A Gilded Year: Adrienne Sternlicht’s Path to the World Stage

A Gilded Year: Adrienne Sternlicht’s Path to the World Stage

America’s new ‘golden girl,’ Adrienne Sternlicht, has two feet firmly rooted on the ground – a natural groundedness that is increasingly impressive when you look at the lightning-fast trajectory of her professional riding career. There’s something else there too; an excitement that seems to radiate off the 25-year-old rider.

Related: Golden Girl Adrienne Sternlicht Is Having The Best Week Of Her Life

The up-and-comer, a member of the NetJets U.S. Show Jumping Team at this year's World Equestrian Game, is a perfect lesson in juxtaposition – focused and collected while simultaneously wearing her heart on her sleeve. She famously wept tears of joy at the official World Equestrian Games press conference in Tryon, N.C., following Team USA’s thrilling gold medal victory. She candidly shares her experiences and feelings in a way that is exceptionally refreshing in the world of sports. Digging deeper, she seems quite careful to not let all of this newfound stardom go to her head. She’s here to make her mark as an athlete, but she hasn’t forgotten to enjoy the ride – especially when that ride in on board her horse of a lifetime, a gold medal hanging around her neck.

A Special Partnership

I think I’ve always been in awe of [Cristalline]. When I first got her, I kind of treated her like she was a precious gemstone. I was almost afraid to touch her, I was so afraid to work her! And McLain [Ward] was like ‘Adrienne, she knows she’s a horse, but she doesn’t understand all of these emotions and feelings that you’re attributing to her.’ So it definitely took me a little bit of time to settle into the fact that I even had this horse, and also, I definitely think I’ve felt pressure at times [from external sources] having a horse like her. But it’s more come from me wanting to perform my best for her – knowing I have one of the greatest elite athletes in the world, really, at the moment, and so really wanting to be the best version of myself and the best rider I can be for her. It’s been an amazing development, and I think we’ve really grown, and we’re so connected now. I’m at home when I’m on her.

She’s very even-keeled for a mare; she’s not super moody. She definitely likes her space in her stall, but when she’s in the crossties she’s super interactive with me. I love to take her for grass, she loves to roll – a lot of people have probably seen the videos of her rolling [laughs] – but we spend a lot of time in the saddle not working, and I think that’s something that’s unique. We spend hours just wandering around the farm. McLain always tells me I indulge her, but I think she’s worthy of every indulgence. I feel like we understand each other; she definitely reads my energy really well. I try to think about what I can do to best serve her and to understand where she’s at every day and what she needs. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll ever have this feeling again with another horse. I know I’ll have other amazing horses, but she’s my world.

Making the Gold Medal Winning WEG Team

I think I’ve always aspired to jump at this level, but it’s one thing to aspire to it and another thing to feel like it’s something that could really be in your future. A lot of people have aspirations, but to actually get here is a completely different thing. That’s something McLain has really emphasized for me, especially since the beginning of 2018 – that everything starts with a dream, a goal, and you chase that goal, but when that goal becomes a reality, that’s something that can be a bit daunting. So, I think even the first day at the WEG I was sort of overcome with the experience of being there and in awe of the riders. At the prize-giving ceremony, I told Peder Fredricson that he was my idol. So that being said, I think the second day of WEG was a really pivotal moment for me in my riding career. I was like ‘wow, I do belong’, and when I put my mind to it – I’m not yet Peder Fredricson or McLain Ward – when I put the time in, I hope to be at their level. I now feel confident that I can be in the hunt. It’s been quite the journey.

From College Student to International Competitor

I think when I was in college, which is when I started riding seriously – I only focused on riding and I stopped playing other sports and time-consuming extracurriculars – I took myself quite seriously. Looking back, I thought I was good then, and I was really, really not so good. [laughs] So I think you’re always kind of self-serious [as a rider], and it’s kind of my personality too. But you have that doubt – always. McLain even says to me that he doesn’t see himself how I see him and how the world sees him, and I think it’s the same for me. He’s begun to tell me that other riders my age and the younger riders see me as aspirational in some capacity, and I hope to be that way – although I never see myself that way. I think it’s a process. Looking back, I think the journey of getting to the WEG has been one of the most rewarding journeys of my life, having nothing to do with riding, but really in developing belief in myself and trusting my own instincts. One really important moment for me was the grand prix in Dublin. McLain told me – and he’s always very candid with me, that’s just our relationship – he said, ‘look, you have to jump clear tomorrow if you want the chance of being on the team at WEG’. And you know, there’s no other way around it. I was so nervous. I was freaking out. I really was. I was so nervous and I went into the ring. Then I just felt this fire inside me – almost an out of body experience – and we went clear, and it’s one of the best rounds we had all year. In that moment, I had always doubted… I know I compete at a certain level, but can I push through to the next gear, the next level?... that was the moment that I trusted that I could.

Looking Towards the Future

My goal is definitely Tokyo. I think it’s a very lofty goal. I think we had an amazing WEG, but there’s one less spot on the Olympic team and that makes a big difference. I think in the near future [I want to go to] the Pan American Games, and I also want to start developing my own business. McLain and I have talked a little bit about it. I’m so fortunate and so grateful that my parents have been so supportive of my riding, but I want to start stepping out on my own a little bit. I don’t know exactly what that looks like right now, but I’m 25 and I want to be a little bit independent. My sense of self-worth has always derived from being able to do things myself, a bit, and it’s time [for me].

Related: Masterclass – Living Legend Leslie Law On 'Making It' As A Competitive Rider

Being able to add the World Championships to my resume, hopefully, now I can either produce some horses or do a little bit of training. I think that’s what the next two years look like for me. I’m a firm believer that if you want to be at this level, and you want to be competitive at this level, you have to do it full time. I don’t think it’s possible to do something else. I do enjoy other things, and I’ve thought about going back to school – and that’s not definitely out of the question – but right now, my focus is Tokyo.

Mental Toughness, Fundamentals, and the Importance of Staying in Your Own Lane

I think it’s really easy now to get caught up in what other people are doing, and that’s always increasing. I’m quite open about the mental aspect of the sport because I think it’s difficult. A lot of riders – including myself and especially the younger riders – social media is such a big part of their lives. People are always posting about their results, and it can be so easy to compare yourself to others. But it’s just about being patient and trusting the process and also trusting your trainer, knowing that they’ll help guide you in the right direction. Looking back, I was lucky that I had a really safe horse, but I wasn’t ready to jump some of the grands prix that I did, but I was so eager to say I could do them I think. So just being patient, and developing your basic riding skills – that’s what I crave now more than ever; flat lessons and just really working on the fundamentals of riding.

Photos by Dani Maczynski.

Written by Erin Lane

Erin Lane is the Director of Insider at NOËLLE FLOYD and a living definition of crazy horse girl. A lifelong hunter/jumper rider and avid polo player, Erin believes that equestrian education should be accessible to all riders and is on a mission to bring that to life through Insider. Shaped by the horse community, Erin wants to give back, build relationships connected by a passion for horses, and vibe with her fellow horse girls. You can pretty easily win her over with bay horses, weenie dogs, and wine in any form.