BY SISSY WICKES
Val Renihan Impacts the Next Generation
What is the true measure of greatness? Is it trophies on the wall? Is it creating a legacy that will outlive you? Is it living a life by your own set of values, staying true to yourself? By any measure, Val Renihan defines greatness.
Val has literally spent her entire life around horses. Born and bred in the Midwest, she is the second daughter of horse trainers. Her parents owned Grandview Stables in Indianapolis, Indiana and worked hard every day of their lives. Race horses, show horses, lesson programs, even livery services were offered by the Renihans. Art and Sally understood the toil and backbreaking work required to run a horse farm. When Val was born, her parents fit her into their working days. “When I came along, my parents couldn’t afford a babysitter, so they would strap me into a basket saddle on top of our old lesson horse. I would wander around all day on the horse; I literally could not get down,” Val laughs. “So, most of the time, I bossed around the livery customers and told them things like not to ride on the grass. But the horses were my friends, my buddies. In my mind, they spoke to me.” Today, the dialogue between Val and her horses continues.
Val and her older sister, Diane, grew up in the barn – doing chores, breaking, training, and caring for horses. They showed on the local circuits and had a great measure of success. Val qualified for USEF Medal Finals at Harrisburg, but did not attend. “My parents took my sister to Medal Finals at Harrisburg. When it was my turn, they said, ‘No way.’ It was too far, too expensive, and a waste of time.” How ironic for a trainer known for her enormous success as an equitation coach.
Val stayed in the Midwest and kept winning. As a teenager, she had a strong group of students on the local circuits in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois. One was a tall girl named Stacia Klein (now Madden). Val taught Stacia for ten years from her first pony hunter all the way up to juniors and equitation. They arrived at the prestigious indoor shows as virtual unknowns and got the attention of the elite east-coasters. Stacia went on to win Maclay Finals, have a stellar junior career, and become one of the most successful trainers on the horse show circuit. Stacia regards her formative years with Val as the bedrock of her learning. “I credit Grandview as the reason I became passionate about horses and the sport. It was a time when kids could be barn rats and I was one. It was all hands on and caring for horses from the ground up. Without that start, I would not have the love for horses for that I have today.“
Val Renihan made her first appearance on the indoor show circuit as a 19 year old trainer riding one horse that doubled as a First Year Green and Children’s Hunter. Val competed the horse “Simon Says” at Harrisburg to numerous ribbons, including a blue. Move over everyone, this girl was here to stay. While Stacia moved east to finish her successful junior career, Val grew her following in the Midwest, eventually moving to the Chicago area. As a rider and trainer, the young professional honed her skills and grew her business. Her Midwestern work ethic and innate understanding of the tremendous amount of labor required to be successful in the horse industry guided her to create a business based not on riders’ wealth, but their commitment. Val explains, “Whether they have two cents or two million dollars, if a kid wants to do it, I am going to help them do it.”
From Chicago to Virginia and now to New York, Val Renihan, her barn known as Findlay’s Ridge, has cut a swathe of skilled riders, many of whom have gone on to become accomplished trainers themselves. Stacia Madden, Jamie Barge, Mindy Coretz, Maggie Jayne, Amber Henter, Michael Desiderio, Maggie Boylan, Molly Hay, and Hallie Buttenwieser are a few of her students who entered the professional ranks. If a measure of greatness is leaving a legacy that outlives you, this impressive list of young horsewomen and horsemen checks the box. What is the primary lesson of riding with Val Renihan? “I truly love the horses and try to put them first even when it involves tough decisions about skipping important shows or classes. I try to limit the amount of jumps they jump and keep them low at home to get mileage without pounding the horse.”
Jamie Barge is one of Val’s success stories. Born with hearing impairment, Jamie rode with Val throughout her junior career and has gone on to become a successful international jumper rider, recently posting an impressive performance in the FEI World Cup Showjumping Finals in Paris. Jamie’s hearing challenges were never a barrier with Val; the two found ways to work with her disability and create a productive partnership. Jamie explains the legacy of Val. “I learned some of the most valuable lessons in this sport from Val. She taught me that the horse ALWAYS comes first. Every decision is made on what is best for the horse. She demonstrated examples in the barn over and over. She taught me horsemanship, everything from mucking stalls to wrapping standing wraps and polos correctly. Her attention to detail was incredible, and really important to her, and became my high standard as well. “
Jamie remembers some of the humorous moments in their time together. The challenge of being deaf at a horse show required determination and a sense of humor. “Val was a tough trainer, but she also knew when to be funny. She never treated me any differently than her other students. Though training me with my hearing impairment presented some challenges at times, she figured out how to get the job done. For example, she placed her friends around the ring for an important flat class and taught them hand signals to show me what the judge was asking. Once Frank Madden almost forgot to put the C signal before canter for counter canter, but quickly recovered before I picked up the canter. One time in Florida, Val had gotten special permission to use my microphone to tell me the flat commands. Toward the end of the class when we were cantering, I heard screaming through the microphone and looked over to see Val jumping up and down spinning in circles. She had been sitting on a fence and some fire ants had crawled up her pants!! “
Jamie Barge is a rising star on the American showjumping stage. She is quick to acknowledge the importance of her start. “My experience training with her was a very good one… I appreciate everything she taught me. I strive to work hard and be persistent like her and to put my horse first, ALWAYS!”
The Findlay’s Ridge program is centered around teaching students to ride- really ride. While Val loves the hunter, jumper, and equitation rings equally, she believes that equitation training is the best way to teach riding skills. “The kids really learn the basics. They learn discipline, how to cope with pressure, and the importance of flat work. With equitation, we tend to jump more jumps which the kids need to do in order to learn. I jump less than most equitation barns and jump low jumps. A lot of the kids who move to me have one horse, and I have to teach them to ride and take care of that one horse.”
Lessons are usually in a group format in the afternoons after school. Flat lessons- with and without stirrups- cavalettis, gymnastics, small intricate courses are all on the Findlay’s Ridge menu. Less experienced riders are included with more seasoned riders- all under the watchful eye of Val and her able staff. Adult and more novice riders are offered private lessons in order to meet their training needs. “I love to teach anyone who really wants to learn,” Val explains. The doors at Findlay’s Ridge are open to everyone. “I have taken a lot of kids of finite means and helped them achieve their goals,” Val states. “If they are willing to work hard and learn, I can help them.”
Val is known for her innovative and creative ways to solve riding challenges. Her barn is a repository for what she laughingly refers to as her “torture methods.” Bareback lessons are on the roster, as well as aids such as surgical tubing as reins for riders that pull too much, swimming “floaties” around the neck so students can’t look down, the Equicube device for riders to fix their hand position. She smiles, “I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas about different strategies to solve problems for horses and riders.” Stacia Madden puts it in another context. “Val never stops thinking about ways to solve problems. She doesn’t give up on kids, but thinks of different ways to explain things and get through to them. She is patient and finds many avenues of presenting ideas.”
The equitation ring is arguably the most competitive, unforgiving ring at the horse shows. Qualifying for finals is the pilgrimage; winning finals is the Holy Grail. Some riders are able to avail themselves of numerous mounts to compete and practice on. Some have horses specific to each different class – USEF Talent Search, WIHS Hunter, WIHS Jumper, Maclay, Medal. Practice horses, horses that jump open water, horses that go like hunters, horses that go like jumpers. Horses for courses. It is a riding contest; some believe it is a beauty contest. The equitation ring is the one of the arenas where Findlay’s Ridge students shine. Val can be seen putting multiple riders in these rings, and her trademark whoop can be heard around the show grounds. How does she teach riders to cope with the intimidation of the equitation ring? Val explains, “The more they do it, the less intimidated they become. We show in the Northeast and see the same kids most of the time. My students see the other kids make mistakes and realize that we are all human. They have good and bad classes and that levels the field.”
With her Midwestern values and an upbringing based on achievement through hard work, Val approaches the show ring with a grounded outlook. “It’s not always about competing, but about learning and achieving what we have been working on. Sometimes I whoop not because of the actual round, but because the rider has accomplished something they were trying to tackle and had a breakthrough that day.” She is quick to appreciate the important life lessons that the show ring can provide. “I try to teach kids not to think about what ribbons they got or who they beat or didn’t beat. Life is not about what other kids have, it’s about making the most of what you have. Jealousy is not going to get anyone anywhere. I teach that there is always something you can do better to help the horse be better.”
Complementing the training business, Findlay’s Ridge also has a robust sales enterprise. Val has extensive resources throughout Europe and the U.S. for hunters, jumpers, and equitation prospects. “I really enjoy doing the sale horses, whether I import them, buy them in the States or a colleague sends them to me. I love figuring out the pieces of the puzzle that will make them comfortable physically and mentally. The ones that come from Europe and look poor coming out of quarantine, I have fun taking their before and after pictures. I give them the beauty treatment and help them thrive in America. One of my favorites is ‘Playlist’ we bought him from Emil Spadone two days out of Quarantine. He has been a top Junior Hunter for five years.” Each year, Findlay’s Ridge offers an array of quality horses at different levels of training and a variety of price points.
Val recounts “the most rewarding story” of a young rider who joined Findlay’s Ridge after a clinic in which she fell off two or three times. The young girl arrived at the barn at a time when nothing in her life was going particularly well. She was not popular, did not get good grades in school, and was usually at the bottom of the class in horse shows. But, she loved to ride. “She had no self-esteem, “ Val recalls. “But she worked hard and started doing well. I remember when she won the Maclay in Ocala and was just over the moon excited. It was the pinnacle of her career.” So far. Within one year, the rider was able to improve to the point of qualifying for both Medal and Maclay Finals. In Harrisburg at the Medal Finals, she was called back eighth out of more than 200 riders after the first round. A minor mistake in the second round precluded her chance for a ribbon, but on to Maclay Finals where she finished eighth overall. Val explains the significance of this rider. “ This kid went from being at the bottom of her class to becoming Class President. I received a letter from her three or four years after she had aged out of the juniors. She told me that she wasn’t sure what she was going to do as a profession, but she wanted to do something for kids ‘like you did for me. I want to be a teacher or trainer and help kids with their self esteem like you did for me.’ It was the most rewarding thing ever. I changed her life.”
Horses change our lives. The experience of riding, training, and competing can change our lives. Hard work, persistence, and ethics are tools to carry from the riding ring into the future. Val Renihan makes the most of the gifts she has as a horsewoman, a teacher, and a mentor. How do you define greatness?
7 Things You Didn’t Know About Val Renihan
- Findlay’s Ridge was named after her first Australian Shepherd, Findlay.
- She loves to dance.
- She participated in her first indoor horse show as a 19 year old trainer.
- She has attended every indoor show for 37 years.
- She loves to play racquetball.
- She trims all of the manes in the barn herself.
- At equitation finals, she finds a lucky place to stand or sit.
Val’s dedication to both her students and horses is demonstrated in everything she does. In my years working for Findlay’s Ridge, she helped my riding develop and taught me countless lessons about making up young hunters and equitation horses. I feel privileged to have worked for her and lucky to call her a friend. – Keri Kampsen
I think she’s so successful because she works hard and is persistent, all while putting the horse first. I admire her honesty, and am so lucky to have started training with an honest, sincere trainer. – Jamie Barge
Val brings her Midwestern values, morals, and ethics to the business. She never stops thinking of ways to solve problems with a rider. She is persistent and never gives up on anyone. – Stacia Madden
Val is one of the best trainers out there, and not just in the equitation category. She has upper level jumpers and hunters; she does a beautiful job. Her compassion for the horse is always at the forefront, and her students learn that lesson as well. – Louise Serio
About the Author: Sissy is a Princeton University graduate, a lifelong rider and trainer, a USEF R rated judge, a freelance journalist and an autism advocate. Her illustrious resume includes extensive show hunter and jumper experience. She lives with her family in Unionville, PA and Wellington, FL.
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