Sandy: I'm a Secret Stalker - Expert how-to for English Riders

Sandy: I'm a Secret Stalker

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So here's a little-known secret: I'm a stalker. No, it's not old boyfriends or movie stars, and I don't do it in the middle of the night. Actually I stalk in broad daylight and at horse shows and competitions. My quarry?respected trainers and riders I'd like to feature in the magazine. Last week, for example, I was at the Devon Horse Show in Pennsylvania, looking for ideas and sources?and just to be inspired. Though I have a dream job writing about horses, the Practical Horseman offices are on the sixth floor of a dull-brown brick building overlooking a strip mall, a McDonald's and plenty of tarmac?not exactly equine inspirational. Arriving at Devon at 10 a.m. Tuesday after a four-hour drive, I walked through the gates and immediately saw Hunt Tosh and Good Humor?our June cover models?on course in the main ring. I still get thrills seeing riders and horses who've appeared in the magazine in action, and Good Humor didn't disappoint me?you could just see how hard he was trying, bringing his knees up square and near his ears as he jumped. Their round over, I headed to the warm-up area and spent a few minutes letting my eyes adjust to the glare of the sun bouncing off the light-colored sand footing. The temperature was well on its way to 90 degrees, and I could already feel sweat running down my back, plastering my jeans to my legs. After taking a quick inventory of the who's who of riders there?including Scott Stewart, Louise Serio, Jennifer Alfano and Liza (Towell) Boyd to name a few?I headed for the main grandstand to watch some rounds, and again, scope out who was there. Equitation trainer Stacia Madden was sitting a few seats ahead of me, and I really wanted to do something with her, but she was chatting with someone. Hunter rider Peter Pletcher was stretched out on the top seats, but he also was surrounded by people. In the ring, I watched Canadian rider Erynn Ballard, winner of the 1998 ASPCA Maclay National Championship. She also was on my wish list of trainers to work with, so I headed back down to hover near the in-gate area. And this is where the stalking begins. It's sometimes tricky figuring out when is a good time to approach riders and trainers at a horse show. This was Devon after all?a prestigious show?and they're always busy riding and training horses or students. Also, if I don't know them well, I try to get a sense of their personalities to help me figure out the best approach: Some riders are talkers and love to chat, while others are shy and look a little like a deer-in-the-headlights when I tell them who I am. Finally, I'm naturally a little on the shy side myself, so I have to take a deep breath before I launch into self-introductions. With all this in mind, I watched Erynn for a while?she and Liza Boyd were chatting (with Liza offering Erynn some water and a protein bar from a small cooler she had stashed under a seat). Then Erynn headed to the stands, saying hello to a few people on the way. Just before she got to the stairs, I called out her name and she turned. My timing wasn't perfect because she was looking at her phone. But she smiled, so I introduced myself and asked if she'd be interested in working on a training story with us. "I'd love to," she said?music to my ears. She said she had to speak with the owner of the horse she'd just ridden but then could sit down and chat, which we did. We talked a little about her training system and some story ideas, narrowing them down to one that really interested her. She gave me her contact information as well as her summer schedule so we could coordinate interviews and a photo shoot. Then she was off to ride her next horse, as I scribbled some follow-up notes from our conversation. Next I watched the handy-hunter course for a while and, though it was the professional division, several riders were having trouble in two spots: One was the trot fence set in the middle of the arena, parallel to the long side, so riders had to make a fairly tight rollback turn to it. Many of the horses seemed surprised to see the little fence and broke to the canter in front of it, refused it or jumped it awkwardly. The second area was a two-stride coming out of the corner on a diagonal, with a prompt right turn, inside a set of fences, to a single fence. I jotted them down in my notebook as possible future training ideas. The rest of the day was filled with similar moments. Back in the stabling area, California trainer and rider Archie Cox told me he was on a soapbox and wanted to do a story on safety?always an important topic. Next I spoke with Archie's fellow California trainer Peter Lombardo about a training idea we'd talked about a while ago. Then Peter introduced me to his assistant trainer, Katie Gardner, who'd had a successful morning showing, and she and I talked about some ideas. As the daylight finally started to wane, I felt pretty good about the day's efforts. Having a slight headache from the heat, I thought I'd just watch the evening's jumper classes. But then I saw Irish rider Kevin Babington go clear and remembered that he also was on my wish list. He looked like he was headed back to the stalls so I jumped up to follow him, in full stalking mode. He stopped a little abruptly and turned back to the ring. Caught off guard a little, I stuck out my hand, introduced myself and asked if he'd be interested in doing a story. He was but had to help one student for the upcoming class, so I went to the stands to watch the rest of the class. Kevin came up to the stands and after his student went, turned to me to discuss ideas. (I was thrilled because sometimes riders forget about me and then I have to debate whether to bug them again, and when.) The next day was much of the same. I took some photos and chatted with a few more trainers. As I tucked my notebook into my bag and headed to my car to drive back home later that afternoon, I saw Stacia Madden again. This time she was alone. I said hello and we chatted about the heat. Then I asked about her interest in doing a story. She couldn't have been nicer. "I'd love to," she said and told me her summer schedule. "Whatever you think I'd be good at, let me know and we'll get it done." Again, music to my ears. So now when you see some of these stories in the magazine over the next several months, you'll know how they began?stalking and all! To read Nancy Jaffer's Devon postcard, click here.

Hunt Tosh and Good Humor

Hunt Tosh and Good Humor

Riders warm up in the Dixon Oval.

Riders warm up in the Dixon Oval.

Riders warm up at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair.

Riders warm up at the Devon Horse Show and Country Fair.