At the tail end of 2023, we shared the exciting news that Courtney Cooper of C Square Farm and Excel Sport Horses was launching a scholarship opportunity for two amateur riders to immerse themselves in the whirlwind of life on a professional yard for a week that would be jam-packed with education and opportunities. Now, we’re delighted to share the diary of the first of those scholarship winners, Jennifer Clapp, who ventured down to Aiken with her Connemara, Muggsy, to put her out-of-office time to great use. Take, it away, Jennifer!
Wow! What a week! It was a total immersion into the Aiken horse life. As a public high school teacher, my time off is very prescribed. Luckily, I was able to take my February vacation week to head down to C Square Farm South to do nothing but spend time with horses.
Before I get to the day by day play by play, I just wanted to say that Courtney, her working student Nathan, her college intern Beth, barn manager Emily, and fellow amateurs Kathleen, Kelly, and Seth all went out of their way to make sure I had a fun and rewarding week.
After a very long day shipping down (17 hours plus a snow storm), we settled in well — Muggsy was super happy to run around on the nice sandy ground and have a really good roll. We spent the morning at Stable View, where Courtney and some of her students were competing. In the afternoon, I watched a couple of training sets and had a dressage lesson, where we got Muggsy to really loosen up his back and soften his poll, especially when he got a little looky. He finished very relaxed and soft in his body, which was great after the long ride.
A beautiful Aiken day on the farm! It was a busy one. I watched Courtney ride a young horse for the second day in a row and it was impressive to see how much he relaxed and got much more confident in his work. Courtney had two Zoom lessons with Peter Gray on her two upper level horses, which were fascinating to watch. I was so caught up in the second lesson I almost didn’t have time to get ready for my own jump set!
Our jump set focused on balance and rhythm; we started with trotting poles, first on a straight line, then bending through the corner, helping the horses to develop and maintain a consistent rhythm. Once they were confident there, we incorporated two sets of raised cavaletti as well as the original poles. The initial responses to the raised cavaletti varied; some over-achievers tried to bounce them or walked; luckily, Muggsy is a pro at figuring out the easiest way to get something done and he trotted neatly through them. The next step was trotting a course of small fences, including one with placement poles; the exercise encouraged the horses to maintain their own rhythm and be responsible for their own balance. By the time we moved to cantering a course, all of the horses were well prepared to jump, land, and turn in balance.
We started off bright and early with a trip over to Bruce’s Field for their Tuesday jumper show. Muggsy and I had fresh tracks in the ring, with him blowing little puffs of smoke since it was still so chilly. I definitely was a little unprepared for Aiken’s cold mornings! We did two trips and had significant improvement between the two. Muggsy is on the smaller end, so we’ve been working to get the adjustability we need to be able to make it down the lines well and Courtney helped me find the right canter and approach (gotta come forward through the corners!) to make it happen.
Our afternoon was spent at cross country schooling; Courtney had four horses from training to advanced to school with Erin Sylvester and then taught two upper level students, Kathleen and Kelly. Watching them school some tough questions was both educational and inspiring.
Another bright and early morning in the ring. Kathleen and I reset the jump course, practicing our accuracy in setting a couple of gymnastics and some single fences. Then we two and Courtney took three of the horses who had schooled cross country the day before for a hack on one of Aiken’s classic red roads, successfully navigating goats, chickens, and backyard decorations. Then it was off to the Vista! Muggsy started out being company for one of Courtney’s home breds who was going out for his first xc school. Despite being normally very chill, he totally failed at this job, spooking a shadow on the ground and what I can only assume was a bear (or maybe a dragon?) in the other field. Fortunately, Ghost, our buddy, was calm beyond his years! He took everything in stride and it was really fun to watch him confidently trot all the elementary fences, the ditch, the bank, and the water with ever increasing joy. His face said, “look what I can do!”
It took Muggsy a minute to get back into cross-country mode(I could almost hear him saying, “But it’s February!”), but he soon settled in and we had a great ride, with highlights being his bold jump over a coop with brush into the water and a super straight and forward approach to a corner.
Once we got home, I flatted Kathleen’s lovely young horse Curley and then set jumps as Courtney jumped three; the gymnastics we set that morning systematically prepared the horses as we built them up. Courtney was dragging the ring in the dark as we finished up!
We started the morning off watching Courtney jump Kathleen’s lovely preliminary horse Excel Star Harry, whom she bought from Courtney as a four year old and has brought through her first two-star. Then I got to jump Curley, a six-year-old former steeplechaser who has just a fantastic rhythm and jump. He used a whole different set of muscles than my muffin of a Connemara! Then it was back to the Vista, for cross-country schooling for Courtney’s student Seth and jumping in the derby field for her student Kelly and some of the horses who were heading to Pine Top that weekend. I finished the day in the most Aiken way possible: a long slow road hack for Muggsy and drinks at the Wilcox! Kathleen and I headed in to meet some of my Area 1 friends (the best!); Seth and Kelly joined us later. It was one of those great moments in the eventing community, where a group of folks from all over (Areas 1, 2, and 8 represented!) with all kinds of different backgrounds can come together and have a great time based on the common denominator of eventing and our love of horses.
Pine Top! It was exciting to visit this beautiful venue. We had the pleasure of watching Courtney ride her homebred River in his first Advanced dressage and show jumping, followed by her mare Maeve in the Intermediate. After spending some time watching all the big guns in the show jumping, we set out to walk the cross-country. It’s been a while since I’ve been up close to an Advanced course — Area 1 only has one left — and this one was BIG and, in some places, SKINNY! Looking at the tables, I could only think that Muggsy’s primary response, if I pointed him at one, would be to bank them. There was certainly plenty of room to do so! The course was across a beautiful piece of land and the footing was perfect. After our course walk, we headed back to the farm to flat and go for a golden hour hack through the woods. It truly was a picture perfect ending to a wonderful week.
As I rolled out of bed at 2:15 the next morning to make the drive home (18+ hours this time! I’d almost take snow over NYC traffic…), it felt like I had been in another world for a month, not a week. Every day was jam-packed with horses and educational opportunities; I never walked less than 30,000 steps in a day (admittedly, some of that was on horseback). It was the kind of immersion in the sport that I can almost never take the time to do. I came away with many tools for everything, from starting a nervous young horse to schooling one getting ready for its first Advanced (in the unlikely event that I’ll ever need that!), a bunch of new friends, and a renewed respect for the hard work and dedication it takes to be a professional in our sport. I’ve given you the highlights, but behind that was all the care that our animals need, the preparation and tacking up, the clipping, the packing and unpacking, and the sisyphean tack cleaning! I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity and hope my journey inspires other professionals to offer similar scholarships and other amateurs to load up their horses and take a risk in the service of their learning.