In the winter of 2011, Luke Olsen was confined to bed after a serious car accident. The 16-year-old distracted himself from the discomfort by watching rounds from top hunter and jumper competitions online, including the best trips from the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals and ASPCA Maclay Finals.
“At the time I was thinking ‘Wow, what if I ever did this?’ ” said Olsen, now 18.
It was pure fantasy for someone who’d only ridden at the local level. But the next year, just eight months after he jumped his first fence at 3’6”, Olsen walked into the ring at the Alltech National Horse Show (Ky.) to compete at the ASPCA Maclay Finals.
With help from top trainers, an understanding family and school, and plenty of hard work, Olsen leapfrogged from the novice level to competitive on the national stage in a very short period of time, finishing 22nd at the Region 1 ASPCA Maclay Qualifier. But Olsen’s goals were never confined to what happened in the show ring.
“I don’t just want to ride, I want to get my horse ready for the medal finals class,” he said. “I want to watch the other rounds, tack up my horse, towel him off, and ride him to the ring for a big class. I want to have a connection with him, taking care of him afterward and knowing I can go back myself and wrap him and unbraid him and do whatever it takes.”
Getting A Taste
Olsen grew up dabbling in eventing and 4-H with Nandee Willets from Pepperell, Mass. His parents were supportive of his horsey habit, but they didn’t have the means to finance it on a major scale.
Olsen’s first glimpse of serious competition started in the spring of 2010. He’d broken his foot when a horse fell on him, and he found himself with free time on his hands while he recovered. Bored, he emailed every grand prix rider he could think of to ask for a summer job, and Anne Kursinski was the one who replied.
As soon as his foot healed, his parents drove him from Groton, Mass., to Frenchtown, N.J., to spend the summer grooming at Kursinski’s Market Street. He’d turned 16 three days earlier, he didn’t have a car, and he’d never been to a major horse show. But he learned the basics and got to work at Lake Placid (N.Y.) and HITS Saugerties (N.Y.).
After the summer, Olsen wanted more, but fate had other plans. That January he was hit by a car in a crosswalk and thrown 57 feet. He broke his right tibia and fibula as well as five ribs. He suffered a punctured lung, and the doctors lost count of the stitches in his face after 100. Olsen spent a week in a hospital, then a few more in bed at home before gradually started getting back to school in a wheelchair.
As he recovered, Olsen started scheming how to get back to a top stable. He cold-called Melanie Smith Taylor, introducing himself as “just a poor kid who loved horses and dreamed of doing it big one day.” He made a point of travelling to meet Taylor in person, showing up to a clinic she was giving in Westport, Conn., when he was still on crutches. Taylor suggested he think about whom he’d like to work for, and when he came up with that list, one of those names stuck out: Jennifer Alfano.
Gung Ho And Eager
In some ways, it was an obvious choice, thanks to Taylor’s longstanding friendship with Alfano, and the latter’s background. Alfano worked her way up to star hunter rider status, growing up helping with her parents’ farm. She catch rode some but showed the same tough horse through five years of equitation finals. After grooming for Gem Twist for 3½ years—including at the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games where he and Greg Best earned double silver medals—she eventually found her way back into the hunter ring. She’s been riding for Susie Schoellkopf’s SBS Farms since 1990.
So Alfano empathizes with the plight of talented kids with limited funds, but she’s not a pushover. She doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who think it’s all about time in the tack, and, in her experience, not all the young horsemen looking for a leg up understand the tremendous among of dedication and work involved to earn it.
“When Melanie called me, she said ‘Look, I don’t know the kid, but he’s very persistent,’ ” recalled Alfano. “All she could say was that he was very eager.”
When Alfano spoke to Olsen, she was distracted and too busy to give much thought to a green high schooler who wanted to learn the ropes. She offered him a position for the summer, but his leg wasn’t healed yet. By the time he called to set up a start time for the fall, Alfano had all but forgotten about him.
“Honestly, I knew we needed help during [The Chicago Hunter Derby] and the [Buffalo International (N.Y.)], so I figured even if he didn’t cut it, we’d have some help for those weeks,” recalled Alfano. “Sure enough, he showed up Sept. 1, all gung ho and eager, and I thought ‘Well, this can’t last. He’s just trying to make a good impression.’ But he’s the same now as he was then. And he persevered—that’s what struck me about him.”
Thriving Under Pressure
Olsen took advantage of an independent immersion program at his Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., which allows students to design their own curriculum around a related project. Olsen arranged to shadow a farrier and veterinarian, keep a blog, and he assigned himself readings from texts like Hunt Seat Equitation.
Olsen worked closely with Alfano and barn manager Jessica Liftin in an environment where hard work trumps all, and patience for excuses is limited at best. He was expected to work as hard as the rest of the staff, with equally long days. He wasn’t coddled in lessons either, and while Schoellkopf recruited a school horse for Olsen to practice on, riding wasn’t his priority.
A teenager could be forgiven for struggling under the pressure, but Olsen thrived.
“For a while Jen would give me a course, and I would do it wrong,” said Olsen. “I’d go off course, or do things the wrong way. Now Jen has taught me to think before I ride, think before I speak, and pay attention. She gives me a course, and I’ll take a second and go over the details. That’s one thing they’ve totally impressed on me: details, details, details.”
That translated nicely when he went back home to check in with his school’s academic committee. His presentation hinged on videos of himself riding, wrapping, grooming and working around the barn.
“I turned on my computer, and all the videos failed—none of them worked,” Olsen recalled. “It almost worked to my advantage. I had the knowledge organized in my brain from being taught correctly. I was able to stand in front of them for 15 minutes and talk about it. I took what I was going to say with my videos and didn’t repeat myself. I think I almost impressed them more doing it that way.”
Trouble With Two-Point
Olsen had shown at an occasional local show before he came to SBS, but that was about it.
“I know when I first got here, I couldn’t ride to save my life,” said Olsen, who’d never owned gloves or a saddle before coming to Buffalo. “The first month I was here and taking lessons, I couldn’t make it down the long side [of the ring] in two-point at the trot—I was dying, I was so out of breath. I was in group lessons, and all the other girls were totally outriding me. I remember after a hard flat lesson I said, ‘I don’t think I can really jump today.’ Jen and I were talking about it the other day after I was trotting around without my stirrups for half an hour, saying, ‘Can you remember it’s been a year since I was able to make it around the ring in my two-point on Mickey?’ ”
Olsen was just as happy to spend a day grooming for customers or teaching up-down lessons as hacking sales horses.
“So many kids want to ride horses. He wanted to learn about horses,” said Alfano. “What makes him special is he wants to learn every aspect of the horse business—feeding and setting courses and dentists and farriers. So many kids we’ve had over the years will sit on a tack trunk after the work’s done. He’ll go and watch McLain [Ward] and Beezie [Madden] and Hunt [Tosh] and Peter [Pletcher] and Scott [Stewart] and ask questions about it. I’ve never told him to do it.”
Once Olsen got to HITS Ocala (Fla.) he started competing in the low children’s jumpers at his first A-rated horse show, impressing Alfano.
“I kept telling Susie, ‘You know, this kid can ride a little bit,’ ” she recalled.
His First Time—Everyone Else’s Bajillionth
Olsen remembers the day it all changed.
“When I walked into the barn one morning during Week 3 of Ocala and saw my initials [on the schedule] next to the Maclay, I was like ‘What is going on?’ ” he recalled. “I was on Cloud 9. It was so unbelievable to even think that these people thought I was ready for this. For a while it was like, ‘We’ll let Luke do the equitation—whatever,’ then things started to progress. It really turned into a serious thing, where Jen and Susie put a lot of time and effort into me.”
Shortly after that, Olsen earned his first equitation award. That white ribbon came in a Pessoa/USEF Medal class toward the end of circuit. It was the first time he’d ever advanced to a work-off.
“There were like 30 kids in the class, and [for the test] they called the kids into the ring and read the course, then made us turn around so we couldn’t watch each other,” he recalled. “I saw Jen standing at the in-gate, and I knew I was ready. The three other kids I was riding against had been doing this forever—this was like their bajillionth test. But I was so excited and so happy to make it and get that ribbon.”
After Florida, Olsen returned home for the balance of the spring semester. On weekends he headed to Buzzards Bay, Mass., to train with Kathy Fletcher and Nancy Murphy at Grazing Fields, getting more equitation miles—and points—at shows in New England, until he’d qualified for both Regionals and Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals.
The Best Situation
Olsen and his partner for indoors, Sports Talk, met the week before the Region 1 ASPCA Maclay Qualifier in Westbrook, Conn. It took them a few trips to gel, and he was discouraged after a few rough rounds at a warm-up show. That was when Alfano called him into the tack room and shut the door behind him.
“She said, ‘Look, we have a lot of faith that you can do this, but just remember this is your first time. You just started this—you’re going to get to Regionals, and there are going to be kids that have five or six years of this behind them and lots of miles. If you make it, you make it. If you don’t, you don’t and we have a good time,’ ” recalled Olsen. “She knew how to handle me and calmed me down.”
Olsen kept his composure and qualified for the finals.
“I’m in the best situation that I could possibly be in,” said Olsen before the Pessoa/USEF Medal Finals at the Pennsylvania National. “I have amazing horses and obviously one of the best trainers in the country. It’s amazing to have accomplished what I have, regardless of how I do at these next few finals. Jen never won a final.
“I’m just doing this because it’s part of the learning process,” he continued. “It’s just another round that I’ve learned something from. So I don’t look at other kids and say, ‘Wow I wish I had three jumpers and two junior hunters and an equitation horse.’ That’s great for them. They’re making the best of their situation. When I was working for Anne it was the same thing. I thought, ‘I’m learning from the best, working for an Olympian learning how to take care of those horses.’ I never got down about not having all the things that others had.”
Olsen put in capable but unspectacular trips at the finals, but he felt like the luckiest person in the world when he patted Sports Talk on his way out of the ring. And when he got back to the barn, he untacked him and gave him a treat, then unbraided him, hosed him off, washed his legs, wrapped him and groomed him before putting him in his stall—just like he’d always dreamed of.