Sarah Sargent: An Ode to Amateurs

Liz Riley and Infinite Truth at Virginia Horse Trials. Photo by Kate Samuels. Liz Riley and Infinite Truth at Virginia Horse Trials. Photo by Kate Samuels.

1.8.14 — Tonight I stopped by my friend Liz’s house briefly to pick up a dog blanket (“heavy” fill) for my 12-year-old dog Potter, who’s been shivering since Sunday. Liz and I had a quick catch up since we haven’t seen each other since the holidays. It was 8:35 p.m., about 10 degrees out and she was in breeches — just  getting home from riding. There was a congested tone to her voice, a slight shiver to her body and a worried look on her face. She “casually” mentioned she’s been thinking about ending her riding career and moving to New York City. “It’s just so expensive …” she exhaled. I didn’t know what to say. A few months ago, I answered the essay question “Tell us about an amateur equestrian you admire.” I wrote the piece below, but was told that because Liz accepted a saddle sponsor from Voltaire in 2013, she was no longer considered an “amateur.” But I’ll let you decide whether or not Liz deserves to lose that title …

I moved to Virginia from California 13 months ago at the tender age of 30 to “follow my dream” of riding and working in the horse industry. I have been riding horses since the age of 4, studied Equine Science at Colorado State University and was a working student for my longtime event trainer Sarah Vandenberg on the West Coast the past 15 years. I have competed in one recognized horse trial. One. It was Beginner Novice, and I got second. I was originally listed in first place after all three phases, but the 50-year-old amateur in second, one point behind me, challenged her cross-country time to the ground jury — who keeps track of time at Beginner Novice? — and I was bumped to second. But this story isn’t about her.

Horses take money and time. Throughout my life as a professional in the hospitality industry, I have either had time and not enough money, or enough money and not enough time. It is a tricky balance, trying to feed my horse addiction, and I made a big life decision to move here and take a groom position at Plain Dealing Farm in Scottsville, Va., in hopes of having it “all.” I got free board, free rent, free lessons while playing with horses all day and making a little bit of money while doing so. Unfortunately, an old back injury kept me from making this into long-term employment, and I am once again working in hospitality with enough money to get by, but not enough time to ride. But this story isn’t about me.

This story is about an amateur rider who has inspired me, Liz Riley. I met Liz my first week in Virginia. I was introduced to her by the social butterfly Ellie Thompson, who worked with me at Plain Dealing Farm. Liz immediately invited me out to ride on a hack with her at her Mum’s barn down the road. There in her tack room are countless photos of her mother, Anne Riley, and herself jumping, soaring and floating around both British and American cross-country courses.

Sarah, Ellie and Liz.

Sarah, Ellie and Liz.

I didn’t come from a “horse family,” per se. I randomly got the bug at age 4 when we moved to a rural part of San Diego. My mom had no interest in horses, but was happy to drive me to my weekly lesson and buy me horsey pajamas for Christmas. But Anne Riley is a horse women herself; that is clear. And she can always be found buzzing around the barn cleaning stalls, throwing hay, hacking a horse or yelling at Harry — or as she calls him, “Harold” — to stop kicking the stall door. She runs a barn of almost 12 horses all by herself, with the help of her daughter, Liz, and son, Steve.

Liz does her part by driving from Charlottesville to her Mum’s barn in Scottsville (about a 30-minute drive one way) every day, six days a week, to ride four or more horses. She has a full-time, 40 hours a week job, like a “normal” person, Monday through Friday. She got this full-time job after meeting the company’s owner at a local restaurant where she used to waitress during lunch. He was a regular customer, and I imagine was impressed by Liz’s tenacious work ethic and determination. She told me once she would talk to him often of her horses and her struggle to find affordable healthcare while trying to reach her dream to become a professional rider.

When Liz finally did land that full time job with benefits, it was a dream come true. Liz was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 14. She is hooked up to an insulin pump 24/7. I remember last year I got a call from Ellie; “Liz fell off Harry during a hack and is being flown to UVA hospital!” I had just moved into town and rushed to meet her in the ER. While on the hack, Liz’s blood sugar began to drop drastically. She could tell something was wrong and tried to gallop home but fainted before she could make it. A neighbor found her unconscious in a field. As a rider, you know this is a very scary thought. Luckily, she sustained no injuries from the fall, and ended up being fine after treatment in the ER. If I remember correctly, she was back out riding the next day. And I think even had a show that weekend …

I was able to board my leased horse Rocco with the Rileys last winter, during a time when it was dark by 4 p.m. and below 30 degrees. (Did I mention I’m from California?) But there was Liz riding in her outdoor arena, on the one 20-meter circle that hadn’t frozen over, until almost 8 p.m. every night. There were days after working 10 hours that I was just mentally fried, and the last thing I wanted to do was drive 30 minutes to ride in the dark with cold, numb toes in the stirrups. Seeing Liz do it every night, four times a night, made me feel like a whiney brat. She really is an inspiration and works so hard in order to compete. I asked her recently how she makes time every day after work to go out and ride and still manages to meet us in town for a late night cocktail. “I love to compete, and I know if I don’t go out there and ride every day, then I can’t compete.”

In 2012, at Fair Hill’s fall event, Ellie and I followed Liz to Maryland to help her while she competed her homebred gelding It’s The Truth, AKA Tom, in the  CCI2*. Those jumps were big. Real big. It was my first time at an international event on the East Coast. In California, we run cross country on dirt, and it is flat for the most part, unless we dig out a hole or build a bank. I decided on that day that I would be fine riding at the Novice level for the rest of my life. Even Mum seemed a little hesitant. But Liz is fearless. She trusts her partner and knows him well. And she did it right by completing two Advanced trials with Tom prior to this big event. Oh, and by the way, those were her first rides at the Advanced level, but you could have fooled me.

In 2012, the USEA named Liz the Adult Amateur Preliminary Rider of the Year, as well as third-ranked Adult Amateur Intermediate Rider, 10th-ranked Adult Amateur Advanced Rider and fifth-ranked Overall Adult Amateur Rider in the U.S. She completed 30 horse trials in 2013 on five different horses. I’m not that great at math (equine science major), but that is a lot of entry fees for a 28-year-old amateur.  Three of her mounts are homebred and owned by herself and Anne: Infinite Truth, who completed his first CIC2* last fall at Virginia, finishing eighth out of 17; Phineas Flynn who completed a very successful first year of competing, moving from Novice to Training; and, of course, Tom who had his ups and downs last season but showed in the ribbons at both the Advanced and Intermediate level.

Liz has by far been an inspiration to me. I have had my ups and downs since making the long move across the country alone to ride horses. (Did I mention I am in my 30s?) Ironically, I am currently horseless. In just a year, I have watched Liz overcome obstacles in both her health and her horses’ health, work a full-time job, all while being an active AND successful competitor in highly competitive Area II. I often think to myself, “If Liz can do it, I can do it,” and though that statement is not technically realistic, it keeps me working toward someday completing that second recognized horse trial. She told me once that when Tom was first born, she said to her Mum, “This is going to be my Rolex horse,” and I personally can’t WAIT to be a Team Tom groom at Rolex!

Go Eventing. And Go Amateurs.

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