California Riding Magazine • November, 2009

Alexis Helffrich: Cheval Training
European style eventing program
is a Bay Area hit.

The setting for Alexis Helffrich’s eventing business, Cheval Training, is classic American West: sprawling acres of quiet, rolling hills dotted with oak trees. A 10,000-acre cattle ranch abuts the Denville-Kanani boarding and training facility where Helffrich is based. But there’s a distinctly European touch to the training he’s been offering since December of 2005. With degrees from the French national riding school, the Saumur, and two years of riding with international eventing star Andrew Nicholson in England, Helffrich brings an impressive resume to his training of students and horses.

This past spring, Helffrich earned a spot on the USEF’s Developing Riders list and the eye of chef d’equipe Captain Mark Phillips thanks to his success with two up and coming mounts: Leyasta and Spike. The mare Leyasta won the Advanced Division at Twin Rivers in the spring and Spike took the Intermediate division. Shortly thereafter, both horses sustained injuries that took them off the circuit for the rest of the year, but the other aspects of Cheval Training continued to thrive.

Helffrich likes to keep his stable at about 25 horses. Most of his students are adult amateurs competing at everything from the Novice to the One-Star levels. “I enjoy riding as much as I do teaching,” he says. “If I’ve done well at both at the end of the day, I am happy.”

Several riders who trained elsewhere before coming to Helffrich have commented on his ability to go beyond stating the problems in a rider and/or horse’s training. He takes pride in his ability to explain how to solve those problems. “A lot of the feedback I get is riders saying that I have the tools to explain how to make the needed changes,” he comments.

Although it is possible to be an effective teacher without formal training, there is no substitute for it. “I think that is one of the biggest ways that my program reflects a European influence,” he says. As a graduate of the Ecole Nationale d’Equitation in Saumur, France, Helffrich, a dual American and French citizen, has the French degree equivalent of a Level III & IV certification from the American Riding Instructors Certification Program, along with a bachelors in equine
business management.

He was inspired to pursue a formal equestrian education after his time as a rider and groom with Great Britain’s Nicholson in 2001-2002. “I was riding at the Preliminary level at the time, but barely,” Helffrich laughs. Working for Nicholson, “I learned everything from him. I rode and cared for a lot of horses, watched a lot of competitions and competed myself during my second year with Andrew.”

Confidence Is Key

Given the permanence of cross-country obstacles, it’s essential that eventing horses and riders develop confidence, Helffrich stresses. Matching a rider with the right horse is critical to building that trait, followed by practice and the patience to move up the levels slowly. “I really emphasize confidence building in my program,” the trainer explains. His positive teaching approach is paying off. “When I first came here I had a lot of students who had no clue they would ever jump a fence. They thought it was too scary! Now they are doing Novice events.”

The Cheval Training team competes an average of once a month, sometimes twice. Events in Montana and Oregon, along with those in California, are all on their itinerary. Currently in expansion mode, Helffrich is accepting new horses and riders.

At presstime, he was completing his application to get back on the USEF’s Developing Rider list and he anticipates that his main mount Leyasta will be ready for a return to the upper levels soon, and with unlimited upward potential. Helffrich got the ride on Leyasta from fellow trainer Sarah Vernland, who owns the mare. When Helffrich arrived in the States in 2005, he first went to work for Vernland’s Highland Farms, also based at Denville-Kanani. “The horse was very talented, but also very difficult and strong and Sarah didn’t feel they were a good match,” Helffrich explains. “We started from scratch and it is turning out to be a very good match.”

He is equally grateful for the ride on Malory Kuhn’s Spike, a New Zealand Thoroughbred with whom he won the spring’s Intermediate division at Twin Rivers. And Helffrich appreciates his good fortune in landing at Denville-Kanani. The facility has a large covered arena that is great in both rainy and hot weather. The surrounding landscape of gentle hills, plus a conditioning track, afford ample equine conditioning opportunities.

For more information about Alexis Helffrich and Cheval Training, visit www.cheval-training.com or call 925-487-8214.