by Kim F Miller
Red shows up on the piping of Ben Ebeling's new Kingsley boots and accents his new black Equiline tailcoat. It's an homage to the red light saber yielded by the bad guy, Darth Vader, in Star Wars. It might seem strange that the 21-year-old is still obsessed with a fictitious film series launched 20 years before he was born. But nothing could be stranger than the facts surrounding Ben's real life on the dressage circuit over the last year.
Last fall, the college junior was plotting a return to the U25 circuit he dominated in early 2020. That was before COVID turned the world upside down. About six month later, Ben was named to the USET Shortlist for Tokyo Olympic consideration. On June 8-11, he and Illuster van de Kampert will contest the USET's final observation event alongside veteran Olympians Steffen Peters and Adrienne Lyle amid a 15-pair roster of contenders.
Ben had dreamed of following in the footsteps of his 2012 U.S. Olympic dressage team member dad, Jan Ebeling. However, while he's always "gone big" in his ambitions, there was no plan to hyperdrive pursuit of an Olympic opportunity.
As of last summer, the family's focus on Tokyo possibilities was geared around Jan and his most-seasoned Grand Prix mount, Indeed. Too new a partnership to go for Olympic consideration at its original date in 2020, the possibility came more into focus with the year's postponement. Jan also has two other Grand Prix horses, including Bellena. "I am excited about her for this year, and I am really excited about her for the next few years," he explains.
When the Shortlist was announced, "Everybody was asking me how I felt about Ben making it and not me," Jan relays. "To be honest, I feel great. How could I not?" When the required Grand Prix Special scores with Indeed didn't meet the needed average, Jan chose not to chase further scores. "I thought having one member of the family doing really well is great."
Father and son share a highly competitive drive, but making international teams comes second to the daily rewards of working with horses as they progress. "It's always been my dream to ride at a really high level," says Ben. "But it's not more important than enjoying the everyday work."
Looking back, Ben pinpoints the first waypoint on this wild ride as when he decided to take a semester off from business studies at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. He commuted back and forth to Florida ride for during his first two-and-a-half years of college. When COVID mandated online-only study, it made sense to focus full time on dressage while sheltering in place at the California family's beautiful Wellington, Florida base, Tierra Contenta.
Ben and Illuster van de Kampert dominated the U25 ranks for the slightly abbreviated 2020 Global Dressage Festival circuit. The original goal for the late 2020 & 2021 show season was another excellent year at that level, hopefully this time having the U25 European tour actually happen after it was cancelled last summer.
A Coffee Break
The seeds of this possible Tokyo track can also be traced to a random encounter at a New York coffee shop in 2018. It occurred after returning home from his first European Young Rider tour, in 2018, with Behlinger, and en route to the North American Youth Championships in upstate New York. While Behlinger quarantined, Ben and his mom and Team Ebeling chief Amy were staying with New York friends and had visited a coffee shop, both wearing their USA Dressage hats.
"This lady approached and asked if we rode dressage," Ben explains. "I introduced myself and she said, 'I've heard of you and I have a horse for you.' At first, honestly, I thought she was a little crazy! It was my first experience having somebody approach me and know who I was."
Four months later, Ben remembered the woman's offer to come see the horse, Illuster van de Kampert, at the Marcus Fyffe Dressage program in the Wellington area.
The woman in the coffee shop, Sasha Cutter, was, in fact, crazy in the savvy sort of way regarding Illuster and Ben's suitability. Sasha now enjoys the fun fall-out of her hunch as part owner of the horse with Amy.
A high-level jumper rider, too, Ben loved the 13-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding's "jumper-like energy" right off the bat.
"The moment I sat on him he was the most fun horse I'd ever sat on," he recalls. "He had that jumper mentality and energy and his gaits are fantastic." The process of getting him into the Grand Prix ring was "an awesome project for me and my dad," Ben reflects.
They started off 2019 well in the Young Rider division in Florida and enjoyed a good year of getting to know each other. "The whole season at Young Rider level, he was super hot in the ring and I knew, as we got into Grand Prix, he would get hotter and hotter."
Indeed, the transition had its rough patches. During a Grand Prix outing that summer in Europe, Illuster's energy was so excessive that Ben chose to retire from the test.
"He is very anticipatory of the next movements," Ben says of Illuster, a half-brother to Steffen Peters' Suppenkasper through their sire Spielberg. "He has such large movements, especially in the passage, it's like he was afraid of himself." Adjusting his nutrition with the help of sponsor Cavalor Feed and working to make the horse more comfortable with himself and in the show ring brought gradual improvements.
Their first three to four CDIs of the 2020 season saw scores from 59 to 64s, and "I was like, Yeah!" Ben shares. By Week 8 of the Global Dressage Festival that year, Illluster was settling into the new groove of being both "calm and on," resulting in Grand Prix and Grand Prix Freestyle victories, and crossing the 70s threshold. "I was beside myself!" Although the Festival ended two weeks early, Ben was thrilled to close it on their Week 10 victory in the CDIO U25 Nations Cup win in March with the U.S.' Stars and Stripes squad.
The Tokyo Olympic idea grew bigger at the Desert Dressage CDI 3* in California last fall. Amy Ebeling helped launch what was a much-needed addition to the California international dressage calendar, and Ben and Jan were big winners in the ring.
"We ended at the Desert International Horse Park on a really good note," Ben recalls. He sensed it was time to move Illuster up. "He is the type of horse who gets better the more difficult something becomes. The Grand Prix and the Special were really good tests for him."
"That's when we starting talking..." Jan chimes in. "If the horse looks really secure in the U25 Grand Prix, we are going to maybe try a national Grand Prix. We'll try it out. We didn't want to go out and have people say, 'Now, they are crazy. They are going for the team.' But every time the horse went out, he got more and more secure. The horse got more comfortable and Ben got more comfortable with the horse."
They began targeting a CDI in Wellington, using their U25 Freestyle and making their CDI debut in January with a "fairly easy" test, Ben describes. "The judges said, 'OK, that was very good. Now you can make it more difficult.'"
"It's always a good idea to seek out a conversation with the judges after the show," says Jan of soliciting big picture input beyond the judges' brief remarks on the test. "You can ask them what they thought, how can you improve, what they think you should do next."
"Go big or go home," says Ben of the degrees of difficulty he added to this Freestyle, now set, of course, to a medley of Star Wars music. "We added a couple of piaffe to pirouettes, a canter, to piaffe, to pirouette, one-tempis on a curve - directly out of a pirouette, a super steep half-pass and passage to half-pass at the end."
"No way!" was Jan's first response to Ben's ambitious additions, a trait he said Ben gets from his mom. "The new test had really no places where you're not doing anything."
Along with the confidence-inducing performances and good scores they earned from the original Freestyle, Ben credits Illuster's intelligence with enabling him to step up so well. "He's a very smart horse," Ben explains. "He doesn't just go in there and do what he's told. He's on. That's his personality. He wants to be challenged and the more he's challenged, the more he thrives and shows off."
"A Bit Of A Shot"
Early in the Wellington circuit, Ben declared for Olympic consideration. "It's just one of those things that, if you are at the level, you feel like you better do it just in case," Jan recalls. "As the season wore on, we started to realize we've got a bit of a shot."
Back-to-back wins in Wellington's Global Dressage Festival 3* preceded the debut of their Grand Prix Freestyle, fittingly on the U.S.'s biggest, boldest stage: the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center's International Arena.
Along with riding through the entire test for the first time, it was the first time riding at night and under the lights for horse and rider. Their 77.555% was second to Olympian Adrienne Lyle and Harmony's Duval. "I felt like it went really well," understates Ben of the mid-March debut. "And the fun part was that I know we had a lot of room for improvement. That was a big confidence booster and I knew the scores could get better."
Another case of fact being stranger than fiction in Ben's current odyssey is that dressage isn't his first love. That's jumpers. Before going off to college, he competed up to the 1.45M level under the coaching of 2008 Olympic gold medalist and close family friend Will Simpson.
"It's my first love," says Ben. For now, it's all dressage all the time, unless it's Monday easy work day in the big arena at Tierra Contenta. Just recently, Jan found Ben and Illuster working over what looked a lot like a jump-off course set with poles and small cross-rails. "I thought 'This kid is going to turn jumper on us yet,'" Jan laughs.
Jan and Amy never pressured Ben to ride. Growing up at the family's Southern California training facility, The Acres, the only equestrian mandate was learning to be safe around horses.
Ben started out “going around jumping” on an Appaloosa pony, Bernie, and taking lessons from a local trainers Tamara Solange, for basics, and Wynn Morrow when he started jumping. On mastering the 1M division, Ben felt ready for his first horse. “My mom said, ‘You are not allowed to get a horse until you can get that pony on the bit.” That wasn’t so easy, Ben recalls. The Appy was strong in mind and body, and neither pony nor person were thrilled about the slow process of giving and getting the submission required to work consistently on the bit.
Ben prevailed and got that horse, an older, schoolmaster named Scarlett, with whom he advanced to the 1.2M and 1.25M ranks. The mare also inspired a deep dive into horse care and management, and inadvertently sparked his passion for dressage, when she was injured about a year into their partnership. During the following year of rehabbing Scarlett himself, Ben “fell in love” with dressage after watching the U25 Championships held during Horses And Dreams in Osnabrück, Germany. It was one of many international competitions for which Ben had a front row seat while traveling as his father trained and competed throughout Europe.
“What most inspired me was the control, beauty and professionalism that these riders displayed at such a young age,” Ben recalled of the 2013 epiphany. “As my now-good friend Juan Matute, Jr. came into the arena, I was awe struck by his riding in particular. After watching his ride, I knew I wanted to be a serious competitor in the sport of dressage along with my already budding show jumping career.”
Conveniently, he had access to a first-rate coach in his father, from whom he’s been constantly learning through casual conversation, osmosis and formal instruction. At the FEI levels, Germany's Christoph Koschel and 5* judge Gary Rockwell periodically join Jan on the coaching rail. U.S. Olympian Robert Dover continues to mentor Ben in navigating these highest levels.
Year-Round Fathers Day
Jan remembered the pleasant surprise of Ben first expressing serious interest in dressage several years ago. “He got very inquisitive, asking me ‘How do you do those pirouettes?’”
“Why do you ask?” Jan responded.
“Ben said he thought if he could get his jumper to do something like that, they could go so much faster through the turns. I thought, hmmm…, this kid knows what he’s doing.”
Father's Day falls a week after the observation events and Jan is assured of an ongoing gift no matter how the Olympic selection chips fall.
"As a dad, to see your child step into your footsteps, enjoy it and do so well…
“How much better can it get?”
Text by Kim F Miller - Photos © Astrid Appels - Sue Stickle - private
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