The indoor arena's lights ablaze late at night usually meant just one thing when Chris Ewanouski was a working student at Grazing Fields Farm in Buzzards Bay, Mass. "I'd think, 'He can't be out there by himself!'" says owner Kathy Fletcher, whose successful program includes a wide range of Junior students. "But he would work ten hours in the barn, then ride five horses after work."
Those hours in the barn and late riding sessions paid off when Chris capped his final Junior year by winning both the Horsemanship Class and the Hunt Seat Medal Finals at the October 2005 New England Equitation Championship in Springfield, Mass.--the first rider to do so in the championship's history. The double-barreled victory was even more significant because Chris, relatively new to the demands of "Big Eq" competition, was riding a green young horse that he'd known for only two years--and that he'd also qualified with for the national Maclay and Medal equitation finals.
Now, with the help of some top professionals who recognize his hard-to-come-by blend of talent and unrelenting work ethic, Chris is winding up for another long shot: He wants to become a successful professional in the sport where he came so far/so fast as a Junior.
Going for the Next Level
Chris was about 5 years old when he started riding at a local barn in his hometown of Scituate, Mass.. "He picked up the sport with no one else in the family knowing the first thing about it," says his mother, Kim, whose occasional pleasure riding had provided her son's first connection with horses. When Chris wanted to compete, after a few years of local lessons, he moved to the more show-oriented Riverwind Farm in nearby Pembroke, where he rode as a working student.
Competing regionally only whetted Chris's appetite for bigger challenges, such as the 3-foot-6 equitation divisions. In 2003 he qualified for the national Medal finals and got as far as the Region 1 Maclay finals with Carlos, a horse the Ewanouskis had recently bought. "He was great, hardy enough to stay sound through all the lessons and showing I needed to do to catch up. He packed me around all day over 3-foot fences. But he had a bit of a stop in him at 3-foot-6, especially if I got a little inaccurate to the jumps." Chris and Carlos had a good round at the Maclay regionals (though they didn't qualify for the national finals), but refusals eliminated them at the Medal finals in Harrisburg.
At shows, Chris made a practice of watching other riders and their trainers, looking for tips to improve his own riding. "I care so much that I want to see what other people do, and who they train with." He and his parents soon noticed something special about the group of competitors from Grazing Fields Farm, several of whom went on from Regionals to the Maclay finals. Kim recalls, "The kids did well in the ring, but there was also a really nice feel about the program: a kind of family atmosphere and team spirit."
For Chris, in high school by this time, riding had become increasingly important: It was a sport that he wanted to take to the next level, competing nationally in equitation, but he also wanted to make it his career. He and his parents decided that Grazing Fields Farm would give him his best chance of reaching both goals.
"He's One That Stands Out"
Chris was in his third year of high school, with only two more years of eligibility as a Junior rider, when he came to Grazing Fields after the 2003 equitation finals. His duties as a working student included feeding, mucking stalls, and turning horses out. He worked a full day Saturday and a half-day Sunday--"I needed to be able to get home and do some homework!" He used his one-hour Saturday lunch break to ride. And after the workday ended, around 4:30 or 5:00, "I rode any horses I could get my hands on."
Working students are not unusual at Grazing Fields, says Kathy Fletcher. She's always willing to find a way to help motivated students who have tight budgets. "But a few of them stand out, and Chris certainly is one of them."
Kathy and Chris agree that the part of his riding that needed most improvement was what he calls "focus and concentration" and she terms "the head game" of equitation. "He certainly had all the pieces," she says. "He had good basics. We worked on keeping his heels down and his reins shorter, but my main goal was to teach him to think for himself, and think more quickly. When he first came here, he used to have to repeat a course to me three or four times before he could go in the ring and execute it. Now my rule is, 'I tell you the course once; you remember it; you go out there and do it.' So he can think more quickly, and he's gotten quite good at it."
Chris remembers: "I would sometimes get a little desperate on course: If I didn't know where I was in terms of the distance to the jump, or got a little nervous, I would be inclined to just kick my horse off the ground or have my whole round look a little desperate because I wasn't really confident. Kathy helped me so much with not just how my body's working in the ring, but how my brain is working as well."
"We developed a few techniques: For instance, I close my eyes while I'm standing at the in-gate and go over each part of the course: where my horse should be underneath me, where my aids should be, the striding between fences, how I should ride each corner. That helps me a lot and keeps me focused. When I walk into the ring, I feel as if I've done the course before."
Teaming Up With Sam
Chris's horse Carlos grew in confidence with steady, consistent work. However, Kathy was concerned that he might not be reliable enough for the 2004 Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida, to which Chris would be going as a Grazing Fields working student. (Carlos has since found a perfect career at Grazing Fields as a mount for both Juniors and adults in the 3-foot divisions.)
In Florida, Chris rode a more experienced horse. He also started training a green five-year-old Belgian Warmblood sales horse, Sam I Am, who'd been with Grazing Fields only a little longer than he had, and whom Kathy had brought to the WEF for the experience. Sam "came along really quickly and was great when I rode him in some qualifying classes for the Washington International and the Medal final during my last week at WEF," Chris says. "When we got home, Kathy talked with my parents. She believed Sam would be a good horse for my final Junior years, and would be a good sales prospect when I was finished." As Chris headed into spring and summer of 2004, the Ewanouskis became Sam's co-owners (along with Grazing Fields).
The next several months were a time of building for Chris and Sam, who soon became best buddies. "He's awesome. He has all the heart in the world," says Chris of Sam. "He means so much to me. He's more than just a horse; he's kind of a pet. You can point him at any jump and he'll jump it for you.'
But though brave and honest to the jumps, Sam was not easy to flat. "He likes to carry his head a little high for the flat phase. He's not always soft and supple in his mouth, and it's sometimes challenging to keep him together in a nice frame."
Chris did most of Sam's schooling himself, with input from Kathy, assistant trainer Wendy Smith, and other Grazing Fields "eyes on the ground." As their partnership developed, the pair began getting ribbons in the equitation divisions and qualified for some national finals.
Knowing that Sam wasn't yet quite ready for the big push, however, Chris already had his eye on 2005: his last year as a Junior, and his last chance to prove what he could do.
The Last Junior Year
Kathy's strategy for Chris's last year was to broaden his knowledge with instruction from other coaches. She arranged lessons for him with George Morris and Geoff Teall while Grazing Fields was at WEF 2005. "Geoff gave me insight on what my riding was like from a judge's point of view, which was really helpful in crafting the way I presented my round. For instance, he said that one thing he always notices is where the stirrup is positioned on the rider's foot. He likes to see the iron diagonally across the bottom of the foot, so that when your foot is turned out slightly, the iron is perpendicular to your horse. He taught me to press my weight into my heel a little more and bring my leg back to create a more polished look that would help me stand out. He told me that, from a judge's viewpoint, 'getting the job done' is more important than looking pretty and not getting it done. If Sam was drifting in on a bending line so that we got to the jump at a deep distance, but my position stayed picture-perfect, Geoff said he would prefer to see me definitely using my inside leg to hold my horse out on the line so that we got to the jump at a better distance."
Finishing high school in spring 2005 with an A average, Chris was accepted to Fairfield University in Connecticut but deferred college for a year (with his parents' agreement) to finish his Junior career and get firsthand experience in the show world. With school pressures temporarily sidelined, he immersed himself even further in horses, spending long days (and nights) at Kathy's barn. When he joined Geoff's barn, Montoga, for two weeks as a working student on the Vermont circuit while Grazing Fields was elsewhere, Geoff was impressed. "He showed so much interest in learning and doing. When I ask kids ?Do you want to ride another horse?' and their answer is 'Which one?' I know we're already in trouble. But I could say to Chris, ?I have fifteen horses; do you want to ride them?' And he absolutely did, and he would not think twice about it. That's a great thing for sure."
Another detail that Chris's two weeks in Vermont brought home to Geoff: "People like him so much. All my customers came up to me during that period and told me how much they liked having him around. This business is about your people skills; the rest of it you can learn."
With his strengthened "head game," Chris was able to get regular good ribbons with Sam in the equitation divisions, qualifying for all the major finals. "I never had a huge win, but just to be consistently in the ribbons was a big success for me."
The fall's series of intensely competitive finals led off with his stunning double win at the New England Equitation Championship. Geoff, who saw the New England final, was ramping up his opinion of Chris's riding. "I saw much more than I'd realized was there. He rode even better than I'd thought." For Kathy, Chris's Horsemanship win had special significance: "We promote that part of the competition; to us, it's just as important as the equitation championship. We've had kids near the top of the Horsemanship class before, but he's the first from Grazing Fields to win it."
New England helped set Chris up mentally for the Washington International Horse Show Equitation Classic, for which he was one of thirty Juniors nationwide to qualify. At WIHS (just a week after New England), he and Sam climbed through the rankings. Beginning near the bottom in the finalists' standings, they finished in eleventh place after a very strong jumper phase. "As disappointed as I was to have missed the final round, where the top ten riders switch horses, it was a big accomplishment and a lot of fun to move up as far as we did," he says. "It helped me to be more confident, because I knew that I had done it and could do it."
"I Hate to See Him Go"
When Chris rode Sam into the ring for his last Junior equitation show, the early-November USEF Maclay final at the Syracuse Invitational, the occasion was a mix of regret and anticipation. In saying goodbye to "Big Eq" as a Junior, Chris was also saying goodbye to Sam, who will now be sold to another hopeful rider. "It is sad," he says. But he was already looking ahead to the rest of his year's leave from school, which he'd spend working with top professionals -- such as Geoff and grand prix jumper Candice King--through arrangements Kathy had made.
"Chris wants to do this as a business, and he needs to see all aspects. So I've helped him. He'll do a working-student stint with Geoff and Candice in Florida and then, hopefully, go to Germany in the spring with a friend of Wendy Smith's." Kathy smiles. "I would have loved to be selfish and keep him at Grazing Fields. I hate to see him go. But it's the right thing for him to do."
In Florida a few weeks after the Maclay final (where Chris and Sam were called back on the flat after the very challenging first-round course but did not make the cut for the final phase), Geoff was still being pleasantly surprised by Chris's desire to learn and grow. "I've had him on some young hunters, and although he's never really been in the hunter arena, he's transitioned really well to the softer, more ?feel'-based hunter ride. I can say, ?We're going to do this today,' and boom! He can do it. He'll watch me ride one and he can ride it the next day. He watches and he pays attention."
Interviewed most recently in late 2005, Chris said the first weeks in Florida--as a working student for Candice, and also doing some riding for Geoff--had meant "getting instruction from a completely different end of the spectrum." Days that started around 7 a.m. and ended well after 5 p.m. included not only conditioning rides on Candice's horses through the trails of Wellington's Grand Prix Village, but some jumper lessons with trainer Jimmy Doyle, whose students include Candice and coming young grand prix contender Georgina Bloomberg.
"I don't consider myself a professional yet," Chris said. "I'll be getting there, hopefully, at some point."
Geoff tries to define how some of the many hopefuls who knock on the horse industry's door after a Junior career help to create opportunities for themselves. If you're a top professional, he says, "a lot of people want your help. You get lots of phone calls and e-mails, and you get used to saying 'No, no, no, no, no.' But every once in a while, you get to say yes. With Chris, it's because he makes it easy." An example: "He's eager. He wants to learn it. There's no need to ask him to do things. After my barn help leaves at 3 p.m., whatever isn't done, he just does it on his own."
For Chris, the coming months are a balancing act between a commitment to his parents--"I've made a deal that, no matter what happens, I will get a college degree somehow; they've done so much for me that I have to stay true to that"--and his passion for the sport. "Getting to ride a little more is just making me want that much more. There's never enough barn time or horses. I just can't get enough of it."
Originally published in the March 2006 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Read more about Chris Ewanouski's rise in the professional ranks in the February 2011 issue.