Two weeks ago Ben Ebeling cantered down centerline in his first senior Grand Prix CDI class at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival. Not content to merely score 70%, on Jan. 28, he and Illuster Van De Kampert went one better to score their first win in the CDI3* Grand Prix for the Special (71.80%) in a class full of Olympians and experienced Grand Prix pairs.
Ebeling’s name might sound familiar, as his father is Olympian Jan Ebeling, but Ben has been making a name for himself in the young rider and Under-25 Grand Prix classes for the past two years with the 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding (Spielberg—Sabina Van De Kampert, Contango).
Ben, 21, Moorpark, California, is spending the winter in Wellington, Florida, on a break from his studies at Carnegie Mellon University (Pennsylvania). He’s been named to the Kundrun USEF Dressage Development Program and is looking forward to an exciting season with “Illuster” and his other top horse Behlinger.
Congratulations on your win! How did it feel?
I thought it went very well. It’s been a real team effort to continue to develop him towards the Grand Prix. I was extremely happy with most of the piaffe and passage. He got a little hot coming down the last centerline. For me, the highlight was the zigzag and the one-tempis. He’s got very powerful changes, which is always a good thing to have. I was very pleased with him from a mental standpoint too because sometimes when he goes in the arena, he’s just naturally a hot horse, and sometimes it can be a little overwhelming, but he really held himself together, and I think he’s maturing, and mentally he’s getting a lot more calm in the arena, which is a big win for me from a development standpoint.
There were quite a few big names in the class. What did it feel like to come out on top?
That was a big confidence booster. I’m really lucky to be down here in Wellington seeing a lot of these people compete, like Tinne [Vilhelmson Silfven], who was in the class, and seeing other people like Steffen [Peters], Christoph [Koschel] and my dad of course, too. I think these are all riders who have really learned how to thread the needle, if you will, in a dressage test and make it look effortless. It’s really cool for me to watch that. While it was very awesome to win against a couple of those really amazing riders who have been battle-tested, it was a really cool learning experience because I got to watch a couple of those rides as well.
Tell me about Illuster Van De Kampert.
Officially we call him “Illuster” in the barn, but I always call him “Big Dog.” We’ve had him for 2 ½ years.
He was with a couple of different trainers in Wellington and also on the West Coast [the gelding was previously shown in the small tour by Shannon Peters and David Marcus]. He’s owned by Sasha Cutter, who I had a chance meeting with in New York. We were able to come to an agreement, so she owns half the horse, and we own half the horse, and it’s a really great partnership we have.
When I first tried him he was not a finished Grand Prix horse. He could do a couple of one-tempis and had a great talent for passage. He didn’t really know how to do a piaffe yet, so it was a lot of putting together. I’m lucky because my dad is one of the best to do that. I’m lucky to learn from him, and it’s come together really well.
What’s your relationship like with Jan?
My dad has always been my riding mentor, especially for dressage. It was great from a young age because neither my dad nor my mom pushed me to do horses. It was something that I picked up on my own. I started show jumping, then slowly got into the dressage. Riding alongside my dad has always been a real dream of mine, and to be at that place in my career now where in the morning we wake up at 6 o’clock, and we have our breakfast—he always cooks me an omelette, so that’s a good thing! Then we go down and ride pretty much all day together.
That is something I’ve always dreamed of, and I could not be happier to be doing that.
There are some times where we kind of get in each other’s faces, but I think that’s natural with any parent and child relationship, especially when the parent is the coach. But overall I couldn’t be happier with getting to know his knowledge of the sport, which is quite vast of course. Learning from a couple of other people is a good thing for me to do as well.
Is there anyone’s career you’d like to emulate?
I would really just like to be the first Ben Ebeling. I’ve watched my dad for so many years, and he has an incredible feel for horses, and Steffen as well and Christoph and Tinne, but for me I want to develop my own feel, and I don’t want to be “the next somebody.” I want to be the first Ben Ebeling.
Are you still show jumping?
That’s really where my heart is. I love show jumping so much. I have two young ones in California that are still growing up. One is 3, so I’ll go back this summer and break her and hopefully bring her to Wellington next year and maybe compete her in the 4-year-old classes. I also have a small partnership with Dietmar Gugler, and I’m hoping to get something going in the next couple of months or next year.
How do you balance college and riding?
I’m currently a business student at Carnegie Mellon University. It’s been virtual learning for the last couple of semesters. I took some summer courses as well, and this past fall I took three classes all online. It’s been an interesting experience—definitely different.
But for me, college is really a way for me to find something other than the horses I’m interested in because I’m striving to be a more diverse person, not just focused on the horses all the time.
I decided this semester to take off and not take any classes, just focus on the horses, and then when college is really back, and the social aspect is there, and I’m able to be with my friends and learn in person, then I’ll resume the classes.
Favorite thing to do on your day off?
I have a couple of friends down here in Wellington who I know are being safe, so I hang out with them. We’re always going to the beach. We always go bike riding. Of course, I hang out with my parents. We’re always playing board games, and my mom always cooks. We don’t really go out too much in these times. She’s an amazing cook, so helping her cook is one of my favorite things.
West Coast, best coast?
I think my West Coast friends will probably be sad to hear this, but I do love Florida so much. Mostly because the water is so much warmer at the beach!
You are one of the only younger guys having success at the FEI levels in this country. Thoughts on that?
Well, I think it’s great! There are only a couple of other guys my age who are doing the sport, like Christian Simonson. There’s certainly an off number of guys-to-girls ratio. It’s fun, I like it. But at the same time, you have to find some guys to hang out with, and that sometimes can be tough. But that’s OK because I’ve got a lot of friends who play polo and from the jumpers, of course.
In Germany, they don’t really have that problem. I know so many guys who are competing in this sport. It seems to be an even number in the European countries. It just seems to be a bit different here in the U.S. I’m not really sure why that is because I certainly have a great time doing this sport, but I know that I was also brought into it a little bit from a family perspective.
All I can say is that I have a lot of fun doing it, and I wish there were more guys from the U.S. team.
What have you learned from the show jumping that you can apply to dressage, or vice versa?
I think from the show jumping, my trainer Will Simpson always said, “You have to learn how to thread the needle” in a jumping class and make it look like every stride is placed perfectly and that all of the jumps fall into place. I think that can be applied to dressage as well because the movements are just one thing, but it’s really what happens in between the movements like the half-halts and getting your horse prepared for the next thing that’s really important. Learning how to thread the needle is something that can be applied to both sports.