By Britney Grover
Portraits by Shelby Phillips
To the casual observer, sisters Isha and Raina Swani seem to be a lot alike. When it comes to horses, they are both passionate, dedicated and extremely good junior riders. Between them, they’ve amassed an impressive collection of ribbons and championships, including from Pony Finals, the Washington International Horse Show and Junior Hunter Finals. But even down to how they each calculate a distance, their personalities diverge.
“They’re both extremely intelligent, but have completely opposite personalities,” said their home trainer, Bethany Lee. Unlike many competitive juniors, 17-year-old Isha and 13-year-old Raina attend a Monday-through-Friday school near their home in Jacksonville, Florida, where they have their home trainer and practice horses several hundred miles from their show trainer and show horses in Wellington. “I end up teaching them in different ways, but somehow it works out with both of them there.”
Like sharing lessons, the differences between Isha and Raina work out both in and out of the ring, helping them overcome the challenges of their unique program and bringing them closer to each other as they ride, travel and show as sisters. “We’ve gotten extremely close over the past few years,” Raina said, “and we can talk to each other about anything that’s troubling us.”
Isha and Raina were first introduced to horses while visiting their grandmother in Baltimore, Maryland. When Isha was 7, she started taking lessons with Joey Currais and Alex Charles of Hunters Landing, near their home in New York City. She had played other sports, but she fell in love with the partnership and the bond with each horse. “My favorite pony was my large children’s hunter pony, Miss Amazing,” Isha said. “I got her when I was 10 years old and I absolutely adored her. She gave me a lot of confidence in the show ring.”
Isha competed from short stirrup to the children’s hunters while training in New York, paving the way for Raina to begin riding and showing as well. A year after Isha began riding, Raina convinced her parents she would rather ride than continue swimming or playing soccer and started taking lessons. “I feel like there’s a whole other level of trust and connection between us and our animals,” she said. “Something about not being able to speak with your only teammate makes you even closer with them because you have to recognize what they’re feeling, what they like and what they don’t like. That’s helped me even in the ‘real world,’ just being able to understand more quickly and easily what people feel, because unlike horses, they can actually use words.”
In 2017, the Swani family moved to Jacksonville and Isha and Raina took their riding with them. They now train with Geoffrey Hesslink and Brendan Williams in Wellington, Florida, when they’re at shows; at home in Jacksonville, Isha and Raina train on practice horses with their private home trainer, Bethany.
Though the situation is a bit unusual and presents some unique challenges, the results of such a seamless team speak for themselves. In 2017, Isha was the 3’3” Junior Hunter Champion at the National Horse Show in Kentucky and the Grand 3’3” Junior Hunter Champion at Junior Hunter Finals on Park Place; Raina was Reserve Champion at Pony Finals and Champion at the Washington International Horse Show on medium pony Newhaven’s Magnum.
Bethany has become really close with Isha and Raina through working with them every day. “They’re hysterical, they make me laugh on a daily basis,” she said. “Isha isn’t quiet, but she’s very reserved, laid-back and chill. Raina is more intense; she just turned 13 but she’s going on 30, she’s so mature. She’s really competitive, and knows the standings at any given time during a show.”
In fact, shows tend to bring out some differences in personalities. While Raina keeps track of points and placings, Isha takes a more relaxed approach to things.
“One of the most memorable moments from this year so far was the night of the Hunter Spectacular at WEF,” she said. “After I finished my first round, I got back to the barn and took off all of my stuff: shadbelly, gloves, stock tie, etc. thinking I was done riding for the night. Raina, Bethany and I all went and got so much food out of relief I’d made it around. Of course, about 20 minutes later they announced the cutoff score and the three of us looked at each other — Bethany and Raina both looked sick either from the amount of food or because I had another round to do! I remember scrambling to find one of the course sheets on the table while Bethany was helping me put my shadbelly and everything back on.”
But staying relaxed works for Isha: She and Bond finished an impressive 12th place in the $100,000 class. Bond is one of the three horses Isha shows, all of which are green and new to her. She’s been doing the 3’6” junior hunters for two years, and though she tried jumpers, she didn’t like it; she likes the calm, steady pace around the ring of the hunters. She has two junior hunters, Bond and Snippet, and just started equitation this year on her new horse Aribo — winning their first Maclay class together. Raina shows her two hunters, Stately and Fetching, in the 3’3” juniors now, but enjoys going fast: She just started jumpers with her new mount Goodwill V/d Coefering and is loving it, a difference that mirrors the sisters’ personalities.
When it comes to showing, they’re both competitive, they both love getting to the barn early in the morning the day of a horse show and they always celebrate afterwards by getting milkshakes — Isha gets Oreo and Raina gets chocolate. “I think my sister and I are very different but one way we’re similar is the way we care for our horses,” Raina said. “We pretty much always agree when we’re talking about the sport or talking about horses and how they act. We both really love them.”
Sharing a Passion
Their shared love of horses has made them extremely close, especially over the last few years. “There are so many advantages to having a sister to ride with,” Isha said. “For starters, I love blasting music at 6 a.m. on the way to the barn with her. At horse shows, she’s always one of my go-tos when I need someone to calm me down if I get nervous or stressed before I show and vice versa. We’ve had some very entertaining lessons together over the years, and there’s always someone to joke around with when something doesn’t go as planned.”
“A funny moment was at home in Jacksonville when my large pony Chloe jumped the air in between two standards,” Raina shared. “There was no jump but she thought there was one and she jumped really high! We landed kind of hard and my whole saddle slipped off the side. I was so scared that I was going to fall but in reality, all I had to do was swing one of my legs over her side to dismount because I was barely two inches off the ground!”
Now that both girls are doing junior hunters, one of the only things they fight about is who gets to ride which practice horse, Teddy or Lux. “The girls get along really well,” Bethany said. “They’re very dedicated; this is their thing. Their entire family is one of the most down-to-earth families; they have great values and such a good work ethic.”
Isha and Raina balance their riding and showing with attending a rigorous private school in Jacksonville with their brother, Isha’s twin who didn’t seem to get the horse gene. Isha is planning to major in economics in college, and maybe pursue a career in finance; Raina is considering a job in finance or technology. They both share the goals to be very consistent with their riding this year, and to have strong rounds at indoors. When they’re not riding, Isha loves to hang out with friends, work out, shop or read. “Or, when I have to, catch up on school work!” she added with a grimace.
“I enjoy working out and playing piano, I’ve been playing since I was 5,” Raina said. “I’m also on my school’s speech and debate team and student council.”
Of course they have their differences, but in the end, Isha and Raina wouldn’t trade the experience of riding with a sister for anything. “Having a sister to ride with is so special,” Isha summarized, “because you’re sharing your passion for riding with one of your best friends.”
Photos by Shelby Phillips, www.shelbyphillipsphotography.com, unless noted otherwise