December 2018 - Benjamin Heckman
Written by CRM
Friday, 30 November 2018 02:06


Adrenaline rush snags a mainstream sports guy’s interest in pursuing an equestrian path.

Benjamin Heckman is a sports crazy 16-year-old. The Northern Californian is a Warriors fanatic with a head full of basketball stats and stories. After a cross-country jumping experience at Eventful Acres this past spring, he’s also a fanatic about eventing. Benjamin had plenty of fun in his first three years of regular riding, but admits it would be a “bit cooler” if he weren’t virtually the only young guy doing it.

Maggie Clancy’s Strides Riding Academy in Petaluma is the main source of Benjamin’s horsemanship foundation so far. There, he started on a hunter/jumper track and enjoyed being a member of the barn’s Interscholastic Equestrian Association team along with 11 girls. Since the eventing camp, he’s switched full-time to that discipline and now has his own new horse. Benjamin followed his mother Alice Chan’s footsteps into the horse world, and is off and galloping through it with her full support.

Articulate, mature and fun, Benjamin has strong thoughts on getting more boys into the sport and building its fan base. California Riding Magazine editor Kim F Miller enjoyed talking to him about that subject and others. Given that her two young adult sons have given her years of grief – i.e: “Equestrian is not a sport: the horse does all the work,” she greatly appreciated Benjamin’s encouraging perspective.

Benjamin & Roger

Kim: Tell us about your introduction to eventing.
They told me I could jump over hay bales and logs, but I was already doing that in the arena, so I wondered, “Why do it outside?’ Cantering through the fields was so much fun! I immediately said, “This is what we are doing!”

Next, my coach Natalie Brady invited me to do a one-day event at Woodland Stallion Station. I’d done dressage and show jumping and was ready to really have some fun on cross-country, then my horse stopped at the second jump! So, I started thinking what can I do to keep his energy and momentum up so he won’t be thinking about refusing. I started having a conversation with him, saying, “Let’s go! Let’s go!” It worked and I’ve continued to talk to my horse on course. Most recently, it worked so well that I got penalties for being three seconds too fast on cross-country!

Kim: Do you get any flak from your guy friends about being an equestrian?
I’ve definitely heard things like, “It’s not a real sport,” and “that’s a girl’s sport.” I just shrug it off. I know that it’s a female dominated sport at my level, but at the top levels, it’s very mixed. There are lots of crusades in the sports world trying to incorporate the men’s and women’s leagues, and we are one of the few where competition is not separated by gender.

Kim: Is it a big deal to you that there’s not more guys who ride?
I’m not sure it would make it any more fun for me. I think it’s more that it would help the sport become more widely accepted. It has so much potential to be one of the most watched sports, but not enough people know about it. And, too many people think of it as girls sitting there, petting their horse, rather than the competitive side of it.

Kim: What could equestrian sports do to get more guys into it?
They should go after guys like me: adrenaline seekers. A barn should advertise their business using a picture of somebody jumping a 4’ fence, so people will understand that this is what horse riding is. Honestly, I used to think riding was just about prancing around an arena. But, I know now that it can be very adrenaline-inducing.

Benjamin in one of his first eventing outings, aboard Natalie Brady’s Pluto.

Kim: Many riders, of both genders, don’t think of dressage as “adrenaline-inducing.” What about that?  
I used to think that dressage was so boring and nowhere near as fun as cross-country. But, now I see that it’s important for me to work on my equitation because you have to have everything going right. And, there are elements of dressage that are fun. For me, the appeal of dressage has to do with the professionalism of it and pushing yourself to do the best you can.

Once you get to the upper levels of it, the technicality of dressage is really impressive, even though you have to understand enough about dressage to see it that way. It’s hard to market equestrian sport off of dressage.

I see eventing as like eating at a restaurant. First, you have to have an appetizer: dressage. Then, your main course, show jumping; then, your dessert: cross-country! That makes it all worthwhile.

Kim: You’re a basketball player, too. How does riding stack up from a fitness standpoint?
I never thought riding would get me into shape, but after riding for three years, my legs have never been stronger. It strengthens your core and it’s a nearly all-around body workout. The physical aspects of the sport caught me off guard. For example, I had no idea how winded I’d be after cross-country!

And it’s a special sport because, unlike, say rowing or swimming, there’s an opportunity for social connection. You can go out on trail, be talking and having a good time with other people while you’re doing it.

With Strides Riding Academy’s Maggie Clancy and head groom Miguel.

Kim: How did you first get into riding?
I had been on a few rides, mostly on the Northern California coast. And my friends and I had done some sleep-away camps at Cloverleaf Ranch in Santa Rosa, where we did western riding.  I thought it was enjoyable but I was never dying to go riding again.

Three years ago, my uncle got married in Ireland. We went on a few rides cantering through the woods. It was the most fun I’d had in a long time and I wanted to do it more when I got home.

I started riding at a jumping barn, once a week on a pretty old schoolmaster. After a while, I tried some mounted archery and dressage and kept up with the jumping. Then I got more serious about riding with Maggie at Strides Riding Academy and being on their IEA team.

Kim: How was your experience with IEA, a league for middle and high school age riders?
It was a really cool way to get to know everyone else at the barn. It was me and 11 girls, just sitting there talking when there’s so much downtime at a show. The social aspect is what really interested me about IEA. It made my lessons after an IEA show even more fun. If you give me a chance to learn something while also being social, I really go for that.

With the Strides Riding Academy IEA team.

Kim: Who are you training with now that you’ve switched to eventing?
We had a great introduction with Natalie Brady at Four Star Farm, but she is a little too far away from where we live. I board my horse at Hawkwood Hill Farms in Petaluma and I train with Bethany Wallace.

Kim: Tell us about Rouge Et Blanc, aka “Roger.”
He is a 16.1hh Morgan/Thoroughbred cross. He’s 10 and has competed Training Level eventing and some higher-level dressage. He’s well trained, so right now it’s about establishing a connection with him and building his muscle tone. Hopefully in a couple of months, we’ll be doing some eventing. Within a couple of years, I would very much like to advance to Preliminary.

Getting a tie adjustment from mom and fellow rider Alice Chan.

Kim: Are you still able to keep up with basketball?
Yes. Basketball and riding are the two things I love and that doesn’t leave me much time for anything else. I’m trying out for the team at my school, the Sonoma Academy in Santa Rosa.

Kim: Can the Lakers keep up with the Warriors now that they have LeBron James?
The Lakers don’t stand a chance against the dynasty the Warriors have built. Barring injury, there’s not much the Lakers can do about that powerhouse in Oakland!

Kim: Thank you and we look forward to following your career!!