Photos courtesy of Lindsey Long Equine Photography
Jessica Springsteen rarely talks about her Tokyo Olympic team silver experience without expressing gratitude to her mentors, including teammates Laura Kraut and McLain Ward. She seemed to be happily paying that forward during an Oct. 20 fundraising clinic at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center. Auditing fees went to the Compton Junior Equestrians, many of whom participated while showing off the long-standing movement’s ability to get kids “off the streets and onto horses” and with effective, compassionate horsemanship.
The event was organized by Dale Harvey’s West Palms Events to open its Riders Cup tournament. Key partners included top hunter/jumper trainer Archie Cox, the Langer Equestrian Group and The Compton Cowboys, the group of equestrians who got their start with horses through the Compton Jr. Posse, the original incarnation of the Compton Junior Equestrians. Its founder, Mayisha Akbar, was honored at lunchtime. Fittingly, longtime supporter Will Simpson, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist, was at her side for the ceremony.
The unique clinic format included Jessica working with three groups of riders. For those jumping at the higher levels, she supervised their warm-up schools, then reviewed videos of their rounds over courses created by FEI designer Marina Azevedo. During breaks, she fielded a wide range of horsemanship questions and cheerfully posed for photos with fans.
Having earned a spot on the team at just 29, Jessica hasn’t devoted much time to teaching or giving clinics. Although she just excelled on the world’s biggest equestrian stage, she professed to being a bit nervous about teaching in a public venue. The Hap Hansen Arena was ringed with auditors and video cameras rolled throughout the day.
Just as in Tokyo, however, nerves were not evident. Down to earth, positive and always encouraging, Jessica shared some of her favorite schooling and overall preparation strategies while addressing individual horse and rider needs.
Patience and perseverance in developing and working with horses was a recurring point of emphasis. Ditto for the rider’s attitude: “Find the lesson in everything,” she said. “Don’t get discouraged and keep learning from your mistakes.”
The first sessions began with course walks. Jessica told riders to look at the whole arena and each part of the course from their horse’s perspective. Shadows in front of a fence, spectator tents at the rail, or an unfamiliar Liverpool were all elements that might distract or spook a horse, for example. Having the horse in front of the leg and in, ideally, light contact, are key to getting the responses needed to cope with potential problems. That is combined with knowing the horse well enough to anticipate where issues might arise.
Look for places to relax or regroup on course, Jessica advised. Neither means losing pace or impulsion. Instead, the ever-important forward momentum can be maintained while reins are shortened or eased, as needed, and a breath taken by horse and rider. Also look for places where a neat turn can help do the work of naturally re-balancing the horse into a powerful, uphill frame.
Along with looking at the course as a whole, Jessica advised riding it one jump at a time. She shared her own challenge with approaches to combinations and said that coming to the first fence as if it was a stand-alone jump had helped her overcome it. Anywhere on course, the approach and success of the next jump is largely dictated by the approach and landing from the one before it, Jessica noted.
She advised developing a pace and rhythm to the first jump as if it were the last jump, and to tackle the last fence as if there were more coming. “Otherwise, it can be easy to get too relaxed.”
Extension, collection, straightness and balance were the core emphasis for flat work preparation based on what Jessica works on at home with her own horses. She is strict with herself with body position details — tall shoulders — at home so it’s second nature in competition. A tendency to be too soft in rein contact, opening her fingers and letting the reins get too long, were habits she “harps on” herself about and that she sought to correct in several riders. She described a thumbs-up hand position, with fingers closed on the reins, as creating a direct contact with the horse’s mouth and being stronger than a position in which the back of the hand faced up, above the fingers.
Strong is Not Rough
In rein contact and general aids, “strong” should not be interpreted as aggressive, she clarified. Riding both a horse that might spook or stop, or a high-strung horse that tempted a “delicate” touch, she described “strong” leg, seat and rein aids as “showing the horse that you are there for them” in a confidence boosting way.
Jessica and Archie Cox, who emceed the training sessions, shared their appreciation for the many “soft” riders in the clinic. “You can teach strong,” Archie said. “But it’s very hard to teach soft.”
Exercises to develop and reinforce responsiveness to the aids involved warm-up jumps with the more advanced participants and poles on the ground for those jumping lower heights. In the warm-up ring, Jessica suggested riders finish over a vertical because the first jump on their course was a vertical. She asked most to approach on a compressed stride, and to ride to the base of the fence, to reinforce a powerful, balanced stride and to ensure the horse is listening to the aids before entering the show ring. With the pole exercise, she had riders extend and compress the trot between two cones on the quarter-line. Moving onto low jumps, she had them navigate a same-distance line in six, then seven strides.
Reinforcing stride extension and compression, balance and staightness are the foundation of the daily work on which Jessica’s success has been built. Big jumps and the related wear and tear on the horse are not necessary to develop or reinforce these traits, she emphasized. Poles on the ground and cavaletti work just fine.
Following a jumbotron replay of her remarkable jump-off for Team USA in Tokyo, Jessica described the experience of fulfilling this childhood dream as still “surreal.” Especially in doing so alongside Laura Kraut, McLain Ward and Kent Farrington, teammates she’d grown up admiring. With that comes the added mental pressure and the young riders asked how she handled that.
“Confidence is everything and your horse can feel it. The mental part of it is huge,” she said. “You have to go in there thinking you can win the class.” Don Juan van de Donkhoeve had physical scope that made the Tokyo tracks seem effortless, a big confidence builder. Whatever the level of competition, it comes down to “trusting the work you’ve done at home,” she urged.
Work with a sports psychologist has helped Jessica with the mental aspects of riding and competition and she recommended reading up on the subject. The Champion’s Mind: How Great Athletes Think, Train and Thrive, by Jim Afremow, PhD, is one of her favorites.
Her Olympic teammates’ ability to “remain calm and rise to the occasion in the highest pressure moments” was inspiring, Jessica said. Especially when they shared that doing so is an everyday effort even after many years of experience.
As for her horse’s preparation, Jessica said that keeping his routine as regular as possible was key. The stallion was in great fitness after European competitions that served as the final selection process. After that, there was an unusually long gap — a month — until the Olympics.
As general advice, Jessica encouraged riders to carefully observe admired horsemen in action, in the competition and schooling rings. She pays special attention to contemporaries on horses with strides or tendencies similar to those of her own.
“You can always ask people for advice,” she added. “I used to be nervous to do it, but most people are happy to help and I didn’t realize that until I started asking.”
Event Model with Powerful Potential
Jessica closed out the long day by engaging in follow-ups with the day’s rider and posing for pictures with various groups of appreciative participants, hosts and fans. She repeatedly stated how much she’d enjoyed the day and how impressed she was with the horsemanship on display at all levels.
“It was a dream day for all the kids,” concluded Compton Cowboys founder Randy Savvy. “To ride at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center and with Jessica Springsteen!” The event’s ability to engage multiple constituencies in the equestrian community has powerful potential to bring the benefits horses offer to more people, he asserted.
Most of the day’s 16 riders were recipients of West Palms Events’ Michael Nyuis Scholarship awards. The event itself continues many years of the organizer’s support for making equestrian sports accessible to inner city kids. Compton Jr. Posse and, more recently, Compton Junior Equestrian riders have been regulars at West Palms Events competition for several years. The fruits of everybody’s efforts were clear in the participants’ horsemanship and in their embrace of Jessica’s expertise to take that even further.