By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Maddy Falkowitz
Walt Disney said, “Believe in your dreams, no matter how impossible they seem.” A horse lover from her elementary school days, Courtney Sloan always dreamed of one day having a horse of her own to love and spoil.
While Courtney grew up in the barn and had ponies and horses available to ride via leases and catch riding, she always hoped to have the stability she associated with horse ownership. “There was a period of time when each of the horses and ponies I was riding slowly got pulled out from under me,” Courtney said.
“I knew owning a horse would remain a pipe dream until I could afford to make it happen myself. My parents had made it clear from the start that I, along with the horses, were off their payroll as soon as I walked across the stage to receive my college diploma,” Courtney said. “As a financially independent entry-level career professional, I knew I wouldn’t have the funds to buy or even lease anything right off the bat.”
What Courtney thought would take years to achieve post graduation happened within mere months thanks to the relationships she formed while a member of Goucher College’s Equestrian Team. During her time at Goucher, Courtney had the opportunity to ride a horse donated to the team named Colorado Z. Although he had found a home at the college, Z was better suited to being a one-person horse. Fate and being at the right place at the right time worked to Z’s and Courtney’s benefit.
Courtney was introduced to horses by her childhood best friend, Molly, who took weekly lessons and went to summer camp at Woodlawn Stables. “Molly invited me to come to her show at the end of her camp. After I watched her ride, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to sit on a horse,” Courtney said.
Luckily Courtney didn’t have to wait too long to get that opportunity. Later that summer, Courtney, her brother and mother went to Poland to visit family. “Thanks to a kind family friend, who owned therapeutic riding horses, I was able to ride one of her horses around bareback,” Courtney said. “I was totally hooked after that!”
As soon as they returned to Virginia, Courtney started campaigning her parents to enroll her in riding lessons. For the next five years, she got her horse fix at Woodlawn Stables via a week of summer camp and riding lessons that started weekly and then increased to twice weekly.
At 13, Courtney first experienced the thrill of competing at the in-house horse shows at Woodlawn. After competing at a few home shows, Courtney discovered there was a whole other riding world out there, the ‘A’ circuit. “As soon as I learned about that side of the sport, I started watching as many videos as I could of the top Juniors and professionals. I was determined to learn everything I could about being an exceptional rider, even if I didn’t have the funds to compete at the top of the sport,” Courtney said.
After doing some research, Courtney found her first circuit trainer and began working with Jane Nordstrom. “With Jane, I had my first experience showing on the ‘A’ circuit with the horse I half leased. I couldn’t get enough of horses and the whole experience,” she said. “When I wasn’t riding, you’d find me watching the schooling ring at shows to observe other riders and trainers or submitting show photos to Judge My Ride, so I could improve my equitation.”
Unfortunately, when Courtney’s lease ended, she wasn’t able to quickly find another suitable lease. She went through a period of time where she would sit on anything she could, from former Grand Prix horses to green ponies. It was a great way to get experience riding different mounts; however, not having a dedicated horse of her own often left Courtney going for weeks without any saddle time.
Although she didn’t know when she’d get time in the saddle, Courtney was on the hunt for a new one. It was through saddle shopping that she found her current trainer, Kristin Magnum. “I went to her property to buy a saddle. I was so impressed with her facility and the caliber of her program that I instantly knew I wanted to train with her,” Courtney said. “We sat down to talk about my riding goals and started looking for a budget-friendly lease. That’s when we found Albee and everything started to slowly fall into place.”
With Albee and Kristin by her side, Courtney started showing in the Children’s Hunters and began looking to check items off her equestrian bucket list. “I qualified for the Washington International Horse Show and placed second in the Regional Finals, won a tricolor at Upperville, qualified for Junior Hunter Finals and finished 10th in the handy and even had the opportunity to show at the Winter Equestrian Festival and ribbon,” Courtney said.
In the fall of 2016, Courtney enrolled at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. Not only did Goucher have the majors Courtney was looking for—business management and psychology—they also had an IHSA team.
“I’m so thankful that IHSA provided an affordable way to continue to ride and compete throughout college,” Courtney said. “It was amazing to have the team horses stabled on campus. After years of spending an hour to commute to the barn multiple days a week, having the horses a 10-minute walk away was such a luxury.”
During Courtney’s spring semester of her freshman year, she met a tall, dark and handsome boy—of the equine variety—named Z. “When he was donated to Goucher, we were all so excited about him because he was so stunning. He was a quirky horse, so he was only ridden in a couple of the open and intermediate flat lessons. I was one of the select few advanced riders who was allowed to hack him outside of lessons,” she said.
After a few months in the program, it became clear Z wasn’t suited for team life. He didn’t like having different riders with varying styles sit on him. Quite frankly, it stressed him out.
Looking out for Z’s best interests, the coaches tried to find him a better forever home. However, he was like a boomerang. “I remember the first time he left campus for a trial, only to return a few days later. That same situation unfolded three or four more times over the course of the next two years. He’d leave for a few days, only to be back in his stall on campus after an unsuccessful trial,” Courtney said.
Courtney slowly found herself falling for Z. Each time he returned to Goucher, she’d ask if she could hack him outside of her team lessons. “I really adored him and knew his heart was in the right place from the start. He just needed someone who would give him a chance and be patient with him,” she said.
While loving on Z and being a member of the IHSA team, Courtney had breezed through her academic studies and prepared to graduate a semester early, in December 2019. As graduation crept up, Courtney couldn’t bear to leave Z behind at Goucher.
“After one of my last few lessons, I saw Z lunging in our outdoor ring and asked the head coach, Jen Smith, if they had any plans for him. She told me they didn’t, rehoming him had turned out to be quite the challenge,” Courtney said. “I asked if there’d be any chance I could buy him once I landed a job and figured out my finances. Jen’s eyes lit up, she told me I could take him free of charge and she’d be thrilled for him to come home with me.”
As soon as Courtney secured a job, she called Kristin to tell her about the opportunity she had with Z. “I told her Z’s story and that I knew how the phrase ‘free horse’ sounded, but that he was special and could be a super-cool horse with time and the right training. She let me know that she totally trusted my judgement and I’d always have a stall in her barn,” Courtney said.
Being 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic just getting started, it took a few months to sort out arrangements to bring Z home. In April 2020, Z officially became Courtney’s horse and moved to Virginia.
Courtney had her work cut out for her the first year she spent retraining Z. At 16 years old, he’d had many years perfecting his behavioral issues. “Many of my rides during that first year involved some kind of spooking, spinning, porpoise-ing or a combination of the three. I felt more like a rodeo rider than a hunter or equitation rider,” she said.
On some of his higher-anxiety days, Z and Courtney would simply walk around the ring to get him used to being calm. “To be honest, this level of going back to basics wasn’t what I expected when I took him. But I knew that even though this feels kind of boring and mundane, it’s in service of something greater,” she said. “I just kept reminding myself of that during some of our more difficult days.”
With Kristin’s help, Courtney went back to the basics with Z. They created a flatwork bootcamp, where he relearned how to move forward freely, maintain correct contact and stay between Courtney’s aids while being straight and supple. “Kristin kept me positive and motivated, celebrating the small wins. She appreciated the fact that I truly loved the process and that I wanted to do it right rather than a quick fix. That would have been like putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg,” Courtney said.
Although the process could be frustrating at times, Courtney felt Z came into her life at the right time. “I knew I couldn’t afford to pay his monthly expenses and go out and show regularly, so that took some of the timeline pressure off. I have the rest of my life to compete as an adult, so this was the ideal time to take on a project horse,” she said.
Two years into owning Z, Courtney noticed a massive transformation in his behavior. All of a sudden he trusted her more, on and off the ground, and his flatwork improved immensely. “He started trotting around forward and relaxed on the buckle, was able to extend and collect at each gait and we even started slowly integrating small jumps, which then turned into cantering the 2’ to 2’6” course,” Courtney said.
The change in Z has been so remarkable that some of the other clients and trainers at her barn have asked if he is the same horse she brought home in 2020. “It’s such an honor to hear those kinds of compliments. Today Z is so willing and wants to please. He has the biggest heart and loves his job now that he knows what to expect,” Courtney said.
In 2022, Courtney and Z checked another item off her equestrian bucket list: She showed her own horse at a local show. “I competed in the Hopeful Hunters with him and he pulled off second out of 15 in the hack. Then he won two pleasure classes to claim the division championship,” Courtney said. “I was so elated I almost cried that day. Never did I think I’d be so thrilled to jump around 2’ and hack in a pleasure division.”
Courtney isn’t just chasing her dreams in the saddle, she’s become a female entrepreneur as well. When she’s not at the barn, or at her nine-to-five as a marketing and project manager for the Careerstone Group, she’s doing work for her own Sloan Studio.
“Sloan Studio is my branding and website design business that helps transform woman-owned small businesses through minimalist design and transcendent strategy. During the pandemic, when we all ended up with extra time on our hands, I decided to put that time to good use and teach myself how to use Adobe Creative Cloud and became a self-taught brand designer,” Courtney said.
The extra money that Courtney makes from Sloan Studio helps support her riding and lifestyle. She admits there sometimes aren’t enough hours in the day to tackle everything. “It’s not always easy to balance everything, but it’s so worth it because it allows me to live a life I love without depending on someone else’s income to do so,” she said.
Being a self-funded horse owner has given Courtney a whole new perspective. “I truly don’t take any day I get to sit on Z for granted. A few weeks ago, I was riding around gazing at the sunset and thought to myself, This is what I dreamed about as a kid,” she said. “It’s even more special knowing that I made it happen for myself, both by financing and doing all the riding retraining on my own.”
Courtney’s proof that if you believe it, you can achieve it. She hopes other equestrians don’t let their present determine their future with horses. “Don’t give up! It might take years and a lot of hard work and determination, but with the right support system and mindset, I definitely believe anything can happen,” she said.
Follow Courtney on Instagram @courtneyssloan and @sloan.studio and visit Sloan Studio at sloanstudio.biz
Photos by Maddy Falkowitz, maddyfalkowitz.com and on Instagram @msf.photographyy