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Santa Barbara News

July 2008

by Dennis Moran 

Good Horse Sense

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It‘s an overcast Friday afternoon at Amapola Ranch in the foothills, and Rebecca Atwater is standing in the center of a ring as five of her top students ride in circles around her. “Your chest is open, your shoulders are rolling down and back,” Atwater calls out to them, “you’re working on making sure you have good control, that your signals are clear and very gentle, that your horse is behind the bit. Brittany, soften your rein. That’s it.“

It’s pretty much fine-tuning for these girls, who range in age from 12-15. This is what they do. They’re award winners, like Brittany Martindale, who took home a couple of Show Champion ribbons at last month’s Sanata Barbara National Amateur Horse Show at the Earl Warren Showgrounds. They fell for horses big time, some from before they can remember, and they’ve been training in English riding discipline at Atwater’s Santa Barbara Stables, which operates at the 125-acre Amapola Ranch. Their level of commitment is summed up by Julia Rossow, 15, who at the show qualified for medals final in Nevada and Kentucky: “I come here every day except for Mondays because the barn’s closed on Mondays. Otherwise I’d be here seven days a week. It’s a passion. I’ve been absorbed in it since I was little.”

Atwater’s business, which includes three assistant trainers and a groom, piggybacks onto the ranch, owner by Faye and Merlin Rossow (Julia’s grandparents). Horse owners can board their horses through the Rossows, and then hire Santa Barbara Stables to exercise the horses and train riders and horses.

“It works best when I get to do both,” Atwater says. “So most people hire me five days a week, and they take three lessons a week, and then I ride their horse and tune them up twice a week ... find out what’s going on with the horse, what are its weaknesses and then I can help teach the rider how to improve the horse.”

Atwater currently works with about 30 horses and 30-40 kids and adults, from age 6 to 60s, and they’re all levels, from novices to A-circuit horse show riders like the advanced girls she’s putting through some paces on an overcast Friday. During the season these girls may enter one or two shows a month, in equitation and hunter classes, which simply put emphasize the form of the rider and horse, and in some jumper classes, in which speed comes into play.

But more generally ”equitation” — emphasizing a rider’s proper form and balance — seems to be a common denominator as the girls warm. up. ”If you’re in proper form and proper balance, your horse is going to be able to perform better,” Atwater says. Then there’s the art that conceals art — making it look effortless. “If you have good control and the horse is obeying your signals, it’s going to look effortless. And it’s usually because they’re balanced.”

And that fits nicely with her mantras of safety and control, as well as sportsmanship, horsemanship and just plain having fun. “Basically what equitation hunters (classes) comes from is just making the sport safe,” she says. “If you’re really balanced and have strong legs to keep you on your horse, the musculature and balance, then it’s going to be a safer sport ... My emphasis is on safety, horsemanship and, of course, sportsmanship. I want all my students to achieve their goals in a positive training environment.”

Atwater’s young charges are almost all girls. There are only a few boys, which is too bad, she says, because they’re missing a lot of fun and exhilarating riding. Atwater herself was one of those girls smitten early and deeply by horses. “Apparently before I could walk they put me on a horse, and when they tried to take me off, I didn’t want to get off.” says Atwater, who also competes in jumper classes, with her horse Black Pearl. “I just loved it. I’ve been passionate about it.”

For Brittany Martindale, “She’s transformed when she’s around horses,” says her dad, Scott Martindale. “She’s so focused. Horses just transform some kids. For others, it’s just a fun thing to do.” That enthusiasm had payoffs, he says. “You won’t find a more organized and responsible group of kids,” says Scott Martindale. “Brittany has to come over here and feed her horse eevry day. Plus it’s such a close-knit group. They’re all so friendly. It’s just such a wholesome activity.”

Emily Dall, 13, a jumper-class award-winner, describes herself as “very competitive.” But, she adds. “The environment is really friendly. You’re like friends with everyone. And the passion of horseback riding — you can fulfill it here.”

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