From the city to the coast, champion rider finds her passion

Elsa Conrad describes show jumping like a point-and-shoot camera. 

“You just have to keep your range short and they’ll jump it,” Elsa said while walking alongside her horse Ben after practice. “I think it’s the adrenaline rush; it’s really fun to get on a horse and ride.”

Ten-year-old Elsa won first and second place with her two horses, Sugar Plum Fairy and Tinnecarrig Ben, at the Thermal Horse Park in Palm Springs on Feb. 13. 

Elsa’s mom, Haylynn Conrad, said she remembers the first time Elsa got on her first pony during a fundraiser at the Under the Oaks Preschool in Malibu. 

“They had pony rides as an attraction, she must’ve been about 2, and they strapped her onto a pony and she refused to get off; she wanted to just keep going,” Conrad said. “Every time they would make her get off, she would get back in line and wait her turn to get back on, and after that her passion began.”

Conrad said when it comes to sports, her kids are opposite. Her daughter likes horses, while her son likes soccer, surfing, snowboarding and spearfishing.

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“I’d never thought I would have a daughter who was into this,” she said. “I have a 12-year-old son who is not into this. He likes snowboarding and surfing, but I surf too — I do both. I surf with him and ride horses with her.”

Elsa was born in 2011 in Manhattan and moved to the West Coast permanently when she was 2 years old.

Elsa grew up going to the Rancho Sea Air Riding School in Malibu Ranch, next to the Zad Ranch, and practiced with Gina McCloskey, an old-time Malibu resident who’s ranch has been in the family for years.

“She [McCloskey] gets all the kids passionate about the horses; she’s a wonderful person,” Haylynn said.

Practice for Elsa is usually after school and even early in the mornings for competitions. 

She has been training with Laura Kotimäki-Hurd of Malibu’s LKH Equestrian since she was 7 and began competing at 8. 

“I’ll never forget the first time I made her jump an actual jump. The box was about one foot tall and Elsa was looking at it like it’s the most scariest thing in the world, but she jumped it and it was a huge achievement for her,” Kotimäki-Hurd said. “And now she’s jumping .80s, .90s and I’m seeing tremendous progress, and that’s one of those things as a trainer [that] makes you really proud to see that.”

Kotimäki-Hurd, 40, has been riding ponies since she was 5 years old, turned professional at 17, traveled in her early 20s and worked in countries such as Canada and U.K. before settling in the U.S. permanently.

“When I settled here I worked for someone else for a little bit, then I started my own business and I’ve been doing this in Malibu for about seven years, but I’ve been professional since I was 17,” Kotimäki-Hurd said. 

Born and raised in Coney Island, Brooklyn, Haylynn Conrad said she wanted to raise her children in Manhattan because that’s where her family still is, but moved to California and found a stable ground. 

“My husband is a born-and-raised Malibuite and fought hard for us to move to the West Coast and likely he won; we never looked back after that,” Conrad said. “My husband is a Webster graduate and Santa Monica High graduate, went on to Berkeley and is a well-regarded scientist.”

When Elsa started horse riding, Conrad said it wasn’t something she was accustomed to as a New Yorker. Former model Conrad also enjoys surfing and horse training with Kotimäki-Hurd.

“In Brooklyn, this is not a thing, nobody does this, but I didn’t know you could horse jump, so it’s all new to me,” she said. “It’s been an incredible learning experience for me because it’s not something that I grew up with.”

Conrad said while she watched Elsa practice, she slowly started getting into riding horses. 

“I needed to understand what the phenomenon with this was because people who do it, love it and there’s a lot of women of all ages doing it, so I thought, maybe I should try it,” she said. “The first time I jumped a tiny little bit, I said, ‘Oh now I understand, I get it. This is fun,’ and there’s an adrenaline rush, but I never thought in a million years I would think I would be doing this.”

Conrad said she learned how to step back and let her trainer teach Elsa, even at times when she falls.

“If she does fall off, the key is you gotta get back on — for a mom, you’re kind of worried,” she said. “Luckily we have a trainer that pushes the boundaries, but knows when not to.

“As a mother, it’s terrifying, but I’m forever proud of Elsa. I’m always so proud of her because it’s not easy and it’s terrifying and scary being on horses, but she has such tenacity and persistence, it teaches her and I know it’s the right thing.”

Samantha Bravo
Samantha Bravo
Samantha Bravo is an inspiring photojournalist based in Los Angeles California. She began her journalism career at Pierce College Media Arts Department. Twitter @samanthavbravo

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