By Lilly Steger
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Sara Kozumplik Murphy has had her fair share of setbacks in the equestrian world. When she took a spill at the Millbrook Horse Trials in 2018, she broke her neck and her back — right after she returned to competition following a torturous recovery from a broken knee. She endured six months of rehab, a bone graft and the long process to get back in the saddle.
One year after falling mid-course, she finished second in the Open Intermediate division at the same show. Powered by grit and an unrelenting work ethic, she’s pushed herself to become a better athlete, horsewoman and competitor through all of it. Today, she’s healthy, fit, and ready to compete.
Horse Mom, Army Dad
Sara doesn’t remember the first time she sat on a horse. Her mom, an avid horse lover as well, was a vet tech in the British army, and often rode army horses for fundraising efforts for the British calvary. After that she became a British Horse Society trained instructor. “She would set up a riding school wherever my dad was stationed,” Sara said. “She had one in Germany, one in California, one wherever we moved. She still runs a school in Virginia.”
Her mom grew up in Chippenham, England, just 15 minutes from Badminton Horse Trials. Though not an eventer, her mom instilled a love of horses and a passion for quality horse care. “She is a very good horsewoman — exceptional. I grew up not really understanding quite how special that was,” Sara said.
Sara was raised in the United Kingdom, but when she was still in primary school her dad received orders to report to Washington D.C., so the family moved to Virginia. Stateside, she and her mom were both active in the local Pony Club. As a teenager, Sara thought she wanted to be a dressage rider. “Mum and I would always go to Badminton and Burghley growing up, but I never thought I would be brave enough to do that,” she laughed.
Still, when the time came to take her A-Level Certification, she needed a little bit of coaching, so her dressage trainer, Gretchen Verbonic, set her up with the best of the best — Jimmy Wofford.
“When I first went to Jimmy, I hadn’t done a Preliminary. When I moved on, I’d done Burghley twice, Badminton, Kentucky — all of that. He really did everything,” Sara said. “He’s another incredible all-around horse person. He really looked out for us.”
Under Jimmy’s instruction, Sara took her 6-year-old Pony Club horse, Auggie, up the international levels and across the sea. She was just 20 when they competed at the Kentucky Three-Day Event for the first time. Together, they competed twice more at Kentucky, twice at Burghley Horse Trials, and many other high-profile international events.
“The last one we wanted to do was Badminton and that was on purpose. It was very special because it’s my mum’s hometown (she hunted Badminton with the Beaufort Hunt) and because it was the last year they did the long-format event,” Sara said. “Auggie did it, and he was super. He retired sound from the upper levels after that but went on to take Sara’s longtime owner and dear friend’s daughter, Roxanne, from novice to preliminary.”
After Auggie retired, Sara focused on developing her business stateside. She showed across the country and made it to the Kentucky Three-Day Event on several more horses, her most famous of whom, Somerset, was placed on the 2009 High Performance list. But pieces were still missing.
“It took me a long time to figure out why I would get so nervous in the dressage and the show jumping,” she explained. “It’s because I wasn’t educated enough.” Despite running some of the most difficult events, Sara was missing critical elements. “In dressage, I could ride OK, but I was lacking the methodology of putting the test together and presenting it to the judge, and that’s a huge part of it. In show jumping, there were far too many problems to even describe,” she said. “I was hearing good information, but it was like trying to talk about calculus to someone who was just learning to multiply. They were talking about something I had no idea how to implement.”
Sara trained hard. She worked with excellent coaches who helped her present better tests and rider better courses. Among them, world champion Vaughn Jefferis and her husband Brian Murphy.
Brian is an Irish show jumper with his own international record who trained with top Irish show jumping rider and coach Gerry Mullins for many years. “Brian is a great rider, but he’s also a fabulous coach,” Sara said. “I think good riders are a dime a dozen, but good people on the ground are very rare.” She rides regularly with Brian and he’s helped her build up her show jumping skills.
The couple works well together. “It’s really nice to have someone who’s a specialist on your side in your barn every day,” Sara said. Brian has helped her develop a string of upper-level horses. He has an exceptional eye for horses that can jump the moon and has helped her scout her future stars. “He’s very good at matching the right horse to the right rider,” she said. “All of my horses can jump; I’m very well mounted.”
With the help of her husband and other professionals Sara developed as a rider and competitor, but the one element she was always scared to examine was cross-country. “I think athletes get really superstitious about the thing they know they can do without thinking,” Sara said. For her, cross-country came easily. “I had to think about dressage and show jumping because I knew I wasn’t a natural, so I learned. Cross-country is something I was scared to touch. Then it became an issue.”
For several years leading up to her fall at Millbrook, Sara had a streak of injuries that never seemed to end. “Before I broke my neck and my back, I’d had five years of other injuries that stopped me from being as fit as I liked or needed to be,” she said.
The first of her serious injuries was the knee. “My knee was the worst injury I’ve ever had. You can’t move for six weeks; it was just awful.” Left immobile for six weeks, her mental health diminished, her fitness declined, and she endured a very grueling spring. She finally got back into competition, but that August she took her fall at Millbrook.
Sara doesn’t elaborate much on the experience. “I wasn’t as fit as I should have been. It wasn’t a massive fall, but because of all the other injuries I had accumulated, it was bad timing and I fell the wrong way.” Sara was transported from the show grounds to a local ICU. The next day, she underwent surgery for multiple fractures in her spine and neck, as well as soft tissue damage.
“The good thing about breaking your back is they get you up the day after surgery; it’s not like the knee where you have to be immobile,” Sara said, with that sardonic humor typical of long-time equestrians.
Recovery took six months. During that time, she vowed that when she could move, she would get fit. “I made it a priority that I was going to get myself as strong as I possibly could,” she said.
With patience (and permission from her physical therapist), she started walking on the treadmill. She built her strength and endurance back up slowly. Today she goes to fitness classes three times a week and does Pilates with her fellow eventer and friend Sharon White.
“It takes a long time, but you have to make that commitment,” she said of building strength. Along with working out, food is a priority. “I genuinely believe one of the reasons I healed as well as I did — in addition to having good doctors — is because I eat well.
“I worry about people in horse sports that are controlling their weight to an extreme instead of thinking about how the proper ratio of food can prevent injury,” she said. “With horses, we don’t starve them to make them look like they should be running at Kentucky. They have to be strong and they have to have the right nutrition in their body at the right time.”
During the period of her recovery, Sara realized she had to treat cross-country with the same nuanced approach as the other two phases. “That was the first time I ever had a process in any sort of cross-country training and riding,” she said.
A professional athlete her whole life, Sara spent an introspective moment explaining how she’s changed as a competitor since that first Kentucky run at 20. “I think your brain changes as you get older,” she said. “It’s quite different when you’re a teenager than into your 20s, 30s, and 40s. When you’re a kid, you have an outrageous ego. Later, you need to have an honest impression of yourself and what you need to improve without crippling yourself mentally. I try very hard to be honest about what I need to improve.”
Sara’s commitment to fitness alongside her dedication as a rider has gotten her back in the saddle and back to the upper levels. This year she’s strong, sharp and ready to compete.
In 2021, she has her eye on the inaugural Maryland CCI5* as well as the Bromont Nations Cup. But with some lingering uncertainty in 2021, Sara remains flexible. “I think right now it’s really hard to look at an international calendar because we just don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m trying to stay focused on North America. The standard of competition at American events is so high that, while I would love to go back to some of my favorite events in Europe, I’m pretty excited with what we have here,” she said.
Sara would love to see her horses be successful at the 5* level, but at the end of the day, horse care remains a top priority. “You have to listen to the horse,” she said, “You have to be able to say that they look good, they feel good, and they’re happy. If at any point they’re not happy, we just have to change plans and be flexible.”
For more information, visit saraequestrian.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com