When there is a horse show at Earl Warren Showgrounds, inevitably, a young woman with a long blonde ponytail can be found bobbing and weaving throughout the sea of blue jackets and black boots. Rebecca Atwater is, in fact, somewhat iconic at the showgrounds; she’s been a luminary of the Santa Barbara equine universe for more than a decade now, and she has a crop of young hunter/jumper pin-ups that just as coolly move from one event to the next, collecting ribbons as they go. Atwater’s training business, Santa Barbara Stables, has been in operation since 2002 and currently boasts about 40 clients who train and show with success at different levels throughout the circuit. In Santa Barbara, if you ride horses, you’ve heard of Rebecca Atwater.
Atwater is a third-generation Montecito resident whose passion for horses and horseback riding has been evident since she went on a hunger strike at age five to get her parents to buy her a pony. Since then, she has gone on to compete at the national level and has a knack for creating opportunities for riders wherever she is. As a student at UCSB, Atwater was president and secretary of the West Campus Stables, a community and nonprofit organization and facility run and maintained by students. Since 1995, she has been training riders at Amapola Ranch in Santa Barbara. Her proteges include a number of trainers who now run their own businesses.
Atwater’s philosophy is simple and direct. She and her students ride clean and fair and succeed not only as riders but as partners to their mounts. “I do not train my girls to be princesses,” she said. “The number-one priority is the horse’s welfare, health, and soundness. Hence, each rider takes care of their own horse, here. I like to see my horses bright-eyed and happy, enjoying their jobs at horse shows and at home.” Accordingly, when she teaches, an exercise is only complete when the horse exhibits signs of comfort. As a result, riders from Santa Barbara Stables seem at home no matter what course they ride. In between outings, they respond to their horses’ needs.
Atwater rationalizes that only the riders who enjoy what they do are ever going to improve. “In my opinion, riders tend to put too much pressure on themselves when they ride, and it is my job to help them relax and focus on the task and give clear cues so the horse can perform his best. Building character in our young riders is critical, and I try my best to be a good role model and show them patience and compassion. We learn from making mistakes.”
Those under Atwater’s tutelage are aware of the legacy that they represent, and they carry themselves with the grace and confidence that she emphasizes. Their triumphs in the ring speak highly of Atwater’s ability to impart skills and showmanship, but their attitudes are most telling of Atwater’s inspiration. Her riders are not alone when they ride: Not only is there a clear relationship between horse and rider, Atwater is there to support them at every stride. During the 2007 annual Santa Barbara County Riding Club (SBCRC) Fall Show in September, she counted beats between jumps for each of her students. “Smooth and determined. Beautiful,” she declared after a seemingly flawless round by Julia Rossow, who has been riding with Atwater for most of her life. When Rossow took second in a class after riding clean and then enduring a tie-breaking round between her and just one other rider, her reaction to her placement was a genuine smile and applause for the first-place team. Rossow was crowned champion in the hunter and equitation class later that day without even breaking a sweat.
More recently, Rossow has found a wonderful new partner in the 11-year-old Holsteiner mare Mitigo. The pair attended the April Gold Coast Horse Show at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in Burbank, California, in May, where they won the three-foot Hunter Class and the 17-and-under Medal Class and were second in the 15-17 Equitation on the flat against other top Junior riders. Rossow and the Santa Barbara Stables team continue to dominate on the home front as well. Atwater took six horses to the first SBCRC event this year, held at the historic Earl Warren Showgrounds in Santa Barbara on March 29-30. Hilary Langlois was Champion in the Low Modified Equitation Division aboard her five-year-old Holsteiner mare, Lola. Kate Doane and Prize were reserve champions in the Green Rider Division. Chloe Simon and Top Hat were Reserve Champion in the Crossrail Division, and former Children’s Hunter Division Champions Marina Da Silva and her thoroughbred Easy Charm moved up to the 3Ê¹3Ê° Modified Division and were third in overall points.
Even though she has bragging rights, Atwater remains grounded and focused on fostering love for the sport in her community. Once again, she has found a way to make the equine world accessible to Santa Barbarans. Atwater and her staff are planning to expand their operation by hosting competitive intercollegiate equestrian clubs for both nearby UCSB and SBCC. The new additions have already been generating buzz around the Santa Barbara Equine community. As head coach, Atwater will employ the same competitive strategy for the intercollegiate teams. “I work to develop good sportsmanship. When my riders are calm and focused and enjoying the process, more often than not, they tend to win.” she explained. “Winning is not the goal but a by-product when you are doing your best, are focused and calm, in tune with your horse, and playing fair.” She is hoping to take some riders to Tennessee in 2009 for the championship, gaining Santa Barbara equestrians more national recognition.
Additionally, Atwater has started Santa Barbara Stables Pony Club Center, making riding a possibility for younger enthusiasts as well. Pony Club is one of the leading junior equestrian organizations in the world, represented throughout 30 countries. It is not necessary for riders in pony club to own a horse or pony. Riders will meet twice a month and learn to ride safely and also learn about all aspects of horse care, including feeding, shoeing, veterinary care, and other areas of horse management.
Rebecca Atwater has watched young riders and young horses grow together into streamlined athletes under her guidance. Now, with a new partner in the thoroughbred Black Pearl, Atwater is also setting some goals of her own, including filling Amapola Ranch with riders and horses and championing the rich equestrian tradition that makes Santa Barbara such a unique place to live. “I want to push my own riding and accomplish as much as I can,” she said. “The sky is the limit!”