By Britney Grover
Portraits by Lori Ovanessian
As a top eventer in the U.S., Tamra “Tamie” Smith had just as much reason as anyone to be disappointed when the 2020 Kentucky Land Rover Three-Day Event — along with so many other competitions around the world — was cancelled and the Olympics postponed. “After my horse was injured leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, it was devastating to be so close and now have it all disappear,” she said. “To be back at this point, where he’s feeling stronger and better than ever, and have the Olympics postponed was gutting. But as they say, you have to roll with the punches. I’m getting used to that and becoming quite good at it.”
In such an unprecedented time, it can be hard to imagine what the future holds, but Tamie is focused on the positive. “Having Land Rover Kentucky 5* cancelled was another disappointment, but we have bigger issues than Olympic Games and horse shows, she said. “Our world is dealing with a pandemic and although it’s easy to get caught up in my personal disappointment, I have to put things into perspective. It’s important to remember that training smart is more important than ever before, and giving our team another year to become better only helps us. We have a strong group that’s just on the brink of becoming unstoppable, and I think the extra time to prepare will serve us well.”
Her outlook is no surprise: Tamie’s focus isn’t just what gets her around the world’s most challenging cross-country courses, such as the Pan American Games in Lima last summer, it’s what has kept her riding and overcoming challenges to become a top-level competitor. Her characteristic drive has, through many uncertain times of her own, helped her turn trials into triumphs and those triumphs into stepping stones towards a future brighter than she ever imagined.
Nothing Like Eventing
Tamie’s introduction to riding had surprisingly little to do with an attraction to the horses themselves. “I was actually taking dance lessons and my mom was taking riding lessons, but I wanted to ride because my mom was riding,” she remembered. “I was 7 years old at the time. My mom said as soon as I could ride my horse, Brandy, around the block and I was 8 years old, I could start riding lessons. I remember I liked the boots you got to wear, so I thought it would make me look quite posh if I got to wear the outfit.”
The outfit was soon forgotten as an unyielding passion for riding took over. She grew up eventing with Kim Scheid in Temecula, California, and met dressage trainer Martina Stimmel, daughter of USEF judge Marcie Stimmel, when she was 13. Martina helped put a solid foundation under Tamie in pure dressage; Tamie was able to ride Martina’s grand prix horses and learn what that felt like, a valuable experience Tamie remains grateful for.
Then, Tamie went to work for Australian trainer Allen Clarke, who worked with difficult horses — mostly top show jumpers. “I learned how to think more like a horse and also gained experience jumping big jumps, focusing more on my mental game than anything,” Tamie said. “Allen was a stickler for body position and always thinking while riding.”
Tamie took all her experience with her when she turned back to the sport she loved and the down-to-earth family atmosphere of eventing. “After dabbling in dressage and show jumping, there was nothing like the feeling of galloping down to big cross-country fences,” she said. “The partnership you have with an eventing horse is like no other. The relationship is so solidified because you have virtually no control of what your horse decides when it comes to a combination: You have to be so prepared and practiced, almost answering each other’s questions. It’s a special partnership.”
That special partnership was what kept Tamie riding through the unexpected twists and turns of life, including being a young single mother — while maintaining her riding and pursuing a serious career in business. Riding as a professional wasn’t what she envisioned for herself: Tamie always imagined running a corporation. She had a great mentor who encouraged her to get her business degree, and the company she worked for at the time helped pay her way through school. “It was what I always wanted to do,” Tamie said. “I never imagined I’d be a CEO of my own company in horses.”
Giving it All
How did Tamie balance horses, a career and being a single mom? “I’m not sure,” she replied, pondering. “Being naïve I think helped — but mostly being driven was probably the ingredient that helped the most. I didn’t realize the effort I put in was beyond what most would. But that’s what it takes.”
Someone once asked Tamie what it takes to be a top-level rider, and her reply was it takes all you’ve got. With family and good friends to help with baby Kaylawna, Tamie continued to work, earned her degree and even rode on a small scale for Terry and Linda Paine of KingsWay Farm in Temecula. In hindsight, the challenge of raising a child at that time of her life wasn’t just something to overcome: It was formative.
“I’m grateful I was a young parent now that I look back,” Tamie said. “It helped me focus, understand priorities and value my time. I feel that isn’t something we truly know until we’re older or become parents. I think balance separates good competitors from being a great competitor. When you have children, you don’t have a choice: You have to keep things in perspective. You can’t become obsessive or unfocused. It’s a great check and balance routine.”
Kaylawna was young and Tamie was working at an escrow office when a coworker introduced Tamie to her brother, Dave Smith. As a single mom who didn’t go out much, and never at night, Tamie insisted her friend join her and Dave on their first date — luckily, Dave wasn’t too put off either by the third wheel or Tamie’s four-legged interest.
“Dave’s five sisters and brother all grew up with horses,” Tamie said. “Dave was the only one in the family who didn’t think horses were cool; he actually thought the contrary as one of his sisters would get bucked off, stepped on or ran off with on a daily basis. He couldn’t understand the obsession with an animal that randomly slams on the brakes or becomes fast out of the blue and you fall off. It’s ironic because his hobby is spear fishing, which to me seems much more dangerous.”
Nevertheless, growing up with horse-crazy sisters prepared Dave to accept horses as a part of Tamie’s life. They were married, giving Tamie an unconditional supporter that helped launch her riding. If it weren’t for Dave, Tamie may never have started Next Level Eventing — though neither of them imagined just how far it would go.
After the birth of their son, Tyler, Dave suggested Tamie turn professional so that the kids could be at the barn with her every day instead of growing up in daycare. “His support has meant everything to me and my career,” Tamie said. “I don’t think he ever thought it would turn out the way it did; he actually told me once when our kids were little that he thought I would grow out of the horses. So when he said, ‘You should become a professional,’ he thought I’d be just teaching and riding on a very small scale. Little did he know….”
Sixteen years later, Tamie is one of the top-ranked U.S. eventers and has won many top competitions including national championships and team gold at the 2019 Pan American Games. And Dave isn’t the only one who has stood behind Tamie and her dream.
In 2012, Tamie received the Rebecca Broussard Developing Rider Grant, given to riders with the talent and work ethic to benefit eventing but who just need a leg up to get to the top. “I was in shock,” Tamie said. “I honestly had no clue anyone thought I had the ability to make it in this sport until that grant. It sparked a belief and drive in me I didn’t know was possible, and I was on a mission more than ever.”
Tamie’s career really began to take off from there. She received the Rebecca Broussard International Grant in 2015 which, with the support of owners and the eventing community through a fundraiser, allowed Tamie and three horses to spend three and a half months competing in Europe. “It was truly career-changing,” Tamie summarized.
Tamie feels her career has now come full circle: Last year, Next Level Eventing moved to Terry and Linda Paine’s KingsWay Farm in Temecula. Once, Tamie rode for Terry and Linda on a small scale, riding whatever horses she could, raising a baby girl on her own and uncertain of what the future held. Now, Tamie has a string of eight to 12 horses from babies to top advanced competitors, a slew of ribbons and medals from around the world and her sights set on someday winning the Kentucky Three-Day and representing the U.S. at the Olympics.
Making an Impact
Having their own cross-country course and being next door to Galway Downs Equestrian Center has been a “game changer” for Tamie and her horses, as well as having access to a gallop to help get the horses stronger and more fit. In addition to her Pan Am Games and national champion mount Mai Baum, her top horses include Fleeceworks Royal, EnVogue and Danito. “They’re all completely different from each other so it can be challenging for me to focus on each ride, but I’ve learned that mental focus is the primary ingredient to success,” Tamie shared. “Without it, it’s likely not going to happen.”
For Tamie, “success” isn’t limited to horseback: She gets just as much, if not more, satisfaction out of watching her children achieve their own successes. Though Tyler never rode again after a horse spooked and cantered with him aboard, he found his passion elsewhere. Now 16 and 6 foot 5, he’s awesome at basketball and a great student, Tamie says.
In February, Kaylawna was selected to participate in the 2020 USEF Eventing 25 Emerging Athlete Program, and is herself a budding young professional. “Watching Kaylawna ride is so rewarding,” Tamie said. “She is light years better than I ever was at her age, and not only is she an amazing rider but she’s an amazing human. She has a thriving business and a good string of horses that she’s produced, and that’s the biggest accomplishment of any ribbon or medal: When your kid actually is thriving and successful, that is the true proof of someone’s success.”
Kaylawna feels fortunate to compete and train with her mom day in and day out. “She’s one of the best so having her on and by my side through it all is priceless,” Kaylawna said. “My mom pushes me to be the best. In business and riding. We are family and, of course, we can have our mother-daughter moments but all in all we’re there for each other and always will be 100 percent.”
At home in California, the Smiths have a Boxer named Diesel, a French Bulldog named Willie (or Will Smith), and a cat named Callie, in addition to Dave’s assortment of aquarium fish. When Tamie travels, Will is her sidekick while Diesel and Callie are “best buddies” at home.
Despite her accomplishments, Tamie isn’t finished yet. “I still feel like I have so much more to achieve before I consider myself successful,” she said. “I’m always surprised when someone asks for my autograph, or wants a picture with me. It’s odd to feel like people look up to you, but if I can make an impact on someone then I feel like I’m giving back to the sport.”
And in the end, that’s what she wants to do while she continues to pursue her own dreams. “It’s important to me to help people know that if they work hard enough and stay true and honest,” Tamie said, “they can achieve so much more than they ever imagined.”
For more information, visit nextleveleventing.com/
Photos by Lori Ovanessian, simpleefocused.com, unless noted otherwise