No one in Alexa Gartenberg’s family rides horses, but from a young age she told her parents that she wanted to have horses and ride. She first tried riding at an overnight summer camp, and soon after, she started regular riding lessons. Growing up just outside of Philadelphia, Alexa began eventing with Susie Beale when she was based at Radnor Hunt Stables.
“I didn’t even know it was called eventing, I thought it was called field-riding!” Alexa explains. Her lack of knowledge about the sport did not deter her from trying it. Alexa started eventing at the beginner novice level on her first horse, who had been a lesson horse. It wasn’t exactly a fortuitous start: “I am pretty sure I got 45s on the flat and got eliminated at several of my first events,” Alexa said. Soon enough, however, she was getting the hang of the sport.
In 2016, Alexa moved to Matt and Cecily Brown’s barn to continue her eventing education. They were based at Boyd Martin’s facility, Windurra USA, at the time. The program required serious commitment from Alexa, not least because the barn was located over an hour from where she lived. “I would get out of school at 3 pm, change out of my uniform at red lights in the car on the way to the barn, and then ride before going home and starting homework,” Alexa explained.
Alexa, now 24, graduated from high school in 2018. She only applied to one college: the University of Delaware, and she did so because it was closest to the barn. She was admitted to the honors program and lived at school, studying business. She graduated in 2021, and then took the real estate exam to receive her real estate license.
“I wanted to work in real estate because you can make your own hours,” Alexa remarked, noting that horses require a flexible schedule, especially for FEI competitions. She had created a plan to be able to ride and work, and she had a couple of lovely horses at the upper levels, including the late Louis M, who took her to her first Advanced.
Then, in 2022, she went out to dinner with her parents and they made a suggestion that would change her life: that she should move to England to ride. Alexa was excited by the prospect of basing in the busiest and most competitive eventing country in the world. She asked Matt Brown, who had now been her coach for nearly six years, what he thought about the idea. He was very supportive, and suggested that she work with Australian 5* rider Kevin McNab.
Kevin, it turned out, had also hosted and trained fellow American riders Jacob and Cornelia Fletcher, as well as Avery Klunick. Cornelia connected Alexa with Kevin, and a quick phone call later, and the plan was hatched: with the support of her parents, Alexa could move to England with her two horses and train with Kevin for the 2023 eventing season.
“My single goal was to get better,” Alexa said simply. “Everyone was asking me which events I wanted to do, and what specific things I wanted to accomplish, and it was just more of an overall goal to improve and become a better rider.” This approach required some humility and a willingness to really work on the basics.
With her two horses, Frame Shamrock and Cooley Kildare, both of whom she had competed at the 3* level, Alexa started back at the Novice (U.S. equivalent is Preliminary) level at the beginning of the year. While a lot of people go overseas with a particular goal in mind, like a big three-day event, Alexa’s approach was more about putting the building blocks in place to educate herself and her horses for the long run. And it is starting to pay off: she has notched several consistent top 3*S finishes in the past couple of months, and now her focus is turning toward getting back to the Advanced and 4* level.
So what is Alexa’s day-to-day like that has allowed her to get better? One of the secrets has been that she watches a lot of horses getting worked in Kevin’s yard, and she sets rails for jump schools. “I’m like the rail girl,” she laughs, noting that every time someone heads to the arena at home to jump, she leaps at the chance to set fences and watch.
Alexa has also had opportunities to ride horses other than her own, and she has two jumping lessons per week with Kevin to hone her skills there. Finally, Alexa remarked that even just being at competitions is a learning opportunity. “You look to your left and there is Tim Price, and you look to your right and there’s Ros Canter,” she notes (both recent World #1 riders themselves). “It’s just very cool to be around people you read about and admire,” she explains.
Alexa’s time abroad hasn’t come without its unexpected learning curves, however. Every place does things differently, and Alexa tells a funny story about her first event in England, where she made a somewhat embarrassing mistake: “In England, at the national competitions you have to wear a back number for dressage. At my first event, I walked a very long way to the dressage from the parking, and I did not have a back number. Luckily, my American accent saved me, and they let me do my dressage test without one!”. Lesson learned, and Alexa now makes sure to have her back number on for dressage at national events.
Reflecting on her experience in England, Alexa says that everyone is in some ways more laid-back than eventers are in America. She has a type-A personality, which has sometimes worked against her in the past. “In 2022, I was singularly focused on getting to Fair Hill 3L, but I wasn’t having the season I wanted,” she explains. The wheels started to fall off a bit, and Alexa was so driven by that one goal that not getting to Fair Hill was a real blow.
Now, in contrast, she feels that mentally she can take the events one by one and be flexible with her plans. She has gotten exposure to some of the biggest events in England and across Europe, including in Ireland and France. Each time she shows up to compete, she is simply trying to get better. It might be a lesson for all of us—to focus less on the results and more on the incremental improvement, because then we might find that the results just fall into place.
When asked about her future plans, Alexa admits that “I was supposed to stay for only one year, but my visa is good for two years, so I’ve decided to stay for an additional year.” While she misses home and seeing familiar faces at shows, the opportunities in England are too great to pass up. Eventing in England is also much more competitive: the divisions easily have 100 people in them, compared to the 20-50 entries that we usually get in the states in each division. “I like the competition —- I think it makes me strive to be better,” Alexa muses.
As for her future plans, she is still taking things one weekend at a time, but hopes to move both of her horses up to the Advanced level next year after getting to their 3*L goals this year. In the meantime, she will just focus on getting better.