Olivia Champ: Inspired to Build a Lasting Connection

A young rider reflects on her experience at the George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

Lady Sparkle’s tickly little whiskers stroked my hand as I fastened the bridle and took a moment to appreciate our shared tranquility. Then the 11-year-old Holsteiner mare gently nuzzled my sleeve, gave a satisfied snort and swished her tail in anticipation of the day ahead. I quickly shined my dark leather boots and mounted, picked a shaving from her gray mane and sank into the saddle. As we walked across the bustling Florida showgrounds on the way to the ring, a tropical breeze swept through the palms.

Olivia Champ and Lady Sparkle. © Sandra Oliynyk

We had traveled from my home in La Canada, California, to Wellington and the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center for the 2014 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session, a weeklong session in early January for a dozen accomplished riders ages 15 to 21. I was honored to have the opportunity to train with George as well as learn about barn management, veterinary care, sport psychology and course design from an impressive group of top professionals. Throughout the clinic my appreciation for show jumping grew as we explored a main theme: building and maintaining a connection with the horse through compassion, discipline and inspiration. 

As Sparkle and I entered the ring on that first day, my stirrups clinked against the girth and thoughts began dancing through my mind. The mare seemed to sense my momentary adrenaline rush and piaffed on the spot. I quietly took a deep breath and exhaled to clear my head and regain my composure. Sparkle relaxed with a subtle drop of the poll. “Bring your horses in,” George instructed. I had ridden with him many times before and always learned something new. He stressed mastering the classical basics, “the perfection of the little things,” he said. I was eager for his next lesson.

We started simply, with the walk. My mare is sensitive and careful, and as we marched forward under George’s watchful eye, I squeezed with my calf and followed her mouth with supple arms. She responded with rhythmic impulsion. Then we turned our attention to transitions—turning and trotting, taking and giving, adjusting and correcting—always bearing in mind George’s counsel for discipline with empathy.

Back at the barn, I pulled off the saddle and unwrapped Sparkle’s legs. I picked out her hooves and gently rubbed her neck before leading her to the stall. Laurie Pitts, the stable manager, gathered us for a demonstration on proper horse care. Treat your horses the way you wish to be treated, she advised, because their actions in the ring are influenced by the care they receive in the barn. For instance, she said, an environment that is comfortable and safe can help a horse feel secure, and that can contribute to a confident performance in the arena. Laurie also explained that the goal of a thorough grooming session is not only to produce a clean horse. It also confirms his physical soundness and gauges his emotions prior to competing.

Through rigorous days of flatwork and gymnastics we focused on calm, forward and straight. I expected a grueling session when our stirrups were removed. However, it really helped me to become one with my horse. I could feel Sparkle take a breath as I wrapped my legs around her, and I tried to firmly establish in my memory the sensation of achieving true harmony with my horse as we prepared for the rigorous final show-jumping course. It featured spooky liverpools, impressive standards holding vibrantly striped rails and a long open water that was daunting to some horses. Sparkle and I jumped through the course with a few mistakes. George instructed, “When the horse gets tentative, you get positive.” I reconnected and slowed both of our minds. We circled around to the final black-and-white vertical. I could feel the mare round her back and tuck her knees. She jumped beautifully. 

Sparkle gave her all during the clinic, and she enjoyed many carrots for her effort. In the process, I gained a new appreciation for all that our talented equine athletes do for us. I was reminded of the importance of trying to understand my mare’s perspective and focus on simplicity and details. The experience inspired me to strive to become a complete horsewoman: to be the best companion and teammate for my horse.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.

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