By Liz Halliday-Sharp
What advice would you give the younger generation of aspiring event riders?
This is a question that I get asked a lot, actually, and while our sport has changed and developed through the years, I believe that the personal fight within those that are successful has always remained the same.
When I first moved to England to be a working student/groom for William Fox-Pitt, I had just turned 21 and was attending UCSB in California. I had never been a groom before, I had almost never competed outside of California, and to say that I was inexperienced was an understatement! I moved from California to England in January and quickly learned what British winter was all about: Not only was it cold, wet and dark, but I didn’t have a clue what I was doing or what most of the British horse terminology was. This was the ultimate baptism of fire for a relatively soft California girl, but looking back, I really believe it was the making of who I am today.
The days were long and the work was hard, and I was told by William’s head groom every day that I wasn’t fast enough and that I wasn’t doing things right. Because I knew I wasn’t quick enough, I started arriving for work early, began afternoon chores before the others, offered to do jobs outside of work hours and found myself running, rather than walking, between tasks on the farm to try and be more efficient. There were certainly many days that I wanted to give up and go home, but I’m so glad that I stuck it out. I think my time with William and his team helped to make me tough, and instilled the work ethic that I have today. I learned so much about every aspect of the sport from him. I have endless respect for William as a horseman and an athlete, and I still consider him a great friend and mentor to this day.
My reason for this story is that I truly believe that anyone who aspires to be a top event rider must have a fundamental desire to learn and succeed, and they should be prepared to do whatever it takes to gets there. I would also encourage the younger riders to try and put themselves out there as a working student or similar, be prepared to work hard with an open mind and be ready to accept criticism. I don’t think that I was ever a particularly good groom, and of course my main desire was always to ride, but I had to work my way up from the bottom to the top and do all of the hard jobs in between. I am still striving to improve each day. You must want to do this sport for yourself, and only you can really push yourself to be better. I also believe that you can never stop learning, and if your goal is to be a professional in eventing, then you should try to learn everything that you can from those that are successful around you. Never be afraid of hard work and the struggle.
What are the main things that you look for in a young event horse?
Through the years, I have always enjoyed producing young horses, and many of my current top rides were originally sourced as 4- or 5-year-olds and began their eventing career with me. I will say that during this journey, I have made plenty of bad choices along with the good ones, and I feel that this has helped to shape my criteria today.
Personality is important, and I think it’s essential to have a horse that wants to learn and enjoys his job. Of course, every horse is an individual, just like we are, and many talented horses are quirky and complex—but they must still have a desire to work with you.
Natural athleticism is another key point that I look for. I want young horses to be light on their feet, and this is one of the main things that I notice when I see them being ridden for the first time. I always take note if they sound heavy on the floor, both on the flat and landing off of a jump. Under saddle they must also feel like they have natural balance, a desire to go forward, and that they travel and jump in a way that is not too hard on themselves.
Good feet and conformation—this is important! We must always think about longevity for the future, and if the horse is suited to the job that they will be asked to do.
Liz competing Shanroe Cooley, Preliminary and 6-Year-Old Horse of the Year.
Photo by Shannon Brinkman