Equerry Exclusive Interview with
Betsy was interviewed by Emily Covington in 1999. Our questions, and her answers, are presented below.
Background: Betsy Steiner is a well-known and highly accomplished rider in the sport of dressage today. She has successfully trained and competed many horses through the Grand Prix level. On her horse Unanimous, she represented the US at the 1990 World Equestrian Games. Currently at Hidden Valley Ranch in Thousand Oaks, California, Betsy continues to train upcoming horses in addition to coaching a number of students. Her busy schedule includes teaching at clinics, showing and pursuing her commitment towards fitness for both horse and rider.
Betsy began her riding career very early on, with a special interest in eventing. On her uncle's advice, she went to train with noted Dressage trainer Christilot Boylen, so as to hone her dressage skills for the eventing. After a stay of about a year, she says she fell in love with dressage "and never looked back."
Equerry: How was your family involved with horses?
Betsy Steiner: My aunt, Dorothy Greg, was very involved with horses. Not dressage per se, but horses, so that, of course, was my favorite place to visit. We'd go there to see family but the treat was being with the horses. They had one horse that they were having problems breaking, so my aunt hired a German trainer to break this mare, and he looked at me and said "Do you want to ride?". I was ecstatic and said, "Yes, of course". He said, "Just don't tell anybody"-- he just wanted weight to put on the horse! So he stuck me on her and after a while the horse started going and we did dressage basics with the horse. After a couple of weeks, we showed the mare to my mom and aunt who were very shocked and surprised to see me riding and her behaving, as she was a real rebel before. That's sort of how I began, through my aunt, Horst Baier, and the palomino mare, "Zsa-Zsa", who later on became my first horse.
Equerry: What age were you then?
Betsy Steiner: That's when I was 14.
Equerry: Was your family supportive?
Betsy Steiner: Extremely. They were extremely supportive. There are three kids in our family and whichever direction any one of us wanted to go in, my parents were 100% behind us. My parents were always, always supportive of whatever we wanted to do, as well as other family members.
Equerry: Who were your mentors early on? Was there anyone in particular- a trainer or general horse person- who made a strong impression?
Betsy Steiner: I would say, early on it was Horst Baier. That was the man who helped with the very first horse that I rode, Zsa-Zsa. Then, of course, it was Christilot Boylen from Canada..
Equerry: How did you proceed from there?
Betsy Steiner: I was with Christilot for a year and from there I went to Germany to (train with) Egon von Neindorff. I was there for nearly two years.
Equerry: If you hadn't chosen a career with horses, is there anything else that you can imagine doing?
Betsy Steiner: Oh, yes. I would have gone in two directions, one was anything to do with animals. The other was I would have really liked to have been a Phys Ed teacher, or personal trainer. That's where my interests were in school. Before I rode horses, I was on a swim team. I also wanted to do gymnastics. All I wanted to do was go to the Olympics in some sport. I loved all sports, but with the swimming, at the age of 14, I was already getting too old to be real competitive. I wanted very badly to do gymnastics but we just didn't have the teachers at that time.
Equerry: I would like to return to the topic of fitness a little later, as I am aware how important that is to you through your published articles and work. I'd like to ask you first about your riding and training. How many horses do you have in training at the moment?
Betsy Steiner: Right now, about 15 horses are in training. My daughter (Jessie Steiner) and I work in a partnership at Hidden Valley Ranch. She and I work hand in hand.
Equerry: Would you describe an average weekly program for your horses?
Betsy Steiner: Yes, an average weekly program...well, it would depend. We have truly individualized each program. What we do is look at each horse, that could be a horse that is in training for either myself or my daughter to show, or it could be a horse in training with a rider/owner. So, there are two different scenarios there. If it's a client that comes and wants to ride and show the horse him or herself, then it would be a program that's set up specifically for them. In that scenario, I might ride the horse a couple of times a week or before the rider gets on. Then the rider himself would get on and feel what I have just done with the horse and train and prepare for shows that way.
Equerry: What about the horses just for you?
Betsy Steiner: I like to do all of the riding for the horses that I show. When I'm away at clinics or doing something else, my daughter rides them. I set up a specific program during the week to address each horse's training issues for that week. We really try to set up a good planning strategy for the horse and not have them overworked. I find it so important to learn how each horse works best to be sure that they peak for special events. I really try to keep them in the best athletic state as possible. Learning more and more about physical training myself, I try to program the horses' schedules to keep them in the best physical and mental shape possible. In learning more of how mentally and physically you can peak and then you have to let down a little bit and just do gymnastic work, then you work back up again-- that's become very, very interesting to me.
Equerry: How would you vary the program? You mentioned gymnastic work, do you add trail riding or jumping, things along those lines?
Betsy Steiner: We have a track around the arena and I like doing a lot of track work. In using the track we will just do basic loosening - walk, trot, canter. It's great for forward work. If a horse is learning flying changes, I like to use the track because he'll see no beginning or end of a line the way they do in the arena. There is a big jumper arena we have that, again, takes them out of the dressage arena situation. We'll go in there sometimes. We do have access to trails that are up in the mountains and the horses can do trail work and just relax. We're in a very, very beautiful setting. There are mountains all around and it's very serene. It's a wonderfully healthy environment for the horses.
Equerry: Do your horses get turned out at all?
Betsy Steiner: Yes, they do.
Equerry: So that's something you believe in.
Betsy Steiner: Yes, I really do believe in it. There are a couple of horses, however, that I fear turning out because of their value and the responsibility towards the owners. Should something happen, I just think it's very high risk. The horses that the owners are in agreement to going out and that I think won't do any injury to themselves when being turned out, do always go out.
Equerry: You spoke of the partnership with your daughter. Do you have any other assistants or working students that you allow to ride your horses when you are away?
Betsy Steiner: I ride all of my own in training. However, I do a lot of clinics and horse shows so when I'm not there, my daughter is my first assistant. She rides my horses when I'm not there. I also have a working student, Kyla Awes, from Minnesota. She helps out also with riding some of the horses. Jessie and Kyla are invaluable to me.
Equerry: Do you recall how you got your first sponsor?
Betsy Steiner: My first sponsor was Mrs. Hewitt from Moline, Illinois.
Equerry: How did that come about?
Betsy Steiner: Actually, she had a jumper rider, Tom Hardy, who saw Uwe Steiner, my husband, at the time. Tom saw Uwe ride and wanted Uwe to help him with dressage for his jumper horses. Mrs. Hewitt, then hired Uwe and I together. It was more in the beginning that she hired Uwe, then we started riding a lot of the jumpers and teaching them dressage. Mrs. Hewitt became more and more interested in dressage and that developed into a sponsorship that lasted 18 years.
Equerry: How do you evaluate a new student? What is your evaluation process?
Betsy Steiner: I would first watch them with their horse. To me, attitude is a huge, huge thing. I watch how they respond to their horse, what their reactions are to their horse, if they're sympathetic towards them, or if they're aggressive - just in general what their emotional and mental attitude is towards the horse. That can tell you a great deal as to how they'll be to train. Sometimes a person who is aggressive to the horse has a lot of fear. It will give me a real good indication as to how the horse has been treated and handled and how the rider will react to being coached. A person who is a little bit more sympathetic towards the horse, in general, is going to be more sympathetic towards training and more accepting of training. So, those are key things to me as to how you can train a person. A horse is much easier to train! It's matching and training both the horse and rider that becomes more difficult.
Equerry: That's very interesting that you look at, basically, the psychological component as a way to know where to begin.
Betsy Steiner: Right, because I think that influences everything. I think it all depends on what they want and their approach of how to get what they want...which will determine the results. I think physically you can train a normally talented person fairly easily but it's the whole mental game that's (key). The more I train, the more I can see that. And then, of course, some people are more athletically inclined. Some people have bodies that are naturally easier or suitable for the sport, they're more supple and strong. If a person does not have such a body type, there are many ways to become more athletic, strong, and flexible. You can go to a gym and set up a sports specific program with a trainer. From my years of experience, I've come to the conclusion that there are three major elements: There is the technical; that's knowing technically what to do and how to do it. Then there is the physical; that's being physically able to do it and then the mental side of it, and that involves the emotion and mentally what you're made of.
Equerry: How do you evaluate a horse that comes to you for training, especially in terms of being in line with the goals of the owner?
Betsy Steiner: That's a real good question. Sometimes you have a horse and an owner that don't belong together. That's sometimes very difficult to tell the owner. You may have a horse that's hot and very, very sensitive, together with a rider that is not yet that experienced to be able to handle a hot and sensitive horse. To evaluate the horse, I would observe him with his rider. Then, I like to ride the horse myself. Watching the horse with his rider and getting a feel for him myself will generally give me a pretty good idea of the full picture. Both parties give their input. By riding the horse myself, I can honestly determine if what I would tell the rider to do will really happen. In this way, I can evaluate if their goals can be met. We tend to say that everything is the rider's fault. Well, there are a lot of things that are influenced by the rider but also the horse has a good and a bad side and has a certain personality and temperament. So, it's a full picture that you have to look at. The horse is always influenced by the rider, but the rider can just as easily be influenced by a strong-willed horse.
Equerry: That's something that many people don't really think about.
Betsy Steiner: Exactly, you can have a rider that is a very good rider at the level he's comfortable with, but now he's moved up into the next level. The rider may have been completely accomplished at the level before on that particular horse but now simply becomes overwhelmed by more horse power. That situation is like starting over. You have to know what to do technically, physically be able to handle it, and mentally be prepared for whatever you are given.
Equerry: What encourages you most about riders you see today?
Betsy Steiner: I think we, as a group of riders, are now putting ourselves in the category of athletes. I don't think we have done that until fairly recently. Now, as athletes, we are looking for better techniques in training. We are gearing toward more physical fitness, doing cross training, getting into Sports Psychology, and understanding Biomechanics. Years ago, it used to be just get on and ride. There's nothing that substitutes that. For sure, the only way to learn to ride is to get in the saddle and ride. However, there are so many more things that you can do to enhance and develop your riding, be a better performing athlete, and be better prepared for your horse. It's learning to become a well balanced athlete.
Equerry: You have had much success both in this country and abroad. What do you believe, at this point, are the key differences between Americans and Europeans as riders?
Betsy Steiner: First of all, I think the culture in Europe is so much more advanced as far as the horse industry. It is truly a part of their life. If you go to the breeding stables, it's apparent how the knowledge is handed down through the generations. You'll come to the grandson who may say his father took care of this stallion's father and grandfather. So, it's in their blood. It's really part of their families - the horses are part of their lives. They really, really know the horses. They do so much more in exposure for the horses and the riders through the auctions, through exhibitions, through breeding shows. The attendance is high, the popularity is high and it's a much more popular sport over there. It's more like football and basketball would be over here. So, I think you have that innately in the culture, horses are more a part of their life.
Here, it's more likely for an individual in a family to become interested in riding and they're more on their own. You'll have to go out and discover things for yourself. That is one of the main differences in the building of the sport itself. I think that with the Europeans, the mentality is much more disciplined. There is a more defined system starting with the breeding to raising the foals - going to approvals and into training. As Americans, we are beginning to adopt these same systems which have been practiced for generations in Europe. But I think we have the tendency to be much more on the artistic side and say yes, we understand that there is a discipline and an order, but within the discipline and order, we want artistic freedom. To me, that's the difference. Americans want to have more expression.
Equerry: What would you say some of the factors have been in your success?
Betsy Steiner: I think, hard work, very hard work and the fact that I've been blessed with excellent, excellent instruction. That was starting at von Neindorff's and before that with Christilot. My education has been in one clear, straightforward line. I haven't had to take backward steps. It started with Horst Baier, then Christilot, von Neindorff, and then to Uwe Steiner who is an unbelievably good coach and has a great eye. Then I went on to Herbert Rehbein. It was all in one clear, clean direction. So, for me, there were for sure difficult times, but it was always in a straight line with little confusion. There were no points of stepping back and unlearning six things and then trying to move forward again. I was really very fortunate and very blessed to have had that. Also, the horses throughout my career...sometimes there were very difficult horses but through having horses that were a challenge, I learned so much more. And, I've always, always loved every horse that I've had. I've also had some wonderfully talented horses who have been very important teachers.
Equerry: That's so important.
Betsy Steiner: It really is. The other day I was thinking how long I've been riding and I just love horses more all the time. Horses are truly my passion. I think you have to have that, you have to come back to that single reason - the love of the horse. A lot of times your strength is also your weakness. Sometimes, for me, loving horses that much can also cause problems because most often they belong to someone else. Anything can happen in life - change is inevitable. A horse is sold or moves on somewhere else and you've become so emotionally involved, it causes great challenges and learning experiences in your life.
Equerry: How do you handle and overcome frustrations, either in terms of the riding or career?
Betsy Steiner: I have seldom been frustrated with the horses. There can be different situations where you become frustrated with the training and you don't seem to be moving ahead. But, again, I was blessed with a solid foundation and I've always been able to go back to the basics to figure out a problem, to at least have the tools to try to solve it. If I have tried absolutely everything and it didn't work, then we look at the situation as perhaps this isn't the right horse or perhaps this horse isn't capable, perhaps this horse needs to be doing something different, perhaps the combination of myself and the horse isn't right. It's never led to frustration where I wanted to quit. It's led to dig a little bit deeper and to look for more answers and again, to go back to the basics- to see that everything the horse needs is there. It makes you truly search every kind of avenue you can. Through that, you then discover alternative methods, (such as) does he need massage therapy, acupuncture, chiropractic...is there something we're missing somewhere. I think it spurs you on to become a better horse person and a more thorough horse person. In that respect, anything that becomes difficult, when the horse is involved, I look upon as a challenge that will lead to new knowledge. Not that it doesn't have moments of true frustration but there was never a time when I did not want horses in my life.
I have always set very high goals and when you set high goals, there are also very big crashes! So, I've come to know that and to understand possible consequences. If I were setting mediocre goals, then the crash would be a little mediocre one and I would go on and that's fine. But, too, anything you do with passion, if it doesn't work out with the amount of passion you put into it, it becomes...equally passionately sad when it doesn't work. Therefore, you could come to a point where you say 'I can't afford to risk that kind of emotion again.' That happened one time in my life. Actually, one and a half. [laughs] But, I truly love horses and a life with horses. I can't imagine changing that for anything.
Equerry: What would you say one of the highlights of your career has been so far?
Betsy Steiner: The highlight of my career was the World Championships with my horse Uni (Unanimous). That was very exciting and that whole training process, everything involved with that was definitely a highlight. Now I am experiencing another kind of highlight and that's with my daughter and the success that she's having. She's now really coming into her own as she's qualified for the Intermediare I Championships. What I look forward to is that we both have horses at the same time and can try out for teams together. That would be great fun.
Equerry: Is there a training concept or principle that you think is often overlooked?
Betsy Steiner: I think more and more people are really looking into the horses' needs. We're coming into an era now that is going to make our horses better than they've ever been before. We have access to all sorts of new information. Hilary Clayton, for example, is doing so many excellent studies on Biomechanics, research on horses (as to) what is good and not good for them. As riders, we are trying to really search and get more information as to how we can enhance the performance of our horses on a natural basis. I think we are in a period where things aren't being overlooked but really examined and studied as to how we can better treat our horses at every level. At least, that's what I am seeing and my hope is that people lean more in that direction. (For example) Klaus Balkenhol is so open to what is the best situation for the horse and (concerned with) creating the best situation for the horse. In creating the best situation for the horse, we create a better training environment. Look at the popularity of The Horse Whisperer, the kindness that it implied is extremely positive
I personally have spent so much time for myself and also for my students, working out in the gym to gain a better understanding of our own physical abilities and challenges. How do we really prepare our bodies and how does the horse feel in response to our body language? Having that first hand knowledge, being in touch with how we physically feel; when too much is too much and your muscles simply can do no more (is important.)
For example, if you are in the gym lifting weights, you do a low number of reps, maybe 12 to 15, rest, and then go back for another rep. It's the quality of what you are doing, not the number. You can put that into the work with your horses and say it's not the number of piaffe steps that we do, it's the quality of each step, give the horse a break, then ask again. Giving the horse a break is a mental and physical necessity. You won't fatigue the muscles until they can do no more. When you give the muscles time to relax, oxygen returns, the horse gets a mental break as well. That could be for 30 seconds to a minute. Then, go back again and try for the quality of the movement, rather than just keep doing it and doing it. Learn how to do it in an effective, efficient and quality way.
Equerry: It's really apparent the way fitness and physical awareness permeates your riding philosophy. What do you do on a daily level?
Betsy Steiner: I have the horses that I ride every day, that can vary from riding 6-8 horses daily and giving lessons. I go to the gym and work with a trainer twice a week. I try to get to the gym more than twice a week. I did do some weight training and now lately I've been doing more with (a fitness program called) Pilates. It's very intense, a lot like dressage. They say it takes up to five years to learn everything in Level Five. It's a system of pulleys and weights and working against your own body resistance. The system on which one trains has a moveable carriage that works with springs and pulleys. You set the system to work with your own body resistance. I find it incredibly useful as it addresses more of the same issues as when you're riding. You have to learn to be extremely centered. It provides a great basis for strength and flexibility, both of which are a necessity for riding. I've mainly put my focus on the Pilates. After the Pilates, I'll do a little bit of weight training. I work out with a trainer, Kathy Teague, no matter what, twice a week when I'm home. When I am at shows or doing clinics, I'll do some different exercises by myself for loosening, supplying, and flexibility. Many of these have been developed by my Tai Chi instructor (James Shaw) that I work with as often as I can.
Equerry: Tai Chi is very much about the mental, as well as the physical. Would you speak about how you approach this mental side, including components such as visualization, goal setting?
Betsy Steiner: It's extremely important. (James) and I are doing a clinic together in Florida at the end of this month. It will be really interesting to see how that works with a group of riders in a clinic situation. I've worked with Jamie on a one to one basis and we have done a lot of different things on the mental focus and working strictly from that perspective.
Jamie doesn't work with me on training the horse but it's simply working on the mind; mind training and focusing, unmounted and also mounted. One Saturday, he had us walk backwards around the 3/4 mile track about three times. This creates a very unique experience. Your perception changes. Instead of walking towards everything, it's as if everything comes towards you. When he and I were talking about the pirouette, he asked me about my intent and I said, 'Well, I have to get to that letter...' Jamie stressed it's the way you focus your intent on where you are going. If you let that letter come toward you, then you are better prepared for it. So, in working with that concept, it was extremely interesting what took place. What had been happening with this particular horse is that we'd be coming to the letter and I felt that the canter was getting flat. Having my intent in 'allowing' the letter to come to me, the horse stayed very lifted in the forehand, was lighter and it was just a change in my mental perception of what I was doing. That's where the Tai Chi really comes in. It gets very involved. You can take that wherever you go. Depending on your horse and how much mental connection you can get with your horse, it can move into the level of thinking something and being able to do it. There again, the horse has to be prepared, as well as the rider. You have to be at a certain level to do it, though it can happen at all levels to different degrees. It's extremely fascinating.
Equerry: What are some most important components to achieving your future goals?
Betsy Steiner: For the last four years, I've done a lot of coaching and training of other riders. That's been a good experience for me. It's really made my eye very keen as to how a rider influences a horse. I've become extremely interested in Biomechanics and how the biomechanics of the equine body and the human body influence one another. It's been a learning experience for me.
I am interested now in backing off a little bit from so much coaching and training of other riders. I'm in the process of some very exciting projects which will include horses for me to show. I am anxious to spend more time on my own training getting back into the show ring. I have a really good young stallion, a Donnerhall, who's five. He will be getting a lot more attention and more work. I look forward to international showing now and put coaching a bit more on the sidelines.
Equerry: What is the greatest reward for you from your work?
Betsy Steiner: I think the greatest reward is in having a horse that is happy, that can't wait to work together with you and the feeling it gives me to share in the grace-power-strength and elegance of a wonderful horse. To know you put in honest work and get an honest return on your investment. (It is) in having a partnership that works together like one, where you and the horse understand on the same level that a daily workout can bring such joy of expression. I think of oneness and expression of freedom of the horse, lightness and ease and harmony--all of those positive things-- if I can actually experience that together in the movement of a horse...that, to me, fulfills my passion.
For more information about Betsy Steiner's
clinics, please call 805-379-8794.
Emily Covington was employed at Hilltop Farm, Inc. in Colora, MD from 1992 through 1997. Starting as a working student, she later served as assistant stable manager, and rode young horses, including her own. She has produced a variety of photography and artwork for the farms publications. She now lives in Redlands, CA where she continues to ride and does various freelance work for Hilltop.
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