Reddick, Fla.—Nov. 15
When she first saw Bendigo, barefoot and slightly feral in a field, Ema Klugman knew she had to have him.
She was just 14, and the 10-year-old bay Trakehner gelding only had some low-level show jumping experience, but his “neurotic and crazy” attitude somehow captivated her, and she took a chance.
With help from trainer Packy McGaughan, Klugman started Bendigo at novice, and each time they moved up a level he surprised her. Now, at age 17, he’s still surprising his rider, and they’ve completed two CCI4*-Ls and will try for a third this weekend at the Ocala Jockey Club International (Florida).
“The reason we bought him was he just was so clever over a jump, like he really just knew that part,” said Klugman. “I think one great thing about Packy is he knows how to pick horses for the right time in your career, so a young kid, you need a good jumping horse because you’re not going to be able to see a great distance at every jump. It’s a horse that you learn on, and you need a really safe horse, and that’s absolutely that horse.”
Klugman, who’s just about to graduate from Duke University (North Carolina) with a degree in public policy and history, has become a role model for young riders looking to balance college and riding at the upper levels, and she’s become an inspiration to fellow members of the Seneca Valley Pony Club (Maryland), where she’s still a member with her A rating.
Born in Australia, Klugman moved to Nairobi, Kenya, when she was 7 because her mother, Jeni Klugman, worked for the World Bank. She learned to ride with her brother Josh Klugman in a Kenyan Pony Club on a pony named Hedgehog, but she never had much dressage schooling.
Ema and her family moved back to the States when she was a teen, and she joined Seneca Valley Pony Club, competing to preliminary on an off-the-track Thoroughbred before she found Bendigo. She’s since earned specialized A ratings in show jumping, dressage and eventing.
“It’s great! At the A level it’s really about being able to train a horse, rather than just being able to ride a horse,” she said.
Learning horse management was also huge for her since that part of her education was lacking from her time growing up in Kenya. “It was a lot of stuff to know. But it was great to learn it,” she said. “Pretty much most of what I know is from that. That gave me a great foundation.”
The family bought a farm in Maryland, which is how she met McGaughan, whom she still trains with.
After graduating high school, Ema wanted to go back to Kenya, so she worked for a safari company, Off Beat Safaris, for a summer. The company guided tourists through the wild on horseback and set up camp each night.
Ema jumped young horses over acacia bushes, crested rivers with hippos wading in the water, and sat tight on horses as they spotted their first giraffe.
Every other summer was spent at McGaughan’s working and getting experience. “He gave me a lot of opportunities riding young horses,” Ema said. “I learned how to back 3-year-olds, started showing young horses and stuff like that, so that was really good for my development. Not only just being able to ride lots of horses, which of course you need to do when you’re learning how to ride and train, but riding really nice ones as well, so that was cool.”
McGaughan introduced Ema to Marilyn Little, and she’s spent summers since working for the show jumper/eventer.
“She has given me so many opportunities, both with showing some young jumpers and riding, and being around that quality of horse in the barn every day is amazing,” Ema said. “I’ve gone back there pretty much every summer. I think a lot of eventers in some ways don’t know what real scope is. Like in the jumpers, it’s a totally different type of horse and feeling. I wouldn’t be able to practice jumping 1.40-meter courses in an eventing barn.”
Ema is sad she missed a chance at the North American Youth Championships (she rides for Australia and wasn’t allowed to compete, and when the rules were changed the timing wasn’t right), but she appreciates the road she’s taken and how much Pony Club has influenced, and continues to influence her riding.
“I remember coming to America, and I had no idea how to put a bandage on, and being in the barn, I had my little Morgan pony who was really patient, and I would be wrapping the leg, and it would fall down,” she said. “And I would wrap it again, and it would fall down; so, just learning the basic things that you might learn as a working student at a barn.”
Going to college was important to Ema, and she was active on campus in intramural sports, as a Baldwin Scholar (a Duke organization devoted to women’s leadership and empowerment), and she helped lead another organization trying to prevent sexual assault on campus.
“One thing I think about the horse world that’s not so great, especially if you’re a young person who doesn’t go to university, is you kind of think that the horse world is it; that is very small compared to what’s out there,” she said. “So I think you have to keep your eyes open and also be open to riding and doing another thing, and if you have other interests you can hopefully make it work in some way. And riding’s expensive, so if you can have some way to make money that’s not just depending on your increasingly broken body from riding these young horses.
“I mean, it’s pretty remarkable how inspiring and interesting it is just to be around a lot of smart people who are interested in solving a lot of problems in the world,” she continued. “My roommate’s a biomedical engineer, and I’ve got friends who are going to medical school, and I have friends who are going to law school, and people who want to be politicians.”
Ema admitted it’s a balancing act at school to study and keep two horses going (she competed Joker’s Win to advanced, but he’s currently at home while she focuses on a new horse, Bronte Beach, who’s in the CCI2*-L this weekend), but she credits her mother for being able to do it. Jeni used to ride in Pony Club in Australia and comes down to Duke on weekends to go to events with Ema. Otherwise she’s on her own during much of the school year, but breaks are spent coming home with the horses to train with McGaughan or Little. She was able to come to Ocala thanks to the MARS Bromont Rising Program, which offered $3,000 each to 10 Under-25 riders to go to the event. They also received two days of training at nearby Mardanza Farm before the event.
Ema, 21, isn’t sure what’s next when she graduates early in three weeks. The Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L might be in her future if Bendigo decides he’s up for it.
“We’re sort of just doing it one show at a time,” she said. “I have one qualifying score for a five-star, and he’s a little bit of an older horse, so you don’t really want to squeeze the lemon until it’s dry, but if he wants to do it, by all means Bendigo, prove us wrong. He’s just been great for me to get experience on through this level. I did my first advanced when I was 18, I’m almost 22 now, and sort of through those years, it’s just changed a lot, my view of the advanced level, because of the experience I’ve got from him. I just understand it more; I’ve got so much to learn obviously, so we’re just enjoying it.”
At home, Bendigo lives out since he doesn’t love the barn. Ema’s philosophy is to let her horses be who they are.
“I’m so thankful that I have him,” she said. “He’s not the most flashy horse, or even the scopiest horse really. He has a nice jump, but he doesn’t give you the feeling that you can jump a 6-foot wall. But he really tries, and now that I’ve had him for so long, we know each other really well. We don’t really tell him how old he is. Every year he comes out, and we just let him. If he ever wants to slow down, of course we’ll let him, but he’s sort of gung-ho all the time, and he feels great right now.”
Follow along at COTH.com all weekend for more from the event and check out the Dec. 2 print edition of the Chronicle for more.