The American system for developing young jumper riders is based on intensive coaching and systemic development.
Current wisdom dictates that riders start their career on hunters, learning accuracy and steering, transition to equitation to develop adjustability and refine position, then advance to the jumper ring where they finally learn to ride at the daring speed it takes to win a jump off.
It’s a system that has churned out many of the top young professionals in America today—Lillie Keenan, Jessica Springsteen and Adrienne Sternlicht among them.
It’s also the polar opposite of how famed speed rider Leslie Burr Howard (USA) learned to be fearlessly fast.
“I think it has a lot to do with how you’re brought up actually,” shared Howard on Monday’s episode of The Jay Duke Show.
“These days, the students are so watched over. From the time you get in the saddle, you’re taught every single move. For me, fortunately, that wasn’t the case.
“When I was four years old, my parents, who knew nothing about horses, handed me a western saddle, rented me a pony down the road and said, ‘Go have some fun.’ And I did.”
Howard’s idea of fun at age four is the same one that would earn her multiple Olympic and Pan American Games medals, a World Cup title, and countless speed class victories: she raced against the clock.
“I had a stopwatch,” she smiled. “I had my little spotted pony and a western saddle and a stopwatch. I’d hit the stopwatch, gallop around our yard, which was about 10 acres, as fast as I could. I’d come to the same point [where I started] and hit the stopwatch, look at [my time], hit the stopwatch again and gallop around the yard again.
“I spent the whole morning of my summer vacation when I was four years old racing around my backyard with absolutely no supervision whatsoever. So right from a very young age I learned not to be scared.”
That lesson, and the freedom that allowed it, is what Howard credits for her enormous success in the speed ring.
“I think a lot of people when everything is so carefully planned for them, they never learn just how to go fast and have fun,” she said. “Many people who grow up going hunting or playing polo, they’re not scared of the pace. So right from the beginning I think that was a huge benefit—being so young and having no formal education in the beginning.”
Now 63 years of age, Howard is still phenomenally fast in the ring. But she says the next generation is even faster.
“I don’t necessary practice going fast. I do ride a lot at the hand gallop and train at the hand gallop. This is a galloping sport,” she says.
“I do think the riders now have become even faster. When you look at McLain [Ward] and Kent [Farrington] and watch how they ride a jump off, they’re turns are so incredible, they’re beyond believable—they turn right back in six or seven strides on a roll back to a 1.60m oxer and think nothing of it. I think in that way the sport has progressed a lot.”
But in the most meaningful way it has not: winning starts with pace. And perhaps a stopwatch.