Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

Curiosity Takes Swinson From Mike Plumb’s Short Stirrup Lessons To EAP Nationals

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Five-time Olympian Michael Plumb spotted 6-year-old Emily Grace Swinson peeping over the rail and gave her a proposition: If she could get a particularly tricky horse he’d been working with to rein back, he’d train her. 

Swinson had been horse-obsessed for a while before he made that offer, thanks in large part to her aunt, Cynthia Peterson, who operated Cricket Lane Farm LLC in Southern Pines, North Carolina. Peterson fostered her love by picking Swinson up after school so that she could breathe in hay-filled air and ride. And part of those after-school and weekend barn excursions involved watching Plumb work Peterson’s horses. 

“I would go over and watch all the time and watch him teach,” recalled Swinson, 19, of Pinehurst, North Carolina. “I was so little, so I remember in bits and pieces. She had a horse that had been with him for a while. It was horrible at backing up, and he was the only person that could get a nice back out of it. 

“When I was there one day, he said if you can get this horse to back up, I will teach you on so-and-so—one of his other horses,” she continued. “So, I was out there in the ring forever and ever to just get the horse to back up one step, and when I finally could, he agreed to give me a lesson—because he didn’t give little kids lessons—but he made me work for it.”

Six-year-old Emily Grace Swinson with her early coach, eventing Olympian Mike Plumb, at his JMP Farms in Southern Pines, N.C. “[I’m] grateful that I learned to wear a proper fitting helmet and hair net,” she reflected back. “I had braids and bows for the early years, something that Mike detested, he could not wait for me to get into a hairnet.” Photo Courtesy Of Emily Grace Swinson

Plumb came to a few of Swinson’s short stirrup horse shows, but because of her grandparents’ fear of immovable obstacles, she never ventured far into the eventing legend’s own discipline. Instead, Swinson started with dressage and did some combined training with her first pony. But after meeting some friends in the hunters, Swinson embraced that world. 

While showing on the circuit in the hunters, equitation and jumpers, she also become involved with the Interscholastic Equestrian Association, competing with Fox Run Farms IEA team and serving on the youth board. Through the board, she learned IEA also offered Western classes and decided to dip her toe in that world. 

“I thought, ‘How fun would it be to try the Western IEA?’ ” she said. “So, I joined a team, and that’s when I did the horsemanship. And then at the same barn, funny enough, it was a reining barn that the team was out of. I just loved watching them.”

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She competed in reining and did some barrel racing, even owning a reining horse, but lack of time led her to eventually give it up. 

“But it was such a cool experience to be able to learn from a new discipline,” Swinson said. “It’s so much fun to know every aspect of the horse.”

That curiosity fueled her teen years, as she started taking on responsibilities at Peterson’s farm. With 14 horses—a mixture of retirees, boarders and Swinson’s own—she acts as the unofficial stable manager by taking care of them daily and managing their nutrition.  

“Ever since I was young, I’ve been out there [and] slowly started taking little jobs over,” she said. “I’ve had experience with my own horses’ care probably since I was least like 14 years old.” 

As she worked this year with Don Sandro, an eventer turned equitation prospect, she decided to apply for the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program Regional Training Session. She’d competed at the National Training Session in 2021 and in a regional a few years before that. But with clinician Candice King and stable manager Tracy Forman, she just wanted to learn how she could better her training skills to help her horse. 

Emily Grace Swinson rode to the top of the 2023 MZ Farms/USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session, held Nov. 9-12 at the University of Findlay (Ohio) aboard borrowed horse Barolo. Rachel Milewski/USHJA Photo

“I applied again this year because I thought that [with] the horse that I have that I brought, it would just greatly benefit both of us,” Swinson said. “And so, I just really listened to everything Candice had said at my regional session and really wanted to have another point of view for our training from that session. I was just so lucky to have them accept me or selected for nationals as well.”

She and Peterson traveled up to University of Findlay (Ohio) for the MZ Farms/USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session, held Nov. 9-12. Swinson drew donated horse Barolo as her sole charge for the weekend, which involved two days of clinics with Peter Wylde in the ring and Colleen Reed in the barn. At the end of the weekend, she and Barolo joined Team Albany in producing a zero-fault score in a Nations Cup-style competition to earn team gold. 

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“It’s so cool, over the few days that we have, to learn the new partner,” she said. “You learn more about yourself and your riding when you’re on a horse that you don’t know. It’s such a unique experience, and I think it would benefit so many riders out there today.

“Probably the best thing was winning the gold medal with the team,” she said. “That was honestly one of my favorite moments. Our team was double clear for both rounds, so that was so fun to cheer each of the riders on and have us all work together and be there for one another. Working as a team, you don’t really have a lot of moments like that in our sport, so that was really fun.”

While normally Wylde, Reed and the EAP committee resort to a ride-off to determine the individual MZ Farms/USHJA Emerging Athletes Program National Training Session winner, this year they felt so confident in Swinson that they didn’t need any further testing after the Nations Cup. 

“I was so shocked, honestly, to hear my name called,” Swinson said. “There were so many great people and great riders; it was hard to believe that Peter and Colleen and the committee selected me to be recognized. It was really so surreal, and I’m so over the moon about it and so grateful and so surprised.”

Reflecting on her time, Swinson hopes others will recognize the importance of EAP and to not get discouraged if the first time out they don’t make the national training session. 

“The EAP is such a fabulous program provided by USHJA,” she said. “I don’t think that the program gets enough credit for the opportunity it provides for young riders. All the clinicians at the regional level are so wonderful. I wish more juniors would take advantage of the opportunity to work with such elite athletes.

“Working with people like Candice King, who was my regional clinician, and Peter Wylde, the national clinician, [and] gaining the knowledge that they have to give is very rare for a lot of people out there,” she added. “Working with such elite people like them, I don’t think that that information you can just get anywhere in the sport. 

“[I learned] so much from the stable managers—Tracy Forman was my regional stable manager and Colleen was the national stable manager,” she added. “Since they have so much experience in this sport, and they worked with so many people, it’s just incredible to pick their brains and be able to take that information home to your own barn and apply that to your own horses.”

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