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Sandy Sessink - People's Choice Morgan Equitation Instructor of the Year

by Ann Bullard

Adaptable. Persistent. Cheerful. Successful. Those are but four of the words used to describe Sandy Sessink. A perennial Horse World Equitation Instructor of the Year, she again earned your votes for the 2007 season.

2007 People’s Choice Morgan Instructor Of The Year Sandy Sessink is pictured at her most recent judging assignment at the 2007 American Royal

In many respects, Sessink is a ‘book-taught’ equitation rider and instructor – or at least she was as a teenager. Her childhood instructor, Joe Dunville, "wasn’t an equitation expert," she told Horse World in an earlier interview. "[The late] Helen K. Crabtree’s book, Saddle Seat Equitation fostered my interest."

Dunville told her she should read that book. "It fascinated me so much that I probably read it 200 times. Everything Mrs. Crabtree said made sense to me. Since then, I’ve had an understanding and curiosity about what makes people tick on a horse; about how what a rider does affects a horse."

The Sessinks had a small barn at their Michigan home. Sessink began her ‘career’ as an equitation instructor teaching her brother and sister when they showed from home. As she put it, "It wasn’t always the best situation."

As much as Sessink loved the horses, she did attempt to have what some would call ‘a normal life.’ After spending one year studying commercial art at a local community college, she elected to follow her dream. She had watched Phil Price at various shows and wrote him about a job.

"He told me to come on down," she said, adding she had groomed for the first few months before becoming Price’s assistant trainer.

From there, she worked one season with Bill Holtz and operated a public training facility at Cindar Farm in Michigan for another four. When the farm owners elected to get into the Arabian world, she decided to return home.

First she and her brother, Calvin, convinced their father to have a public training stable at the family farm. The next step: building the barn. She and Calvin began working on it during a typical Michigan winter.

That was the beginning of Old Orchard Farm, Sessink’s headquarters for more than 25 years. Hundreds of performance and equitation riders honed their skills there. No matter what a rider’s discipline, they learned the equitation basics adapted by Sessink from Mrs. Crabtree’s book.

The key to success is having a plan – and hard work. Sessink excels in both. More than 100 performance and equitation national champion horses and riders have earned their titles under her direction.

Emily Buchanan is the latest of those world champion riders. Mounted on the performance champion Mantic Top Gun, Buchanan had an exceptional 2007 season.

"I’m very fortunate to have Emily in the barn," Sessink said. "She is a star in our string of riders.

"I knew Mantic Top Gun from the time I spent in Oregon. I always thought he would be a great equitation horse," she continued. "When he became available and I had a new rider who needed a new horse, he was the first one I thought of."

Top Gun came to Kansas where Sessink polished his equitation work. Buchanan made her debut at Oklahoma Centennial, winning four of four equitation classes. Returning to Oklahoma City in the fall, the team won the World Championship Saddle Seat Senior Equitation title and the UPHA Morgan Senior Challenge Cup Finals.

Sessink’s positive reinforcement stands out with Buchanan. "Sandy always focuses on what we do well, even if we think we’ve had a bad ride," the teenager said. "She looks at the successful part and wants to build on that as well as improve on things we didn’t do so well. Sandy always says, ‘You’re going to get it.’"

Sessink sees equitation as the means to an end – riding performance. "Equitation is sitting one way for a certain reason: it makes you able to get the most out of your horse," she said in an earlier Horse World interview. "Equitation teaches things that carry through to every kind of riding. Through the process of training horses to do the workouts, they become more flexible, balanced and able to carry themselves. It teaches riders how to guide, how to balance, work the bridle and make the horse carry itself the right way."

Buchanan showed just how well these principles work. After one practice ride at home and a few at the New England Regionals, she made a winning catch-ride aboard Syncopation in the Classic Pleasure 14-17 qualifier and a reserve in the Classic Pleasure Saddle 14-17 Championship.

Ryenn Johns and Peyton Bartley with Sandy Sessink

Ryenn Nicole Johns moves up into the 13 and Under division for the 2008 season. She showed Merrihill Rhythm Nation in hunter and western walk-trot equitation last season. She calls her instructor "very smart and nice to be around. She knows a lot about horses and, if she doesn’t know something, she’ll find out."

Buchanan says Sessink is "a huge inspiration to all of us." That relates to more than horseback riding. In a year, Sessink dropped 180 pounds, 93 inches and 10 dress sizes in a structured weight-loss and eating program.

"I was unable to do my job, to keep up with my riders," she told Horse World in a 2005 interview, conceding she was "desperately afraid of dying."

"I always think if someone can lose that much weight and stick with it, then anyone can do it," Buchanan said. "We stayed overnight at her house on her birthday weekend. Her ‘birthday cake’ was a veggie tray with a candle in the dip."

Sessink’s next challenge involved surgery to tighten her skin after losing all that weight. Three weeks after surgery she had a pulmonary embolism. That was November 7, 2007; a week later, she judged the UPHA Challenge Cup Finals and American Royal Equitation classes.

The Royal is the latest in the prominent judging assignments Sessink has held. She judged the World Cup of Saddle Seat Equitation in South Africa in December 2006. She has judged at the Morgan Grand Nationals and World Championship on three occasions and the American Royal a total of six times. She has taught future judges at the AMHA and United States Equestrian Federation clinics, serves on the USEF Saddle Seat Equitation Committee, on the UPHA Equitation Committee and is chairperson of the Morgan trainers of the UPHA. She will chair the UPHA Update on Equitation Clinic at Stephens College in March 2009.

Sessink’s life recently has taken another interesting turn: opening a public training and lesson program at Sarah and Landon Rowland’s property in Kansas City, Mo. Currently, she is operating from Janet Green’s barn while the new public training stables for Morgans and Saddlebreds, adjacent to Rowland’s Ever Glade Farm, is under construction.

Sessink enjoys entertaining friends such as Adam Pendleton at her new home

The move opens some new vistas for Sessink and her clients. Not only does she have Morgans but American Saddlebreds at her disposal. Students have the opportunity to try a ‘different feel,’ while still maintaining their loyalty to the Morgan breed.

While she will be giving lessons herself, Sessink "wants to focus on show horses and that sort of thing. I eventually hope to be able to hire someone to work with me and do the [public] lesson program."

Sandy Sessink’s blue eyes sparkle, her ever-present smile shines as she contemplates the opportunities before her. It should be quite a year.

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