Being Mom and Chasing Your Own Dreams, Too: A Day at GLEF With Alison Firestone Robitaille

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here's a certain familiarity with the nerves and adrenaline of a grand prix ring that riders earn over time — riders like Alison Firestone Robitaille, who has competed in international competitions for over 20 years. The American rider has a lifetime of accolades reaching back to her teenage years, including over 25 Nations Cup results. But when she returned to the show ring after having her daughters, Ava and Zoe, balancing those competitive feelings with the duties and overwhelming love of being a mom was less familiar.

Like her daughters, Alison was born with horses in her blood. Alison's parents, Bertram and Diana Firestone, were Thoroughbred racehorse breeders who owned 1980 Kentucky Derby winner, a filly called Genuine Risk. Ava and Zoe enjoy the horses and shows with mom, so three weeks of showing at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival (GLEF) during the summer (with ponies in tow, of course) is a dream for these little girls. But what does the life of a dual show mom and professional rider look like? How does Alison balance her new and ever-growing list of priorities? 

Sweet Horse Show Mornings
Every day is so different for me. Because I’m divorced, I have my kids week on week off. They are by far the most important thing to me and it adds on a bunch of travel. So I rarely do two weeks of horse showing in a row — I really try to schedule my horse shows around when the girls are not with me, especially when they’re in school.

During the summer, it makes it a little bit easier, which is why GLEF works so well. The first week of GLEF I brought the girls. We stayed in the camper on grounds, which is amazing. They’ve always been early risers; they get up around 6:15 a.m. We do breakfast and hang out a bit in the camper. I brought their ponies with us and they showed on Sunday in the walk-trot and the crossrails. During the week, we all go to the barn and they ride their ponies. One of my very best friends in the world, Miranda Scott, teaches them. I don’t like to get involved in teaching them. I tell them enough things of what to do during the day, and my little one especially, she’s told me a couple of times that I’m doing it wrong. I like to take a step back — I want them to enjoy the riding because they enjoy it, not because they think they’re doing something for me.

Midday Rides and Acts of Charity
They do their things with the ponies, then I get a ride in. They’re very interested in taking care of their ponies and they love to bathe them. My older daughter loves dogs, so at GLEF she made posters for a dog walking service and donated the money to Danny & Ron’s Rescue, The Peeps Foundation, and Their Voice Rescue, which Paige Johnson runs. I can take her and drop her off for an hour or so and she just sits with some of the dogs and gets them used to being around kids. She raised about $100 dollars, I was so proud of her. Even when she was playing with all of her friends horseless jumping, she would leave her jumping and go walk dogs — that made me super proud as a mom.

Quiet Evenings at the Show
One of my favorite parts of having them in the camper with me is taking them to do night check. Driving down on the golf cart when everything is quiet around 8 p.m., we gave all the horses apples and just enjoyed being around the horses. I have a very early bedtime when the girls are with me; we go to sleep around 8:30 p.m., 9 p.m. at the latest. Sometimes if I do that a bunch of nights in a row, I’ll wake up at 2 a.m. and get some emails done — the stuff that I don’t want to do when the girls are awake that takes time away from them.

Compartmentalize and Ask for Help
It’s been tough but I feel like I’m really good at compartmentalizing things. So once I’m at the horse show, of course I miss [my daughters] and the slower times, but once I’m on the horse and walking the course, I really continually aim to be as present as possible in each moment. That has helped me — I know it’s kind of a cliche — but I really break it down and think about it. It’s been a huge help for me, even with my relationship with my girls and with my horses.

A woman that I’ve known since I was 14 [helps me with the girls]. Her name is Maria Flores. When I rode with Katie Prudent as a kid, Maria’s husband Remi groomed for Katie. Maria has helped me with the girls since they were six weeks old — she’s really part of the family. My barn manager Will Simons is also a huge part of making things work. I’m so grateful, I really couldn’t do what I do without them.

Getting in the Zone
Depending on the show, I pick out the time to flat my horse before the class and then I work everything else around there. So with the grand prix being at 2 p.m. at GLEF, I went and had breakfast with the girls, then I flatted my horse around 10:30 a.m. The girls were happy horseless jumping and eating lunch so I could have a little time by myself in the camper. I really value having a little bit of quiet time away from everyone before I have a big competition. 

I always try and be up at the ring roughly an hour before the class. I like to have plenty of time to walk the course. I don’t always use it all, but I find my best routine for feeling really good about walking in the ring is if I can walk the course, get my plan, and then go sit by myself. Then I usually go over my plan, put my helmet on, and make sure I have the right spurs on for whatever horse I’m riding.

Horseless Horse Show
I popped in and out [of the horseless horse show.] The girls met so many children up at GLEF and they really had their own thing. I would go and watch — I actually cantered a couple of courses and was a small pony in one of the Pony Finals classes. For the most part, I watch from afar. I think it’s so important for them to have some free time to play. With what they’ve gone through with the divorce and living in two separate houses, week on week off, they get scheduled. I was really grateful that they just had some free time to just kind of be.

The Lineup
I got Ginger Pop as a seven-year-old — she’s a really special horse to me. From the minute I tried her, I was like, “I am in love with this horse.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever been more sure about a horse when I tried her. When we bought her, she came over and won a good amount of classes, then we had some soundness issues and it took about a year to work through and figure out what the real problem was. She was very lightly shown as an eight-year-old and part of her nine-year-old year. The grand prix at GLEF was her first real grand prix since being back — she was double-clear and placed fourth. It was really exciting. 

I also have a bay mare, Cardi B. She’s owned by a partnership and one of the owners wanted to name her that and told me that it “will make you sound current.” I really just have the horses and the kids. Everyone who does this sport has a huge travel schedule. I just have a couple of extra flights to run in at the beginning of the week. I am not a TV watcher. I’d rather read a book. I’m very up on Peppa Pig

Read this next: More Than Just 'Mom': Returning to Horses Made Me Feel Like Myself Again

Photography by Dani Maczynski for NoelleFloyd.com.