By Tafra Donberger
Portraits by Adrienne Morella
Lillian Heard hadn’t intended her life to turn out this way — as an eventing professional working her way up the ranks of the five-star roster. Her original adult-life plans included law school, but a twist of fate in horse form led her to the point she is now, and she wouldn’t change a thing.
That horse was Share Option, or Whitey, whom she found in England on her first horse-shopping trip overseas with Jan Byyny, for whom Lillian worked during her college years at the University of Virginia. It wasn’t what you’d call an ideal first meeting when Lillian first met Whitey; when she tried him, the horse became scared of her jacket and tried running off with her.
“The woman showing him wanted me to get off,” Lillian recalled. “But I bought him. I thought, I’m buying this wild young horse! But he was totally not what I thought I was buying.” Whitey would prove his worth in spades as he propelled Lillian through the levels of eventing into the pro ranks and helped her to achieve a dream. But her equine adventure didn’t start there.
The Journey to Eventing
Horses became part of the Heard family due in part to her parents, who moved out of New York City to a small acreage outside of D.C. with its own barn. “There was a barn on it, not really meant for horses,” Lillian laughed. “They decided to get horses, and got two from the classified section of the Washington Post. One was an unbroken Quarter Horse, and one was an unbroken Tennessee Walker. That was my start!”
The horse bug bit the kids in the Heard family, which included Lillian and two older sisters, Jessica and Lauren. A local trainer, Julie Hagan, gave the girls lessons and encouraged them to get involved with Pony Club. Lillian was part of the Seneca Valley Pony Club and there, found herself surrounded by eventing enthusiasts.
In addition to the barn being full of young eventers, Lillian’s older sister Jessica rode, which meant that once Jessica was ready to graduate from a horse, it would move to Lillian. It turned out to be an advantage for Lillian, who was able to grow up riding horses that had experience and could teach her the ropes.
Once Lillian finished high school, she landed a job at Jan’s Surefire Eventing, and those years spent working and riding for Jan were formative for Lillian. She had the desire to ride at the top levels and had two horses that were going well, but still her plan was to enter the “real world.”
“I planned to go to law school,” she explained. “But I had Whitey ready to go intermediate, and I couldn’t give up on him. I paid to store the law school letters of recommendation in the database, graduated and thought, I’ll go ride for a year.”
The Wonder Pony
That year was when Whitey showed the ability to go to the advanced levels and Lillian wasn’t about to miss that opportunity. In a heart-wrenching turn, Whitey got hurt, but rather than give up and hit the LSATs, Lillian waited to see if she could bring him back to the advanced level when he recovered.
It was a longer recovery than she anticipated. The veterinarians told Lillian that Whitey would never go back to eventing, but she gave him a long two years off, then started the road of rehabilitation and training. The pair found themselves back on the circuit, and Lillian’s patience paid off: Whitey took her to her first five-star event, then continued on to five more five-star level competitions in the next five years.
“He’s been kind of a wonder pony for me,” Lillian said. “It’s a funny thing; they said he wouldn’t event again, and at 17 he’s done more than many horses and still going!” Whitey is retired from the five-star level but is a beloved lesson horse in Lillian’s barn.
Now, she and her current star, Barnaby, have been at the five-star level for several years, competing overseas at the recent Burghley Horse Trials. It isn’t Lillian’s first overseas foray; she lived in Ireland for eight months in 2015, training with Carol Gee of Fernhill Sporthorses. She followed up with time in England, gaining experience in the international eventing competitions.
Barnaby had no eventing experience when she purchased him in 2015, but Lillian has successfully brought him through the levels. They competed at the Rolex CCI4* consecutively from 2016 to 2019, finishing competitively in the top 15 several times.
“When I do a successful cross-country round, the feeling I have is incredible,” Lillian said. “Coming off a five-star cross-country round I did well gives me a feeling of total elation. That’s where I get the most excited!”
Mentors and Business
Much of Lillian’s time training with and working for talented and well-known riders like Jan Byyny and Boyd and Silva Martin gave Lillian the drive to make a career in eventing. She operates her own barn, Lillian J. Heard Eventing, from a farm she rents from Boyd, who continues to coach her as well as push her in progressing her business.
“She’s been very hardworking, almost scrappy in her approach in her business,” Boyd said. “She’s an excellent coach. A lot of younger, talented riders are starting to train with her. A large part of her business is the up-and-coming riders, and she does a wonderful job producing these riders.”
“Boyd’s pretty intense, and awesome at the sport. He was tough on me, but I needed that,” Lillian said. “It’s been an awesome long-term mentorship for me. Boyd knows my riding better than anybody. He can tell when I’m doing something wrong. He and Silva have been really critical as far as shaping me.”
With continued support from her family, including her “momager,” Jaqueline Whalen, and her boyfriend, Ryan Wood, Lillian brings a rounded approach to her riding and her business. She manages to conduct clinics, train and sell horses, teach lessons and compete. “I never want to turn a business opportunity away,” Lillian explained. “You’re never above any horse job. I think it leads to opportunity and growth.”
Though one might say she’s already found success, Lillian’s ongoing goal is to build a barn full of five-star horses, and she’s on her way to doing so. That small thought — that she could make a career out of riding horses — has become a successful, if challenging, career.
“My brain knew it was silly, but I couldn’t make myself stop riding,” Lillian said. “I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve been able to form a very cool life doing this.”
For more information, visit www.lillianjheard.com
Photos by Adrienne Morella, www.adriennemorella.com