By Britney Grover
Portraits by Kristin Lee
The pressure was on Will Simpson at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games: All he had to do was jump clear with Carlsson vom Dach and the U.S. Show Jumping Team would bring home gold. All his years of dedication and hard work had brought him to that moment, with the whole world watching. But Olympic dreams, especially on horseback, were far from Will’s mind when he started taking riding lessons at 11 years old.
Riding began as just another of many boyhood sports and activities for Will and his five siblings in their hometown of Springfield, Illinois. It didn’t take long for Will to realize his passion for horses, riding, competing … and winning. His equestrian education took him east, to study with legends like Rodney Jenkins, George Morris and Bernie Traurig, learning not just to ride well but to start and train young horses as well.
After learning from masters on the East Coast, Will opened his own business in California, where he’s been based for over 30 years. Now, Will continues to ride, train, teach and compete out of Will Simpson Stables at Royal Oaks Farm in Hidden Valley, California. He has a soft spot for trail riding, perhaps the remnant of his early horseback days riding Western and reining, and shares his passion for horses with his family — he and fellow grand prix show jumper Nicole Shahinian-Simpson have two children, Sophie and Ty, both of who are also dedicated riders.
As a prominent member of the West Coast equestrian community and deservedly well-known around the continent, Will has a knack for starting young horses and developing difficult ones, has competed around the world and has won over 75 grand prix. But the crowning moment of Will’s career — so far — was when his lifetime of dedication to horses paid off as he jumped the final jump of that Beijing course fault-free for Olympic gold.
That moment still brought tears to Will’s eyes as he shared it over a decade later in the documentary film “Desert Flight.” His experiences play a significant role in the award-winning film that explores horses in the lives of several California-based riders, exposing the drive, grit and dedication to horses, along with the joy they get back.
Though Will claims “Desert Flight” is just living proof that he’s a rider, not an actor, his passion for the sport shines through. “What I want people to take away from watching ‘Desert Flight’ is that no one knows where we’re going, so you might as well work hard, be kind, keep your eye on the goal and enjoy the ride!”
Out of all the sports you tried as a kid, what made horses stick?
I tried most every sport, from pole vaulting to baseball and even unicycle riding. I thought about going into the circus with the unicycle, but in the end horses won! I was very fortunate to come across a very talented horse named Glenda Jo when I was 13: She was the deciding factor. She won eight out of eight classes in two different horse shows and from then on I was hooked.
Do you have any embarrassing or “learning” moments from your early days with horses?
Embarrassing moments — where do I begin! One of my first was the fact that I almost quit riding because it took me so long to learn my diagonals! All the other kids laughed at me; I was so deflated, humiliated and embarrassed. I just couldn’t make sense of it all. I created a big deal out of it and almost couldn’t face those kids at the barn. Turns out it was only a big deal in my head — not one of the kids even remembers! Whew, glad I got over it — wow, how the adolescent mind can make a mountain out of an anthill.
What’s your favorite memory of Rodney Jenkins?
One of my favorite memories is when he gave me the time of day after I finally plucked up enough courage to call him and ask for a job. I was just glad he took the call even though he didn’t have an opening at the time. It turned out that he called back a week later with an opening and he didn’t have to do that — he had basically created a position for me and gave me a chance in the industry on the East Coast. The opportunity to work with him and see him take horses that were difficult and within two or three rides give them confidence they needed was invaluable. The way he could turn the horse around with such a smooth hand was something that I found truly motivating and still try to emulate to this day. Thanks to Rodney’s example, I try to help others and give them a chance just like he did for me.
What horses have you had a particularly strong personal connection with over the years?
Ado Annie comes to mind; She was a feisty unbroken 4-year-old when we bought her. She won her first grand prix at 7 years old, won the Grand Prix of Del Mar four years in a row and took me around the world to three consecutive World Cup Finals. At one point as an 8-year-old, it felt like she had actually learned the rules of show jumping and her feistiness had morphed into a real competitive attitude. She actually knew where she placed in the lineup and I could tell she was disappointed not placing first. That connection is a very rare thing, when you feel a horse is striving with you to get into the winner’s circle. I’ve only ridden a couple of horses over the years that I felt that close to.
What do you like about being based in and showing mostly on the West Coast?
I think we have more grass fields out here now, for a start! As much as it’s a cliché, the West Coast is a little more laid back and allows for people to take the time needed to produce a horse at a little bit of a slower pace. Of course, the weather is nothing to complain about!
What’s your current operation like?
At the moment I have a barn full of amazing, dedicated clients who really enjoy the sport and who are all really fun to teach, which in turn helps my riding. I’ve assembled three grand prix horses which I’m very excited about being able to focus on. I have a really good balance of teaching and riding right now.
What are Sophie and Ty doing now?
Ty is currently in the middle of the Young Rider Trials and is very passionate and dedicated to the sport. He’s doing well in equitation and the jumpers. Sophie and her fiancé, Sean Leckie, own and run a training barn called Blue Ridge Farms in San Juan Capistrano. They are doing a great job and we are all very excited about their future in the horse business.
What does it mean to you that the kids share your and Nicole’s passion for horses?
To see them going into this profession that has brought us so much joy is a dream come true … that is, except when they beat me in a jump-off!
What are your goals and plans for the future?
I’m really enjoying riding and competing still, and I could see that winding down in the future and focusing on helping more with the kids’ careers. One way or another, I want to be in the saddle every day of my life … possibly a little reining cow horse down the road, surprise surprise! No matter what, I see my days filled with horses.
What do you consider the most important concept you’ve learned that you hope to pass on to your children and your students?
The most important concept I’ve learned from my life with horses is that it’s one of the highest privileges just to ride a horse. No matter who owns them or how much they cost, they’re all magnificent. It’s our unwritten oath as horsemen to do our best, and expect and accept limitations. Win, lose or draw, it’s a great ride!
Photos by Kristin Lee Photography, www.kristinleephotography.com