What Does It Take? – An Inside Look at the Life of Working Students: Will Zuschlag

Go Big or Go Home with Will Zuschlag

Will Zuschlag and RF Southern Command. Photo: Shannon Brinkman
Will Zuschlag and RF Southern Command. Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Wellington, Fla. – July 17, 2017– Ever wonder if you have what it takes to be a working student? Though the tasks and compensation vary depending on the trainer, the position is often a hands-on experience in the equestrian industry. In our new column, we touch base with a variety of working students who give an inside look at the ups and downs of working their way to a professional position. Instead of speaking for them, we decided to let the working students speak for themselves.

Will Zuschlag is currently living with Olympic eventers David and Karen O’Connor in The Plains, VA, after having completed a working student position with the acclaimed husband-and-wife duo. David O’Connor has competed in three Olympic Games, two World Equestrian Games and two Pan-American Games. He was admitted into the United States Eventing Association’s Hall of Fame in 2009, and served as the President of the United States Equestrian Federation for eight years.

Karen O’Connor’s résumé rivals her husband’s, having competed in five Olympic Games, three World Equestrian Games and two Pan-American Games, winning numerous gold, silver and bronze medals. O’Connor is a member of the United States Equestrian Federation Board of Directors and serves on the United States Eventing Association’s board for the Instructor Certification Program.

Will Zuschlag and RF Southern Command. Photo: Shannon Brinkman
Will Zuschlag and RF Southern Command. Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Zuschlag has also served as a working student for International Eventer and Show Jumper, Marilyn Little, who won Individual and Team Gold Medals riding for the US Eventing Team in the 2015 Pan-American Games. Little and her horses have accumulated numerous medals and awards, but some of the most notable titles won by her mounts have included the 2013 US Eventing Horse of the Year, the 2013 Mare of the Year and the 2013 Advanced Horse of the Year, all earned by RF Demeter.

Will Zuschlag and RF Southern Command. Photo: Shannon Brinkman
Will Zuschlag and RF Southern Command. Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Zuschlag currently has two horses at the O’Connor’s farm – RF Southern Command, a 9-year-old KWPN competing at the 2* level, and Go Happy, a 6-year-old Dutch Warmblood competing at the Preliminary level.

Why did you want to be a working student?

Being a working student let me have my own horse and ride consistently with people that I otherwise would not have been able to ride with. It gave me the opportunity to ride more horses. I could ride 8-10 horses a day, which helped me develop my riding faster and let me get used to working with a bunch of different horses.

It’s pretty easy to ride one horse, but if you’re riding eight horses a day, then you have to know how to ride well. So that was my thinking in becoming a working student.

Why did you want to work with and the O’Connors and Little?

David and I get along really well, and he focuses not just on results, but really how to get the results. He is more process-oriented, instead of results-oriented like Karen. I rode in a clinic with Karen, and I really enjoyed working with her because she has a “get it done” mentality.

Also, David has a little workshop where we would work on carpentry projects together and shoot the breeze when we’re not working with the horses. I really enjoyed working with the O’Connors.

Karen O’Connor connected me with Marilyn Little, so I was lucky enough to be able to work with both the O’Connors and Little.

What did an average day look like for you?

We started at 7a.m. and had about 30 to 45 stalls to muck. We could usually knock those out within an hour. Then, the horses had to either go on the treadmill, hot walker, or turnout and get ridden. They had to do two of those things everyday.

After that, I would usually tack up the first set of horses and we would ride that set. When we got back, somebody else would usually have the next set of horses tacked up and ready to go. I alternated riding every other set. We rode pretty much all day and were usually done riding by 2 p.m.

Towards the late afternoon, we would just do barn chores like sweeping and mucking stalls, and then we were done around 4 p.m.

At what level are you currently training?

I have two horses, and my main horse, RF Southern Command, known as SoCo, is a 9-year-old KWPN showing at the two-star level, and Go Happy is a 6-year-old Dutch Warmblood doing Preliminary – 3’7″.

Do you have any out of the ordinary exercises that help with your riding?

David O’Connor likes out of the ordinary exercises on the cross-country course. He has me do exercises like, “Don’t touch the reins and run the whole course with just your legs”, or “Thread the reins through the breastplate so you can’t reach for them”, or “Throw your hands in the air like you just don’t care”… those types of things.

He also likes to do a lot of no stirrup exercises. David always says, “Just do something exciting when you run through the combination!”

I think those exercises helped me a lot. The purpose was improving my reaction time. The silly exercises were great when everything went well, but when something fell apart, it was difficult to recover. It helped me a lot because things don’t always go as planned on the course. I learned to recover quickly.

How have you grown as a rider because of your position as a working student?

Something that I’ve grown in is gauging distances. Marilyn Little had us count down 15 strides out from a jump on the cross country course. It’s easy to see distances when you’re going straight towards a jump, but it’s difficult to gauge them on corners and turns.

If I counted the distance wrong, I would have extra chores in the barn. We would count backwards down from 15. We weren’t not allowed to count up, because then you could always add an extra number. We would always count down.

If you could ride any current eventing horse in the world, who would it be?

I would ride Michael Jung’s Sam FWB. I think he’d be a cool horse to ride.

What has been one of your proudest moments?

My proudest moment was after the Carolina International Cross Country. I got eliminated at Red Hill two weeks before in cross country, and David was disappointed. He told me if I didn’t do better at Carolina International, I’m out of here.

I was so concerned that I was not going to do well at Carolina International. Despite this, my horse and I pulled through. SoCo and I finished the course. David came up to me afterwards and said, “Well that was better. I’ll take that. You ride like that, you can stay. You made it happen, you figured out how to recover and you got it done. ” I liked that moment.

What are some of your current goals?

One of my biggest goals was to get qualified for Young Riders, and I not only qualified, but I’m the top qualifier for my area, so that was incredible. My goal is to win Young Riders and I’m going to keep going until I do. I am competing in the CICOY2* Area III in the 2017 FEI North American Junior/Young Rider Championships.

What has been one of the funniest moments at the barn?

One day, I was riding this young horse and I fell off. It was one of the most pathetic falls I’ve ever had. I was riding a 4-year-old and was jumping him for Karen.

The little 4-year-old hadn’t jumped in a long time and Karen had set up some pretty decent size jumps like 3’6’’ and 3’9’’. Also, Lauren Kieffer who is the leading USA rider in the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event CCI was sitting on a golfcart watching with Karen as I was about to jump.

I wasn’t paying attention to the jump because I was worrying about jumping well in front of Karen and Lauren. I came around the corner towards the jump, and I just missed. In slow motion, I just fell onto the jump and laid on the ground. Karen was furious and Lauren was cackling the entire time.

It was a joke in the barn for two weeks about how I fell off, and every time I saw Lauren, she would bring up how I fell and then re-enact it for everyone.

I learned that it doesn’t matter who’s watching, you still need to pay attention to your riding. Also, if you fall off, you need to jump up and grab your horse.

What would you say to an aspiring working student?

Be prepared to work for it. It’s not an easy way to live and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s really hard some days but it’s not forever, and it will make you a better rider.

I always say, “Go big or go home, but sometimes you need to go medium size. I’ve learned that you can go big, but often your horse will break or something will go wrong, so sometimes you need to go medium size first.”

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