Ashlee Harrison has broken a longstanding stereotype in the sport of show jumping: After stepping away from the industry for nearly a decade to pursue a degree and a business career, the 31-year-old has returned to achieve her best successes in the saddle to date.
As only a student could, the British rider has set calculated tests for herself at every juncture of her comeback, and she’s aced every one. On her first year competing on the Longines Global Champions Tour’s (GCT) two-star circuit, Ashlee won two ranking classes at Madrid with her own Atout des Trambles and Zahra II. Training under the tutelage of Joris van Helmond of VHL Stables, she also earned her first grand prix placings with top 10 finishes at both Madrid and Rome.
“I think this is the first year where we made a plan, and while we got a bit right and left from it here and there, everything we wanted to set out to get, we got,” Ashlee says. “I only just started doing the GCT this year, and we seem to have good shows [there]. It’s an amazing stage to be and do well at.”
While Ashlee began riding at a young age, taking her first lessons as a birthday gift from her grandparents, she didn’t grow up on the show circuit and instead honed her skills at a local riding school until she was 16 years old. One year later, she stopped riding completely to attend university. She took a job in marketing at a demolition company where she wrote web copy and created brochures. She later took on a business procurement role before joining her stepfather, Rob Adams, at his own ambulance company in the United Kingdom. It would be eight years before she returned to the sport.
“It convinced me that if I work hard, I can achieve more than I thought”
“I had missed it from the first year after leaving it,” Ashlee admits. “But I really wasn’t prepared to give up some of the other things in my life. The sport is all-consuming.”
But five years ago, Ashlee got the itch to compete again. She took six weeks off and traveled to Spain to compete on the renowned Sunshine Tour, setting out with a purely pragmatic mindset. If she went and just had a good time, she would treat riding as a hobby and go back to work. If she produced results, she would consider pursuing the sport more seriously.
“I brought two horses for the 1.10 and 1.20m classes,” Ashlee recalls. “I said, ‘This is it. I’ll go and put everything into [my riding], and if I improve, I’ll take a look at my situation and work, et cetera.’”
She began the tour jumping 1.10m, and by the last week, she finished fifth in the ladies’ 1.40m class in the main ring.
“It convinced me that if I work hard, I can achieve more than I thought,” she says.
Ashlee now devotes herself full-time to her riding endeavors and credits the opportunity to the support of Rob and her mother, Hayley.
“I’m incredibly lucky that my mom and my stepdad are my biggest supporters,” Ashlee says. “They are my biggest fan club. They come to every show.”
That tight-knit team of three, however, has grown in the past two-and-a-half years. That was when Ashlee joined VHL Stables, run by Joris van Helmond and Erika Lickhammer. The power couple recently married and boasts an impressive business, with Joris bringing up young prospects until they reach the international level, then Erika takes over the reins. Last year, Joris began training Ashlee full-time and traveling with her to shows.
“It’s the best team,” Ashlee says. “It’s wonderful to be around such a motivated couple. They work unbelievably hard. They have two kids, so it’s a real family thing.”
The increased commitment to her training, particularly with her flatwork, along with a few new horses helped Ashlee swiftly climb the ranks. While competing against the likes of Olivier Philappaerts, Jérôme Guery, and Kent Farrington was thrilling, her own comparative position within the industry – and its highly touted and focused upon Longines Rankings – initially caused Ashlee to doubt herself.
“I struggle with nerves when I’m riding at big shows and against such incredible riders”
“I struggle with nerves when I’m riding at big shows and against such incredible riders,” Ashlee says. “I remember, I was at a three-star in Holland [last year], and I said [to Joris], ‘I’m the worst rider here.’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ Statistically, out of facts, I was the worst rider at the show!”
That kind of mindset led to the addition of the final member of Ashlee’s team – her sports psychologist, Annette Paterakis. Annette, author of the book, “Keep Calm and Enjoy the Ride”, has used her own competitive riding background and applied psychology studies to work with riders of all levels. At that Dutch three-star – CSI3* Maastricht – Ashlee placed in the 1.45m.
“In that lineup, there were so many amazing riders, and me at the end,” Ashlee recalls. “Annette helped me change the way that I thought about self and horses and my journey, as it will. My thought process is different now – it’s positive.”
A Progressive String
Among Ashlee’s 2018 accomplishments are two top 10 finishes at CSI2* MET Oliva, two Longines Global Champions Tour outings and jumping her first 1.50m class. Her successes have come with a quartet of horses, each with a specific role.
Beaufort III may not be the scopiest member of the string, but he’s been the most reliable. The speedy 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding has piloted Ashlee to numerous placings across Europe, mostly at the one-star level. They’ve been partnered since 2015.
“He’s like a pet!” Ashlee says. “We just take him for the 1.30m classes. He gives me so much confidence. I can go really fast, and he makes me ride the other [horses] better.”
Charity 41, an 11-year-old Holsteiner mare, was scouted by Erika halfway through the year. Ashlee describes her as simply, “amazing.” They finished seventh in the CSI2* Grand Prix at GCT Rome in their first grand prix outing together in September.
"It wasn’t really the clear rounds that were the most important days; it was the days when we stepped up, and she took the rail for me and taught me I could get to the end of the course."
Then there’s the 8-year-old Atout des Trambles, the youngest – and, according to Ashlee, the most exciting – horse in the string, who made the top 10 in CSI3* competition at Opglabbeek in August. “He’s the nicest horse I’ve ever sat on,” Ashlee says of the Selle Français.
But it’s the 14-year-old Zahra II, the former mount of fellow Brit Jessica Mendoza, that has made the biggest impact on Ashlee. The bay Dutch Warmblood gave Ashlee her first four-star placing at Vejer de la Frontera and won the CSI2* 1.40m at GCT Madrid in May. Zahra recently retired, and while she left a significant void in the string, she also left her rider better prepared to take her next steps.
“I could never have had Charity and Atout without having ridden Zahra,” Ashlee says. “She taught me everything she possibly could in two years. It wasn’t really the clear rounds that were the most important days; it was the days when we stepped up, and she took the rail for me and taught me I could get to the end of the course. Now, I feel like I can really ride the others.”
Ashlee’s now ready to formulate bigger – while still strategic – goals. Along with winning a two-star grand prix and stepping up to jump a three-star grand prix, she simply aims to become more consistent in the ring.
“[The progression] is going to be calculated,” Ashlee says. “I want to make sure I keep the horses as happy as I can. We use a bit of stupid term – ‘professional amateur.’ I’m in a professional system with lots of help, but at the end of the day, I still make mistakes in the ring. I want to continue to be more consistent, and I would love to win a two-star grand prix. That would be great. You’re so close, but so far sometimes!”
"I’m in a professional system with lots of help, but at the end of the day, I still make mistakes in the ring."
In a world where egos can often dominate the landscape, Ashlee remains one of the most charmingly humble individuals you will come across. “I work really hard, but I’m not the most naturally gifted rider,” she insists. But emboldened with confidence from her team – and now, from within herself – she is an example of what can be achieved if we simply allow ourselves the chance.
“It feels like this year has been a long time coming,” Ashlee says. “With the results we’ve managed, it’s been such a morale boost. It’s incredible.”
Written by Catie Staszak
Catie Staszak can typically be found doing one of three things: talking about horses, writing about horses, or riding horses. A broadcast analyst and journalist at FEI competitions, she spends her time traveling to shows and getting behind the microphone to break down courses and get people excited about equestrian sport. Normally spotted with her dog Omaha nearby, she's grateful to be able to combine her greatest passions into a career she loves.