Nona Garson has experienced the entire spectrum of excitement, thrills and disappointments offered by international grand prix jumping without ever losing her positive attitude. Her passion for horses dates back to her childhood and it’s probably stronger than ever today: she still competes in hunters and jumpers, balancing her riding with teaching, literally showing her students how to get the job done.
Nona’s ‘curriculum vitae’ includes the 1998 World Championships and 2000 Olympics. She rode on the team that won the Nation’s Cup Finals at Spruce Meadows, earned multiple leading lady rider titles (Aachen, Royan, Gijon, Helsinki, won back-to-back Jaguar $100,000 Gold Cups (’98 and ’99) and garnered the 1999 American Grand Prix Association Championship. Her international career took off when she piloted Derrek to a surprising win in the selection trials for the 1995 Pan American Games where they earned team bronze.
Rhythmical Was Special
It was probably her partnership with Rhythmical that made Nona a champion in every sense of the word even if an Olympic medal eluded her. The 15.2hh Budyonny gelding, 10 when she got him in 1995, was talented but not easy and oh, how they clicked. That he had been traded with two other horses for 150 used washing machines added to his ‘rags to riches’ charm. At Sydney in 2000, Rhythmical had problems with footing that severely affected his jumping. The US finished out of the medals in sixth place – Rhythmical went on to win several more grand prixs after that – but the Olympic experience carried great benefits in terms of what Nona learned.
“In order to be successful in show jumping, you have to learn to roll with the punches,” says Nona. “Unfortunately, several horses had trouble with the footing, not just Rhythmical. The very first horse and rider combination in the ring slipped and fell and the man broke his back. The footing affected some horses far greater than others, mine, being one of them. He’s such a little tiny horse. That’s horse sports. There are things out of your control all the time when you’re riding and competing. You just have to deal with it to the best of your ability.”
Teaching and Clinics
Nona brings lots of “been there, done that” experience to her teaching, and her clinics are very popular and the upcoming one at The Ridge in Wellington, Dec. 11-12 would make a super early Christmas present. There will be sections jumping 2’6 to 3 foot, 3 to 3’6, and 3’9 and above for the jumper riders. Best of all, each rider can bring an auditor.
“I’ll have all levels of riders. My first section will be 2 to 2’6 so kids on ponies can come, and it’s not just for jumpers – I have a great background in hunters, too,” says Nona. “We’ll do some general drilling, flat work, some gymnastics and work on tips for dealing with little problems they might be having, ring tips from my experiences of 40 years of competing on horses in the ring. The clinics are great, because you don’t always get a chance to work with different people. You and your trainer have a long time relationship, and clinics give the kids a chance to hear the same thing that their trainer is telling them, but in a slightly different way.”
Nona focuses on the whole package. She believes that’s it’s important to teach people to respect their horses, to have a positive attitude and to learn to be in the right position so the horse can perform under you. Finding the center of the horse is also a vital factor.
“Learning to think like a horse is something that some people miss when they’re riding,” she explains. “They try to think in their own terms and you really have to keep trying to think like the horse is going to think and react in his way.”
Nona has ridden with George Morris, but as a kid she recalls riding with Alex Iby, a Hungarian who came over about the same time as Bert de Nemethy. She credits Iby for starting her in her own system of riding.
“I’ve always been a student of watching,” admits Nona. “I was very lucky. As a kid I spent hours at the ring, watching the great riders in the hunter ring and the jumper ring. I learned from all my international experiences. American riders have a great advantage, in a way, because we’ve learned how to be so smooth from our background in hunters and that makes it easy for us to make it fast.”
Nona Still Loves Shows
Showing remains a huge part of her life. For three years Nona has worked with her staff and her fiancé George D’Ambrosio to make The Ridge at Riverview the American facsimile of some of the great European venues where she loved to jump. She credits being a “horse show visitor for 40 years” for her understanding of what a venue needs.
“Footing in the ring and everything around it,” says Nona. “We worked hard to find Riverview. It’s a very special place, surrounded by 500 acres of protected farmland in a beautiful part of New Jersey. We’re a little over an hour from Philadelphia, a little under an hour from New York City. The grand prix ring is sand and fiber footing, built like an amphitheatre into the side of the mountain and big enough to hold a World Cup class. We have a natural grass grand prix ring with a two-tier bank and a real Liverpool. We’re very excited about it.”
Enthusiastic, too: it doesn’t matter whether she’s in the irons, working with juniors on their equitation, helping an adult amateur to nail that smooth round, building a rider’s confidence to jump bigger fences or running InterContinental Sport Horse Auction. Nona’s love for horses really shows.