, but, still, at her age, she doesn’t claim to know it all,” said Benney’s dressage instructor, Lynne Kimball-Davis of Dover, Mass. “She’s like a sponge–she soaks up everything you can teach her. Liz will run back after a lesson with pad and pencil in hand to make sure she got it all right.”
In 1997, Benney hung up her hunt cap after 33 years of showing and 19 years of judging hunters.
“I loved the days, back in the ’70s, when the amateur-owner riders like me galloped around outside courses and horses were rewarded for brilliance and boldness,” she recalled.
But by the mid-’90s, she’d grown disillusioned by her sport. “I was bored stiff by riding the same courses over and over in small, flat rings,” she explained.
So she took Minty–whose grandmother, Cotillion, had been Benney’s most successful show horse in the ’70s–to an unrecognized event and then to the Groton House Horse Trials (Mass.) in June.
Benney’s decision to breed Cotillion’s Thoroughbred daughter to the Hanoverian stallion Werner-Wettstreit–resulting in Minty’s birth seven years earlier–remains her singular admission of advancing years. “At 58, I figured I was getting a little long in the tooth to raise another pure Thoroughbred,” she said with a smile.
Her first recognized event at Groton House gave her a taste of the sport’s highs and lows.
“I learned the wrong dressage test, and the judge kindly offered me a chance to ride at the end of the division,” Benney recalled. “But it would have taken me three days to learn another test–I couldn’t possibly memorize one on the spot.”
But “the event’s wonderful organizer, Ann Getchell, let me go around cross-country anyway, and Minty was perfect. Now I knew what runners talked about when they spoke of an endorphin high!”
The show jumping phase didn’t concern Benney at all. “After all, I knew my flying changes and could handle those jumps easily,” she said. But she recognized the need for cross-country and dressage help, so she sought out trainer Suzie Gornall in nearby Uxbridge, Mass.
“Liz made the transition from show ring to eventing more easily than most adult riders would,” recalled Gornall. “She had excellent position fundamentals from riding hunters, and the years she spent riding out in the New Zealand countryside as a child gave her a gung-ho spirit that made her a natural for eventing.”
For the next three years, Benney sent Minty, plus another homebred mare, Now Or Never, to Aiken, S.C., to train with Gornall each winter.
“I wanted to have the confidence of knowing my horses could easily handle novice level because they’d already gotten training and preliminary level mileage with someone more experienced than me,” Benney said. “As a new event rider, I knew I would make every mistake in the book, and, sure enough, I did. One year at GMHA [Vt.] I even jumped a preliminary fence by accident.”
Benney has since enjoyed five seasons of novice-level success with Minty, earning USEA Area I year-end awards honors in three consecutive years. Of her 2004 competitive record, she said proudly, “Minty didn’t have one refusal, rail down, or time fault this entire season. He just gives me everything I need. It’s like he’s computerized and set to gallop and jump. He gets in the start box and starts looking for the first fence.”
Competing confidently, Benney believes, is a matter of having the right horse and staying well within her limits. She and Minty placed fourth in one training level event in 2000, but, while riding in a clinic the next spring, she hit a tree branch while cross-country schooling and suffered a concussion.
“That’s when I decided to stick to a level where I felt totally confident,” she said. “I don’t ever want to get in the start box feeling afraid or apprehensive.”
Said Kimball-Davis, “Liz doesn’t have anything to prove or feel any need to feed her ego. She competes well within her own safety and skill level.”
Always At The Gallop
Benney came honestly to her love of horses and riding. Born in 1933, she grew up amid the sprawling farmlands of New Plymouth, New Zealand. As a toddler, she went everywhere in the front of the saddle with her mother, Mary Matthews. “Mother was an excellent show rider, but her only pace was the gallop,” remembered Benney with a laugh.
Her paternal grandfather, Robert Matthews, owned race horses and won the New Zealand Cup in 1906. So, not surprisingly, Benney got her first pony at age 9 and rode him all over the countryside, often bareback. “Who had time to put on a saddle?” she said.
Because gas was in short supply during World War II, Benney’s family put her pony in special compartments on steam trains to get to the four shows held each year.
“How well I remember mother taking me aside and giving me the 1-2-3 about sportsmanship, when I cried over not getting a ribbon at my very first show in 1944,” Benney recalled. “She made me go and congratulate the winners.”
Pony Club chapters first opened in New Zealand in 1947. And she rode in beach races and hunted as a teenager, often hacking miles to meets and returning home near midnight.
“Cars always slowed down for us, there was no crime in those days, and my parents never worried about when I’d get home,” she said.
Benney helped raise the foals her mother bred and gained more valuable knowledge about breeding by working at a neighbor’s race horse farm. She remembers riding their horses 4 miles into town to the farrier’s shop.
“Sometimes I would ride one Thorough-bred and lead another,” Benney said. “We had to go some distance along Main Street, electric tram cars would pass us, and those great horses never flinched.”
In 1955, while attending the University of New Zealand, she fell in love with a young teaching assistant named David Benney. “Our relationship would probably be forbidden under today’s workplace guidelines,” she quipped.
When Dave received a teaching post at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1959, she followed him to Boston, where they were married. Dave remains a math professor at MIT, 45 years later.
Liz put horses on hold while she raised three children (Richard, born in 1961; Paul, in 1962; and Antonia, in 1965) and moved with Dave to a house in suburban Wayland, Mass. In 1963, she saw a sign advertising a local stable, owned by well- known local horseman Bill Begg.
She signed on for lessons and soon began showing hunters for Begg. (Among Begg’s students was a teenager named Karen Stives, the 1984 Olympic silver medalist, who showed ponies.)
Shortly after Antonia’s birth, Liz bought her first horse. She became a fixture in the amateur-owner division, showing throughout New England with considerable success from 1969 to 1997. Antonia joined her in the show ranks, competing first on ponies and later in equitation divisions.
Liz became a licensed judge in 1978 and went on to officiate at more than 200 shows throughout New England. “Judging taught me to be a more sophisticated observer,” said Liz. “I became very aware of the suitability of riders to horses, and more knowledgeable about the broad spectrum of good and bad jumping horses and how they moved.”
Hardly Slowing Down
In 1989, fearing development pressures in Wayland, just west of greater Boston, the Benneys headed about 25 miles southwest and purchased an abandoned 77-acre cow farm in Upton. They set about renovating the outbuildings, eventually building a new barn, house and indoor arena.
“Our friends were appalled when they first came to visit. The 100-year-old, dilapidated farmhouse had holes in the roof, broken windows, and missing stairs. Two barns nearby had almost collapsed, and the fields hadn’t been touched in 12 years,” she remembered.
The Benneys aptly named the property Tahuri Farm, a native New Zealand word for “starting over” and “set to work”–and eventually opened the small breeding and boarding operation that Liz manages today. One of her proudest achievements was the months of care it took to save Sooner Or Later, one of the twin foals born on the farm in 1991. Tufts University veterinarians still call that filly their “miracle baby.”
Liz now hires part-time barn help, and she’s cut down from 13 horses to nine. But she still mucks stalls most days and manages the farm herself.
Her latest equine project, Catch Me Later, is another homebred who stands, as Liz said, “a dishonest 15 hands.” In hopes of getting a pony for her grandchildren, she crossed a 12.1-hand Welsh stallion with Sooner Or Later. “No one has ever come close to guessing the breeding of my ‘hony,’ ” she said with delight.
Meantime, Liz looks forward to next year’s eventing season on Minty. “My goal is to break a dressage score of 30 every time out,” she said.
As she looks ahead to her 72nd year, she remains buoyed by a judge’s comments on one of Minty’s dressage tests this year: “Horse and rider have potential.”
Pursuing Another Passion
After Liz Benney and husband Dave had settled down from renovating the farm they bought 15 years ago, she finally had time to concentrate on another long-time passion: writing.
After publishing short stories in several New Zealand and U.S. magazines, Liz was admitted to a writer’s workshop in Cambridge, Mass., in 1997. Her work there resulted, two years later, in the publication of Reaching Summit Rock, a young adult novel published by Cape Catley Ltd., a New Zealand publisher, in 1999.
The book relates the adventures of a horse-crazy young girl growing up in New Zealand during World War II–a story not unlike the author’s own, “with just a fun bit of fiction thrown in,” said Liz with a smile.