Sunday, Apr. 14, 2024

The Cream Of The Crop Migrate To Cindy Ford


With five Intercollegiate Horse Show Association national championship ribbons hanging on the barn wall, Cindy Ford knows what it takes to produce a winning riding team.

Since beginning her dynasty as the director of riding at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1988, she’s passionately devoted all of her energy to creating a riding program that attracts prospective students from all over the country.
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With five Intercollegiate Horse Show Association national championship ribbons hanging on the barn wall, Cindy Ford knows what it takes to produce a winning riding team.

Since beginning her dynasty as the director of riding at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1988, she’s passionately devoted all of her energy to creating a riding program that attracts prospective students from all over the country.

Begun as a club sport in 1920, the riding team didn’t join the rest of the Skidmore College Thoroughbreds athletics as a varsity sport until 1976. Boasting an aggressive and challenging liberal arts program that’s a magnet for truly dedicated and hard-working students, qualities that are also essential in a true equestrian, Ford has little trouble finding talented riders who make successful and mature students.

“All the students here know that school work and grades are their No. 1 priority. So, when it comes to the team, they’re very good about budgeting their time. Everyone tries to ride at least once a day and some even get academic riding credit,” said Ford, 57.

Every year, about 30 students try out for the team, and Ford chooses between six to 10 new members, trying to accommodate everyone at every level. With an average of 60 horses at the barn at any given time, about 40 of which are school horses, Ford has horses in her program that range from ex-grand prix jumpers to junior hunters to upper-level equitation horses who’ve seen their share of Medal and Maclay finals, and she said that it’s the horses that really put the school’s riding program on the map.

“I hate to call them school horses because they’re all so nice. We have the luxury of picking and choosing which horses enter the program,” Ford revealed.

Not only do students have the opportunity to be mounted on quality horses and learn how to ride in one of the five introductory riding classes, but those who are already more advanced have the option to take courses, such as schooling or applied schooling, and earn academic credit while teaching young green horses how to jump.

“We can cater to a beginner and also to a rider who’s shown their entire junior career,” said Ford proudly. “We learn a lot from many of the riders who come here. I’ve learned so much as far as things to teach other riders. We’re not just teaching them, we’re not so naïve to think that. I’m forever teaching a student and saying, ‘Oh, let me tell you what Courtney [Phibbs] taught me about counting.’” And Ford’s students learn just as much from her.

As one of the many talented riders to cross through the doorways of Skidmore College’s Van Lennep Riding Center, Phibbs is now a professional equestrian who shows successfully in the hunter and jumper divisions, utilizing many of Ford’s training strategies.
 
“Before I went into the ring [at a show], Cindy made me feel like I was on top of the world and could accomplish anything. She tells you what you need to hear and doesn’t try to train too much when you’re at the ring, so you go in feeling like a million bucks.

“If there was a horse that you always had a hard time with, she would say, ‘I would like you to meet your new horse, Fluffy.’ Now, if I have a student who has a consistent problem with a horse and I’m trying to get them to ride the horse for what it is on that particular day, I say, ‘This is your new horse, Fluffy.’ Understanding the mental side of riding really helps a lot,” explained Phibbs.

A Change Of Heart

Like many 11-year-old girls, Ford had a crush. But her crush wasn’t on one of her male classmates. It was on a horse named Red.

“As a kid I was always fascinated by horses. No one in my family had an interest in horses, but eventually I got lucky and had the opportunity to start taking lessons at a local stable,” recalled Ford.

Growing up in Albany, N.Y., didn’t allow her many choices as far as riding stables were concerned. Despite being the state capital, Albany lacked much of a sport scene, and horses were perceived more as substitute lawn mowers than competitive athletes.

Luckily, Ford stumbled upon Joe Stewart’s My Play Stables and started taking weekly lessons. As her passion for horses continued to blossom, she spent more time at the barn and even found ways to tag along to horse shows.

On Oct. 31, 1964, at age 14, Ford’s parents purchased their daughter her first horse, aptly named Trick Or Treat. Although he was not a fancy mover or great jumper, he provided her with an outlet for her horse fetish.

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“I never had to pay bills on my horse because I worked at the barn helping groom and clean stalls,” said Ford.

After graduating from high school, Ford’s sights were set on a college degree from the State University of New York at Albany, but after two years in college, she realized working toward a degree just wasn’t
fulfilling.

It was while she was working for Peter Van Guysling’s Dutch Manor Stables (Guilder-land, N.Y.) as assistant trainer that Ford heard about an opening for the position of director of riding at Skidmore College.

“I had several local professionals tell me that the job was available, but, at the time, it didn’t really interest me because I’d heard it was a really tough job,” recalled Ford. “But, a couple of people said it was the job for me and that I needed to apply.”

Sometimes others know us better than we know ourselves, and that turned out to be the case with Ford. Following a series of interviews, the athletic director of Skidmore, Tim Brown, offered her the position. Ford accepted immediately. “I just had a good push. I had a long and good relationship with Peter and I learned a lot there. At the time, I knew I wanted to do something different, but I was thinking about stopping doing horses altogether.

“But this gave me a lot of opportunities. These kids are a great age group to work with, and we have the cream of the crop here. They come as competitive achievers, bright and motivated,” she continued.

A Team Player

There’s no two ways about it—the students on Ford’s riding team are her children. She eats with them at horse shows, flies to competitions with them, checks up on them to make sure they’re spending enough time studying and gives them guidance and encouragement on good days and bad.

“The biggest thing I’m going to take away from my experience at Skidmore is the strong work ethic and self-discipline Cindy has instilled in me,” said Ashley Woodhouse, who’s been on the team for four years and was the 2005 Cacchione Cup winner.

“Cindy is incredible. I don’t know how she does it every single day. Everything she does, she does with integrity and doesn’t accept anything less than the best. And I’ll value having gained that skill from her,” Woodhouse noted.

Since starting her job at Skidmore, Ford has worked tirelessly to make the riding program the best it can be. Whether it means putting in extra hours, extra days or adding more horses to the program, she takes pride in her work.

“I strive to hire a professional staff,” said Ford of the changes she’s made to the riding program over the years, which include hiring assistant trainers Paige Faubel and Karen Hurff. “I’m passionate about riding and teaching and horse showing, so I’ve increased the number of shows we [students and boarders] attend from May until September so that the school is more visible at A-rated shows and able to recruit and attract
top-caliber students.”

Woodhouse noted, “She’s been my No. 1 supporter and is everyone’s No. 1 supporter. It amazes me how she rallies everyone together. I’m mesmerized by the goals she sets and her ability to organize as dedicated a group of individuals as she has. I have so much respect for her—there’s no way the team could be half as successful as it’s been without such a great leader.”

Successful recruiting and well-trained riders helped Ford and the Skidmore College team win the IHSA finals in 1991, ’95, ’96 and ’99.

“The first year we won nationals, I got on the airplane to go home and felt like I was the coach of the winning Super Bowl team. It was so exciting, and I remember sitting down and saying, ‘I can’t believe we won  this whole thing!’” said Ford. “Doing it down south [at Hollins University (Roanoke, Va.)] with great Southern schools on their turf in their backyard made it even sweeter.”

As a member of the ’95 and ’96 winning teams, Phibbs had ample opportunity to study Ford’s winning strategy.

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“Learning how and when to use certain riders and knowing how much depth you want to have and how to comprise the team for each weekend or horse show has given me a better perspective,” said Phibbs, who owns Court Lin Frae Stables, Wellington, Fla. “Now, I look at my barn as a team and the horses as the players and I try to identify when I want different horses to peak during the season.

“One thing about Cindy is that she doesn’t make the team too big. You never feel like if you ride poorly one day that you’re going to lose your spot tomorrow, which keeps you healthy mentally,” added Phibbs.

It’s easy to think that after almost two decades of coaching a team and working in the same (often cold) environment day in and day out that Ford would have suffered from burnout. But that’s farther from the truth than a horse’s ear is from his fetlock.

“When prospective students come and look at the barn and you get excited about telling them about what you’re doing—that’s how I know I love what I do,” she said.

In On The Action

In addition to the school horses at Skidmore College, Cindy Ford also oversees a community program that allows for a few boarders, some of which are horses owned by team members and others locally-owned show horses.

“It’s such a good mix of people because people who come here to board at Skidmore feel like it’s a privilege to be here so they support the shows, the riding program and the students. And it works both ways—a lot of the students baby-sit for the boarders and in turn, the boarders are like mentors to the students,” said Ford.

Another benefit to having a small boarding operation in addition to the riding program is that it allows Ford the opportunity to travel to non-IHSA horse shows during the summer season. Over the years, she’s trained many junior riders, including equitation stars Grace Socha and Lexi Becker, but she always knew when it was time to push them out of the nest.

“It’s nice to be able to go to horse shows and not be locked away in an academic cocoon all the time,” said Ford. “Being able to go to [regular] shows helps me relate to the students and understand their needs.”

In an effort to escape the academic bubble, Ford not only attends competitions like the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) and the Vermont Summer Festival, but also she’s the president of the A-rated Skidmore College Saratoga Classic, a two-week horse show that takes place at the Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) racetrack during the last two weeks of June.

The show started in 1998 after a conversation Ford had with Phyllis Roth, then Dean of Faculty of Skidmore College. Discussing ways to expand the horse community and bring the people of Saratoga closer together, Ford recommended they use the dates that she usually used to run a B-rated horse show at the college to run an A-rated show instead.

“I’d always wanted to put on an A-rated show and I knew I already had the dates secured, but I thought it would be better if we could do the show at the racetrack,” said Ford.

The show grounds adjacent to the Saratoga racetrack was already home to a May show, the two-week St. Clement’s Saratoga Horse Show, so with a little luck and a bit of persuasion, Ford and Roth managed to convince Terry Meyocks of the New York Racing Association to let them use the facility for their June show.

“It’s the most fun and rewarding thing that I get to do every year,” said Ford of the show. “It’s so indicative of Skidmore because it’s top rate—it’s got the best management, the best exhibitors, and it serves as a community event.”

When she’s not coaching the team, deciding on which donation horses to accept or planning the horse show schedule, Ford still manages to find time to fulfill her obligation as a trustee to a local organization, the Capital District Hunter/Jumper Council, and was asked to participate on the U.S. Hunter/Jumper Association Zone 2 Hunter Committee.

Elizabeth Shoudy

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