By Britney Grover
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Allison “Ali” Brock doesn’t let limitations stop her. She was attracted to horses from the beginning, despite no family connection to horses; she worked to pay for her own riding from 12 years old, and left home at 17 to pursue equestrian excellence after going as far as she could in her island home of Hawaii. She learned how to be invaluable as a teammate and worked her way up to assisting Olympian Sue Blinks, and also paved her own way to dressage success as an Olympian herself, helping the U.S. team earn bronze in Rio 2016 — the first U.S. dressage Olympic medal in 12 years.
Ali knows how to push past doubt, forge opportunities and become the very best. Now, she’s using her skills and experience to help others make that same journey, both as a trainer and as a partner with US Equestrian.
A Solid Start
Ali’s interest in horses showed itself before she can remember. “My parents have a photo of me as a 6-month-old baby sitting on a horse,” she said. “They went to visit friends out in Kauai and put me on a horse, and I was absolutely smiling. There was just some attraction early on that, clearly, was a very real thing and it stuck.”
In the beginning, Ali’s parents provided for her riding. But by the time she turned 12, they decided she had to work it out herself. “They were very good about dropping me off at the barn and picking me up, but I had to figure out my own gig to ride. It was a good thing: At the end of the day, it set me up to be very hardworking, responsible for myself and resourceful.”
Despite the inherent limitations of living in Hawaii, Ali had good early training. “I had a really varied education,” Ali said. “I was heavily involved in Pony Club, I jumped, I rode dressage, I rode western — it was great. We were very lucky; there were a lot of really good professionals that kept us all in line. Something was working well because when I was growing up, there were probably 18 of us kids riding and something like five or six of us grew up to be professionals. From an island, that’s really unusual.”
In fact, Ali is the second U.S. dressage Olympian originally from Hawaii: Sandy Pflueger competed on the 1984 team. Ali began riding dressage at an unusually young age. “I can remember the first time I was on a horse that could do a real extended trot — the exhilaration and the joy from experiencing that,” she recalled. “Dressage is so, so technical. There’s so much to it, and it’s hard.”
By the time she was 17, Ali knew she wanted to make horses her career, and to be the very best — but that also meant leaving home. “I knew I had to,” she said. “I knew that I had to be willing to take risks and put myself out of my comfort zone. I knew that I had to go put myself in a position to be around some of the best in the country to figure out where I stood. That was a big reason why I left; I knew I wouldn’t have the opportunities or get the type of training I was so craving if I had stayed in my comfort zone in Hawaii.”
The Squeaky Wheel
Things would have been very different for both Ali and U.S. dressage if it weren’t for a little help from fate when Ali was looking to take the next step. She was considering going into reining instead of dressage when she got a job in Arizona with Colter Slocum, a dressage trainer who had moved there from Hawaii. From there, she continued to hone her skills both as a rider and as a working student.
“If you want to be excellent, you have to put yourself in a position to be mentored and exposed to and trained by people who are themselves excellent,” she shared. “That will elevate your standard through the sheer exposure. Kids ask me all the time, ‘How do you get in with someone like that?’ and I tell them you have to be the squeaky wheel that gets the grease: Just because someone says no the first time doesn’t mean they’ll say no in six months. The bottom line is that it’s up to you to put yourself in that position to make it so that they know you really want it bad. You have to work harder, make yourself more available, be indispensable, learn how to be the best possible team player. That’s how doors start to fly open for you.”
Ali learned that herself as she moved from barn to barn as a working student: to Texas with Jim Eldridge and Missouri with Linda Landers, then to Wellington, Florida, with Lauren Sammis and ultimately Sue Blinks in 2002, after she and Flim Flam earned team bronze at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. Little did Ali know that standing on the podium to receive an Olympic medal was in her own future.
Ali developed her first FEI horse while working with Sue, and began training in Wellington. When Sue moved west in 2004, her sponsors, Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, offered Ali the job as head trainer of Deer Meadow Farm — where she’s been ever since while continuing to learn and develop, including a year in Sweden with Jan Brink and another year in England with Kyra Kyrklund and Richard White.
The hard work, perseverance and determination Ali had been honing her entire life was put to the test — and rewarded — with Rosevelt, a 2002 Hanoverian stallion owned by the Kundruns. Ali and Rosevelt first began competing small tour in 2010, developing their relationship in both Europe and the U.S. In 2013, they began competing Grand Prix, gaining momentum like FEI Nations Cup victories in Wellington and France to ultimately be named to the U.S. team for the 2016 Olympics. Ali and Rosevelt headed to Rio coached by Michael Barisone, with whom Ali has trained since 2010. In their final competition together, Ali and Rosevelt helped the U.S. to team bronze.
Hot off her Olympic success, Ali was anxious to get back to the ring. “After the Olympics I thought initially that I wanted to go on with a strong momentum and try to get on another team, but my perspective changed,” she said. “I’m more interested now in helping other people go on that journey. That’s been a very different place to be, because I spent the last 20 years trying to get there, and then I got there and went, ‘You know what, maybe I don’t need to do this again; maybe what I need to do is help other people get there, to be part of their journey.’”
Helping on the Path
To that end, Ali is helping not just her own students but U.S. riders through US Equestrian. She was elected Equestrian Representative for the Athletes Advisory Council, a go-between for the U.S. Olympic Committee, the athletes and US Equestrian. That put her on the US Equestrian board, and she also dedicates time on many committees. “With everything I’ve been able to do, I’m also trying to serve and give back a little bit,” Ali said. “It’s been good for me, too. I’ve learned quite a bit being in this position and have been exposed to a lot of things I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I had only stayed riding.”
The latest development in Ali’s role with US Equestrian is as part of the pilot U.S. Dressage Coaches Support Network, where she will provide support primarily to Youth Coach George Williams.
At Deer Meadow Farm, she’s helping to mentor their next developing rider, Kya Endreson, who won the 2011 National Junior Dressage Championship. “We’re pushing her forward hoping to build another Olympian,” Ali said. “The Kundruns have managed to produce two of them, Sue Blinks and myself, which is an epic accomplishment for American owners. We feel strongly that yes, it takes a long time, but we do have a system that seems to work. We believe in her and will help her on her journey, no matter what that ends up looking like.”
Ali also has a few working students, and supports youth dressage programs such as Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids, which she feels is key to continuing the momentum of U.S. dressage success — creating lifelong riders. Ali still has family in Hawaii, but she’s based in Wellington now where she rides a couple of horses every day.
Rosevelt is living his promised retirement as a breeding stallion in Virginia where he’s allowed to get as dirty as he’d like in the pastures. “He’s still a celebrity and everybody that walks into the breeding barn knows who he is, and he hams it up real good,” Ali said fondly. “I think he’s pretty okay with it all.”
And Ali’s happy with where she is — and that she chose dressage. “When you really have a horse that’s hooked into you and you’re hooked into them, I still think there’s nothing like it,” she said, and she knows that’s part of what it takes to get to the top. “It’s being in the right place at the right time with the right horse. A lot of that fell into place for me with Rosevelt, and I’m incredibly grateful. It’s a very special thing.”
Photos by Isabel J. Kurek, unless noted otherwise