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Laine Ashker


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Lessons Learned at the World’s Biggest Four-Star Event

As 2015 comes to a close, EN guest writer Laine Ashker reflects on her season and completing the biggest event of her career: The Land Rover Burghley Horse Trials. Many thanks to Laine for writing, and don't forget to follow her on Instagram.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Nico Morgan Photography.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch at Burghley. Photo by Nico Morgan Photography.

The flight from London Heathrow to Richmond via Atlanta is a total travel time of around 10 or 11 hours. However, the long journey home from Burghley for me seemed to last for days. Even when I stepped inside my quaint and happy apartment greeted by two extremely needy lovebirds and laid my head on my very own pillow, my heart was still in England, resting high atop the Cottesmore Leap, which is also said to be the highest point on the formidable four-star course.

Truth be told, my initial sentiments about my performance with Anthony Patch after Burghley did not agree with my otherwise positive outlook on life. I felt like a failure. I felt like I let everyone down. I felt like a dog retreating with his tail between his legs after losing a tussle with a neighboring beastly canine. I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge the fact that I had just completed the world’s biggest four-star event and with a sound 16-year-old off-track Thoroughbred.

Now that the dust has settled and “time and sunshine” have worked their magic, I have been able to reflect on my unforgettable international experience with a clear head. Suddenly, an influx of feelings rush in, ranging from tears, laughter, nausea and, most surprisingly, inner peace. And, strangely enough, I immediately have a change of heart. Burghley was everything I dreamed about and more. Funny how one’s outlook can change once you start to get out of your own way!

"It doesn't get any smaller but it does get more doable each time we walk it!" Laine and Valerie Ashker walking the Burghley XC with Lauren Sherill.

Laine and Valerie Ashker walking the Burghley cross country with super groom Lauren Sherrill. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Riding at Burghley was one helluva surreal experience. On top of attracting crowds in the tens of thousands, the most unique part of Burghley was probably what occurred away from the bustling shopaholic crowds. The barn area was unlike any other. In contrast to Rolex, Burghley stables all of the riders together regardless of their nationality, which for wide-eyed Americans like myself was probably the coolest aspect of the event.

Every day as Al and I came back from our early morning walk, we were greeted by our famous stablemates, such as Sir Mark Todd, Jock Paget, Jonelle and Tim Price, Michael Jung and Dag Albert. For me this, is what made Burghley so unforgettable: just to hang out in the barn area tossing around ideas with literal living legends who were as down to earth and kind as any regular joe.

It was so reassuring to ask the riders about their past Burghley performances, get clues on how the course rides and last-minute tips about proper British eventing etiquette. (Note to self: It’s not considered courteous to run over the man with the microphone trying to interview you immediately following dressage … ahem, AL!)

Never have I been to an event where I have felt so welcome, and despite all of its prestige, it was surprising and enjoyable to experience the laid-back atmosphere in the barns. Word on the Burghley street (and throughout the loud speakers) was that Al and I were fondly called “America’s Eventing Sweethearts,” which was bestowed upon us by British announcer and four-star eventer Spencer Sturmey.

Outside of the barn, however, was anything but tranquil. From sun up to sun down, the Burghley trade fair moonlighted as an American shopping mall on the night of Christmas Eve with its increasing number of crowds. And, of course, there was the stunning Burghley mansion that stands proudly overlooking the show grounds in all its wonder that never failed to give me goosebumps every time I hacked past it.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch strutting their stuff in the Burghley arena. Photo by Samantha Clark.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch strutting their stuff in the Burghley arena. Photo by Samantha Clark.

But aside from that busy trade fair and the stately palace, probably the biggest part of Burghley was its colossal cross country course! Never have I seen ditches as deep, oxers as tall and wide, and technical questions that at first sight seemed impossible all in one course. Top that off with thousands of people lining the galloping lane to catch a glimpse of the world’s best riders tackle such a demanding course — well, my friends, this is officially the big league!

I remember before leaving for England having phone conversations with my dear friends Sinead Halpin and Hannah Sue Burnett, who both conquered that cross country course in years past. One thing that both ladies asserted was to never depend on anything outside of the gallop lane to use as a guage to line up a technical question because most likely a massive crowd would be blocking it from my view. In other words, there are crowds, and then there are Burghley crowds.

Probably my best piece of advice came from my longtime coach Buck Davidson. I remember calling him late Friday night in a panic before cross country the next day hoping he could muster some wise words to set my mind at ease so I could get some sleep. In typical Buck form, he did not disappoint.

The next morning I gave Al a light breeze and walked my course alongside my security blanket (AKA my mom) when Buck’s instructions began to take shape. He told me to watch some of my favorite riders (Fox-Pitt, Jung, Funnell, Townend, etc.) and count how many strides each one got between fence one and fence two.

Initially I had no idea about the concept behind Buck’s logic — being that the first two fences had no related distance — until he explained to me that counting strides between the first two fences of the people who were successful around the whole course literally showed the pace that he or she was on when setting out on the course.

The average number of strides between the first and second jumps was an attacking sixteen. Not only did I now know the pace that was expected to successfully complete a course like this, but I also now comprehended the precedent these top riders were setting early on in cross country. I will never forget this advice for as long as I live, and I truly think Buck’s wisdom helped me complete a course I thought to be impossible just two days prior.

I bet you would like to know how many strides I got from one to two. All I can say is I never expected the sudden rush of confidence as Al launched over the massive white table on the sixteenth stride. Despite the two green bobbles on course, Al and I managed to proudly carry our beloved Stars and Stripes through the finish flags. And just like the Grinch who stole Christmas, our hearts grew three times larger that day.

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Now anyone who knows me knows that I am a fierce competitor. I have trained under the most amazing athletes in the sport, and I have been fortunate enough to have known the sweet taste of success a handful of times to make me yearn for it even more. But when we galloped across the finish line, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

Don’t get me wrong — I still don’t think having two refusals on any course is acceptable, nor should it be deemed a huge success. However, being that my initial goal was to finish my first overseas four-star, I am both relieved and proud to have punched yet another four-star notch in my (C4) belt.

This leads me to the most important thing that I learned while competing at Burghley. I am finally able to grasp the difference between myself and the riders who I aspire to be like. While walking the cross country Friday afternoon, my mom watched as different groups of riders discussed how to tackle the difficult lines at the Trout Hatchery. What she noticed was the differing levels of confidence demonstrated in one simple question each of the riers posed to themselves.

While I was busy devising plans of how to finish the course, the world’s top riders were devising plans of how to finish the course the fastest. They were already confident in the fact that they could easily navigate through the lines, which turned their attention to finding the fastest and most economical routes to cross the finish line.

In simpler terms, the world’s top riders are just more competitive than I am. I know it’s not like this is breaking news, but it was really earth shattering to witness this world-dominating competitiveness firsthand, rather than just watching it over a live stream back home.

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Now that I have managed to unearth my proverbial tail from my rear, I have taken this priceless experience and turned it into fiery motivation. Turns out I was totally correct in aligning my goals with simply just completing my first international four-star. And the next time I burst out of the start box, I will have the extra confidence from having already completed the world’s toughest four-star course in a foreign country and without my coach physically by my side.

Experience is key, and in my opinion is far more important than any amount of lessons, tack or talented horses money can buy. Want to know how to beat the Europeans? Compete against them as often as you can.

I want to take the time to express my gratitude to some very important people. First and foremost, to my groom Lauren Sherrill, who earned her first international stamp in her passport as she traveled alongside Al all around the European countryside and made him look like the winner I believe him to be.

To my amazing mom and dad, to my dad’s wife Kathi and my two very special friends Celia Rafalko and Rick Sample, who made the long journey to cross the pond to watch Al and I in our Burghley debut.

To my coach Buck, who literally prepped me for Burghley in three days.

Lastly, and probably the most paramount of all, I want to thank each and every one of you who supported us financially, spread the word to help me fundraise or simply followed our journey as we completed our fourth four-star event. I want you to know that this experience is not taken for granted, and I intend to capitalize on the wealth of information that I gained over those unforgettable 10 days in early September.

Until then, folks, sit back, relax and enjoy a hot cup of cocoa surrounded by family, friends and furry ponies. In less than a week 2016 is upon us, and I couldn’t be more ready to show her who’s boss!

Officially A ‘Rolex Veteran’

EN guest writer Laine Ashker finished 29th with Anthony Patch in her ninth career start at this year's Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. She ponders what it means to officially be a "Rolex veteran" in her latest blog ... and gives a sneak peek at where she and Al might be headed next.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Jenni Autry. Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Jenni Autry.

“So how does it feel to be a Rolex veteran?” I pondered this question long after my interview with a morning radio show as I made my way up highway 75 leading a caravan of other Kentucky hopefuls and fellow Cali girls Allie Knowles and Jennie Brannigan. A Rolex veteran? I guess the radio show is right. At 31 years old, I have had the honor of riding four legendary horses in nine starts of our nation’s most prestigious equestrian event starting 10 ten years ago. Gulp, now I feel old!

I think the reason why this question had me thinking hours later even after it went answered was because up until then, I never viewed myself as being old, ahem EXPERIENCED, enough to be called a “veteran.” But then again, in a sport that is halfway dependent upon the side of the stall your horse woke up on, can you chalk success up to experience alone, or does there also need to be a bit of luck added to that statement? I think we can all argue both sides of the story.

This year was Anthony Patch’s fourth Rolex start since he began his four-star career in 2010, placing 8th nationally and 14th internationally.  Ever since then I have been vehemently striving to improve on that placing, but sadly to no avail. This year, unfortunately, paralleled that of the previous ones with many “almost had it” moments.

I am proud to report however that even after attempting Rolex eight times prior to this year, I was able to experience my very first Rolex press conference following my personal best dressage test which landed my dainty little OTTB and I in second place behind the reigning world champion Michael Jung and the mare with whom he would end up winning the coveted watch come Sunday afternoon.

As I sat in the media room decorated with Rolex logos, yellow flowers and Dasani waters galore, I reminded myself to take in each and every moment as some people, no matter how many times they attempt a four-star, never get to experience a formal press conference. Needless to say, as I exited the elevator from the press conference and made my way back to the barns to check up on Al, I was walking a couple feet above ground. What a moment to behold!

And what a difference does 24 hours make! Once the sun was overtaken by looming clouds and gusty winds, which finally gave way to torrential downpours on Saturday, the casual smiles and echoing laughter that once resonated throughout the barns were replaced with somber glares and quiet chatter by the riders and their support groups. As Al and I made our way to warm up alongside my loyal mother, we were greeted with well-wishes and cheers from the crowds screaming, “Go Al go!” — another unforgettable Rolex moment of mine.

Nevertheless, the rain kept pounding away. Once Colleen Rutledge came back with news to the rest of us that the course was riding rough due to footing but was still very doable, you could see every rider making a mental note of what needed to be done to get his or her horse safely through the finish flags of the taxing course that lay ahead.

Always one to stick to a game plan, this unnerved me as quite honestly I had never ridden a four-star in conditions as wet and as sloppy as what I was about to embark upon. The closest I have been to riding in weather like this was Fair Hill CCI3* in 2009, BUT over half of the course was taken out due to poor footing and weather conditions. This would be a prime example where EXPERIENCE becomes a major advantage!

As Al and I set out on the course, I thought to myself that I had better take it easy in the beginning, as there were a lot more combinations and less gallop room on the latter half of the course, and I was worried about exhausting him in the beginning. What I didn’t take into account, however, was that although it’s one thing to ride less aggressively in between the fences, it is quite another to ride tepidly AT the fences.

The truth about my ride before the coffin was that I was not there for my horse when he needed me. Sure I was trying to slowly increase on the gas pedal as the course went on, but I still needed to step on the gas at the jumps, especially in heavy footing on a careful jumping horse. It took me until fence 8 and ultimately 9b at the brush following the coffin for me to have a stop and finally re-evaluate my prior tactics and revert back to my more aggressive, quicker cross country riding style.

As I galloped up the long hill following the coffin, my heart felt as heavy as the footing. I contemplated just stopping and walking home to save Al for another day.

Then I thought about Badminton in 2014, the World Equestrian Games in 2014, Fair Hill in 2009 and gave myself a kick in the pants. If I want to be a world champion, I have to be able to ride in ANY weather! A line from my favorite book Mind Gym quickly shot through my brain on approach to fence 10: “You have to learn to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.” With that in my mind, off Al and I went. #boom

I can wholeheartedly say that I finished that cross country course with a better horse, and that day I became an even better rider for finishing stronger than what we had started. After the stop, I learned how to ride in deep footing, hunt down to galloping fences with eyes half way open due to pelting rain and how to GET THE JOB DONE despite not feeling as if you and your horse are on your game.

And that’s just the way the cookie crumbles, folks. Not every Olympics or World Games is going to be a perfectly sunny day with temps in the mid to upper 60s with little to no humidity in almost perfect footing. I know that when the time comes and when the odds are stacked against me, I will now be able to take the skills I gained from my Rolex 2015 cross country ride to get the damn job done!

Was I demoralized that I lost my chance of Rolex grandeur with my one costly mistake? Yes. Do I believe that I was (and still am) sitting on the Rolex winner? Oh heck yes. Did I walk away from that cross country course with my tail in between my legs? You better think again. NOW I can officially call myself a Rolex veteran.

It just wouldn’t be Rolex without achieving your personal bests and your personal worsts. We all know I’ve had my fair share of both. Show jumping on Sunday was nothing short of a personal best as Al entered the ring poised and eager to jump a beautiful clear round, which happened to be the first jump fault free round of the day (I tend to conveniently omit that one time fault).

Yet another notch is in my Rolex belt, or maybe two. Maybe even a third notch being that I finished with a very sound and very happy 16-year-old partner I’ve been riding for 13 years. And who’s to say this is Al’s last year at the top level? Al certainly isn’t. I still think I am sitting on one of the world’s best horses, and I intend to prove that until he deems otherwise.

So what’s next for the little bay gelding and myself, you ask? These Rolex vets have a hankering to hop a flight across the pond … and who knows? I may get to see Ben Hobday’s selfie skills in action come late summer/early fall … perhaps a challenge is in order?  Until then folks, chins up, purse your lips and grab your closest selfie stick. I hear they take them well at Burghley …

Three-Day Eventing: Coming to a Palm Tree Near You

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch finished third in the inaugural $50,000 Wellington Eventing Showcase, taking home a $6,500 check and a boatload of great selfies to boot. Read on for Laine's thoughts on the weekend and click here for all of EN's coverage of the showcase. Go Eventing!

It wouldn't be eventing in Wellington without a selfie! Photo courtesy of Laine Ashker.

It wouldn’t be eventing in Wellington without a selfie! Photo courtesy of Laine Ashker.

Growing up hearing about Wellington, I’d always imagined it as a far away luxurious island filled with all the shiny things (really sandy manicured bridle trails). I have to tell you that my imagination did not deceive me in the slightest.

From the oversized, matted, permanent stabling; the decadent VIP tent, which actually featured REAL silverware (it was REAL silver, people); the plush arena footing that would make even the choppiest of trots rival that of Totilas; and the famously familiar faces (ahem, “The Boss”) living it up at the rider’s parties, Wellington certainly lived up to its name in every aspect.

I received the invitation to the Wellington Eventing Showcase a week before I broke my arm in late November. After having two weeks off from trot sets, another two weeks off from dressage work and another week and a half off from jumping exercises, that put me well into January, giving me a solid three weeks to prepare for a three star level showcase (GULP!).

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Jenni Autry.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Jenni Autry.

And therein lies the power of a relationship, folks. Having had Al for over 12 years, bringing him from his first Beginner Novice to multiple four-star events, it goes without saying that the two of us know one another pretty well. For example, when it comes to the dressage, I know Al doesn’t react to the “atmosphere” like some of my younger less experienced horses do, which is a large reason why I chose to carry a whip in the ring to offer him a few little reminder taps to keep his hindquarters engaged.

I also know that when I make a bonehead decision to add an extra stride to a difficult line in the show jumping, Al is going to try his damnedest to keep the sticks up despite his pilot. Above all, I know that when push comes to shove and I haven’t had a cross-country school with him since the American Eventing Championships in September 2014, that I am sitting on one REALLY GAME pony that loves his job.

It’s pretty obvious that I am absolutely ecstatic with Al’s performance at the Wellington Eventing Showcase. It’s such an honor to be riding amongst our country’s best riders and horses let alone to be placed in the top three against them.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Kasey Mueller.

Laine Ashker and Anthony Patch. Photo by Kasey Mueller.


It was also very exciting to be apart of something so innovative and brand new such as this showcase in Wellington, and I truly believe that Mark Bellissimo is and will continue to build eventing in a positive light and generate more sponsors and money for the sport we love so much.

From the live stream featured on The Chronicle of the Horse, Dom and Jimmie Schramm’s entertaining color commentary and Sinead Halpin’s witty post cross country interviews, the oodles of media in attendance each day, the perfectly manicured turf on which the flawlessly decorated cross country course was built, the massive amount of prize money which yielded a star-studded line up of horses and riders, Mark and his crew cut no corners.

We as athletes, both equine and human, were welcomed with open arms to Wellington, and it was a pleasant surprise, probably from both ends, that eventing produced such a large audience, especially on cross-country day. It’s going to be interesting to watch the opportunities that arise from last weekend’s showcase.

Perhaps this is the beginning of a new kind of “made for TV” type of eventing that will draw more spectators, sponsorship and overall awareness to catapult our sport to the next level. Either way, I am all for it and I think the blending of Wellington and eventing adds a nice “je ne sais quoi” — wouldn’t you agree? Until next time, guys, sit back, relax and sip your mojito under a palm tree as you watch the eventers take over Welly World.