By Juliana Chapman
Portraits by Adrienne Morella
Horses were one of the few things that captured Tyler Held’s attention as a shy child. As soon as she was in their presence, she felt a connection. “I was afraid of horses when I first started riding,” said 29-year-old equestrian Dr. Tyler Held EdD CMPC. Growing up in Columbia, Maryland, she got hooked on horses at summer camp. “I think about those first years at summer camp, and you were supposed to ride a different horse every day. I clung to Pepe, the first horse that I rode.”
After camp, Tyler began taking riding lessons and became a working student to help offset the cost of riding. “Pushing through my fear of horses was a draw to me,” she said, adding that the draw inspired her to want to become a professional rider.
At 14, Tyler was in dreamland when she got her first horse. “I literally have a picture of me at the vetting and my shoes are on the wrong feet because I was so excited,” Tyler said. Fred was a 6-year-old dark bay, fresh-off-the-track Thoroughbred who challenged her in the saddle and had many setbacks early on because he was injury-prone.
Tyler was determined to make horses her career and graduated from high school early. “Knowing that I wanted to study and work with horses, I was set on graduating early and having my horse at college,” she said. “I wanted a college that had an equestrian program, and I chose the University of Findlay in Ohio.”
The college offered a range of equine-related studies and Tyler immersed herself in animal science, equine business management and equestrian studies. “Initially I enrolled in the hunter-jumper program, but I realized it didn’t give me the focus I wanted, so I switched to the dressage program,” she shared. “I had a trainer, Mandy Smith, that I really clicked with and who helped because Fred was a difficult horse.”
Mandy believed in Tyler’s future with horses and helped her understand the issues she had with Fred. After three years of owning him, Tyler gained confidence in managing his antics. “We took a year off from jumping, and the dressage program helped improve my flatwork so when we did go back to jumping, it was with a solid foundation,” Tyler said.
Once her dressage and jumping skills started to advance, she added cross-country to her training. She was also influenced by watching a three-day event in Kentucky, where she witnessed top-level action. “That is when I fell in love with eventing.”
Chasing the Dream
After her freshman year, Tyler went home for the summer and started a working student position with Steph Butts (now Kohr). “She gave me a lot of responsibilities, from riding a variety of horses to managing certain aspects of the farm,” Tyler explained. This experience jump-started her competing at the Beginner Novice level and then quickly moved up to Novice. Her training, talent and perseverance paid off by winning some events that summer. “It all came together as I began chasing the dream because it seemed like an exciting path forward.”
After one season of showing with Fred, Tyler received advice that she needed a proven Prelim horse to move up in the sport. “I found Andy, a big-boned bay Appendix that many thought was an Irish Sport Horse, and the goal was to go to Young Riders,” Tyler said. “I was solely focused on the goal of finishing the events and getting the qualifications.”Tyler shared one of her most memorable experiences in eventing. “I was at a training three-day at the farm where I kept Andy, and the format consisted of roads and tracks and a steeplechase before cross-country,” she said. “I trotted through the woods and then pointed Andy at a steeplechase fence. He thought we were going for a trail ride. So, as we approached the fence he dropped to the side, and I fell off and immediately started crying.”
In her mind, everything was ruined because she had to finish the Training three-day to move up to Preliminary. Her trainer, Steph, said, “You did not get hurt out there, right? You really need a reality check on what this sport is and what it means.”
“I felt like I needed to get the score and finish no matter what, and that took away from the process and the performance,” Tyler said. She never ended up going Prelim but was introduced to a sport and performance psychologist to help stop the replay of the fall in her head. She returned to—and successfully completed—the same Training three-day the following year.
Fork in the Road
Tyler worked 5 ½ days a week as a working student. “I felt lucky to have had that schedule because it’s important to have a life outside of horses,” she said. After working with Steph, Tyler got a job with Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride. She spent 3 ½ years with her, and fell in love with grooming. “My riding wasn’t the best there, but my desire to be really good at grooming began to come through,” Tyler shared.
Tyler was introduced to Cat Hill, who co-authored “World Class Grooming for Horses with Emma Ford,” and immediately became hooked on professional grooming. “She influenced my next step in working with horses,” Tyler said. Tyler would reference her book to see how Cat started her grooming career working for Dr. Kevin Keane, who cares for the horses of Philip Dutton and Boyd Martin.
At 23, Tyler was at a fork in the road. She had the choice to either continue being a working student/groom for two other riders, or go work for Kevin, where Cat had begun. “The job offer with Kevin was to groom and vet tech, and that is the option I ended up taking,” Tyler said.Grooming for Kevin opened the door to groom for Olympic eventer Philip Dutton. Philip rode Kevin’s horse Sportsfield Candy in the Nations Cup the year that Kevin broke his leg, which enabled Tyler to groom alongside Emma Ford for Philip Dutton. “Emma took me under her wing and showed me her ways, and introduced me to Jennie Saville (nee Brannigan),” Tyler said. “When I started working for Jennie, she had a program of 26 horses. The first weekend I worked for her, we were at Carolina International, and she fell off and broke her jaw. I worked for three weeks before she even spoke to me because her jaw was wired shut. She is one of the toughest people that I’ve ever met in my life—two weeks after her surgery she was back on a horse.”
During Tyler’s grooming years, she went overseas three times: in 2019, with Stella Artois—one of Tyler’s favorite horses—for the Nations Cup at Boekelo, and then twice in 2021, with Stella again to Luhmühlen and then with FE Lifestyle to the Nations Cup. For 10 years, Tyler was a student, barn manager, groom and vet tech. “It was November 2022 that I stepped away from grooming full time and shifted into sport and performance psychology,” Tyler recalled. She learned more about how managing mental health can have a big impact on competing and her overall health. She wanted to be able to bridge that gap and help guide people on their journey, whether in or out of the saddle. “The most rewarding aspect of my sport psychology business is helping riders who have gotten fearful to return to the joy of the sport,” Tyler said.
The Demands of Eventing
The demands of the sport shaped her advice to her clients. One of the many challenges of the eventing discipline, according to Tyler, is that there are so many boxes to check. “You and your horse must be proficient at dressage, show jumping and cross-country,” she said. “Plus, you must factor in the fitness work needed over six days a week. I tell my clients you must build confidence from each discipline and learn to master the principles that work for all three.”
The other difficulty is that it requires a different mindset, pace and balance for each. “However, on the flip side, it’s so rewarding because the feeling you get from your partnership with the horse is amazing,” Tyler said, “and I think everyone in the eventing world would agree with that.”
Sport psychology is a soft science, which means that while there is evidence-based information available, how that information applies to individual riders is different. “It’s my job to try to figure out what to focus on and what will help the rider get the results they are looking for,” Tyler said. “I enjoy working with riders because I not only speak their language, but I feel connected to them because of my experiences.”
In addition to Tyler’s psychology practice, she also owns a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gym called BJJ Squared, where she offers a kids’ program. “I got into Jiu Jitsu around the same time I started working for Jennie, and it has been great for my mental health to have a focus outside of horses,” she said.
Tyler is a was promoted to a purple belt in June and is grateful to her coach, Anthony Pacinelli, who co-owns BJJ Squared with her and has been very supportive of her recent transitions. “There is a synergy between my sport psychology business and Jiu Jitsu—because it allows me to test the concepts and strategies of a high-paced and competitive environment.”
Tyler’s goals of helping young people at Jiu Jitsu combined with her sport psychology skills are all about the journey to better health. “I want athletes of all levels and circumstances to know they can achieve success by balancing their day-to-day demands with their aspirations,” she said.
For more information, visit www.thewholeequestrian.com, follow on Facebook at thewholeequestrian and on Instagram @thewholeequestrian. To reach Tyler, email her at email@example.com.