On the Tack Room Couch with Lainey Ashker

Lainey and Love Birds, Barney and Elmo

Who doesn’t have one? That old, sort of raggedy couch that perpetually smells like a wet dog and is covered in clean laundry and wraps to be rolled, boots that don’t match and spurs without a mate. Some days we end our day there, cleaning tack and hiding from one more minute out in the sun with the bugs or waiting for the vet, waiting for the farrier to finish, waiting for it to be cold enough to put blankets on. We lament over the things we miss on the weekends because of a horse show, or having to stay home from the show because our horse has a bounding digital pulse and is jogging up NQR two days before we leave. We talk about boyfriends and husbands and whether or not babies are more trouble than puppies. We whine to each other because there’s no chocolate anywhere in the whole barn and all the sweet tea is gone, and we celebrate the great dressage school we had that day, or that we finally jumped the big trekhener without getting nervous. We laugh and cry and gossip. Some things said on the tack room couch, should never leave the room, but this series is intended to get EN readers a personal look into the lives of riders and other horse professionals both in and out of the saddle. Casual and honest interviews, just like those familiar conversations you have on the tack room couch.

On the Tack Room Couch with Laine Ashker, four-star rider based in Central Virginia.

EHT: To say you’ve had an incredible season would be a bit of an understatement. From winning Millbrook Advanced to winning the AECs with Al is amazing. Not to mention the talented youngsters you have coming along. We at EN are unsure how it is you get to be such a rockstar, so we are here to find out. First and foremost, how do you spell your first name? Why does the Y seem optional?

LEA: (laughs) That’s a great question actually, funny story: So I was born and raised in California, and my name is Laine (pronounced Lane) Evion Ashker. Well, when I was a kid, a lot of the other kids on the bus, to make fun of me, named me Lame-O Laine. And so, that was kind of sad. So when I moved out East, I found that a lot of people had names like Mary Claire or Suzy Beth or whatever, and everyone started calling me Laine E, because it’s Laine Evion, so I added the “Y” at the end because I like the name Lainey. So my name is L-A-I-N-E and the Y is optional.

EHT: So the Y can be silent…

LEA: Yes, the Y is silent.

EHT: So take us through the horses in your barn right now. Who are they and what are they doing?

LEA: So number one is obviously Al, Anthony Patch. He’s a 1999 OTTB–I’ve had him since he was a four year old. He came off the West Virginia Charlestown race track and the breeder is Tom Swales out of New Jersey. Al’s had a great season thus far, and I was hoping to get the grant to go to Pau, but that didn’t work out, and probably for the better, because I’m saving his legs and he’ll start back up in Florida next year and hopefully go kick some butt at Rolex–with the WEG obviously being in mind.

Then, I have Raptor Force “Rappy,” which started out as a sale horse–well, he’s still a sale horse, he’s another OTTB. My mom would kill me for saying this, but I’m not in a huge hurry to sell him because I think he can be an upper-level horse. He will be much more competitive in a few years. His dressage is going to take longer to produce.

EHT: (interrupts) He’s MINE.

LEA: Ha ha, he’s as cute and as talented thankfully as he looks, and he’s a six year old raced and bred by Rhoda Marsh out in California. My mom found him, he’s only been competing a year and he’s done six double clear prelims, so he’s moved up quite a bit. He’s going to do Maryland this weekend and I was originally going to do the 1* this fall, but I said you know what? His flat needs some work and he had 26 starts on the track so he’s not really had a break yet so we are going to give him a longer break to get to be a horse.

Then I’ve got another one called Judgemental, we call her “Pinto Bean” and she’s owned by Sarah Greenway. She is one of my warmbloods, she’s Dutch/TB and she’s by Judgement, and she’s doing training, hoping to move up to prelim, very talented, quirky little mare, and she’s spotted so that’s fun and adds a little flair!

Then there’s my awesome Andalusian dressage horse Santiago del Escarvido aka “Diego” “Fuegs” “el Fuego” etc who competes at 4th level with hopes of Prix Saint George next year and qualifying for Devon!

And I’ve got my prized possession, Calling all Comets, who’s our homebred. He’s a four year old, so my mom sent him out to me in late June and he already did his first training level double clear, at Richland of all places, so that was his fourth event ever. He has the rest of the year off to be a baby and just do flatwork. He’s super exciting and  it’s really special that we bred a thoroughbred and he’s Jockey Club registered and we just love him. He’s got the warmblood movement, he’s a brat on the ground, a total brat, but it works for us because he’s a bit cocky and he’s the total package. He’s going to be the next one to fill Al’s shoes. I’m really excited about him.

I’m also competing Lauren Sherill’s, who’s my working student/groom/right hand person/right arm/everything, mare called Time of my Life, another OTTB. She’s a six year old with hopes of moving up to prelim soon. We are just getting some experience under her belt, while Lauren gets some experience too on one of my horses I competed called Jolly Good Sport, who Plain Dealing had, and he competed prelim last year. We are also currently training to maintain our title in the PRO bareback jumping at Fair Hill. We had our first practice today and I almost fell off at the trot. So that was good. I was like, “Oh, we’re off to a great start, let’s just go to canter.” (laughs)


EHT: You needed the sparkly neckstrap. So tell us about Al when he’s not under saddle. What are his quirks, what’s he like? What are his favorites?

LEA: Oh Al, Al is a ham. He constantly tries to get you to come to his stall when you walk by, because he’s in the king suite of the barn, he likes to be in the midst of things. So when you walk by, he eggs you on to come. He likes to be scratched. Anybody that knows me knows, don’t ask me how I figured this out, but he likes brooming and he likes raking. So you take a rake to his head and he LOVES it! He scratches his eye balls and he’s full on pursing his lips–I’m not horse abuser here–and then he loves the broom too, rubbing his face on it constantly. He’s also constantly on cow watch. So when he’s not being itched or scratched, or eating, he’s peering out the back of his stall, because there are cows about a mile away, and he’s on Code Red cow alert making sure he lets us know if there are cows nearby.

EHT: So he does NOT like the cows.

LEA: That would be the understatement of the century.

EHT: So good thing you aren’t at Boekolo. Did you see the picture with the cows next to XC?

LEA: Yes I saw that and I commented underneath the pic, “Al’s scared!” Al doesn’t do cows, it doesn’t happen.

EHT: Good to know. Ha. Soooo, we saw a rather large check in your trailer leaving the AEC’s, did you treat yourself to anything special with your winnings?

LEA: Well no, I haven’t gotten the check yet. (laughs) As they were handing me the check I though to myself, “Oh it would be so cool, to do this and this and this with it, but then I suddenly remembered the people, the amazing people, that got me to the AECs. Such as my amazing vet Jeff Beshear, who I owe a lot of money, hugs and high fives to, because he really has been instrumental in keeping my horse sound and been a huge team player–then of course Buck [Davidson]. He’s been so helpful for me. So I want to pay everyone that’s helped me get there, before I think about anything else. It’s a nice added bonus but it’s just like John Holling said as I walked out of the ring, “Great Lainey now you’re broke and the rest of us are still in debt.” So it’s nice to have a little pressure off from the bills, because you know we all have bills if we’re horse people!

EHT: Preachin’ to the choir, girl. You’re being very responsible.

EHT: You and your mom have an amazing eye for spotting thoroughbreds at the track and restarting them as eventers. What are the kinds of things you look for when you are shopping for an OTTB? What should an amateur who wants to go training level look for versus someone that wants an upper-level horse?

LEA: That’s a good question, so the BIGGEST thing is, my mom and I never once sit on the horses before we buy them. We see them, we go to the track and we find somewhere, like a small turnout or round pen and we let them go. It’s hard to tell when they jog in-hand because they are so amped up on steroids, or life, with their tails up in the air, so we want to see them out in the open. See what they are going to do. Not only to see their movement, but to see, ya know, how insane is this thing? You can tell a lot about their athleticism in bucking and rearing and striking out, but how long does it last? Regardless of whether they are fit or not, are they running around until they fall over? There are a lot of things that come to mind when you see them, and temperament is huge. You want to look at their confirmation and you want to see a nice angle in the shoulder and a nice low set hock, a nice croup, you prefer a shorter back and a longer neck, but the biggest thing is the mind over the matter. You want to see the type of mind the horse has. You also want to see how their feet are tied on. We made the mistake with my very first horse, and I love him to death and he took me to a 1*, but he was so splayed out in his front end it was like “oooohhhhhh.” They all have their faults and we all make our mistakes, but he ended up getting ringbone at an earlier stage in his career, when most horses don’t get it, and so you live and you learn. My mom primarily goes out and looks. She looks at the whole picture, but the temperament is such a big thing. You can have a horse that is as talented as the day is long, but if it’s not trainable it’s worth nothing.

EHT: AMEN. Very true. So what is it about the thoroughbred that you love and why do you think it’s important to keep the pure thoroughbred as a big part of eventing?

LEA: You know, I’ve always been a fan, probably because I’m my mother’s daughter, but I’ve always been a fan of the underdog. What I love about the sport of eventing is that it doesn’t matter the breed of the horse. I mean Katy Groesbeck is riding a half TB half Arab, and David O’Connor rode a Quarter Horse to the Olympics. I think what I love about the Thoroughbred so much is that they are the underdog, that they can have a second career and that they’ve got so much heart. I’ve been very lucky to have three 4* horses that have been off the track Thoroughbreds. Even when they shouldn’t have, they give me the benefit of the doubt, they give me their heart and they NEVER give up. And that, to me, is the true definition of a champion. You never give up. And I get them, I get them and I appreciate them and I think they know that.

EHT: That’s awesome to hear it put that way.

EHT: For those of us that follow you on Instagram, we see lots of photos of birds and Kardashian-esque selfies. How do you make time to get to be a girly girl and balance horses with other parts of your life? Are you judging me right now because my nails aren’t painted?

LEA: Selfie city!!! No, no, no, but I totally looked at your nails, and I like your ring. You know, the greatest thing my parents made me do was go to college. I was fortunate enough to be able to board my horses while I was at UVA and go to school. It taught me a lot of responsibility, but it gave me a separation between the horses and the real world. It’s SO easy to get caught up in horse world, and be like, “Oh my God I had a rail.” My ex-boyfriend used to tell me, “Lainey, there’s a war going on and you’re freaking out because you had a rail” and it really brought me down to earth and you know, he was right. So, I’m vain, we are all vain. I have the hair extensions and the eyelash extensions, and that’s really fun. I enjoy making time for that stuff so that when I have a free weekend off, my girlfriends and I go out, and we have fun, and we enjoy our youth, and then when I come back to the barn that next day, I’m that much more appreciative, and I’m wanting to be there. Sharon White, I remember her telling me, make sure you go to college because you always want this to not just be your job but to be your passion, and that really didn’t set in, until this became how I make money. There has to be a way that you can let your hair down and be an individual in the sport and that’s what I like to do. I enjoy getting dressed up once every two weeks, and expressing myself through the jogs. Fashion is important to me and being a female is something I enjoy. It doesn’t have to be everybody’s thing, but I like to embrace the fun times outside of the horse world, because it makes me appreciate the horse world that much more.

EHT: So about the jogs, you have a clear personal style. It’s obvious that you have a horse person closet and a regular person closet and you always look great at the jogs. How does that style play into your choice of jog outfits and do you spend a lot of time choosing them?

LEA: (laughs) Yes I do. I spend a very long time choosing them, you know, because I normally have a lot of options. Because you never know about the weather, at Rolex, or Fair Hill, or Pau, you never know what you’re going to get. So I have pants and I have skirt options. Normally for the second jog I wear pants because I’m usually riding or something right before then to stretch Al out. So, you know Al’s a bay and he’s not a plain looking horse, but the colors are plain, so I always love to bring out something. Sometimes I’ll go neutral but bold neutral and sometimes I’ll bring out a little pop of color. I always love to see Becky holder, because she rocks the red with the two grey horses and looks great. So I like the classic style of a nice knee length skirt and maybe a frillier top, anything that kind of suits my fancy. Kristen Bond and I used to joke about having Entertainment Tonight come to out jogs to say “Who are you wearing today?”

EHT: (interrupts laughing) Well now it’s not a joke because you have me, and I will be there at every jog, being the official fashion police.

LEA: We need the fashion police. Dear God you will be so busy.

EHT: Now tell us more about the birds–what are their names and how did you become a bird lover? Do they travel with you or do have a bird-sitter when you’re away?

LEA: Well actually, I’m very lucky with the bird-sitting. All of my students and Bethany, one of my students, is a bird person, so they all take turns taking care of the birds and I think everyone really enjoys it. I have two boys, Barney and Elmo, they’re both love birds, one is red-faced and one is a yellow-faced love bird. I picked Barney just before he hatched, I picked the egg, and then he hatched and when I went to pick him up when he was weaned, my mom said “Oh, you need another one,” so my mom had picked another egg, secretly, and that was Elmo. So we took them home and they are so different. Barney is the alpha, Elmo struggles with life, he’ll fly to the back of the couch and fall off, but he’s a special child. They are my children and I absolutely adore them. They travel with me to Florida and I have to cover them up at all the AG stations so they don’t squeak. My neighbors probably hate me because they are the most loud, obnoxious brats ever, but they don’t know what a cage is. When I’m home they are flying around. They have their basketball court and their disco ball–they are spoiled. They are trying to clean out my teeth and preen my eyelashes, they’re my little stylists. They are amazing and I love the birds–I never feel lonely with them around.

EHT: I see you a lot schooling XC with students at Plain Dealing. Do you love teaching and coaching? Is that something you want to do long-term and/or something you think is important for pros to do?

LEA: I think it’s super important for the pros to do. I feel like it’s good for both [parties] because when you constantly repeat yourself while teaching, you think about it more when you ride, so it’s a great learning tool for me as well. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I coach. I’ve been teaching now for over 10 years, and I have learned so much about how to interact with different types of people. There are some people that have a breaking point to where you push them and some people you need to push more. I love coaching. I love the instant gratification of seeing something change that quick, but also the process of building to a goal. I think teaching is such a huge part of riding. Not only is it how I make my money, but it’s extremely gratifying and extremely rewarding. I love what I do.

EHT: What do you think is the greatest and worst thing about eventing as a sport right now?

LEA: Ohh that’s a hard one. The greatest thing about eventing that’s never waned is the horsemanship and the relationship. I feel like out of any sport, horses and riders in eventing have by far the deepest bond. Not only do you do three completely different phases, but the riders are there for the gallops, for the nutrition, for the vet and farrier care. It takes a village with the horses and I don’t think it matters how big of a rider you are, the bond is there. That to me is very special. You know the worst thing, that’s a hard question. The worst thing I would say, it is probably the lack of recognition. We’re the same Olympic athletes as Michael Phelps and Serena Williams, but we don’t get the notoriety, nor do we get the paychecks. I’m so stoked that I won the $20,000 and that’s a lot of money in one check, but you can pick that out of your nose if you’re a football player… a second string football player. So, I wish there was more recognition. Not only is it the most expensive sport, which has been studied, but it’s also one of the most difficult sports. If you look at our Olympic team, the median age is mid30s. It takes a long time to get to the top and your shelf life doesn’t have to be just five years like a football player. Bruce Davidson is still kicking our butts and Phillip is still kicking our butts and they’re not old by any means, but they would be old in comparison to other Olympic athletes.That’s the hardest thing about this sport. I hope that I can help, one day, and I don’t know how, but I’m thinking about ways to bring eventing more to the forefront and the public eye. I want to make it a sport that everyone can identify with even if you don’t have a horse.

EHT: That’s great, we need that!

EHT: If you could never ride a horse again, what would you do for a living?

LEA: Oh, by FAR, I would be a movie star!

EHT: (laughs) I thought you would say that!

LEA: I would be at fashion week, carrying a Louis Vuitton purse around and wearing Christian LeBoutins. I would be Kim Kardashian, OK, maybe without the sex tape, but I would be Kim. I would date Kanye, maybe for a little bit, no I’d date Jay-Z, no Drake, Drake for sure. Drake is mine.

EHT: Speaking of the menz, is there a human significant other in your life? Should we alert the men’s Olympic swim team (they asked) that you are single or taken?

LEA: If anyone could give Michael Phelps my number, that would be awesome! Because I’m single and ready to mingle. Um, as anybody knows in the horse world, it’s hard to meet guys that are…

EHT: ….not either gay or taken.

LEA: EXACTLY. And it’s hard to find guys outside the horse world that understand what we do. We live in Florida for half the year and then we’re back in Virginia, and then we’re really just kidding, we’re gone every weekend to horse shows. So it takes a very understanding guy. So when I meet him, I hope he puts a ring on it.

EHT: Well said.

EHT: So what are your guilty pleasures?

LEA: Well, we’re sitting at Chipotle, so, I love Chipotle.

EHT: That’s not guilty enough. What else.

LEA: I’m a Starbucks person, I enjoy going to the movies, I love Nordstrom’s way too much, and I love anything Apple brand. If it’s new Apple technology I will take out a loan for it. I’m a huge iTunes person so I have to get the biggest gigabytes because God forbid I go anywhere without all 5,000 songs.

EHT: So I shouldn’t ask what’s on your trot set playlist because it would take too long?

LEA: It would take a long time, but it’s hip-hop. Between Rhianna, Jay-Z, Drake, Beyonce… anything to keep the energy up. No sadness and no country.

EHT: Thank you so much or letting us into the life of Lainey with the silent “Y” Ashker. I’m sad we’re not really on the tack room couch, but Chipotle smells better. Thanks for being a great ambassador for our sport and a great horsewoman.

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