By Nancy Jaffer
Sept. 15, 2017
She’s never owned a horse. But Isabelle Heckler of Colts Neck has managed to get some pretty extensive experience in riding and equine care because, simply put, she’s a worker.
The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association’s Emerging Athlete Program was designed for someone like Isabelle, the only New Jerseyan named to compete in November’s 2017 finals at Ohio’s Lake Erie College. There are 24 finalists, culled from a group of 180 who took part in regional training sessions around the country this year. The sessions include both riding and horse management, and always feature expert instructors in both.
EAP’s mission is to discover riders under 21 with ability, but lacking the opportunities of others in their age group who have been riding regularly in the elite shows. The concept provides education for young riders in their quest to become knowledgeable horsemen and women. It can boost participants in their aspirations to be professionals–or at least have serious involvement in horse sport.
One of EAP’s best-known alumni is Jacob Pope, who won the 2011 national finals after competing primarily in local and regional shows. He went on the next year to take the USEF Talent Search Finals East and the ASPCA Maclay title at the National Horse Show.
Isabelle brought a green horse to her training session this summer at Centenary University in Long Valley, noting, “It’s nice to be surrounded by peers who are coming in with horses they’ve ridden once before and wanting to show off their riding ability by showing how much they can improve in three days.”
As a veteran of a 2014 EAP training session in New York with Candice King, Isabelle went to this summer’s session “with the intention of helping everybody out and trying to re-create the experience I had in 2014, because everybody was so helpful and made my experience so easy. I could never have imagined making it to nationals.”
Anne Kursinski, the developing rider coach for the U.S. show jumping team, presided at the Centenary session, which also included extra-curricular activities, such as a tour of the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation headquarters in Gladstone led Sally Ike, EAP committee chairperson. Sally, an eventer who rode with the team, is based in Gladstone as the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s managing director of licensed officials.
“It was incredible,” Isabelle said of her visit to the historic stables. “I hadn’t taken all the time to appreciate all the history that is so important to it.”
Her ambition for the national finals is typical Isabelle: “To just be the best teammate and rider that I can be.”
She’ll be getting real team experience this fall after trying out and being accepted as a new member of the varsity NCAA squad at the University of Georgia, where she is a sophomore and previously participated in Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association competition.
Isabelle started riding as a child when she and her mother, Margot, a veteran of the U.S. Pony Club, cared for a variety of animals at a farm in Middletown. “My mom put me on a horse one day, and I never got off,” Isabelle chuckled.
After she got really invovled in horses and started taking lessons, Isabelle recalled, “My parents sat me down and told me that if I wanted to keep riding, I’d have to figure out a way to do it myself.”
So she did.
“At the time, it seemed very life-shattering,” said Isabelle of her parents’ decision, but she realized in retrospect, “it was so instrumental in forming a work ethic and forming character.”
The 19-year-old spent a lot of time as a working student, for Bill Ellis and David Connors, as well as Max Amaya, among others, including Laura Bowery, with whom she rode in Wellington, Fla., last winter. One of her big moments was riding in the 1.20-meter jumpers at The Ridge show there.
Max called Isabelle “a very dedicated worker, passionate about the horses.” He added, “I think she’s going to be able to succeed in the industry because she’s doing all the right steps. She worked very well with others, she’s always ready to help, and she’s not shy about asking for help when she needs to. She’s a good team player.”
Still considering her future, business major Isabelle isn’t sure if she will be a professional horseperson, though that seems likely considering her lifetime involvement with horses, which also involved being a hotwalker for a racing stable.
Looking forward to the finals and learning from Olympic gold medalist Peter Wylde in the riding segment and Anne Thornbury for stable management, she enthused, “It’s going to be such an amazing opportunity.”
What Isabelle has gotten from EAP, she observed, is “the emphasis on being a well-rounded horseperson. None of us are ever too successful to not have to clean a stall or groom our horses or wrap them at the end of the day.”