LOOKING BACK, AND FORWARD

For horse trainer Rebecca Atwater, being on the back of a horse comes as naturally as walking. In fact, for her riding came before walking.

“We put her on a horse when she was a baby,” says her mom, Regine Atwater. “The owner said ‘get that baby off the horse,’ but she was holding on to the mane and would not come down.”

“At age five, I went on a hunger strike until my parents gave in and bought me my first pony,” says Rebecca, a third-generation Montecito resident.

Her obsession with horses grew and after spending a childhood showing her pony and riding around her grandparents’ place on the former Knapp Estate, Arcady, Rebecca decided to go into horses full-time.

She left town for high school, attending an all-girls Catholic school in Los Angeles. But she couldn’t stay away for too long and returned for college to get a degree in biology at UCSB. Intending to become a veterinarian, Rebecca instead found herself more interested in helping run the West Campus Stable.

“There is just something about horses that brings a sense of peace,” says Rebecca, who is 33. “I always feel good when I’m out with them.”

Rebecca spent the next few years working for local trainers, including Ridgewood Stables. When Amapola Ranch, which was then Ridgewood Stables, came up for sale, Rebecca says she “was in the right place at the right time.” So for the past four years, she has been owner and head trainer of Santa Barbara Stables at Amapola Ranch. The ranch, which is located at the bottom of the old San Marcos pass, encompasses 125 acres and affords both ocean and mountain views.

Rebecca teaches students “from six to sixty” in English riding and competition. Out of the 80 horses at Amapola, 40 of them are owned by riders who are under Rebecca’s training. The riders, whose abilities run the gamut, can train to compete in shows.

“I love teaching the students to build self-confidence and to help them communicate with the horse,” Rebecca says. “It’s a positive and wholesome influence for kids to get them out of the house and away from the television.”

The students at the stable attend local shows with the Santa Barbara County Riding Club as well as shows in Santa Ynez Valley. Rebecca lets the students choose which shows they want to go to. But there’s a catch: out of respect for the horse, students can only attend one show a month.

“Horses aren’t machines and it makes me sad when I see them over-worked,” Rebecca says.

Rebecca’s competition philosophy? Have fun, win or lose. “Rebecca has helped us learn how to have fun and get the best out of everything, not just what ribbon you get or the horse you have,” says 15-year-old Julia Rossow, one of her students.

Rossow has been riding with Rebecca since Rossow was eight and “wins every class she goes in,” says Rebecca. Rossow recently won the sportsmanship award at the Santa Barbara Riding Club Banquet, an award that many of Rebecca’s students have won.

“Even though we are competing against each other, we are all best friends,” says 17-year-old Meredith Kronja.

Although she says she enjoys teaching, Rebecca says she is ready to “take my own riding as far as I can.” Having recently acquired a talented thoroughbred jumper named Black Pearl, Rebecca has found her thoughts turning to the big-time.

Her dream is to compete in the Mini Prix at the 2007 Santa Barbara National Horse Show and from there to gather enough sponsors to make it to the Grand Prix horse shows. At the most recent Grand National in July at Earl Warren Showgrounds, she was champion in the 3’ 6” jumper division with Black Pearl.

Rebecca’s other current talent is ex-racehorse Easy Charm, whom she has dubbed her “Seabiscuit.” Like the famed racehorse, Easy Charm has gone from rags to riches with Rebecca’s help. After losing his only race, Easy Charm was sold for a low price to one of Rebecca’s clients.

Although leery at first about taking on a failed racehorse that knew nothing about show jumping, Rebecca says she found herself able to channel Easy Charm’s energy into making him a winner.

“We grew together and now he is one of the best horses in my barn,” she says.

It’s with the help of talented horses like these that she hopes to go beyond what she’s ever imagined. “Maybe even the Olympics could be in my sights,” Rebecca says. “The sky is the limit.”

In the meantime, she is sure to count her blessings everyday. “Even though my bank account might not be huge I think the quality of day-to-day life is important,” Rebecca says. “I have a job that is just as much play as work and I feel super rich.”