Junior Eventer Spotlight: Anna Fitzhugh Follows Her Fire

Today we shine the spotlight on Maryland-based junior rider Anna Fitzhugh. Anna competes at Training level and impresses us with her organized, hardworking, goal-oriented approach to both riding and schoolwork, as well as the team mentality she demonstrated at Pony Club Championships and while grooming for the Area II team at the 2018 NAYC. 

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Photo courtesy of Anna Fitzhugh.

Anna Fitzhugh’s secret to success is her ability to stay focused. As a 17-year-old eventer from Area II, she sometimes has tunnel vision when it comes to her goals of becoming a professional rider, which isn’t a bad thing, because she knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go into the unknown to get it.

“I’m very focused. I’ve always thought, after that week in Kentucky [at Pony Club Championships], there’s no turning back now,” says Anna. “I could never do anything else. And then I just went all in. Even my own family members were like, ‘Don’t you think you should do something else?’ Still, even after a year or so, they say, ‘You could always be a vet!’ I can be kind of stubborn, but I am very focused. I know this is what I want to do.” 

Her parents, Dawn and Bill Fitzhugh, as well as her trainer Morgan Cillo, all point to Anna’s intense planning habits as the reason she is on track to meet her goals.

“One funny thing about Anna and riding is her extreme organization and scheduling,” Dawn says. “She has a huge dry erase board and will plan her time down to the minute. Just looking at that dry erase board tires me out, but Anna loves horses and likes to be busy and work hard so, for her, that’s what makes her happiest.” 

Anna has been riding for eight years and has three horses: her first pony, Penny; her Training level gelding, Ripley; and her new green mare, Lucy, whom she hopes to bring up the levels.  

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Anna extensively maps out her day at a competition on her white board. Photo by Dawn Fitzhugh.

An Early Love of Dressage Sparks Interest in Eventing

Not many eventers can say this, but Anna’s interest in eventing came through her early love of dressage. But once she got a taste of the thrill of cross country along with the attitude and mindsets of eventers, she knew she’d found her sport. Morgan Cillo, an upper-level eventer with whom Anna has trained since the beginning, was able to nudge her in the right direction.

“I always loved dressage, ever since the beginning,” Anna says. “Because I started riding with Morgan, I always did little bits of dressage and hunter stuff, but as soon as I did my first event, I just loved that feeling. The feeling you get when you’re in the startbox, and you know you’re prepared, but you get that adrenaline and you get all tingly — that’s my favorite feeling.

“I like that it’s not so much about ‘How much money do you have?’ or ‘What color breeches are you wearing?’ Instead, it’s more about ‘Are you and your horse prepared?’ and ‘Did you do all your homework?’ It’s more about hard work, and less about the money.”

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Anna with her childhood pony, Penny. Photo by Caught By A Flash Photography.

Success In and Out of the Saddle

Even though her career is just beginning, Anna has already had some great accomplishments. She’s been to the North America Youth Championships as a groom, competed at Pony Club Championships, completed the Waredaca Training Three-Day Event, traveled south to Aiken, and competed in countless events all over Area II.

One of her most memorable experiences is when she got to be a part of the Area II Young Riders team when they won team gold in 2018.

“Riding has taken me a lot of places, and not just on a horse,” Anna says. “I have a couple favorites, but one of them is when I groomed at Young Riders. I was walking Tayler Stewart and Taz into the ring, standing next to Mr. Medicott who’s an Olympian, and Olivia Dutton, holding both of them as the national anthem played and they got their gold medals. That was so surreal and I will always remember it. Mr. Medicott leaned over and nosed me, like he was saying ‘Wake up, this is real!’ and it was so surreal.”

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Anna with Mr. Medicott at the awards ceremony for Young Riders after Area II won team gold. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Anna qualified for the first time in 2017 to compete at Pony Club Championships, which took place at the Kentucky Horse Park, and the experience solidified in her mind that she wanted to pursue horses as a career.

“I always knew I wanted to ride, but after that week I just fell so in love with the sport that I thought, ‘Well this is definitely what I [want to] do.’ I didn’t have a great run there, but I got to experience being on a team. I had never been on a team before, and I just knew that this was it, this was what I wanted to do,” says Anna. “In Kentucky, as I was walking Ripley down [the chute that leads into the ring] and I show jumped him in that Rolex arena, my dad was up in the stands, according to my trainer Morgan, bawling his eyes out and saying, ‘One day she’s going to be here for the real thing.’ So that was really cool being in the grandstand arena, and hearing the announcer with the same British accent that the real announcer [at the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event] has.”

Neither of her parents were horse people before Anna started asking for riding lessons. Anna’s dad Bill has become immersed in the horse world through his daughter, and it has created a special connection between them.

“Her riding opened a world up for me that I never would have known. I have met so many wonderful people through Anna’s riding. Through Anna’s riding we have bonded on our many road trips early in the morning. We have our favorite places to stop on the way to shows. Each season we have favorite songs we like to listen to on the way to shows,” said Bill.

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Anna (middle) with her dad Bill (left) and trainer Morgan (right) before they traveled to Pony Club Championships. Photo courtesy of Anna Fitzhugh.

‘You Should Join Pony Club’

In addition to eventing, Anna has been greatly involved in Pony Club throughout the years, even though she originally didn’t want to join. Her mom encouraged it, but being an obstinate and determined third grader, she didn’t want her mom to be right. Six months later, after going to a meeting with Elkridge Harford Hunt Pony Club, Anna gave in and ever since then she has been hooked on Pony Club. She now has her C-3/H-B rating.

One of the reasons she loves Pony Club is because of the learning opportunities. Just a few life skills that Anna has learned are to pay a greater attention to detail, ask questions, and do lots of research.

Because of the opportunities and education she’s acquired through Pony Club, she strongly encourages other riders to join.

“I tell any person I meet, ‘You should join Pony Club,’ no matter who they are, how much they ride, or how much they want to do. Maybe I’m a little biased because I’ve met all my greatest friends through Pony Club, but I’ve loved it and have had so many opportunities, and met so many people. All of the opportunities that I’ve had have been through Pony Club,” said Anna.

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Anna with her teammates and coach Morgan at Pony Club Championships. Photo courtesy of Anna Fitzhugh.

Lessons Learned from Setbacks

Despite the many highs and accomplishments of Anna’s riding career, she has also had some setbacks.

A few years ago, on a rainy day while competing Ripley in the show jumping phase in a grass arena, she experienced what could have been a serious fall when Ripley lost his footing over a jump.

“At Shawan Downs, he slipped and fell in show jumping and crashed onto the jump, and then he wouldn’t jump for the next couple days. I went to take him cross country and he would not jump a single jump, because he was so scared,” says Anna.

To overcome the challenge of getting Ripley’s confidence back, the pair went back to basics and schooled cross country every chance they had in order to build his trust back up.

What matters more than the setbacks is the mindset that a person has to overcome their failures. For Anna, this is as simple as always focusing on the positives of a situation.

“I always look on the bright side in everything that I do, because with horses, no matter what, they’re going to get hurt, you’re going to fall off, have a bad day, or have stops, but no matter what, there’s always something you can learn. So, even if I have a stop somewhere and it was my fault, I learned that next time I have to pay more attention or do something differently,” says Anna.

Planning for the Future

As for her future goals, she has her mind made up that she will make a career out of riding, and it’s no surprise that she has a plan to get there.

“I would like to ride professionally, so my plan is to run my own horse business in a training center a couple years after I graduate college, preferably in Aiken because I love South Carolina. Until then my plan is to be a working student at Morningside since I’m graduating early from high school,” says Anna. “I’ll be a working student for [Skyeler Icke Voss] and then start college in the spring semester of 2020 at Wilson College.”

Trainer Morgan, a professional herself, believes that Anna has all of the traits and skills necessary to be successful as a professional.

“I think Anna will be successful as a professional for many reasons,” Morgan says. “For one, she’s a well-rounded person. Outside of horses, she’s an excellent student who loves to spend time with her family, travel and read. To be a successful professional, it takes so much more than being a good rider or trainer. You have to be articulate, solve problems quickly, and balance a hectic schedule. You have to be a proficient writer and be able to market yourself and your business. Anna easily has all of these skills. She is not only great with horses, but great with people. This skill is going to really help her professional career.

“Last but not least, Anna possesses an outstanding work ethic. I know how hard she works each and every day. Being any type of professional horse person requires an incredible amount of dedication, practice and work.”

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Both Anna and Ripley appear to be having a blast on cross country with her smile and his ears pricked! Photo by GRC Photo.

It’s Not All Fun and Games

On the path to becoming a professional, it’s not just all riding and training. Schooling and education are very important parts of riding, which Anna understands. She makes sure to keep up with her grades on top of riding, which is no easy task.

Anna’s secret to balancing horses with school work is simple: she uses every spare second she has in school to finish all of her homework.

“I will work through lunch, I’ll do my homework in homeroom, I’ll do it on the bus, I’ll sit in the car on the parking lot and do it before school, I will do anything to not do it at home. So when I leave at 2 o’clock, I have no school work. Usually after school I’ll go and ride probably four horses for different people, and then I come home and ride my two. I can balance riding pretty well despite having school all day,” says Anna.

As for her future plans with school, Anna’s current goal is to go to Wilson College for its equine programs.

“Wilson College has an equine business major, as well as equine journalism classes, which combine two of the things I love,” she says. “I’ve always loved to write, I’ve always loved to ride, and I really want to get a business degree, and in addition to that, they’re in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. This means they’re pretty central to all of the things that are happening. They’re two hours from the Virginia Horse Park and Fair Hill, so everything is in a manageable distance. They have a farm on campus, and they have a January term. That’s why I chose to go there, and they gave me a scholarship, which helps pay for horses.”

Be on the lookout for Anna this year at events. Her plan is to move her horse Ripley up to the new-for-2019 FEI one-star level at the Maryland Horse Trials. She took her horses in Aiken this month to contest Paradise Farm H.T. 

Despite Anna’s intense focus and rigorous schedule to meet her goals, in the end she goes the extra mile for her horses because of her genuine love for them and her sport. Riding is what she turns to for solace when all other aspects of her life may seem uncertain. Anna’s mother remembers when Anna was about 10 years old, she told her that “riding makes me forget about anything bad in life and only focus on the good.” Seven years later, Anna still has the same mentality, and she always will as she pursues her aspirations of creating a career out of her passion.

Read more from Grace at her blog, murphyslawofriding.wordpress.com.