The Debrief: Allie Knowles on Pau and the Pursuit of Balance

Welcome to The Debrief, where we’ll recap the experience of a rider following a big result or otherwise memorable competition.

For Allie Knowles, Les 5 Étoiles de Pau was one such competition. While Allie has been overseas several times to events like Bramham, Burghley, and Pau, this was her first time at the French CCI5* aboard Katherine and Jim O’Brien’s Morswood (Ricardo x Princess in Arms by Present Arms). Barn name, “Ginge,” it’s clear that Allie and the little Irish Sport Horse’s relationship runs deep.

I caught up with Allie to talk to her all about Pau and discuss her plans for the off season.

Allie is sponsored by World Equestrian Brands, who also supported this article. When I asked Allie what her favorite World Equestrian Brands’ product was, she said she loves all of their tack, but the one thing close to her heart was the Amerigo leather care line. “That leather grease, man. I couldn’t live without it. It’s part of my daily routine, probably much to [World Equestrian Brands owner Robin Moore’s] chagrin as she says I use it too much! But I just love it.”

Allie Knowles and Morswood. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Describe your partnership with Morswood. What’s his personality like?

He’s a small, red pony. I’ve had him for around five years now. We got him from Piggy March and at the time Susie Berry was riding him in the Young Riders. This is now my fifth five star on him and I think he’s exceeded everyone’s expectations. I’m not sure that anybody would have guessed he would have been this reliable of a five star horse.

But he’s just been a total partner. He’s a real dude. He doesn’t always love dressage, but he gives us his best. We have our weaknesses, which has always been show jumping and sometimes it catches us out and sometimes it doesn’t. But he is an out and out amazing cross country horse and I have learned a lot from him.

He’s a harmless nuisance of a pony, but just in the cutest way. He’s all up in your business and he’s going to be pushy. If he can open a door, he will open it. We have a joke that he’s not allowed to keep all four feet in the stall because he will put just his front feet outside of his open stall door and then just stand there and he won’t go any further. He’s just a funny, funny character.

Why choose Pau?

It was a series of unfortunate events really. This spring, I was hoping to go to Kentucky and then Burghley. But I fell at Kentucky and then Ginge developed an abscess during Bromont, so I had to withdraw from that, meaning that we missed the spring season. So then I decided I couldn’t take him to Burghley on that. I rerouted to Montana which was awesome, it was great to be back there. So, he’s sort of low-key gone all year, but not done a whole lot.

I just thought, let’s do something different. I’ve done Maryland, I’ve done Kentucky. Let’s get some more experience. And Pau was a great option. I loved it when I went last time and hopefully I’ll be back to go again soon.

Allie Knowles and Morswood. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

How did you prepare for Pau?

Because he had such a light spring, we did Montana and then we did the American Eventing Championships, which would typically be a little bit closer than I would probably run those two events. But he has been just an unbelievably sound, low maintenance horse. Knock on wood. He has just been a trooper. He doesn’t get very taxed from traveling. He’s just a very easy, cool customer. I actually ran him Intermediate before Pau just as a little bit of a fitness run, a little bit of a fun run. Then at that point I kind of felt like okay, we’re fit, we’re ready to go.

And then unfortunately, my mom got sick, so I had to go to California to be with my mom and I left the week prior to Ginge leaving for Pau. He left for France with my groom the day after I got back from California. I didn’t actually ride him much that last month before Pau because of traveling and such.

But you know, I felt very confident that what training was done was done. Any additional riding could only make it worse at that point – only make him more sore or more tired.

At the event, I was super happy with how he felt and I was very happy with my performance overall. There were plenty of tired horses. He wasn’t one of them. He thought the whole thing was just fun. There’s always things I wish I could change, but overall, I felt like it was very successful.

What was your number one goal for Pau?

Finish for one. Jump clean for two. And then finish as fast as you can for three.

I accomplished two of those three, so I can’t be too disappointed. And I’m certainly not at all disappointed with him. I will just continue to try to be bolder and braver with my decisions and not be afraid of a negative outcome.

Allie Knowles and Morswood. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

Describe the atmosphere at Pau.

The atmosphere was palpable. You literally felt like you were in this little bubble in the show jumping. He gets very claustrophobic and he needs a little bit of a specific ride in the show jumping and sometimes I have it and sometimes I don’t. With that small of a ring, with that many people on the sides, he just got a bit backed off and I needed to ride him more forward and I never quite got there. I think more than anything he was a bit overwhelmed by all the people and I was probably the same.

How did you feel after such a big event?

I am thankful that I can at least see the good this time, because there’s a lot of pressure that we put on ourselves as five star riders or professional riders at any level, that there’s never a result that’s good enough, unless you’ve won. We all think that we should have been better here or there, whatever. And this time, of course I did want to win and I didn’t walk away feeling like, ‘Oh man, I nailed that.’ But at least I can take more good away from it than I have been able to in the past.

If you can see it through someone else’s eyes, you can appreciate it more. Like Cosby– it was her first five star and I was out of my mind proud of her. And I had a very similar result overall to her, but I can see so many positives for her and fewer for myself. But just because you’ve done this before doesn’t mean it’s a lesser achievement. It’s just a different achievement.

How do you debrief yourself after these events?

Most of the time I’ll watch videos of myself, but this time it was mostly just for fun, rather than to be critical. You know, just to relive the good stuff.

Describe your feelings after finishing cross country in one sentence.

Why did you go so slow?

I wish I had a more positive answer, but I want to be different. I want to be a different level of rider and so I’m going to have to keep trying because it’s obviously really hard for me on the speed side to just be faster.

What is one thing you learned about yourself that weekend? What did you learn about your horse?

I’m going to say nothing. You know, it was a nice re-affirmation that my horse adores the sport and lives for this. That’s always such a great feeling. I like to feel like ‘Oh, he’s better than ever. He loves this more than ever.’ And it really reaffirmed our deep love for each other. We want to do this together and we enjoy this regardless of the outcome. We are happy doing it as a team.

And it’s the same feeling for me. It reaffirmed that this is what I want to do. This is what I wanted to spend my time and my money and my effort on. This really is the dream and I am actually physically living the dream. And not that many people are lucky enough to say that that’s what they do for a job. Going out of the country somehow repositions it in a different light, where you’re like, ‘Wow, this is actually what I do for a living. I get to go to France and compete my horse for lovely owners that have my back through and through.’ It’s astounding that this is what we were all hoping to do one day, and here I am, actually doing it. I didn’t get to go to Europe just once, but here I am again. Taking multiple horses to multiple five stars. Not too many people get lucky enough to live that dream.

What would you say has been most crucial to the success of your career?

I wouldn’t be doing it without my team. I wouldn’t be able to. I literally could not ask for a better team. I am so lucky to have these owners and everything that comes with them, which is their farm and my students and their horses.This wouldn’t be possible without them and I have such deep appreciation for Katherine and Jim O’Brien.

Describe your mindset going into the off season. What do you like to do when you’re not competing?

Since the season’s over, let’s just take a break and regain whatever we lose during the season, which is usually inspiration. And this year, I was lucky enough to not be as burnt out as I have been in the past. Sometimes you’re more burnt out than others and this time I had a great season. I had a great year. I enjoyed my horses and my owners and my staff and so I was not feeling quite as fatigued, emotionally and mentally, as I sometimes have.

I’ve taught lessons, I’ve ridden the babies, and now I’m taking the girls to lunch. I have more time with my daughter. I have all the things that we wish we had when we’re going flat out in the middle of the competition season.

Anything that I don’t have time for during the season, I try to do now so that I’m not feeling like I’m wasting my time on either side. That way when I’m in the thick of competition, I can be focused on that and know that I’ve put in the family time during the off season. And then I also won’t feel bad about not riding so much during the off season because I’m doing the family thing, which is also necessary. It’s just trying to try to find the balance.

I don’t think there’s enough discussion about balance in our sport. The overall mindset is generally, one more weekend, one more trip, one more show, one more lesson, one more ride and all that. It wears a lot of people out.

Allie Knowles and Morswood. Photo by Tilly Berendt.

If you could talk to your younger self, what advice would you give her?

Just keep going. Just keep going. Keep trying. That’s literally it. Eventing is a game of consistency and determination. There’s no great rider that hasn’t broken some bones and wondered, ‘What on Earth are we doing here? Why am I trying so hard?’ and ‘What are we doing this for? How am I ever gonna be good enough to get there?’

Really, you just have to stand up and do it again. And again. And again. And again. Eventually, you look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, I am beyond where I thought I could be.’ Appreciate what you do have and if there’s more that you want, then you’re going to have to get up again because you’re gonna fall off again. And unfortunately another horse is gonna get hurt or another heartbreak will happen. This is a hard life that we’ve chosen. So the only way to get there is to keep trying. Showing up counts for a whole lot.

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