Schoolwork and showing aren’t an either/or decision. Here’s how some young dressage riders manage to excel in both the ring and the classroom while away from home.
BY CATIE STASZAK
Reprinted from July/August 2017 USDF Connection.
Emily Smith put the final touches on a braid halfway up her horse’s neck and took a step back—not to admire her work, but to rush over to her computer. She had a last-minute assignment to submit to her University of Florida online class before getting back to her dressage-show preparations.
“I try to piece in as much little bits of schoolwork as I can while I’m also taking care of the horses,” says Smith, 20, of Belmont, MA. “When it comes to the shows, it’s much more difficult because it’s not such a steady schedule. Those tend to lead to more late nights to try to get assignments in on time, or I’m rushing to get an assignment in before quickly braiding my horse or getting on!”
Smith, who recently completed her second year of studies as a computer-science and engineering major, is one of a special breed of young dressage rider: the serious competitor who is juggling away-from-home showing with schoolwork. Smith rode on the USDF Region 8 Young Rider team at the 2015 FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC), and she competed for the USA on the FEI Young Rider team at the 2017 Florida International Youth Dressage Championships in March. When USDF Connection caught up with her, she was conducting her studies in Wellington, FL, during the 10-week wintertime Adequan Global Dressage Festival while training, caring for, and competing her two horses, including her top mount, Dublin.
“I’ve been coming down to Florida for three years,” Smith says. “I took a gap year between high school and college, and then I kind of got the bug for Wellington. Smith—who aspires to work for NASA, SpaceX, or a big data company—spent her first semester of college at UF’s campus in Gainesville in the fall of 2015. Since then, she’s opted to take online classes exclusively, to give her the flexibility to pursue her riding goals.
“I’m very lucky that the University of Florida offers an online option for a lot of its courses,” Smith says, “so I can do a lot of my prerequisites and general-education classes and some of the beginning classes for my major online. It allows for much more flexibility.”
Many young equestrians face similar challenges to Smith’s. Florida in particular draws numerous high-school and college students who are training and competing on the winter dressage and hunter/jumper show circuits, and all have to find ways to crack the books when they’re not in the saddle. For this article, we looked at how some students balance riding with long-distance learning, and we got advice and recommendations from educators who serve this niche market.
Get an Education!
The lure of a career as a dressage professional might tempt some young people to abandon school altogether. That’s a big mistake, says dressage trainer and USDF FEI Junior/Young Rider Committee chair Roberta Williams, of Wellington, FL. She and her husband, George (the current USDF president and an international competitor and trainer who’s also the US Equestrian national dressage youth coach), encourage their young clients (including Smith, who trains with George Williams) to pursue an education, regardless of riding level or ability.
“Education is important, period,” says Roberta Williams. “I always advocate that these kids go to college and get a degree because I really, truly believe in it. I think that they need to have a backup plan. You don’t make as much money in dressage as you do in jumping. We win six-dollar ribbons. Jumpers win $10,000 purses. It’s a hard life in dressage.”
The high-school and college students who travel to Florida and elsewhere to train and compete have many educational options available to them. Some dis-enroll from school for the season and work with tutors. Some, like Smith, enroll in full-time online academic programs. Combination programs using a blend of educational methods, such as tutoring and online schooling, work for some. The real road warriors remain in school at home full-time and travel to the shows on weekends.
As Roberta Williams points out, not every option works for every student. The freedom afforded by taking classes online can be too unstructured for some.
“I see a lot of kids who get down [to Wellington] and think they’re going to be able to maintain their workload for school, and they can’t do it,” she says. “Pretty soon they start floundering, and then we have a kid who doesn’t have the skills to right the ship. They start getting upset, and then you have family problems because the parents are standing there saying, ‘Well, we thought you said you were doing your homework,’ and the kid is lost.”
Hire a Guide: Tutoring
Smith, for one, works with a private tutor to help keep herself on track with her studies. The two don’t meet in person but instead video-conference using the communications app Skype.
Many educational companies have realized the demand for their expertise in this niche market, and several equestrian- geared tutoring services have sprung up at both the Adequan Global Dressage Festival and the nearby hunter/ jumper-oriented Winter Equestrian Festival. There are so many, in fact, that it’s a challenge to sort through the options.
Roberta Williams has referred many of her young clients to Grand Prix Tutoring, founded by 26-year-old Danielle Cooper. A former grand prix show jumper who juggled her own schoolwork with riding as a youth, Cooper went on to study math at New York University. Six years ago, after a colleague in the educational field recommended that she start tutoring, Cooper began her new career and started her own company last year.
Grand Prix Tutoring employs about 10 tutors, some in Wellington and Ocala, FL (another winter equestrian hotbed), and others scattered throughout the country who work online. According to Cooper, the company works with about 30 students either face-to-face or online via e-mail, Skype, FaceTime, and other video technologies.
“It’s more of a personal operation than a huge corporation,” says Cooper. “We have great relationships with the students, and we really focus on personalizing how we help our students and the structure and support for them.”
Champion Jr/YR Bronwyn Cordiak, 19, of Dallas, TX, was a student of Cooper’s during the 2015 and 2016 winter seasons. Cordiak opted to temporarily dis-enroll from her home high school, Ursuline Academy of Dallas, a Catholic college-preparatory high school for girls. She’s now a prebusiness major at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth.
“We ended up being able to have Danielle work with my school,” Cordiak says. “They would send everything to her, so I wouldn’t have to communicate with school. She was in charge, and she talked to my counselor and got my tests through that, and she would administer them. I worked with her, and she made it really easy.”
At times, making it easy for her pupil involved Cooper’s going to great lengths.
“I took Mandarin Chinese in high school, so Danielle was able to find a teacher at a nearby high school in Florida who came once a week to work with me,” Cordiak recalls. “She found that teacher, and that teacher was even using the same textbook that I was using at my high school, so it worked just about perfectly.”
“We weren’t completely sure what to expect [of tutoring] because we’d never done it,” says Bronwyn’s mother, Kristin Cordiak. “She graduated magna cum laude last year, so it clearly worked well. She did it her junior and senior years, and she got into the university that she was really interested in going to.”
The “New School”
Joanne Weiner is not an equestrian, but equestrians love her. Weiner began offering private tutoring in 1989 out of her art studio in Boca Raton, FL. Today she’s the founding and executive director of the Palm Beach International Academy, which she describes as the “new school.” PBIA, with bases in Wellington, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach, combines online schooling through accredited distance-based learning programs with a one-on-one instruction model, as well as “small group” studies and enrichment for elementary- and middle-school students. PBIA offers both full-time and seasonal programs as well as a university-level program, summer and springtime camps, college counseling, and standardized test prep.
“We’re kind of like a one-stop shop,” Weiner says of her operation.
With a staff of about 125 tutors and 25 employees and administrators, PBIA serves 100 full-time students and another 100 to 125 during the winter show season. The seasonal students may choose to bring work from their home schools or to take the academy’s own courses.
“I would say we work with about 30 or 40 schools from around the country during season,” Weiner says. “We have about 10 different programs that we work with for our high-school diploma program, and then we have four or five universities that are degree-granting universities, and we have over 800 courses on a university level.”
PBIA’s structure, as Weiner puts it, is “non-structure.” Students attend school a minimum of four days a week for one of two shifts—morning or afternoon—depending on their riding or show schedules. During that time, they spend 30 to 45 minutes in a tutorial and 15 to 30 minutes receiving reinforcement for each subject.
“You can go to school for five solid hours, and you’re done,” Weiner says. “You don’t have to go to school for nine hours and then have four hours of homework. Who wants to do that? Our program is about 20 hours a week. We have five subjects, four hours a day. Then we also try to give the students, especially the high-school students, a subject that they do on their own so they’re learning independently.”
PBIA is open to all students, not just riders—Weiner counts tennis players, golfers, hockey players, and kids who just seek an alternative learning method among her clientele—but the program has definitely found its niche in the equestrian market.
“I think equestrians do one-on-one very well because they are interested, motivated, focused people, and I think that our program has worked around them, as well,” Weiner says. “[A traditional school model] just doesn’t fit for who they are. We understand it. You might be on a horse for an extra hour, so classes don’t have to start exactly as planned.”
The flexibility doesn’t mean that PBIA’s program isn’t academically rigorous, however. Weiner says her goal has always been to prepare students to succeed in college and beyond. As evidence, she points to two current high-achieving dressage-riding clients: Juan Matute Jr., 19, a winner of the Under 25 Grand Prix at Aachen and a bronze medalist at the European Under 25 Championships (he rides for his native Spain); and Helen Claire McNulty, 17, a young rider with aspirations to attend an Ivy League college and eventually to work on Wall Street.
“The flexibility is key,” said Matute, who now calls Wellington home. He graduated from high school this spring and planned to begin an online college program. “We all know how demanding riding and days at the barn can be: It’s not really like working in an office, when you know when you’re going to come in and the exact time you’re going to be leaving. For your tutors to have planned your schedule to fit your riding, and to be able to do both things at the same time, is really important for us riders, especially for someone like me. I want to be a rider in the future and have it be my profession, but I also want to pursue a degree and an education. It’s very important for me to keep both priorities.”
As McNulty tells it, she’d spent “two or three” winter seasons in Wellington before her entire family decided to move there permanently, relocating last July from Holland, MI. It was a win-win in terms of both academics and dressage, she says.
“I came from a very small town, and the [dressage] training options were not so great, and the school I went to was pretty bad. Being here, I have the opportunity to take great classes and really excel, because I want to get into a top university. At my old school, I couldn’t do that. No Advanced Placement classes were offered—nothing. It just made the most sense.”
PBIA students also profess that the school has helped them develop clearer career interests. If a student is interested in a subject that PBIA doesn’t offer, the staff will find the class at another institution and move it into the student’s transcript.
“Coming here and being able to take harder courses and expand on my learning has helped me see what I really want to do,” says Mathilda von Guttenberg, 15, of Greenwich, CT, a seasonal high-school sophomore who rides both dressage and hunter seat. “I take education very seriously next to my riding, and this school has helped me further my goals and really see what I’m interested in. I’m very interested in genetics and medical engineering—the whole science field. I’m a little torn over it because I’m also interested in politics and history and the whole current-events theme, so maybe I’ll aim toward something in public health.”
“In this school, there are so many electives,” adds fulltime PBIA high-school junior Natalia Bacariza, 15, who’s based in Wellington but rode for Spain on the FEI Junior team at this year’s Florida International Youth Dressage Championships. “They are open to so many electives that other schools aren’t. At a normal school, I don’t think I’d be able to take psychology or business as an elective—it’s normally just art or drama—and you’d only be able to pick [a few]. Here, I can take as many as I want. I’ll take those over the summer and, depending on which I like better, I’ll study that more.”
Focused on Success
Although the equestrian lifestyle can make academics more challenging, being a serious dressage athlete usually means that a young rider possesses the strong-willed, laser-focused mentality necessary to succeed.
“Dressage riders are really dedicated across the board— riding and schoolwork,” says Cooper. “I think that’s because dressage is so detail-oriented, so they apply that to their schoolwork also.”
Riding dressage “enhances your ability to focus, without a doubt,” says Matute. “It’s a discipline that encourages you to pursue perfection—even though perfection doesn’t really exist, because it comes in a variety of ways. But still, it helps you focus and gets your priorities set, and you understand that there’s no time to waste. You put all your effort into whatever it is that you’re doing, and you get it done.”
“In the old days, if you really wanted to take equestrian sport seriously, you couldn’t go to school,” Weiner says. “There were certainly programs [available], but they weren’t of a high academic nature. I really feel like we started something fantastic in the world of education, thanks to the generosity of our equestrian families. We satisfied their needs for what they needed for their lifestyle, and as a result, we’ve created something that is taking off.”
Catie Staszak is a host, reporter, and show-jumping analyst, leading broadcasts around the globe and writing stories along the way. When she’s not working, she’s pursuing her own competitive goals in the saddle and spending time with her retired horse, who’s now 23.