Befriending the Competition: How Top Riders Get By With a Little Help From Their Friends

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efore an International Hunter Derby at 2017's HITS Coachella, Hope Glynn paused while hacking Lake of Stars to reference the fellow professionals schooling alongside her. Alexis Silvernale and Jenny Karazissis temporarily stopped their horse show preparations with their own mounts to line up next to Glynn and take a picture. Arms locked three abreast in the saddle, they smiled ear to ear for the camera.

“Usually, you can remember five years later who you were with at [at a big show], but maybe you don’t remember the results of how the class went down,” explained Glynn, who went on to win that class. “At the end of the day, it’s really important that you nurture what friendships you have and encourage your friends when they’re having a good day and a bad day. We all have them.”

Photo courtesy of Hope Glynn.

There are very few professional athletes who are as frequently surrounded by their competitors as equestrians, and in a sport where Nations Cups, the GCL, and Olympic Games are some of the only opportunities professional riders get to compete in a team atmosphere, the top riders often rely on their competitors, not only for professional advice, but also for deep friendships both in and out of the ring.

Glynn puts great stock in cultivating and maintaining genuine friendships with her fellow professionals, and she is especially close with West Coast-based riders Silvernale and Nick Hannes.

“Alexis and I met, actually, through Nick when she was a young professional,” she said. “She’s a lovely person to hang out with, and it ended up that we had a lot in common. She also had done triathlons [like me], so we talked about that. So, we had outside interests that we liked to talk about as well, but she’s genuinely a fun, nice person. [We've gone] to Central Park Capital Challenge together. We stabled next to each other at Derby Finals, just because we liked each other’s company, and we’re good at encouraging each other. If we’re having a hard time, we can say to each other, ‘Hey, been there, done that!’”

But Hope’s closest friend is an East Coast rider: Amanda Steege.

“At the end of the day, it’s really important that you nurture what friendships you have and encourage your friends when they’re having a good day and a bad day."

“Even if we can’t see each other for six months, we make sure we stay in touch about horses and life,” Glynn said of Steege. “It’s nice to have somebody to vent to at the end of the day.”

“Alexis and Amanda and Nick and I all will send each other texts [just saying], ‘Thinking of you. How are you doing? How’s the weather in your neck of the woods?’” she added.

It’s the unique lifestyle of riders that leads to such unusual friendships, but the genuineness of those relationships is evidenced by observations at even the most pressure-filled competitions. At the 2016 Olympic Games, Individual show jumping gold medalist Nick Skelton and bronze medal-winner Eric Lamaze walked together, arms around each other’s shoulders to the podium, even though just a single rail separated the two from top honors on the world’s biggest stage.

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“If a friendship can sustain the competitive nature of our sport, it must be real,” said Amy Millar, Lamaze’s Canadian teammate in Rio.

Skelton, a longtime staple on the show jumping circuit – known for his sense of humor in addition to his horsemanship – seems to be a common thread among competitor friendships.

Photo by Thomas Reiner.

“When I was younger, I was at Nick Skelton’s for a while and learned so much there, so to be able to go back to him for advice is invaluable,” said British show jumper, Robert Maguire. Maguire is also close with a rider that represents another country, Spain’s Sergio Alvarez Moya.

“Sergio Alvarez Moya is one of my best mates, and he is always a great help, along with his brother Julio,” Maguire explained. “[A few years ago] on the Sunshine Tour, he rode one of my horses in the training ring and gave me a few different ideas on the tack and the best way to ride it. I have a lot of friends outside the sport, but that’s something they could never do.”

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“I think strong friendships are special to eventing, but it is something that’s important to me as well,” said event rider Jennie Brannigan. “It’s such a tough lifestyle. We’re all traveling so much, and we all know the sacrifices it takes being able to do this. You end up just relating to these people that are doing the exact same thing as you. If you’re going through a tough time, you want to be able to talk to someone that not only understands what you’re going through, but you also respect them and want to get their advice. That usually tends to be someone you’re directly competing against.”

Brannigan, who grew up on the West Coast eventing circuit, now calls the East Coast home, running her Brannigan Eventing out of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, and spending her winters in Ocala, Florida. Several years ago, she roomed with fellow eventer, Hannah Sue Burnett.

“I think Hannah Sue, in particular – we have a lot of similarities in that we like to make eventing fun,” she added. “I think that’s actually one way we deal with even being nervous, is to kind of joke around and make it as fun as possible. We just have a lot of similarities in our personalities as far as wanting to be good competitors, but also trying to be good friends as well. I think it’s unusual to be able to be friends with someone you compete with so directly, and I think we do a pretty good job of trying to get together and cheer each other on and be happy when each of us beats each other, and vice versa.”

“It’s such a tough lifestyle. We’re all traveling so much, and we all know the sacrifices it takes being able to do this. You end up just relating to these people that are doing the exact same thing as you."

The prevailing feeling is that, over time, the competitors don’t just become friends – they develop into family.

“My family doesn’t live close to me, and my friendships have become quite like my family in a lot of ways, so it’s been very important to me,” Brannigan explained. “I am a social person, but I think my friendships are super important for me for that reason.”

On the opposite coast, and in a virtually opposite discipline, show hunter Hope Glynn agreed.

“In this business, you don’t have the opportunity to have a lot of other friends,” she said. “For me, these are the people that I probably spend more weeks with than most of the members of my family. To have people that are your friends other than your clients is something that I think is really important.”


Feature photo by Thomas Reiner.

    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.