By Sarah Eakin
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Overcoming adversity goes with the territory for professionals in any equestrian discipline given the unpredictable nature of the beast. Three years ago, event rider Hannah Sue Burnett, now Hollberg, saw her career capsize after a fall—not while competing, but in the inauspicious circumstances of a dressage warm-up ring at an off-the-map horse trial.
“It was so stupid,” said Hannah, 35, who up to that point in her life had ridden everything from racehorses to ponies in the hunter ring—mounts previously unknown to her as a catch rider—and competed in Pony Club games, foxhunted and evented with minimal incident. The fateful day in question, she lost the ability to walk in the short term, and the consequences of the substantial injuries she sustained to her core muscles left a question mark over her future with horses.
“I fell off of a really nice horse,” she said. “I was just riding around. My friends were riding at Boekelo in Holland, so my groom was watching the live feed and telling me what was going on. I definitely wasn’t paying attention. He just bucked and I fell off kind of weird, and I landed on my upper thigh on my right side. I ended up doing a lot of soft tissue damage to my core.”
Fast forward three years and Hannah is back in the fray. Her recovery—hampered by initial misdiagnoses from two doctors—was engineered largely by two people. One of them was the U.S. team’s Dr. Mark Hart, who saw her using a walker and insisted she have much-needed surgery. The other was show jumper Matthias Hollberg, who was not only her trainer for the stadium jumping stage of eventing, but also her boyfriend. In January they became husband and wife.
“He was just so wonderful,” Hannah said. “Three months after the surgery, I was told I could ride and I did, but it was excruciating. I had no balance. I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to ride normally or competitively again. I was so depressed. I just cried all the time, because I didn’t think it was going to be okay and Matt was so patient and understanding—and there for me. Any time I wanted to get off, he would ride for me. It was pretty incredible to come back from that place, because I didn’t think I was going to. He saved me.”
From her early days, Hannah has been fortunate in having paramount support from others. Her mother, Sue, a horse trainer based in Kentucky, launched her on the equestrian path by “finding me just about anything she could get me into with horses,” Hannah said. As a result, she hot-walked horses at Churchill Downs, galloped horses for Elliott Walden, now of WinStar Farm fame, and through him, she did the same for Niall Brennan in Ocala. “He’s got a huge farm down there,” Hannah said. “And I rode tons of 2-year-olds. I really enjoyed it but it would definitely be the edge of my bravery on a daily basis. It’s kind of dangerous, they are so young and unbalanced and wild.”
The lessons she learned were invaluable. “It was good for me,” Hannah said. “You train the muscles you need to slow a horse down and learn the way to do it when they’re running off with you.”
Hannah was, in any case, no stranger to a runaway. Her first memory of being on a horse was of falling off it. “I remember the first time I fell off,” she said. “I was really young and I had this pony named Moonbeam—she was like a beam of light. She would run off with me all the time. She ran off with me on this hill and I fell off. My mum always made me get back on—there was never any question.”
She also had Moonbeam’s brother, Typhoon, who had his own quirk. “He was my games pony and he bucked. So we had a bucker and a bolter.”
Learning to ride on anything and everything was an initiation to which Hannah attributes her success in eventing to date. “I loved riding Pony Hunters,” she said. “I would school the ponies for the kids that would fly in and go to the shows. I had so much fun, but I didn’t really want to do that for a career.” She wanted more excitement, and eventing was where she chose to find it. At 13, Hannah picked out a horse from an ad: Keep The Faith, a significant climb going from a 14.2-hand pony to the 16.2-hand Thoroughbred.
Seven years later, Keep The Faith became Hannah’s first Kentucky Three-Day Event horse. She competed in her first three-star with Keep The Faith in 2006 and the following year her first four-star at the Kentucky Horse Park.
From 2008 to 2011, Hannah worked for her trainers Karen and David O’Connor, during which time she rode St. Barths, with whom she won the USEF National CCI2* Championship at Fair Hill and the USEF National CCI3* Championship in 2010. In 2011 the combination was eighth at Lexington.
She has also enjoyed support from equestrian benefactor Jacqueline Mars and her daughter, Christa Schmidt. “I have ridden for Jacqueline since 2008,” Hannah said. “A lot of horses that I have now, Christa either owns or co-owns with her mother. Mrs. Mars’ support is the reason I’m able to compete at the top levels. Christa and her mom have stayed by my side through many difficult times and I’m working hard to make it worth it for them!”
Hannah was silver medalist at the Pan Am Games in 2011 aboard Jacqueline’s Harbor Pilot, where she also claimed gold with the U.S. team. “He has taken me all over the world,” Hannah said of the 19-year-old Irish Sport Horse by Cruising out of a Thoroughbred mare. “We’ve been to France and England and Germany, Mexico, Canada. Basically, he made my career what it is. He did the five-star at Kentucky this year and finished, and he was amazing. He would be the highlight of my career.”
Hannah’s husband, aside from bringing her back from the brink of injury, has also featured heavily in her training. When Hannah chose him—on recommendation—as her show jumping coach, not only did she meet her future husband but she also discovered simplicity provides success.
“His main goal is to just produce good riders, to teach you to ride horses well and practice really good riding. Flatwork is 100% the base of it and the jumping just comes from there,” she said. “It’s hard work, but it’s also simple. I was just amazed at how good my horses were jumping. I thought, Wait a second, I just get them to a normal distance and keep my leg on and that’s it? They just started jumping better and better. He has taken my show jumping to the next level.”
Hannah also found a key person to help her with her cross-country: the legendary British event rider Lucinda Green. “She makes all these exercises really tricky and she never tells you the distances, and often she doesn’t walk the distances—she just throws the rails out and you just have to ride by real instinct,” Hannah said. “I felt like I hadn’t practiced that in a decade, and it just really changed my thought process and my confidence. I felt like I was a terrible cross-country rider because I just kept making mistakes and I was so focused on not making mistakes. She really saved me in wanting to event, because I was getting to the point where I was thinking, I don’t really want to do this—I’m not any good at it. Because of her, I started to train better and get better.”
Back in the Game
With her injury behind her—despite a three-month predicted recovery period that ended up taking two years—Hannah is looking forward to the next phase of her career. She has a younger horse in the pipeline: Christa Schmidt’s Carsonstown. “I have so much confidence in this horse,” Hannah said. “Especially cross-country and jumping in general. He is so secure and loves himself so much. I know if I just stay on his back he will be safe. I can just go flat out and he is absolutely capable of anything. I was thinking the other day, I bet I could take this horse to a five-star right now.”
In the long term, Hannah would like to be on more U.S. teams. “I had a taste of it, going to the Pan Ams,” she said. “I would love to be at a level where I can benefit the U.S. I’d love to go to the Olympics and back to Aachen as well. I’m still bringing my game up. The injury did take a lot away, but I do feel better than ever. It’s made me more resolved that I do really want to keep doing this sport. I’m so lucky with the people that have surrounded me and helped me, picked me up when I’m down. The list is very long.”
Follow Hannah on Instagram @Hanniesue
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com