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Horse Book Excerpt: How Good Riders Get Good

An Olympic eventer explains how your success as a rider correlates to the choices you make.

I didn't foresee all this back in 1963, but I'm pretty sure I hoped for something like it. What I did know was that I wanted to become a really good event rider, and I needed to figure out how to make that happen. So here were the choices I made.

  • I decided that in order to have time to ride, I'd need more free time than a conventional nine-to-five job would allow. Teaching school struck me as the "day job" career that would give me late afternoons off, plus weekends, plus summer vacations--even though the pay was terrible.
  • I learned that there was an opening available in the English department at Far Hills Country Day School in New Jersey. Far Hills is next door to Gladstone, New Jersey, which was then the site of the United States Equestrian Team (USET) training headquarters for both show jumping and eventing.
  • I drove down from New Hampshire for a job interview one spring weekend and was hired to teach sixth grade English for the 1963-1964 school year at Far Hills Country Day.

In 1963, the USET headquarters was in the midst of thousands of acres of pristine riding country that was also the home territory of the Essex Foxhounds. Highways, subdivisions, and golf courses have cut into much of the riding area by now, but in those days the whole Far Hills, Bernardsville, Peapack-Gladstone area of New Jersey was one of the premier places to ride in America.

For the next two years I was in the middle of all that horse activity, and I plunged in heart and soul. I hunted with Essex, some days for seven or eight hours. On weekends I could watch legendary coach Bert DeNemethy teach the great USET show jumping squad--fabulous riders like Frank Chapot, Kathy Kusner, Mary Mairs, Bernie Traurig, Billy Robertson, and the "the man" himself, Bill Steinkraus, who in just five years would win the individual gold medal at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City on Snowbound.

The three-day team was then coached by another Hungarian expatriate, Stephan Von Visy. Michael Page, Mike Plumb, Lana duPont, Kevin Freeman, and Jim Wofford were among the three-day squad who either lived full time at the team headquarters in Gladstone or came in for weeks or months at a time--and I could watch their training sessions, as well.

I became friends with Denny Crawford, an avid eventer, and through him, with General "Fuddy" Wing, a former Olympic show jumper and a USET official. Often, Denny and his wife Ailsa would take Lighting Magic and me to events in Maryland and Virginia, where I'd compete at Preliminary Level and Denny would compete his Royal Nubbins at Intermediate.

I raced Lighting Magic in the 1964 Essex Point-to-Point, took dressage clinics with Major Dezso Szilagyi (a product of the famous Hungarian riding school and author of Basic Classical Dressage), showed in hunter and jumper classes at local shows, and taught lessons to Essex Pony Club kids, many of whom I also taught at Far Hills Country Day. In short, I had engineered my own life circumstances to further my riding goals.

I recently was able to "time travel" back to those crucial years when I found some old diaries of mine among boxes of effects left in my parents' Vermont house. My entries from 1965, when I was twenty-three, show how totally I involved myself in the rich horse environment to which I'd relocated:

January 7
Dennis shod -- winter (borium tips).
January 9
Hunted from Brady's about 4½ hours. Good hunt -- five to ground.
January 11
Rode Sextet for Dr. Lohmeyer, worked Folly, did all stalls.
January 30
USCTA [United States Combined Training Association] luncheon, NYC. Polo, Squadron A Armory. Dennis high-point horse, USCTA, 1964.

Subsequent entries chronicle my riding in everything from below-zero cold snaps to February mud. On a late-March trip to Southern Pines with Dennis, I also rode every other horse that crossed my path, including a green colt that bucked me off. By summer, Dennis and I were going Intermediate in eventing, and I was also competing him in dressage and show jumping.

When I looked through those old journals recently, I had few active memories of the nonstop riding and learning experiences they chronicled -- but I was a horse fanatic, pure and simple. And I was laying the foundation for my future career.

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