'I Never Thought I'd Have the Horse or the Ability': What It's Really Like Jumping in Your First Grand Prix

'I Never Thought I'd Have the Horse or the Ability': What It's Really Like Jumping in Your First Grand Prix

Two years ago, I was standing in the barn aisle with my trainer, Ivan Rakowsky, quizzically studying this horse relaxing in his stall. Ivan found Fantast van het Vinckenhof, known as Vince, as a six- coming seven-year-old, and he’s the first to admit that the Dutch gelding was extremely green and wilder than expected. He had all the scope and jump in the world, but we looked at each other worriedly when he got to our barn and couldn’t trot in a straight line. We were like, “Oh gosh, what did we do?” Little did we know that this horse would take me to my first grand prix.

My love of horses began from a young age. My father is from Indiana and he had a passion for horseback riding, so it was inevitable that I would catch the horse bug, too. Although I grew up in Florida, I didn’t get in the saddle myself until I was older. I competed in the ponies and the children’s hunters, but when I began showing in the jumper division at age 15, I felt as if it was the perfect ring for me.

You could say I developed a little later than most junior riders in terms of launching a jumper career. I had a decent children’s jumper and then started competing in the low junior jumpers in the last year of my junior career. It wasn’t until I was an amateur that I really found my stride — no pun intended.

I rode with incredible trainers when I was younger, but when I moved to train with Ivan during my last junior year, things began to really take off — he’s like family now. I had always dreamed of jumping at the grand prix level when I was younger, but with Ivan, my confidence flourished and I thought, “Wow, I can do this.” He has completely changed me as a rider.

When I first began training with Ivan six years ago, I was a junior and wasn’t overly successful — I was just going through the motions. Ivan truly values the partnership a rider develops with their horse and has an incredible eye for talent. That’s where Vince enters the picture. Fast forward and Vince ended up becoming an amazing horse. With the help of Ivan, I’ve really built my confidence up, and he’s always there to pat me on the back and make sure everything is great and perfect. I have a great team behind me that prepares the horses to be 100% so when I walk in the ring, I know that I have to do my job because the job’s already been done with the horses.

... with Ivan, my confidence flourished and I thought, “Wow, I can do this.”

But developing an inexperienced horse like Vince was no easy task. In the beginning, he was difficult and was very, very green. He’s a very quirky animal, so bringing him along slowly was the right thing. He’s just very touchy about things, and I think having the extra time to grow up was good for him. This past year we started off in the medium amateur owners, then up to the high amateur owners where I really got to know Vince’s ins and outs. But by spring of this year, we knew it was time to step it up another level. It was time to enter our first grand prix.

When we originally made the entry for the Longines Global Champions Tour of Miami this past April, we were not sure if we were going to do the 1.45m two-star grand prix. But deep inside, I knew Vince and I were ready to make the jump, so I said, “Let’s just do it!” Of course I was extremely nervous knowing neither I nor my horse had ever competed at that level, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. We knew he had the scope and the talent, but I didn’t go out there with a lot of expectations other than having a good round and creating a good experience for Vince. I was really nervous, but I knew we were ready for it — it was time to start stepping up and taking on bigger challenges.

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Our grand prix debut couldn’t have gone better. We had three rails down, but I view it as a success since it really showed us the scope and the talent that Vince has. When he walks into the ring he’s fearless and is ready to tackle the course. We just had to figure out how to channel his energy!

The team has been competing at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival (GLEF) in Traverse City, Michigan, for the past few weeks. I absolutely love this horse show. We saved Vince up for this show to start putting him in the bigger divisions, particularly the two-star grand prix. It’s a great place for younger horses to step up.

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On grand prix day, we have to prep Vince a lot because he’s extremely hot and still green. If he goes into the ring fresh, he kind of overdoes it and becomes hard to ride and wiggly. We’ll take him out for a little lunge, hack him for a bit, and do pole work to get him focused and quiet. Then he’ll go back to the barn where his entourage get him ready to go to the ring. I make sure he’s calm while he hangs out at the barn until it’s go time.

As much as I have to prepare Vince, I equally have to take time for myself to get in the zone. I like to check-in with him and then head to the ring. I kind of just plant on the rail or sit in the stands alone and learn the course. I get really nervous, especially just starting at this level. My goal is to go in there and have the best experience for the horse because he needs to build his confidence. I’ll go over the course and plan how I want to execute the round. If you see me before a class, I’m just on my own, away from everyone. I’m like that for most classes, but especially when I show Vince because I want it to go so well. I want to give the team and my horse the best possible me I can give.

It was time to start stepping up and taking on bigger challenges.

Since he’s already been ridden, we don’t jump too much in the warmup. He also gets a little crazy, so we want to save as much as he can for the class. Then we head to the in-gate. I used to talk with a sports therapist and something that really stuck with me was this: close your eyes, take a couple of deep breaths, and try to envision how you want to ride, how the course is going to go without looking at it, and visualize it in your head. I do that exercise no matter what before I go in the ring.

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Mental training is so important. For me, if I don’t do that, then I’ll go out and have a panic attack and I won’t ride well. Sometimes I go in the ring and get so nervous that I don’t even remember what jump I’m jumping. I get so ahead of myself that at times I’m jumping the last jump (in my head) before I jump the first jump. Deep breaths.

As Vince and I step up to this level, we’re going to stay here for a while. The goal next year is to do the three-star shows. I always dreamed of being a grand prix rider but it feels very surreal. It’s incredible being side-by-side with my idols that I worshiped growing up and some of the biggest names in the sport today. I’m walking course walks and I’m like, “Wow, there’s so-and-so!” Or knowing that Margie Goldstein-Engle is flying in and she’s going to be in the same FEI tent as us, it’s incredible. It’s an honor to be at that level with them. I never thought I’d have the horse or the ability to do so.

Of course it’s everyone's dream to go to the Olympics and do Nations Cups, but you have to have the horse and you have to have the skills. Yes, I would love to achieve those goals, and we really think that Vince is going to be scopey enough to get there. Hopefully we’ll get there in the near future!

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Photography by Dani Maczynski for NoelleFloyd.com.