Imanol Echeverria – Soaring to New Heights
Man’s complex relationship with the horse spans thousands of years. They have enabled us to travel between empires to conquer and cultivate other civilizations. They have plowed our fields, leaving us more time as a society in pursuit of art and science. They have fought in our wars, delivered our mail, pulled our stagecoaches, driven our cattle, and protected our herds from predators. We have used them for hunting, pleasure, sport, and companionship. Without the horse, our world would have developed very differently.
Imanol Echeverria has had the privilege of spending most of his life amongst these great creatures as a professional show jumper, horse trainer, and coach. He was introduced to riding at age 13 while attending boarding school in Ireland and continued to study all things equine after returning home to Madrid, Spain.
“Horses have grown into our family first through me and then through my sister who is now a riding instructor at Club Escuela Española de Equitación (CEEE) in Somosaguas, Spain,” says Echeverria.
Echeverria also went to the CEEE and trained with several Olympic Show Jumping and Dressage riders. After school each day, he would just show up on bicycle to muck stalls, clean tack, and hand walk the horses in exchange for the odd riding lesson or advice from these legendary pros.
“I did whatever I was asked. Eventually you move up the food chain; and maybe one day the person who was supposed to jump the horse doesn’t show up, and you get to do it. I got a good education through that,” Echeverria says.
He also learned the level of commitment required to achieve great success in this intensely competitive field and the importance of wearing many hats in case the prize money garnered from winning wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
“You need to be able to do a little of everything including having some veterinary and farrier knowledge to care for the horse, in addition to being a good coach in training horses and riders for competitions,” Echeverria says.
After leaving CEEE, Echeverria worked as a horse dealer, importing and exporting the Belgian-bred Warmblood and the Spanish-bred Andalusia, respectively. He scoured auctions in Belgium, culling through hundreds of horses to find the diamond in the rough. He became very adept in identifying those 4 to 5 year olds with the potential to become a champion show jumper. After training them, he sold them for a good price.
“I got one of my Grand Prix horses from there,” says Echeverria.
When he was 20, Echeverria moved to San Sebastian to volunteer with a small therapeutic riding center and work with renowned trainer and show jumping coach, Ignacio Pagola. With each of these experiences, Echeverria’s understanding of horses and the industry increased.
“Ignacio’s biggest asset was the way he taught. He showed me how to train horses and how to teach in a more personal way. Competing involves a lot of stress. You have to deal with the horse’s mental and emotional state as well as your own,” says he.
Echeverria dreamed of one day competing in the Grand Prix, which is the highest level that can be attained in this sport. He moved to Normandy, France to further his show jumping skills, studying with Olympian show jumper, Rutherford Latham and Jean Marc Nicolas, who had the distinction of participating in the FEI Nations Cup Jumping Series, equestrian’s oldest and most prestigious team challenge.
He did manage to compete at the Grand Prix in the show jumping category, with two wins. But in addition to expert training and hard work, it is impossible to continue at that level without some form of sponsorship or unlimited resources, which Echeverria did not possess. Also, the frenetic pace proved to be too stressful for his horses to sustain.
“I was lucky to have horses that were able to compete, but they couldn’t do it consistently at that top level. You have to manage their soundness and morale. They were capable of doing it for a little while at demanding shows; but then they needed a break, or to do something less complicated so their will to jump stayed fresh, and they did not feel on the edge all the time,” says Echeverria.
Knowing he would have more success in other areas, Echeverria became a certified instructor through the Royal Spanish Equestrian Federation so he could teach students who were interested in competitive riding. He also got involved with a sport horse breeding facility starting young horses.
“The not so friendly cowboy term is called breaking them. What I did was form a partnership with the horse, taking them through the necessary steps to eventually be ridden. Then I took them to competitions through six years old. At age six, I decided if they had Olympic potential and should move on to that, or if they should be sold for amateur riders at the lower levels,” Echeverria says.
Because working with horses had helped him when he was younger by keeping him out of trouble, teaching him the value of discipline and hard work, and instilling confidence, Echeverria thought others too could benefit from equine assisted activities. He went to California to study at the Shea Center, achieving Advanced Certification as a Therapeutic Riding Instructor through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Int’l.). This ultimately led him to High Hopes in Old Lyme, a therapeutic riding center for people with cognitive and/or physical disabilities. There he met his future wife, Susan Ballek, a horsewoman in her own right and the Executive Director at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington.
“When someone who spends most of their life sitting in a wheelchair looking up to address people is all of a sudden sitting on a horse looking down, psychologically that’s a huge thing. All of sudden they realize they can do this. It creates independence,” says Echeverria. “For people on the autism spectrum who have a hard time communicating with others, they start to build that up first with the horse and then with the volunteer who leads their horse.”
Echeverria also works at other therapeutic centers in Connecticut and in Mexico, where he piloted a Spanish language workshop to train therapeutic riding instructors.
He still enjoys riding competitively; and although he built his career around show jumping horses, here in the U.S. he focuses more on the Eventing horse, which includes Dressage, Cross Country, and Jumping in a stadium course as opposed to an arena.
But his main goal is to open his own equestrian center that he can develop into a premier training facility for competitive Eventing and show jumping riders, with an emphasis on teaching both young riders and adult amateurs in a safe, friendly, and professional environment.
“I thought of this while still in Spain. I would love to have a place where the training of the horses and riders is the most important part of it, along with good customer service and top-quality care for the horses. Based on my experience and knowledge, I would like to purpose it towards people who want to compete in some way locally, statewide, nationally or internationally. I am actively looking for the right piece of property in the lower Connecticut River Valley and shoreline,” says Echeverria.
For more information log onto http://www.milehighjumpers.com.