Spencer Smith has learned to always answer his phone - you never know who might be on the other end of the line, after all.
Smith, still a veritable young gun at 21, had never before ridden on a senior Nations Cup team when he received a phone call inviting him to compete alongside Team USA at CSIO5* Rome in May of 2018. He was in Germany at the time, preparing to jump at CSI4* Wiesbaden, when he got the call to represent his country following the defections of Lauren Hough and Kent Farrington. Jumping at the opportunity, he packed up his horses and immediately set off on another two-day trip across Europe.
Five days later, outfitted in his own red coat, he contributed to a silver-medal winning effort the U.S. alongside Beezie Madden, Laura Kraut, and McLain Ward. While contributing the drop score in both rounds on scores of eight, he did more than impress some of the biggest names in American show jumping around him.
“You don’t normally start your career off in Rome at a five-star Nations Cup on five days notice, which is what he got, but he’s unflappable and he did a great job,” Chef D’equipe Robert Ridland said following the event. “We’re looking forward to [the future of] his career, and this was a great start at the high level.”
“It was surreal,” Smith said. “To be on a team with those riders at that show as my first Nations Cup was something I never expected.”
But Smith has quickly learned to be ready for the unexpected. After all, he’ll be the first to tell you that he didn’t quite see his full-time job working alongside Eric Lamaze and Yann Candele coming, nor his top mount, Theodore Manciais. But that’s not to say his opportunities have been handed to him. He’s earned them, and he’s reaffirmed them with his success in the ring at some of the world’s most elite and competitive horse shows. Following his rides at Rome, Smith notched six top-12 placings in five-star competition at Spruce Meadows. As if that wasn't enough, he just laid down the only clear round to win the CSI4* Grand Prix Axeria-SFM in Valence.
“To be on a team with those riders at that show as my first Nations Cup was something I never expected.”
“[Rome] was definitely the biggest pressure situation I’d been in in my career,” Smith said. “Basically, I took away that I can do it – that I can somewhat be a part of that team, not as strong as the rest [of that group], but that at least I could be there. I got the opportunity to work with so many people there that week. Eric trains me, and McLain, Beezie, John [Madden], Laura, Nick [Skelton], and Robert Ridland, trained me in one class or another. Before the Nations Cup, Nicked helped me warm up. That was really cool.”
“They told me to go in there and ride it like it was any other class.”
Smith was bred to work in the horse industry. The son of well-known trainers Ken and Emily Smith of the Wellington, Fla., based Ashland Farms, he grew up in the saddle and was exposed early on to the business side of the sport. To him, following in his parents' footsteps was ‘a no-brainer.’
At just 12 years old, Smith won the Children’s Jumper Championship at the Washington International Horse Show. By 2014, he was alone at the top of the prestigious Pessoa/USEF Medal Final. Those kinds of pressure-filled situations, he says, set him up for success at the professional level.
“The equitation definitely shaped me as a rider,” he said. “I also trained with Geoff Teall, who has also been a big influence in my career. Some people try to knock [the equitation]. The Europeans don’t have it, and they are also successful. I agree, they are, but the American style of riding is so classical. It helped me a lot, not just in my riding, but almost more in the sense of pressure – riding in the equitation finals is almost more pressure than jumping in a big Grand Prix, because there’s only a finite amount of time you can play that game.”
Throughout those final years in the junior ranks is when Smith first got connected with Lamaze. The 2008 show jumping Olympic individual gold medalist sent Smith horses to ride in the junior jumpers with the hopes that they would sell. But the relationship went to the next level when Lamaze gave Smith the opportunity to show with him at CSIO5* Gijon in 2016.
"...the American style of riding is so classical. It helped me a lot, not just in my riding, but almost more in the sense of pressure – riding in the equitation finals is almost more pressure than jumping in a big Grand Prix."
“I was shocked, and I went, and it worked out well. I jumped 1.50m there – I had never done a five-star and had never shown the horse, but I went in and did it. It took off from there.”
Lamaze also paired Smith with Theodore Manciais. He purchased the Selle Français gelding last September, and when he arrived at Lamaze’s barn, he had Smith school the horse. Smith had been invited to the prestigious CSIO5* Spruce Meadows Masters, and Lamaze, liking what he saw of the pairing, suggested Smith bring the horse along as a second mount.
“My first class was 1.55m in Calgary. It was pretty big,” Smith recalled. I had a silly rail – it was my fault. Then I was clear the next day and ended up 11th.”
Lamaze would never get the ride. After Candele climbed aboard for the Longines FEI Nations Cup Finals in Barcelona, Lamaze let Smith keep the ride. Ashland Farms is now the bay’s listed owner – in March, the duo posted the only clear round in the entire class to win the CSI3* $132,000 Horseware Ireland Grand Prix in Wellington.
“He’s definitely the best horse I’ve ever had the chance to ride and compete,” Smith said. “He’s just naturally really, really careful and scopey. Rome I found to be the biggest grand prix I had ever even walked – it was unbelievable – but I felt he could do it, no problem, and he did. He has everything, which is rare to find.”
Not Letting Up
Smith has two other international horses in his string: veteran Rivale du Barquet and the up-and-coming Happiness, who finished third in the 1.50m Imperial Winning Round class, the final of Spruce Meadows’ summer 1.50m Kubota Cup and AON Cup series, at the North American Tournament.
“She’s coming along well,” he said of the 11-year-old mare. “I think she will jump a lot of big classes.”
In addition to riding, Smith is also training, taking the lessons he’s learned from his parents, Teall, Lamaze, and others and translating them into success for younger riders. Among his students is Ransome Rombauer, winner of the Hermes U25 Grand Prix Final at the 2018 Winter Equestrian Festival.
“Teaching makes me think things through a little bit instead of just doing them,” Smith said. “It’s a great thing to do, to give back. As a young rider, I loved when anyone could give me advice and help.”
Increasing his travel schedule tenfold in the last two years, Smith has confidently branched out from his Wellington base and has firmly established the merits of his own name. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots, either; he is still very connected to his parents and Ashland Farms.
“My parents support me very much,” he said. “The whole basis of my riding and style and knowledge of horses comes from them – everything. They gave me my whole foundation. I talk to them five times a day. They know every class I’m doing, and they watch online. They’re very involved in the whole process. I also go back and ride for them in Kentucky and Michigan and stuff like that when I get a break in Europe or Canada. Wellington is still home base.”
“You can never stop pushing. You can always be better."
“One thing we can say about Spencer is, he never gives up on his goals,” said his parents. “He is driven to make it to the top of the sport.”
He’s well on his way. With a taste of Nations Cup glory still lingering, Smith is eager to earn himself his next opportunity – and he’s not planning on letting up.
“[Eric] always pushes me to do better,” he said. “You can never stop pushing. You can always be better. I’ll come out of a jump-off class and be quick, and [he’ll] tell me I could have gone faster somewhere. He’s taught me to keep pushing the whole way through. He pushes me to be better all the time.”
“It’s addicting,” he added. “It’s crazy getting that pressure and getting to ride in that red coat; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of. Everyone on the U.S. team gave me an opportunity and a shot when maybe they could have picked other riders. For that, I’m really appreciative. It gave me my jump-start.”
Photos by Sportfot.
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.