By Lyssette Williams
Portraits by Kristie Nichols
Four years ago, trainer Sarah Invicta Williams-Echols suffered a horrific fall off her heart-horse, Quincy Z, during the grand prix at the HIPICO Santa Fe Summer Series horse show. As she hit the ground, she knew she wouldn’t be dusting herself off and walking away easily from the accident.
“I had broken my neck — six fractures total,” Sarah said. The road to recovery seemed long and daunting. Sarah required two surgeries and rehabilitation for her broken neck. She leaned on her support network of loving friends, family, clients and horses. They in turn rallied around her and bolstered her through what would be a whirlwind process which included purchasing a home, and a very special engagement.
“I returned to the HIPICO horse show a couple of weeks after the accident,” Sarah said. “We went to watch the grand prix and unbeknownst to me, my now-husband, Lance Echols, proposed to me over the loudspeaker in the VIP tent. I truly married a unicorn! He not only took care of me after the accident, but also understands the commitment and passion it takes to be a professional in the horse industry. Lance has become an intricate and important part of our family business, Invicta Farms.”
Learning From Every Horse
Located at La Mesita Ranch in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Invicta Farms is run by Sarah and her mother, Caroline Invicta Stevenson. Originally located in Southern California, Caroline moved Invicta Farms to New Mexico in the 1960s. Growing up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sarah was encouraged to ride every discipline under the watchful tutelage of her mother. “My mother is the most amazing horsewoman on the planet — she’s still my trainer, coaching me at home and lending a hand at shows,” Sarah said.
Her mother did her best to provide Sarah with the best horses they could afford, which wasn’t much back then. These sometimes-quirky horses would teach Sarah valuable lessons. “I received my first pony at the age of 6 — a bratty mare named The Tooth Fairy,” Sarah said. “The Tooth Fairy always jumped around well for the older kids but would regularly dump me at the first fence.” That pony taught Sarah determination and, after getting over her first fence-i, helped Sarah qualify for Pony Finals every year.
Another horse that significantly shaped Sarah into the understanding professional that she is today was her junior jumper Sportif, an appendix Quarter Horse gelding. “He was a bit of a ‘four faulter’ and didn’t give anything away for free, but he gave me so much confidence,” Sarah said. “One week I would be junior jumper champion at a show and the next week, at a different show, he’d stop out in every class.”
Sarah’s partnership with Sportif would qualify her for prestigious horse shows like the Pennsylvania National, Spruce Meadows and the Olympic Festival in 1989, where she won an Individual silver medal. “Every horse that comes into your life, you can learn something from and improve your skills with,” Sarah said.
Though she had many opportunities to move away from New Mexico, Sarah always found her way back. “New Mexico is called ‘The Land of Enchantment’ for a very good reason — it’s gorgeous here, we have a great climate with four seasons, no humidity and it never gets very hot,” Sarah said. “The population isn’t that large so working here gets competitive. Every client matters — from the up-down lesson kid who comes once a week to the adult amateur who wants to show on the circuit with multiple horses. I love helping people with their ‘underdog’ horses. The hard work pays off as we build long-lasting relationships with our clients and they become family.”
Making It Back and Giving Back
After diligently rehabbing her injuries, Sarah worked her way back to the grand prix ring on two new horses: Foxxy, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, and Phinn, a 9-year-old Belgian gelding. “My heart-horse and I had just moved up to the 1.50m classes when he tragically colicked and died,” Sarah said. “When it came time to buy a new horse, I was extremely nervous. I hadn’t jumped a large jumper I didn’t know or own since my accident.”
Sarah found Foxxy through fellow show jumper Andy Kocher. “Foxxy is braver than I am and fills me with confidence. On her, I feel competitive again. I call her my ‘Jumping Jalapeno,’” Sarah said. “In the warm-up ring, she can be lazy like a large pony but when you walk into the competition arena, she’s all business. On course, she can get strong, which is challenging since I still have nerve damage on my right side from the accident. Brad at Equisport made custom reins for me which work really well, but I can’t wear gloves with them.”
Sarah’s other horse, Phinn, was also purchased from Andy. She competed the gelding in the 1.30m classes in 2019 with the goal to compete in the 1.30m championship at the AON/USHJA National Championship in Las Vegas. “He’s the one to look out for,” Sarah said. “He’s a bit of a sleeper but super scopey. He’s also a bit of a pickpocket! If you’re wearing a telephone or radio on you, he’ll take it off your body, sometimes just taking the antenna.”
While she still loves riding, traveling to shows and coaching, Sarah has taken a step back professionally. A self-described high-strung type-A personality, she admits to mentally calming down post-accident. “I don’t suggest breaking your neck to improve yourself, but it gives you humility,” Sarah said. “I’m a much more empathetic and sympathetic trainer and rider. I better understand people’s fears. I’m also gentler with myself — I used to really beat myself up when I made a mistake. Last year I ‘chocolate-chipped’ to a 1.40m wall in Vegas in a qualifying class, but I forgave myself and moved on.”
Stepping back has provided Sarah the opportunity to mentor young hunter-jumper professionals — a task she finds important to the longevity of the industry. “None of us will be around forever,” Sarah said. “Those of us who have been in the business a long time need to share our knowledge with the up-and-coming generations and really support them as they learn. Most young professionals only know how to get on and show a horse. Showing all the time is detrimental to our horses, clients and industry at large. As mentors, we need to guide young professionals on proper horse care, picking and choosing the right horse for our clients. Each client is different, and each horse is different.”
Sarah’s love for horses is evident in every word she speaks, and living through her accident has given her a renewed sense of purpose and a fresh outlook. “Every day I feel so lucky,” Sarah said. “Horses are amazing animals and we get to spend our lives with them. There are so many wonderful kids whose lives I’m an integral part of as their coach and mentor. I help so many adults accomplish their lifelong dreams. I watch riders go around in their first classes, and it brings a tear to my eye to see how much horses give us and how much people enjoy riding.”
Photos by Kristie Nichols, moonfyrephotography.com