By Josh Walker
Portraits by Alex Banks
Liz Halliday-Sharp’s father, Don Halliday, used to read her a poem called “To Risk” by William Arthur Ward, and she’s carried its powerful message with her throughout her life. She’s not shy about calling herself a busy-brain just like he was. Even as a child, sitting still bored her. She took up numerous sports like soccer, ballet and gymnastics, but what she really loved was large animals. She grew up in Fallbrook, California, where her mother, Debby Halliday, used to take her to pet the neighbor’s horses.
“They’d walk up to the fence, lean down, and stick their faces right in mine,” Liz said. “As long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with big animals, and I’ve always wanted to ride horses.”
At 7, she fused her craving for athletic action with her horse obsession when she sat in the saddle for the first time while visiting Colorado with her cousins, aunt and uncle. Nobody in her family had ever had much to do with horses. Her cousins were keen enough to hop on and mosey up the trail that day, but Liz describes the moment as something much more for her.
“I remember everything about that day. I remember the name of the horse, his color, and that it was a beautiful summer day in the mountains.” She rode a tall roan gelding called Schnapps. “I was thinking, This is it. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for. It was all I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
In sixth grade, Liz started competing. “We didn’t have a lot of money as a family,” she explained, “and I really respect my parents for how they supported me by making me earn what I wanted.” They bought her breeches only after she’d demonstrated her dedication to riding. “I had to buy my own saddles with allowance money. I think I look after all of my tack so well now because I had to earn it when I was younger.”
At her first competition, she jumped her leased horse in a cross-rails division at a local hunter-jumper show. He promptly bucked her off in the ring, straight into the fence. She dusted off her breeches and got back in the saddle because she had invested herself in becoming the best she could be. When she later joined the Fallbrook Pony Club, she felt a sensation she never experienced in the hunter ring. “When I went cross-country and jumped over a solid fence for the first time, I got that ‘this is it’ feeling again,” Liz said. “I decided then and there that it was time to learn the eventing game.”
Eventing fed her appetite for adrenaline through Pony Club, and when she got her driver’s license, puttering slow and steady around town simply wouldn’t cut it.
A vintage auto racer and instructor for the Sports Car Club of America, Liz’s dad was the kind of guy who really knew how to get the juice out of life, or so Liz’s mother, Debby, always said. “He did a lot of cool and crazy things in his life, and he always encouraged me to do the same,” Liz remembered. “By the time I got my license, I was literally champing at the bit to get behind the wheel of one of his race cars.”
They shared a 1967 Datsun 510 and he taught her how to race in it. Though they’d compete in different classes, Liz remembers the day she outpaced him. “I was actually doing better times than him on the track,” she explained, “and what I remember most was him saying, ‘I knew this day would come.’ He was so happy and so proud of me.”
Both parents had always cheered her on in the saddle, but that moment somehow felt different to Liz. Maybe it was because of the mutual passion for racing she shared with her dad. Or maybe it was seeing the unconditional encouragement in her father’s smile when she took the right risks on the track and fought harder to drive better than him.
When Liz graduated from high school, she went to the University of California, Santa Barbara, with plans to major in marine biology. But it was during her junior year when her father dropped another profound piece of advice.
“My dad knew he was getting sick,” Liz said. “He had struggled with things for a little while and knew that something wasn’t right in his brain. He said to me, ‘I want to go and race the great tracks in Europe while I can still drive a race car.’ Racing was his entire life and that was a goal that meant a lot to him.”
Her parents ventured to England and Don raced the tracks he’d always dreamed of. Liz visited them during her spring break. “When I got there, my dad said to me, ‘I think you should spend a year in England and focus on horses; it would be good for you to spend time living in another country.’”
She didn’t know how to react at the time, but she’d always wanted the opportunity to learn from the best and knew many of them lived in England and Europe. So, when her friend Heather Sterling, whose husband, Nick Atkins, raced with Liz’s father, connected her with British Olympic eventer William Fox-Pitt, Liz couldn’t say no.
“I went to meet him and then moved there in January the next year,” Liz said. It would become the biggest risk she’d ever taken. “It was actually the biggest kick in my rear I ever had. I moved there from Southern California, and January’s not the greatest time of the year in England. It’s dark and cold and can be really miserable.”
To make matters worse, she felt like she wasn’t good enough. No matter what she did, she felt too slow. She’d lie awake after a 14-hour day and search for the strength to do it all again the next day. It was a young woman named Elin Stenberg who kept her spirit afire and ultimately became a lifelong best friend.
“It was only my third day there. She made me a blackberry crumble and told me everything was going to be OK,” Liz remembered.
“To be fair, William was always very good to me, too. What I learned from him was invaluable. A lot of his horsemanship I still practice now.”
Liz watched William bring the best out in every horse he rode. “I like to treat all of my horses as individuals,” she said. “I think I learned that from him. I’d heard him during an interview on the Eventing Radio Show a few years ago, and one of his top training tips was to treat all of your horses as individuals. It wasn’t something he ever said explicitly to me during my time there, but it came through and shaped how I do things.”
One year in England turned into 20. While making a name for herself in international eventing, she simultaneously raced her way up the ranks in endurance racing. She had jumped a memorable first trip around the Boekelo three-day event in 2003 when it was still a CCI3*, riding Bally Supreme, a favorite partner she said had a heart the size of Texas. She had also become the most successful female driver in American Le Mans with six victories. She met her husband, Al Sharp, while in England, too, and after they married in 2010, they took over Chailey Stud in East Sussex, England, and eventually began to split their time between there and the U.S. at the end of 2014.
Time to Shift
After her father passed in 2012, Liz left the racetrack altogether in 2013. It lacked some of its luster without him, and she also didn’t have the sponsors she had previously, which made it financially difficult to race at the highest level of the sport. “I’d also been put on the U.S. Equestrian Eventing High Performance Training List for the first time in my life,” Liz said. “I decided at that moment that it was time to shift.”
As she stared at her name on the list, she felt one step closer to her ultimate goal of helping the U.S. earn medals on the world stage. Stepping away from the stresses of racing, Liz honed her focus and continued seeking guidance from some of the best riders in the sport. Some of her most memorable rides would come aboard Fernhill By Night, a 17-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding, owned in part by her mother.
Then she found Deniro Z, the 16.2-hand KWPN gelding owned by Ocala Horse Properties who’s currently striding to the top of his game. “He and I have always been best mates,” Liz said. She bought him as a sales prospect at 7 when he had done virtually nothing, and some of the quirks that made him hard to sell are what Liz loves about him now.
“Anyone who’s seen him at a trot-up knows he can be a spicy character,” she said with a laugh. They most recently won the CCI4* at Great Meadows International this August, followed directly by top honors in the CCI4* at the Plantation Field International one month later. “When he goes in the ring or on course, he just understands his job. I’ve never had any horse who tries as hard as he does.”
At the end of 2019, Liz and Al planted their roots back in the U.S. full time. They own and operate Horsepower Equestrian in Ocala, Florida, as well as their recently opened Blue Fox Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I feel like I’ve worked my whole life to earn the kinds of horses, people, grooms and owners who I also enjoy as lifelong friends,” Liz said. “My dad always told me a huge part of anyone’s success is having a good team behind them. And at the top of it all, my husband is my rock. He puts up with all the crazy things I do.” Liz laughed. “So does my mom.”
Today, when Liz thinks back to that beautiful summer day in Colorado, there’s little she would change. But if she could tell her 7-year-old self one thing: “I’d tell myself to focus, fight harder, muck more stalls and learn to work hard,” she said.
An excerpt from the poem Liz’s father used to read to her states, “But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing. They may avoid suffering and sorrow, but they cannot learn, feel, change, grow, love or live. Only a person who risks is free.”
For more information, visit www.lizhallidaysharp.com
Photos by Alex Banks, alexbanksphotography.com