November 2016 - All About That Bond

Sydney Callaway’s summer immersion in European horsemanship.

by Kim F. Miller

Young show jumper Sydney Callaway has a solid foundation in the American Forward Riding System, but that alone wasn’t helping her much this past July when she first sat on a 6-year-old mare with virtually no training.

Sydney, left, and Reed Kessler at the CSI Casas Novas horse show in La Coruña Spain.

Wolf S at Young Rider trials at the Oaks. Photo: McCool Photography

The setting was Fernanda Ameeuw’s Les Ecuries D’Ecaussinnes in Belgium and the assignment was simple: to establish responses to basic aids. “When I first got on her, she could barely hold a proper trot or canter,” Sydney recalls. “It was like water-skiing, she was nervous and all over the place.” The mare, one of several young horses Sydney rode at Fernanda’s sales horse program during her month-long visit, was also very intelligent, which propelled her improvement once Sydney was able to communicate clearly with her.

In flatwork-intensive lessons that immersed her in European training methods, Sydney redefined the role of “feel” in horsemanship. “People get caught up in the idea that feel is innate,” she explains. “That you are born with it or not.” Her summer experiences convinced her that feel is one of many aspects of horsemanship that must be continually worked on. True, some may be born with more feel than others, but everybody needs to keep cultivating it by absorbing as much knowledge as possible.

In the Belgium program, that knowledge came from top riders from Germany, France, Belgium, Holland, Spain and Brazil. Each had a slightly different system and “rules” for developing their horses, Sydney notes, and an evolving feel enabled the rider to know when to employ which aspects of each system.

“It’s like having an alphabet and being able to choose the letters you need to communicate,” she continues. “The end goal is always communication.”

Circles were the centerpiece of Sydney’s daily work with the 6-year-old mare. Coached by Belgian rider Diogo DeCastro and riding mostly in the sitting trot, Sydney applied changing pressures in the indirect inside rein and leg aids to influence the mare to bend through her body, give in the mouth and relax, with an emphasis on the leg and seat aids over the hand. “American riders tend to be more hand dominant and Europeans are more leg and seat dominant,” she observes. “I learned a lot about using the seat and leg aids to hold a horse together and to bring him back.

“In America, we are told the leg is only for go and the seat is for push, but you can use the seat in so many other ways.  The hand should be the finishing touch. It’s never the main focus.” 

Open Mind Is An Asset

A keen student of horsemanship with a go-getter approach to learning, Sydney arrived in Europe with a general awareness of the horsemanship systems used by the region’s riders. She likens her intense month of training to an introduction to calculus. “I understood that calculus involved points and curves, but the intro class is the one that has the most work because you have to work very hard at it to build that foundation.

“My job through the rest of my career is the elusive mastering of these skills and taking them and making them my own.”

Sydney was prepared to have her mind blown.  “I notice that a lot of American riders are less adapted to other styles. It’s very easy to remain sheltered and stuck in one style. It’s been a personal endeavor to watch riders who were not American, to eavesdrop on lessons and to understand that there were other ways of thinking out there.” Last year, that curious mindset inspired Sydney to take a dressage lesson with Grand Prix rider Michelle Reilly (California Riding Magazine, Sept. 2015). “I didn’t understand much about dressage and I wanted to know how it is supposed to feel and look so I could start to look at dressage and pull things out of it.”

A narrow mindset is a mistake for any rider who wants to go to the top of the sport. “Meredith Michaels Beerbaum and Eric Navet could ride the same horse equally effectively, but they are going to produce it differently,” Sydney observes. “Being flexible and versatile and able to produce a horse out of any system is what qualifies someone as a top rider.”

Further Study

Learning was not limited to the arena. Sydney lived with Fernanda, her husband, Christophe Ameeuw, their daughter Louise and their two sons. As the chief of EEM World, Christophe is the mastermind of the Masters series of show jumping competitions around the world with the aim of catapulting show jumping’s global popularity to that of mainstream sports. Along with her sales and young horse development program, Fernanda operates a riding academy where she and her staff teach local riders and have hosted many from the States.

With Chardonnay, a horse Sydney rode regularly in Belgium.

10-year-old Louise Ameeuw.

Sydney’s friendship with the family began when she earned the chance to stable, train and compete with Fernanda by winning the 1.3M EEM Grand Prix at the Longines LA Masters in 2014.

Dinner table conversations served up much knowledge about promoting the sport at the highest levels and often circled back to horsemanship at every level. Sydney concludes that “horsemanship has died a little bit,” a familiar lament about American horsemanship, but she observes that “European horsemanship is also being threatened,” perhaps partly due to an infiltration of American’s desire for instant gratification.

“We’re in an era of brilliant pilots,” Sydney observes. “That’s why horses are costing millions of dollars. Everybody wants to buy a horse and go jump a 1.4M class the next week.  This is a large demand on the horses and less of a demand on the riders, who now expect such a high level of training and execution from their horses.”

Ten-year-old Louise’s care of her two ponies refuted that notion. “I’ve never seen a kid work harder than she does,” says Sydney. “I was at the barn from 9 am to 5 pm and she was there from 9 am to 7pm!  Louise made me work harder at the stables, to really strive for something each day, even if that was just being closer to the horses I was riding.”

After a month with the Ameeuws, Sydney spent a week with 2012 Olympian Reed Kessler, who is now based at her own farm in Holland. Sydney bought her current jumper Wolf S from the Kesslers and a friendship and mentoring relationship followed. Sydney tagged along as a part-time groom, riding in the “lorry” (horse van) with Reed’s professional groom and the horses to a show in Spain and generally hanging out and absorbing as much as she could.
“It was the first time I saw the full behind-the-scenes of what it takes to care for and ship top horses around the world. Reed’s program is so well run, so organized and I appreciated the care, quality and time she invests in her horses. There is so much thought invested throughout her system.”

Change Of Course

It was a transformative summer for Sydney, but not the one she’d planned on.

The new path began during the final day of selection trials for a berth on the North American Young Riders team for the late-July Championship. Sydney and Wolf were well-positioned for a second trip to the Championship: all they had to do was cross the timers in the final round on that fateful day in June. In the first round, Wolf jumped clear and felt fine, though uncharacteristically dull and slow, incurring time faults.

Sydney dismounted, trotted him out and headed off to walk the second-round course. Just a few minutes later, she returned see Wolf standing on three legs, his left hind leg suspended. It was too painful for him to put weight on, yet there was no swelling or other clues as to what the problem might be. “We thought it was a hairline fracture or a displaced stifle,” Sydney remembers. His pain seemed so severe, she worried about having to put him down.

The walk way between barns at Les Ecuries D’Ecaussines. Sydney on the left on a sale horse and Aiko Paridaen on the right (a student of Nelson Pessoa)

Wolf hobbled back to his stall where Sydney and her trainer Erin Duffy of Newmarket “iced everything,” eventually getting him numb enough to remove his studs and on a trailer to Helen Woodward Animal Hospital in San Diego.

A blown suspensory was diagnosed, which amazes Sydney to this day because Wolf gave no indication of any injury on course. “Maybe it was the adrenaline that kept him going.”

Despite dashed NAJYRC dreams, Sydney shifted quickly to seeing the lesson in the scenario: “It’s always hard seeing how dicey things can become with horses and it’s all the more clear that we have to cherish every moment we have with our horses. Because it can all be over so fast.”

So it was rest and rehab for Wolf and a plan B for Sydney.

Months prior, Fernanda had invited Sydney to Belgium to clinic with elite riders including the renowned Brazilian Nelson Pessoa, Belgium’s Gregory Wathelet and Jos Kumps and Dutchman Maikel van der Vleuten. The offer included a month of riding as well as twice competing young horses at national shows in Belgium. The NAJYRC goal had forced Sydney to decline initially, and she was thrilled the offer was still open when the dust settled after Wolf’s injury.

After her time in Belgium and Holland, Sydney traveled on her own in Europe before returning to the States for her sophomore year at University of South Carolina. The volume of knowledge and experience she’d gained required time to digest. She’s continuing that process this fall as she focuses on her academic studies and plans for more concentrated stretches of horsemanship education during school breaks.

All the work, thought and planning is an investment in her bond with any horse she rides.  “I think the #1 thing about being a horsewoman, and something that’s overlooked, is how much hard work goes into it.  The hours that are not always enjoyable, habitually long, and the effort you put in when no one is watching. Some people can have results without putting in this kind of work, but they forgo the bond with their horses that’s at the center of most top riders’ success and what makes this sport so amazing.”