Our Gamble In Reno Paid Off

Jan 17, 2011 - 3:51 AM

Our columnist and Julie Winkel put together a popular symposium to discuss various aspects of training and developing young hunters and jumpers.

When I sat down this past spring to write a column on the challenges facing the breeders, owners and trainers of young horses in North America I was only guessing at the interest there might be in the subject. A few weeks earlier Julie Winkel and I had decided to take a chance on offering a symposium on developing young hunters and jumpers.

With the opportunity to utilize her facilities and young horses at Maplewood Stables, along with the support of the Young Jumper Championships and the generous offer of any necessary underwriting by K.C. Kelley of Branscomb Farms, we went forward with planning. The only weekend that both Julie and I had open during the year was the rather inauspicious Thanksgiving one. Knowing the way horse people are when it comes to their passion we decided to go forward regardless, expecting a small gathering and a good learning experience with a new venture.

More than 50 participants—from 14 states and Canada—arrived the day after the holiday to Julie’s beautiful facility in sunny but snowy Reno, Nev. They came from Alaska to Florida, the Northeast, Northwest, and all parts in between. Breeders, owners and professionals (both young and established) came to learn, share experience and discuss the future of this important segment of our industry.

Friday evening participants gathered at Julie’s gorgeous home to go over the schedule for the jam-packed weekend. As we went around the room with introductions it became evident what a high level of knowledge and varied experience was present.

I was fortunate to have had some short videos prepared by horsewoman extraordinaire Pilar Cepeda of La Silla, in Monterrey, Mexico. This incredible operation has bred and trained an array of successful international competition horses over the last 20-plus years.

It set the tone for us to see footage of this year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games top-four finalist, HH Rebozo (formerly Rebozo La Silla), as he progressed from 3 to 6 years of age in Mexico. He then came to the United States to compete in YJC events with Candice King and eventually became Rodrigo Pessoa’s WEG mount. Watching the many years of careful work and appropriate show ring mileage that goes into making even the most talented youngster made an ideal kick-off to the symposium.

Clinician Mindy Bower demonstrated the importance of groundwork and all-around good horsemanship in starting and training sport horses. She worked with horses 2 and 3 years of age and gave us a demonstration of how well behaved babies can be, even in a new, loud and invigorating environment, when they have had a real foundation
on the ground.

Riders took recently started 3-year-olds over small “courses” of ground poles, still in the rope halters that she prefers to start them with. We all saw why she’s such an important part of the U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Emerging Athletes Program. Many of the riders who are exposed to her horsemanship believe that this is one of the most valuable—and least explored—aspects of what makes a true horseman.

Sharing Techniques

On Saturday we watched and learned as Daniel Zilla, professional trainer and rider at Branscomb Farms in Half Moon Bay, Calif., demonstrated a variety of training techniques utilizing a free-jumping chute. It was clear how much more a horse is able to learn about balance, cleverness, confidence and concentration in a chute when the work is carefully and thoughtfully done with personnel who are knowledgeable and perceptive.

We also had video of free jumping in other facilities to see the possibilities for utilizing this type of schooling. It’s not simply about seeing how big a horse can jump.

We did more ridden horses of different ages in the afternoon, and it was pleasant to see how stress-free jumping is to horses who have already learned a bit “how to learn” from the ground and that have a good idea what is expected from their free-jumping introduction. With a one-step-at-a time approach, the steps can proceed in a prompt and orderly fashion with most every youngster.

The long day wrapped up with a working dinner in the lounge. I took this opportunity to get discussion going on a new program that will be test marketed in Southern California beginning early in January (see sidebar). Getting ideas of what we can do to develop our horses in a more economical fashion seems critical in every area of the country.

So much discussion sprang from the day’s activities that when we wrapped up I’m sure the participants were as glad to see a warm bed as I was. I doubt the lovely resort that played host to many of the participants made nearly as much off their casino as they might have hoped; the symposium kept everyone too busy!

On Sunday, Mindy had a young rider “back” a 2-year-old in a safe, kind and effective manner and explained how proper groundwork can be effective even in dealing with issues that come up with older horses. With the jumping portion we fit in a few horses readying for next year’s shows.

Sunday also provided an informative live session on sport horse conformation presented by Julie, one of today’s best-known experts on the topic. We also heard a concise and informative presentation by Faith Fessenden on what inspectors from the KWPN-NA and other breed registries look for at their various inspections. This is a topic that evolves continually and is of vital importance to breeders.

Finding The Right Specialist

The symposium reminded everyone of the myriad of specialties within even the hunter and jumper part of our sport. It’s impossible for anyone to be a consummate expert on each and every aspect anymore. Whether it’s riding and training grand prix horses, starting green colts, putting the long, slow rides on youngsters, introducing them to the show ring, dealing with difficult or poorly started horses, or teaching a novice rider to ride safely and confidently, there are people out there who have made that one area their specialty and do it extremely well.

Depending on the needs of the horse, rider or owner at a particular point, the right specialist is likely to get a better result with less wear and tear on everyone than going to a generalist or to a specialist in the wrong area.

The problem in North America right now is that it can be difficult to locate the young horse specialists in a given area since they receive so little “exposure” compared with the horse showing pros. Given the geographic area we contend with this is no easy problem to address, even though it’s crucial to filling the gaps in the essential continuum from breeder to successful competition horse. Various committees grapple with the issue, but definitive answers have yet to be identified.

The first symposium on young horse training and development wrapped up with a delicious dinner at the host hotel. It seemed that everyone enjoyed the opportunity to learn, network and discuss mutual issues that face everyone with a love of young horses. Regardless of where participants came from, geographically or in terms of current position within the sport (owner, breeder, professional, amateur or junior), they urged us to do more of this sort of thing, both at Julie’s again and in other regions of the country—and to figure out how to fit even more topics into the schedule.

On a personal note, it was gratifying to see the response to the symposium and to be able to connect with so many old friends and colleagues, as well as to meet so many fellow lovers of the sport and especially the aspect of it concerned with developing our horses. I cannot thank enough Julie Winkel, Cheryl Frank at the YJC office, K.C. Kelley, and all those who worked on and attended the symposium.

All those months ago when I guessed at the interest out there it turned out I was wrong—there was way more than even I thought. Plans are underway to do more.

The Benchmark Program

The common refrain from breeders, owners and professionals alike is the cost involved in taking horses from the just-getting-started stage up to being marketable, competition-ready sport horses. Once a horse reaches the point of needing to leave the stable and get that crucial “mileage” away from home—such a critical issue to the average buyer looking for a potential purchase—the costs of maintaining the horse skyrocket.

Unlike European countries where a whole host of different systems have been developed to provide good, inexpensive one-day venues for achieving the sort of experience that takes the horses to the next step, most areas of our country leave trainers with only three choices: 1) keep the horses at home and have vastly diminished opportunities for the horses to continue on or to sell; 2) go to inexpensive schooling shows that seldom provide the sort of experience to prepare them for higher levels of competition and offer little or no marketing exposure; or 3) invest the money that is involved in going to the larger shows and hope that the horse will sell for a price that justifies the investment.

None of these options are inviting ones, especially in today’s economy, for those with more horses than available funds to spend on showing them.

In trying to devise a solution to the situation the idea for The Benchmark Program evolved. The key points it tries to address are: 1) reasonable cost in terms of both time and money to attend; 2) emphasis on good mileage (courses) for younger/novice horses (or riders) which includes opportunities to get back onto the course to fix problems and build confidence; 3) opportunity to obtain a verifiable performance record for use in marketing or as a marker for individual goals; and 4) creation of marketing venues for people to go to see what’s available for sale in the area in a relaxed, non-competitive environment.

The first Benchmark Rally was held on Jan. 9 at El Sueño in Somis, Calif. This excellent venue will host three more rallies during the year, and it’s possible that a limited number of other geographic areas might “test-drive” the concept this year. More information is available at www.thebenchmarkprogram.com

Noted international course designer Linda Allen created the show jumping courses for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the 1992 FEI World Cup Finals. She’s a licensed judge, technical delegate and a former international show jumper. She lives in Fillmore, Calif., and San Juan Cosalá, Jalisco, Mexico, and founded the International Jumper Futurity and the Young Jumper Championships. Allen began writing Between Rounds columns in 2001.


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