Olympian Peter Wylde Weighs In on the Relevance of Equitation

Pointing to the success of up-and-coming rider Kelli Cruciotti, Peter Wylde analyzes the benefits of the equitation divisions when making the transition to the jumper ring.
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Pointing to the success of up-and-coming rider Kelli Cruciotti, Peter Wylde analyzes the benefits of the equitation divisions when making the transition to the jumper ring.
Kelli Cruciotti and Chamonix H won the 2015 $100,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon in May. | © Amy Dragoo/Aimmedia

Kelli Cruciotti and Chamonix H won the 2015 $100,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon in May. | © Amy Dragoo/Aimmedia

At a recent U.S. Hunter Jumper Association Town Hall meeting, President Bill Moroney led a discussion about the path for the young generation of riders. Citing the lack of opportunities for juniors who did not have huge backing, we discussed options for undiscovered riders and programs to help them achieve what sometimes appear to be unattainable goals. 

Of course, we talked about the organization’s Emerging Athletes Program and the successes of its graduates. Many have heard about the meteoric experience of Jacob Pope, 2011 EAP Champion, who went on to win both the U.S. Equestrian Federation Show Jumping Talent Search Finals–East and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship. Stephen Foran, 2012 EAP champion, is now competing in Europe, showing top young horses for legendary horseman and trainer Henk Nooren of the Netherlands. Stephen is gaining invaluable experience that would otherwise not be available to him. 

What’s interesting about both of these young riders and countless others is that a big part of their education and foundation came from competing in equitation rings. Although they did not have funding to own top equitation horses, through their commitment to the sport they were able to get themselves mounted and gain great experience. They worked hard for what they achieved and often made sacrifices in their lives to further their careers.

Peter Wylde and Kelli take walking the course seriously. “We love the strategizing of our plan, especially the jumpoff route,” he says. “We count strides up to nine so there is a lot to do in the course walk.” | © Nancy Jaffer

Peter Wylde and Kelli take walking the course seriously. “We love the strategizing of our plan, especially the jumpoff route,” he says. “We count strides up to nine so there is a lot to do in the course walk.” | © Nancy Jaffer

Competing successfully in equitation and, of course, winning any of the finals used to be considered a steppingstone for junior riders to move onto the grand prix circuit and eventually to ride for the U.S. Equestrian Team. There is a long list of American riders who rose through the equitation ranks to join the upper echelons of athletes representing the United States in international competition. 

But since I returned from Europe two years ago, many people have asked me and I’ve even asked myself, “Is the Junior Equitation division still relevant today?” They wonder about its value. Some are critical of the direction the division has taken. Is it a necessary educational experience for a future grand prix star or an end in itself? Are we teaching junior riders to ride well and be great competitors? 

My answer is that the equitation division can be as positive or negative an experience as a rider wants to make it. How to approach the equitation division is up to every individual. Is it an end? An enjoyment for the weekend rider? Or does it educate and prepare a junior for bigger things? 

Kelli rides Monterrey in the 2015 Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final at the Winter Equestrian Festival. | © Sportfot

Kelli rides Monterrey in the 2015 Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Final at the Winter Equestrian Festival. | © Sportfot

While it is up to each rider to decide about the equitation division, I believe that it is completely relevant for the same reasons it always has been. It is a helpful path for junior riders to take, giving them an education and experience that will eventually lead them to bigger and better things.

Kelli Cruciotti: Setting Goals
In the past year, I have been working closely with junior rider Kelli Cruciotti and her mother, Cindy, who trains Kelli, to help her make the transition from the equitation ring to riding in larger jumper classes. Kelli, 17, is a very successful equitation rider, finishing second in the 2013 ASPCA Maclay National Championship. Cindy, head trainer and owner of Serenity Farm Show Stables in Elizabeth, Colorado, has done an amazing job teaching Kelli the foundations of riding and giving her an invaluable education. With my international jumper experience, my job has been to help Kelli take what she has learned and focus her talent toward the grand prix ring. The journey has been successful, with Kelli most recently winning her first grand prix—the $100,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon with Chamonix H in May.

There are many reasons why I have enjoyed working with the Cruciottis. First and foremost, they love horses and they love riding, and competition comes second to the welfare of the animal. This has always been my mantra. Our similar approach to the sport allowed us to plan the way we wanted to manage the transition from equitation to grand prix as a team. 

As the jumps got higher, one of the changes Peter made in Kelli’s riding is a slight adjustment in her equitation position: Here on Zorro, her center of balance is adjusted slightly more vertical and her release becomes more giving and fluid. | © Tracy Emanuel

As the jumps got higher, one of the changes Peter made in Kelli’s riding is a slight adjustment in her equitation position: Here on Zorro, her center of balance is adjusted slightly more vertical and her release becomes more giving and fluid. | © Tracy Emanuel

We made goals for Kelli and her hor-ses, and we have used the equitation division to make the transition to the jumper ring successful. We chose to pursue equitation in an educational and competitive way, always putting the horse’s welfare at the forefront. The horse is at the core of our planning. We pick the most important events for the horse to compete in during a calendar year and then decide how to prepare for that goal. Instead of trying to do as many shows as possible, we pick competitions to help the horses peak at the right time—I did this when I was planning for any big championship, including the Olympics. This applies to any division, whether it’s equitation, jumpers or hunters. It also pertains to any level of riding, whether the goal is for the grand prix ring or a year-end local championship.

Another aspect of our training program is that we avoid drilling. Everyone loves to train, but we make our program for any given horse based on the question, “How much should the horse do?” We have ongoing conversations about each horse. Factors we consider include longevity of the horse’s career and trying to produce the best quality of a horse’s performance. Part of equitation—or horsemanship, if you will—is understanding how to produce the best rounds possible. Regardless of discipline or level, if the horse becomes disinterested due to overuse, the quality of his performance is compromised. 

Position: Connect, Don’t Perch
For me there are three major educational values to the equitation division. The most basic part is position. I say this cautiously because I find sometimes that position is put ahead of great riding, and those two things don’t always go hand in hand. Having said that, form should follow function and a classically good position should allow the rider to be fluid and in perfect harmony with the horse. I’ve noticed there’s a fair amount of equitation riding that has the rider perched on top of the horse rather than being connected with the horse. This is a difference in technique and in mentality. A perched rider has a physical disconnect—sitting or perching above the horse—as well as a frame of mind in which he or she doesn’t understand or know what the horse is thinking. When a rider is completely connected to the horse, he or she can work as one with him, anticipating his every move and helping him perform his best. The significance of a rider connected to her horse, rather than in a perched position, becomes more valuable as the courses become higher and more difficult.

As the jumps become higher, the stirrups get shorter and the release is more giving. Kelli’s eyes are up and looking forward to the next jump. Both Kelli and Wallenberg are giving their best. | © Tracy Emanuel

As the jumps become higher, the stirrups get shorter and the release is more giving. Kelli’s eyes are up and looking forward to the next jump. Both Kelli and Wallenberg are giving their best. | © Tracy Emanuel

We have worked on this concept a lot with Kelli, and it has really helped her horses to perform. In addition to a natur-ally correct position, one of the things I love about Kelli is how together she is with her horses. Over time her position has matured and she has learned to be completely connected to her horses when she rides. She has three very good jumpers, and all three have evolved dramatically due to her sophisticated riding. They’ve improved steadily month after month because Kelli has incredible harmony with them. She is a soft, quiet and compassionate rider—she literally melts into them—and her style makes them relaxed and confident and allows them to jump to the best of their ability. This is something that all riders can practice and strive for, whether they are competing at the highest levels or a schooling show or even training at home.

The Benefits Of Technical Riding
The second, and I would argue, most important educational tool of the equitation division is that it teaches riders about the subtleties of riding a course. Equitation riders learn pace, angle, number of strides and approach to a fence. They learn how to walk and analyze a course. They learn to ride a course with an even stride and find distances out of rhythm. This becomes extremely valuable when riding fast jumpoffs as the quickest turns are the smoothest. All of these skills bring riders to a more sophisticated way of riding. I find this part of the equitation division’s education to be the most valuable aspect that helps any rider make the transition to higher-level jumping. By learning to ride the intricacies of a course, to break down and negotiate the technical aspects, be they related or unrelated distances, bending lines etc., equitation training prepares a rider to approach any course, anywhere with an educated eye and the ability to craft a plan that suits both horse and rider. This isn’t just true of young riders. Adults returning to or just beginning to ride can benefit from the many adult equitation divisions even if they plan to compete in hunters or jumpers.

The Ability to Perform Under Pressure
The third educational aspect of the equitation division is the knowledge and ability it gives a rider to perform under pressure. There are so many interesting equitation classes these days: the George Morris Excellence in Equitation, the R.W. “Ronnie” Mutch Equitation Championship, the USEF Talent Search Finals, the Maclay Finals, the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Classic Final, the USEF National Hunter Seat Medal Final. All of these classes are at big venues, some under lights, some indoors. The exposure of young riders to these competitions is valuable to their ability to perform under pressure. It’s important to teach riders to be comfortable under pressure, and there is no doubt that the equitation division gives kids a leg up on that. Sometimes athletes can choke under such stress, and others can thrive on it. Take Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden. She is the epitome of grace when the stakes are high. This ability to perform and be perfect under an immense blanket of expectations is what makes a great rider a superstar. I’m not sure grace under pressure is something you can always teach, but you can certainly work on making it better. As a trainer you can provide aid by working with students to instill confidence and remove the dread of failure. Confidence comes easier to some than others, but people who are really talented and want to win usually find a way to get around the nerves.

In the approach to the fence, Kelli has a soft guiding connection to the mouth. Her heel is down and underneath her. And her body is in a supportive position to keep Zorro in front of her and allow him to set himself in front of the fence and jump up in front of her. | © Tracy Emanuel

In the approach to the fence, Kelli has a soft guiding connection to the mouth. Her heel is down and underneath her. And her body is in a supportive position to keep Zorro in front of her and allow him to set himself in front of the fence and jump up in front of her. | © Tracy Emanuel

I believe that there are many positive things about the equitation division and what it offers our junior riders. It is a system that is at the core of educating young riders to ride well and understand quality riding so that when they advance to the jumper ring, they get there as thoughtful, polished, competitive and successful riders. How you approach the equitation division is a personal decision. It can be as positive or negative as you want to make it. For Kelli, we have used the foundation of the equitation division and applied it to higher level jumping. The equitation ring has been a necessary steppingstone, which has helped her advance successfully to the grand-prix level. 

We can be very proud as a country that we have this equitation system to educate our young riders. The American style of riding is admired throughout the world, and the depth in talent of our young riders today is evidence that we are still very much on the right track.

Kelli Cruciotti: Making Perfect Moments
When asked about her riding accomplishments, 17-year-old Kelli Cruciotti recalls her journey with fondness, from the ponies that helped teach her as a small child to the horses who have carried her to many top placings this year, including wins at the $100,000 Sapphire Grand Prix of Devon and the $25,000 Artisan Farms 25 and Under Grand Prix Series at the Winter Equestrian Festival. Of her surprise Devon win, she says, “Winning any class at this level is exciting, but to win a class as prestigious as this is a dream come true.”

Kelli Cruciotti and Zorro | © Tracy Emanuel

Kelli Cruciotti and Zorro | © Tracy Emanuel

Exuding quiet confidence, Kelli credits three things for giving her the solid foundation and preparation necessary for her recent transition to the more difficult and challenging grand prix courses: Her mother Cindy’s training program at their Serenity Farm Show Stables in Elizabeth, Colorado; time spent in the equitation division and the gradual progression through the Junior Jumper ranks. 

Although Kelli admits to getting nervous before going into the ring, she loves pressure situations and counts on two things to help manage her nerves: She does her homework and channels her nerves into positive energy—before entering the ring, she closes her eyes and visualizes the course and how she wants to ride it, which she then uses to address the questions that each course presents.

Kelli is circumspect about the transition to the bigger classes, citing some important lessons she has learned along the way. First, not every day is going to go her way so she’s had to learn to relax and enjoy the ride. 

Next is learning to modify her equitation position to be more supportive of her horse inside the bigger combinations and at the wider oxers in bigger jumping classes. “Peter [Wylde’s] expertise in riding the big tracks has helped me to adjust my body angle and my timing to help the horses measure the width of the oxers and get across them so as not to have the back rail down,” she says. Approaching the fences, she is more on the vertical with her upper body, which has helped her timing in front of the jumps. 

The last important lesson is to count to nine. For years Cindy had been encouraging Kelli to practice counting strides in the long bending lines to help measure the correct distance, but she chose to depend on her eye most of the time to make a distance work out. “This year,” Kelli noted with a smile, “the one weakness that was consistent in all of my courses was, of course, the long bends. So I practiced and practiced and made myself count the bends on course and I improved a lot.” 

Kelli hopes to further develop her knowledge and ability, ultimately becoming not just a good rider but a great horsewoman as well. She plans to achieve this via top barn management, advocating and ensuring horse welfare and giving back to the sport by being involved with the development of the many educational programs that are available to developing riders. Of course, she’d also like to compete at the highest levels of the sport and one day represent the United States in team and individual competitions.

One of Kelli’s favorite quotes is “Don’t wait for the perfect moment; take the moment and make it perfect.” Explaining why, she says, “I really believe in this quote because it is up to us to make our own destiny. We are all given a gift in life. We choose how to use that gift and to make the most of it. Our personal successes and failures in life are no one else’s responsibility but our own. So instead of waiting for perfection to be bestowed upon us, we must take what we have been given and work hard and make it perfect.”

After winning the 1982 ASPCA Maclay National Championship, Peter Wylde had many successes in the jumper ring. He won the 1999 individual and team silver medals at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada, with Mancanudo De Niro. A year later, he moved to Germany, where he ran his own stable for about 12 years. There he continued his winning ways. In 2002, he won the individual bronze medal and Best Horse honor for Fein Cera at the World Equestrian Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. The pair helped bring home a team gold medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics. 

A few years ago, Peter returned to the United States and established a riding and training business, Mullenders & Wylde Horses Inc., located at Winley Farm in Millbrook, New York. He also serves as the vice president and lead clinician of the USHJA Emerging Athletes Program.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.