By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
It’s no secret that equestrians are the oldest Olympians. With an average age of 38, equestrians can be twice the age of athletes from other sports. Making it to the Olympics takes grit, talent and a little bit of ‘the right place at the right time’ — and every once in a while, a young rider comes along who has it all.
At just 21 years old, dressage rider Ben Ebeling was selected to compete in the 2021 Olympic trials with his mount, Illuster Van de Kampert. “To even be selected for the trials was a dream come true — but competing in them was surreal,” he said. “It was a big atmosphere, but Illuster handled it very well. I was quite awestruck to be competing against the top riders in the U.S. Watching the other riders certainly was a fantastic learning experience, and seeing the nuances in the styles of riding was awesome, to say the least.”
Following the Olympic Selection Event in Wellington, Ben was chosen as an alternate for the U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. With an Olympic bid so early in Ben’s life, there’s no question that this is just the beginning of a prosperous career — even one to rival that of his father, Jan Ebeling, who competed at the 2012 London Olympics.
Ben grew up at his family’s Moorpark, California, training facility surrounded by horses and a hunger for success. Despite coming from a dressage family, Ben’s parents never put pressure on him to ride. “One morning when I was about 5, I went out to watch some kids riding in a lesson, all jumping around on their horses, and I thought, Gosh, this looks so fun. I told my mom I was ready to ride, and the rest was history,” Ben said.
While Ben learned to ride and developed a love for show jumping, his competitive side didn’t come out until he was in high school. “I wasn’t all that serious about riding,” Ben said. “It was just a fun thing that I did with my friends.” Through his early teens, Ben played basketball and was competitive in soccer. “I eventually decided that soccer was no longer for me, and I wanted to focus my efforts on riding.”
At 16, Ben rode his first Grand Prix in show jumping, traveling the region to show jumping circuits in California, Colorado and New Mexico while training with Will Simpson. At home, however, Ben found himself aboard more of his father’s training horses, helping to train them in dressage. “The more I got into it, the more I got competitive about it, and riding dressage was something I really enjoyed doing with my dad,” Ben said. “At that point, I’d been taken over to ‘the dark side’ of dressage!”
A Star in the Making
Ben set his sights on representing Region 7 at the North American Youth Championships in dressage, competing in the Junior division in Colorado. With just a few qualifying rides under his belt, Ben made the team. Unfortunately, his horse turned up with a hot nail and was unable to show. “I still had a great experience watching everybody else compete,” he said. “I told all my friends and the coaches my plans for the next year — that we were coming back and we were getting a gold medal. And that’s exactly what we did.”
In 2017, Ben spent his final year in the Junior division with his mount Behlinger, owned by his mother, Amy Roberts Ebeling. Though the horse was just schooling First Level at the beginning of the season, Ben trained him to do flying changes and managed to make the NAYC team. With the competition moved to Saugerties, New York, Ben and Behlinger took a cross-country trek so Ben could accomplish what he’d set out to do — he took home the gold medal with Region 7.
“The following winter was my first season coming down to Wellington,” Ben said. “I wanted to do the Young Rider program, but of course it was a bit of work because I still had to train Behlinger to Prix St. Georges! The tempis and zig-zag was all new to him, but he took to it like a natural.”
After warming up to the FEI ring with a successful debut in the Young Rider division, Ben and Behlinger were selected to the European Young Rider Tour, an opportunity for elite young riders to train and compete in Europe through the summer. “I went with my friends Callie Jones and Anna Weniger,” Ben said. “We competed at shows like Luxembourg and Future Champions, which was a team event. It was an amazing experience to get to see the caliber of young riders out there. We got to work on our skills while watching all of these amazing riders.”
Though the European Young Rider Tour had come to an end, Ben and Behlinger extended their stay overseas by two weeks to tune up their skills in preparation for NAYC, training with Christoph Koschel. With extra time spent in Europe, Ben hardly had time to catch his breath between his return home and the start of NAYC. While Behlinger was in a two-day quarantine before his arrival to the competition at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, New York, Ben and his mom, still groggy and on European time, headed to a coffee shop at 6:30 a.m., where a chance encounter would seal his fate.
“We happened to run into Sasha Cutter, the owner of Illuster Van de Kampert,” he said. “We got to talking and she told me that she really wanted me to try her horse. A couple of months later, I came down to Wellington and tried the horse and immediately I knew he was going to be the horse for me.”
A New Partnership
Today, Ben and the 12-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding sit near the top of the FEI rankings and have captured numerous wins in the U25 Grand Prix. Their journey to the top did not come without challenges, however. “He’s a bit of a hot horse,” Ben said. “His brain was always working 30 times the speed it should be. He needed to calm down in the ring and I needed to understand the type of power he had — to not be afraid of it and learn to use it.”
With the help of his father and Christoph Koschel, Ben has learned to bring the best out of Illuster in the show ring and has grown his bond with the horse in the barn. “He’s a really special horse and he’s very sweet in his stall. He loves seeing people and is always asking for attention. He’ll stick his head out to make friends with people as they walk by — and of course he wants treats,” Ben said.
“He’s a ham in the barn, but then I get on to ride and he’s totally focused. He’s a dressage horse with all the power of a show jumping horse and more. It’s really fun for me as a former show jumper,” Ben laughed. Though they were still a budding partnership, Illuster was chosen to join Ben for his second European Young Rider Tour. With his sights set on competing in the U25 Grand Prix, Ben took full advantage of his time in Europe to prepare for his debut over the winter.
Though their first few tests were green, Ben and Illuster found their rhythm to go undefeated in six of their CDI3* U25 Grand Prix classes in Wellington. “We finished out the season on a great note with a 75% in the freestyle. Then of course, the shows were canceled because of COVID,” he said. “It was heartbreaking, but we were back at it by the end of the year.”
For many riders, the COVID-19 pandemic provided some valuable training time, and it was no different for Ben. By the time he and Illuster returned to the show ring, Ben had their Grand Prix so polished that they were consistently scoring in the mid-70s. With every passing show, Ben was inching closer to the top of the ranks — until it was made official: He was on the short list and being considered for the Olympic team.
“I didn’t expect to make the list at all,” Ben said. “I thought I was going to do a few U25s, and maybe move up a bit, but it was really a surprise. I’m so lucky and blessed to have great training and support around me.”
In It for the Horse
As Ben follows in his father’s footsteps, he understands that the journey ahead of him will not be easy. “For the past six years, I’ve worked full time at the stable. Hard work has been instilled in me, but it’s something I really enjoy doing,” Ben said. “I feed the horses at 6 a.m. and we don’t finish until 6 p.m. — and by then I’m really sweaty! I love grooming and being part of the team.”
Though his parents never pushed him to perform, Ben is his own worst critic, and he’s learning how to hold himself to high standards without feeling disappointed when things don’t go as planned. “My dad is an amazing rider, so when I was younger, I felt like I had to be the best rider out there. I’d think to myself, My dad’s an amazing coach; how am I not winning?” Ben admitted. “It took me a while to realize the sport isn’t about winning, it’s about training and the horses, and competitions are just a small part of it.”
Ben is in it for the love of the horse, which is why his plans for the future are simple. “I just love riding and I want to ride to the best of my ability,” he explained. “All I want is to continue doing what I love and continue to train with my family. We have so much fun together; it’s exactly where I want to be.”
In the meantime, Ben is pursuing his degree in business, international marketing and decision science at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I want to become more diverse and I feel college is where I can find an interest that isn’t all about horses,” he said. Though Ben took a gap year to focus on his Olympic bid, he commends his support system for making the transition to college life as smooth as possible. Finding balance between his studies and riding has been a challenge at times, but he was able to maintain high grades despite traveling back and forth to Florida to train and show.
“One good thing that came out of COVID was online classes! I was able to focus on my horses full time while finishing my courses,” Ben said. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a master’s degree as he builds upon his family’s training business based out of Wellington and Moorpark. Though he’s shifted his focus to dressage for now, Ben’s passion for jumping hasn’t left, and he often incorporates cross training into the training program.
“Jumping is my first love, and I’d love to get back at it. Twice a week, I put up a couple of cross-rails and verticals for my horses,” he said. “Of course, I scare all of my dad’s horses because they’ve never seen another horse jump over a fence before — it’s quite funny!”
As the youngest rider in the Olympic trials, let alone as an alternate to the team, Ben’s youthful perspective on training and competition comes with a deep appreciation for those who have paved the way in the sport. “Seeing my dad dedicate his whole life to riding and make the Olympic team in 2012 was amazing. It shaped me and how I view the importance of hard work and dedication. I’m so lucky to watch and learn from top riders in the sport, and I’m thrilled to be riding at the best of my ability,” he said. “Being selected as an alternate for the Olympic team was just as surreal as competing in the trials. It is such an honor, and I can’t thank my team enough for helping me get here. I’m really looking forward to being part of the Olympic team and helping in any way possible.”
For more information, follow Ben on Instagram @ben_ebeling or visit www.theacres.com .
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com