illian Heard has been called the most underrated rider in the country by eventing legend James Wofford. “She is one of the unsung four-star heroes,” he recently stated in his famous annual Chronicle of the Horse Kentucky Three-Day Event Preview. “She has the talent, the work ethic, and nice horses to ride; her rainbow is overdue.” At only 32 years old, Lillian has nine CCI4* completions under her belt on multiple horses she brought up to the level. With such high praise coming from one of the most respected figures in the sport, pretty sure they're onto something.
I caught up with Lillian on the phone while she hacked a horse out in the late afternoon. Having seen Lillian compete at countless three-day events, I already knew that she was a focused competitor and one of the best cross-country riders I’ve ever seen. I also thought she was quiet and shy. I was wrong. Lillian is a sunny personality, talkative, and very witty. Right off the bat, she had me laughing on the other end of the line and the whole conversation felt like catching up with an old friend. She is sure of herself but she is also a sponge for knowledge, and as a student of the sport, she will never be complacent. That is the subtitle of her career so far: every horse and every rider has something to teach you.
Growing up in the small Maryland town of Poolesville, Lillian’s dad bought a couple of mares ("pasture pets”) from the newspaper classifieds (remember when those were a thing?). Her mom signed Lillian and her sisters up for riding lessons at a local barn, and though her sisters eventually lost interest, Lillian kicked on, becoming active in Pony Club and getting her first taste of the adrenaline-pumping, run-and-jump thrill of eventing. As a teenager, Lillian went on to become a working student for four-star eventers Jan Byyny and Boyd Martin as well as Carol Gee, of Fernhill fame, and others. She was getting a good education under their watchful eyes, but she hadn’t exactly intended on making horses her living.
"That year turned into two years and then three years and I just had to admit to myself that there was no other job I was going to do."
“Looking back now, in my head I thought I wanted to do these other things but I never had any intentions of quitting riding or stopping at the level I was going. So how I thought I was going to do all these other things and do this, I don’t know!” Lillian laughs. She had plans to go to law school after graduating from the University of Virginia, but first, she wanted to take a gap year to be a full-time working student. “Then that year turned into two years and then three years and I just had to admit to myself that there was no other job I was going to do.”
However, coming to terms with that reality wasn’t easy. Riding professionally at a high level seems like a dream come true, but it comes with a difficult lifestyle – exhausting, long hours and no guarantee of success. So Lillian figured she’d find someone who looks like they’re doing it right and attempt to copy their recipe for success.
“When you’re trying to figure out what you want to do, you go find a person you want to be like and mimic them. But I really couldn’t find anybody who looked like they were having fun. Everybody just looked miserable and poor and working too hard and the horses got hurt all the time. I thought, ‘geez, if I can’t find anybody who looks like they’re killing it and do what they do, maybe I shouldn’t do it at all.’”
That’s a sad conclusion considering most of us make significant sacrifices to ride because we love horses, and how can anyone be miserable getting to do what they love for a living? But I get what she’s saying. When you’re feeling the pressure of paying bills, building equity, saving for retirement, and picking a profession to achieve all that, it’s a daunting thing to imagine that what you pick might not work out. Or worse, that you hate doing it. Then again as kids, we have this notion that adults have it all together. They have all the answers and life is organized in a neat, tidy, well-planned package. Then when we reach adulthood ourselves we are surprised (and a little relieved) to find that most of us are figuring it out as we go. Adult-ing is hard no matter what you’re doing.
“I took a closer look at every adult that I knew and realized that everyone is working hard and a little bit miserable. That’s just adult life. So maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on the whole horse profession.” Still, Lillian felt she had a lot to learn before striking out on her own. “When I was a teenager I went and worked for Jan before college and realized how much I didn’t know. In my head, I thought ‘I’m going to keep being a working student until I feel like there’s not this huge amount of stuff I don’t know.’ As it would turn out I never really didn’t feel that way!”
After nearly ten years of being a working student, Lillian felt far more prepared for the road ahead. “It’s been critical. It’s really hard work, you don’t get paid any money, you get abused a little bit. If for no other reason, it hardens you up. It makes you tough and hard, and you need that to succeed in this business and this sport. It teaches you a lot about riding and horses but it teaches you more than anything to keep going, to get back up. If you want to be great you’re not going to give up now. I think that’s what made me able to be successful on my own.”
Today Lillian rents a barn from her longtime coach and mentor, Boyd, at Windurra in Cochranville, Pa. The farm itself and the surrounding area is a hub for eventing with a long list of top riders nearby, so she continues to be immersed in an educating environment.
"It makes you tough and hard, and you need that to succeed in this business and this sport."
“If I’m at somebody’s barn I’m peeking in the corners and looking at what they’re doing. There is still to me the idea that there is a chance that the guy or girl next to you has something you could learn from them. Everyone is doing it differently and there are a lot of good ways to do it. Each horse is so unique that probably the way this guy does it could be best for that weird horse you have in the barn. You can’t get stuck doing the same thing every day. It’s not going to work.”
And the job itself? Turns out it isn’t as hard as she thought it would be.
“Whenever I’m having a bad day or I don’t want to go out in the rain, I just think, ‘it’s a job and as far as a job goes, it’s a pretty good one.’ If you put the onus on the horses to be a passion every day it’s not going to happen. It’s not going to be your passion every day. Some days it’s going to be just a job and when you think of it that way you’re like, wow, this is way better than having to sit at a desk, so I guess I’m doing okay. You’re making a little bit of money, you get to be outside, be your own boss. There’s a lot of great things about it, but if every day it has to be this wonderful thing that you love, it’s always going to fall short.”
The scope of Lillian’s business today is broad. She teaches a lot of clinics, sources horses for clients, buys and sells horses, and trains students. In the evenings she and her boyfriend, U.S.-based Australian eventer Ryan Wood, talk through their days and strategize what’s next.
“I love what I’m doing and I just want to do it better. I could do this forever until my body gives out. And then I could still teach. It’s taken me a while to get to this place, but I feel like I’m set on the structure of my life. The bare bones of it are there and I just need to build around it and make it better and bigger.”
When asked what her advice would be for aspiring young riders who dream of going pro, I could hear the smile in her answer and the tiniest bit of something else – an invitation? a challenge? Or maybe it was just the voice of experience.
"Even when you think you don’t know how to get where you want to go, it will happen. Just keep working hard and don’t be afraid of that hard work."
“Go work for somebody that’s good, that you admire, and that’s going to kick your ass,” Lillian says. “Not an easy job. Don’t go to that barn that’s got six horses that you’re going to groom all day. Go to a barn that’s going to kick your ass and make you fight off quitting. Time and time again you’re going to really want to quit and your mom is going to tell you that you can. Your mom is going to say it’s okay to quit. You’re going to have to say it’s not okay because I want to do this and I want to be good. If you’re willing to do that you’ll find your way. Even when you think you don’t know how to get where you want to go, it will happen. Just keep working hard and don’t be afraid of that hard work.”
Feature Image Kailtyn Karssen. Inset photos by Sportfot.