From Equitation Success to Show-Jumping Star

A solid background of equitation enabled Jessica Springsteen to develop into a high-level grand prix contender who often wins jumper classes looking as if she is riding in an equitation championship.
Jessica Springsteen and Vindicat W at the 2014 Rotterdam competition | © Shannon Brinkman

With a year to go in Jessica Springsteen’s Junior career, a series of equitation triumphs were enough for her to feel comfortable saying adieu to equitation and focusing on the jumpers. She had won the 2008 ASPCA Maclay National Championship, the 2009 Pessoa/USEF National Hunter Seat Medal Final and the 2009 George H. Morris Excellence in Equitation class. She’d also taken a second-place ribbon in the 2009 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East.

It was, however, these achievements that demonstrated the influence of her equitation base for winning in the jumper ranks. Her victories in 2014 included the $200,000 American Gold Cup; the puissance class at the Washington International Horse Show, which helped earn her the competition’s leading jumper rider sash; and a class at the Dublin Horse Show in Ireland. More recently, she topped a class on the Global Champions Tour in Chantilly, France, in July. 

She also was involved in the 2012 Olympic selection process and will be trying for a spot at the Rio Olympics next year. Being Number 59 in the Longines world rankings and 23rd in the Rolex/U.S. Equestrian Team rankings as of August is a good advertisement for the benefits of having learned the ropes in equitation.

“It teaches you so much,” the 23-year-old says. “Basically, grand prix courses are as technical as equitation courses.”

Jessica and Class Action placed second in the 2009 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East. | © Nancy Jaffer

Trainer Stacia Madden, who worked with Jessica from the beginning at Beacon Hill Stables in Colts Neck, New Jersey, agrees that equitation is an important foundation for doing well in jumpers at any level and even in the hunter ring. Equitation makes “the riders really focus on being aware of their horse and being aware of themselves on a horse to do things in a proper procedure and a proper protocol,” she says. “Those are very necessary building blocks of teaching a rider to ride properly and build the skills that it takes for focus, determination and nerves.

“If you just ride the hunters, the focus is so much on the horse and the presentation of the horse. I don’t think the rider is bringing the same basic fundamentals to it as she does when riding in the equitation division,” Stacia says. If you just ride jumpers, “It’s easy to lose focus on the fundamentals of position. Position gives riders the proper strength to influence the horse, which is necessary if you jump bigger fences.” 

Developing a Strong Position
“Position, to me, means you’re in a position to be strong enough to positively influence your horse the best way you can,” Stacia notes. “Most of the average riders are between 100 and 200 pounds, trying to influence horses between 1,200 and 1,400 pounds. If you are out of position, there are just some things you can’t ask the horse to do.

Jessica rode Papillon to the 2008 ASPCA Maclay National Championship. | © Nancy Jaffer

“If you’re in position, you can be strong enough to ask the horse to wait, you can be strong enough to ask the horse to turn or effectively ask him to go forward. You’ve got to be one with your horse to be out of his way enough for him to exercise a beautiful jump. If you’re out of position, you’re going to be in your horse’s way. He’s going to be trying to catch up and get underneath you, and that’s going to be a detriment to the horse making its best jump.”

A weak position can hinder your horse’s balance. “In equitation courses, you want your horse to be balanced and up,” Jessica says. “You don’t want them running through your hand and swinging around the turns. They have to be straight, they have to be controlled.” That’s equally as important in competing on the jumpers.

“Even if you have a good distance, if their balance isn’t there, they’re not going to clear the fence,” Jessica adds. “It’s all about having your horse feeling balanced and right underneath you, something learning from a young age really helped.”

The link between form and function is basic, as Stacia tells her equitation students. “I give a real explanation on why good position is effective for them so they understand it isn’t just about someone judging their looks but understanding they need to be in proper position to execute and work with their horse.”

After winning the 2008 ASPCA Maclay finals at the National Horse Show, Jessica poses with (from left) trainers Stacia Madden, Max Amaya, Custis Ferguson and Heather Senia and her parents, Bruce Springsteen (far right) and Patti Scialfa, and brothers Evan (red shirt) and Sam. | © Nancy Jaffer

Part of the key to a strong position is having a strong core. 

Says Jessica, who overcame a habit of ducking, “You have to have your body up and your balance up. You have to have a strong core and strong legs. You have to have strong everything in riding—your arms, your back. It’s important to be fit and have body control. That’s something I worked on forever as a Junior, controlling my body.” This was harder when she attended Duke University and couldn’t ride daily. “I didn’t have as strong legs as I do now, riding every single day. I was getting jumped loose over the fences,” she says.

Learning About Track
“When it comes to making turns, that’s something I learned in equitation—the winning rounds are the ones with beautiful, neat turns and galloping oxers,” says Jessica. “In the jumpers, if you do those neat turns, you can be faster and you don’t even look as if you’re going as fast. It’s about efficiency.

“[Equitation] definitely helped me a lot, being able to just practice that over and over, getting the distances correct. Still, of course, there are times when you get a little bit carried away in the jump-offs,” she says with a laugh.

In equitation, riders learn to weigh the pros and cons of when an inside turn is appropriate or if it’s better to go around a fence. Stacia notes: “The amount of comfort it gives a rider to understand track really leads to a faster jump-off, potentially.” Equitation riders get comfortable with a tight turn at smaller fences so when they make the transition to the higher fences, they’re not adjusting to the handiness of a very tight track.

Stacia defines track as the path between two fences. In equitation, she says, “You learn about track, and track is important in jump-offs because that’s how you can have a very

“A lot of times, the path is easy to figure out when it’s a straight line. When the lines are broken or parallel to each other, it doesn’t look as if there would be a related distance. But often, there is a related distance that invites the riders to stay on an aggressive track or an inside line. Race-car drivers talk about line and track also, and it ends up being the fastest way to negotiate from Point A to Point B. A lot of times, the fastest way is not always the most direct.”

Stacia adds that she hears riders with equitation experience chatting about how many strides to do between fences that aren’t related, perhaps deciding on 12 when they have an option that runs from 11 to 14 strides, for instance. At the same time, she says, “I hear riders who haven’t done equitation say, ‘I don’t count past seven.’”

Explains Jessica, “In the jumpers, you don’t have to be as smooth, you can be a little bit stronger. But you still jump one jump in relation to how you meet the next. It’s important to start thinking about that at a young age.” 

Jessica says being exposed to dressage earlier in her career contributed to her understanding of what her horses need. “I actually loved that because it focuses on the horses being loose and stretching their necks and using all their muscles,” she says. Leg-yields, half-passes, extension and collection, counter-canter—all movements she learned training in equitation—are still part of her routine with the jumpers. 

The flatwork, in turn, helped make the horses more adjustable, along with varying the striding in lines, also an equitation mainstay. “[Equitation] teaches you how to get your horse rideable and adjustable. We still do a lot of lines, making them leave out strides, then coming back and adding a stride,” Jessica says. “Just getting that adjustability is so important.”

Differences Between Equitation and Jumpers
There are, of course, also many differences between equitation and grand prix jumping. “When you’re younger, you’re doing all those lessons to train yourself,” Jessica observes. “Now it’s more focusing on getting the horses to jump the best they can. It’s less about you. It’s what you need to do for each horse.”

Jessica and Lisona won the puissance at the 2014 Washington International Horse Show. | © Lawrence J. Nagy

In equitation, Jessica says, “We did a lot of full courses, learning to do those accurately.” With the jumpers, however, “We don’t do that as much now. You don’t want to wear your horse out.” Many times, the exercises involve simply using rails on the ground. The goal is “just like the flatwork: Getting your horse feeling good and balanced is everything,” she says.

Going from one discipline to the other is, “a big transition. [In the jumper ring,] it’s not how pretty and smooth you are. It’s about riding well and riding a little bit stronger and having a strong connection with your horse.”

Jessica concedes that as she left equitation and focused on the jumpers, she needed to have a new mind-set. “When you get to bigger tracks, you have to be strong and it’s OK not to [look] perfect. If you clear the fence, you clear the fence. Sometimes your reins are a little long and you look a little discombobulated,” she says.

Her former show-jumping coaches, Laura Kraut and Nick Skelton, “taught me it’s OK to be strong and powerful with your horse. It took me a few years to not worry about looking perfect, and I think that’s from doing the equitation for so long,” she surmises. But she notes, “That’s the American style of riding as well.”

Now training with European-based Australian Edwina Tops-Alexander, Jessica continues to compete internationally against riders who never were schooled in equitation because it is not available in their home countries. While she is the beneficiary of its advantages, she always sees that there are many ways to get a horse over the fences.

“Everyone has different styles,” she acknowledges. “What works for some people doesn’t work for others.”

Enjoy the Moment
Having competed in the highest levels of equitation, Jessica Springsteen is no stranger to pressure. “The pressure from doing those finals has taught me, ‘Keep your head on straight and don’t let your nerves affect how you ride in the ring,’” she says.

She has dealt with other kinds of stress, too. Being the daughter of household name Bruce Springsteen and his wife, singer Patti Scialfa, focuses attention on her. Then there are the expectations that came with having bought Vindicat W, the horse who clinched the team show-jumping gold medal for Britain at the 2012 Olympics with Peter Charles.

Equitation, especially the national finals, carries the Junior equivalent of the tension senior riders feel in a World Cup qualifier or an Olympic selection trial. Lessons learned from participation in the Pessoa/USEF National Hunter Seat Medal Final, the ASPCA Maclay National Championship and similar competitions have served Jessica well in terms of keeping herself focused. 

A 2014 graduate of Duke University, Jessica majored in psychology and that has had to play into both her game plan and her game face. “It’s OK to be nervous, but you can’t let it affect your riding and you can’t let the horse feel your nerves,” she explains. “When I’m nervous, I tell myself, ‘I’m doing something I love.’ I look around and say, ‘I’m so lucky to be here. It’s such an incredible experience. I have to enjoy it.’

“It’s not fun when you’re so nervous you can’t even enjoy the moment. I always try to tell myself that before I go in the ring.”

Teaching the Tools for Success
Beacon Hill trainer Stacia Madden is a firm believer in the advantages of starting out with equitation, no matter what direction a rider chooses to go later in her equestrian involvement. She has enjoyed seeing Jessica Springsteen and other riders who got their grounding at Beacon Hill do well in the jumpers. She cited Brianne Goutal, the first person to win every major equitation title of the current era, who has gone on to win major grands prix—including the American Gold Cup the year before Jessica’s victory.

Stacia Madden and Jessica Springsteen at the 2009 Platinum Performance/USEF Show Jumping Talent Search Finals East | © Nancy Jaffer

Equitation offers an opportunity to gain self-assurance in the saddle while honing skills. “Jessica was a timid rider in the very, very beginning,” Stacia recalls. “But once she built some strong relationships with horses and built her confidence, everything took off. It was very clear to me early on that she had an uncanny feel for a horse and that extra-special ability to be focused and really ride under pressure.”

Jessica’s willingness not only to take instruction but to go from there and build on it was key to her memorable Junior performances. “I used to think sending her into the ring was like programming a computer and pressing the ‘enter’ button,” says Stacia, who was not surprised by how well Jessica is doing in the jumper ring.

“I knew she had the ability to go on and do this [win grands prix]. I was very, very hopeful she would want to stick with it because I thought she’d be a great team competitor. We didn’t always talk about her future goals because she was very excited about school and I didn’t want to sway her school decision-making based on being selfish and hoping she’d continue riding.”

Watching a student like Jessica go on is especially gratifying for Stacia. “It’s so exciting. I don’t pretend for one second that I have the ability to train kids at a young level and go on and train them at the highest level, but I do believe I have the tools to give kids the platform if they want to go on and do great things. I feel very good when I’m handing them over [to the next trainer] that they’re ready.”

She concludes, “I treat everybody as if they have aspirations to go on and do more, whether they specify it or not. If you want them to be successful as a Junior, you have to treat them like they’re learning the tools to go on and do bigger and better things.”

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

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