By Kimberly Gatto
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
It’s often said that four-leaf clovers bring good luck, and Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride is particularly adept at finding them. The Maryland-based FEI five-star rider, trainer and “S” judge—and owner/operator of the aptly-named Blue Clover Eventing—is chasing dreams and creating her own luck as she excels in the grueling sport of eventing. “I guess if I had a super-power, it would be x-ray vision,” Valerie says. “I can actually look in a field and spot a four-leaf clover anywhere.”
But it has taken more than luck to bring Valerie’s dreams to fruition. Rather, her success has developed over many years through a combination of talent, sheer hard work and Valerie’s ever-optimistic outlook. “When I was 18, I was sure I’d be competing at the Olympics,” Valerie said. “That didn’t happen. But here I am now, over 40 and competing at the five-star level—and loving every minute of it.”
Real-Life Black Beauty
Unlike most professional riders who have a string of upper-level mounts, Valerie is currently competing aboard just one horse—her 13-year old Oldenburg, Favian (French Kiss—Risiko, Relevant). The gelding, whom she purchased in 2016 from California, is affectionately known as Black Beauty due to his coal-colored coat and movie-star looks. In the barn and on the road, Favian thrives with the emotional support of his constant companion, Theodore, a miniature horse with a big personality. “We all pretty much live in Theodore’s world,” Valerie joked. “It was love at first sight for these two!”
“Favian is phenomenal,” Valerie said of her “horse of a lifetime,” whom she owns in partnership with longtime supporter Elizabeth Bonner, who also owns Sudley Farm where Valerie’s business is based. “I am so grateful for my partnership with Favian because we truly believe in each other,” Valerie said. “We both put in 110% every day. I have to trust our partnership, because I only have one FEI horse at the moment, and one that doesn’t have to compete all the time, which is unusual. It’s a big disadvantage for me to not practice all the time, but I have to have confidence in my skills and my experience, and my partnership with him.”
The collaboration has already proven to be a winning one, with the pair earning their most recent victory at the Mars Equestrian Bromont CCI4*-S in Canada this past June.
While her earliest memories involve riding Western rather than eventing, Valerie’s optimistic outlook and love of all things equine developed early. Born to an animal-loving family in Indiana, she seemed destined to become a horsewoman. “My grandfather was a farmer and my mother loved to ride. I was literally on a horse before I was born,” Valerie says. “My mom rode up until the day she had me. After I was born, she would ride with me in front of her in a Western saddle. That’s probably why I feel more balanced on a horse than I do on my own two feet!”
In addition to her love of horses, Valerie’s competitive spirit developed at a young age. “My mom often tells me about my first show at the Indiana State Fair. I was 2 years old and did the leadline class. Apparently I won the blue ribbon, but I threw a fit because I wanted a purple one!” she laughed.
When Valerie was 5, her mother remarried and the family moved from Indiana to Maryland. “We were a real farm family. We brought our Arabians and our Western tack to Maryland and found that there were really no horses like that in the area. It was Thoroughbred country,” she said. Valerie and her sister became involved in Pony Club, where she learned how to ride English and began jumping. “Once I became involved in eventing, there was no looking back.”
Gaining an Education
As she grew, Valerie moved through the levels in Pony Club, eventually earning her “A” rating and competing on several Young Rider teams. “It was a great experience,” she said. “It’s funny how you think of things as a kid. As a child, I figured that Santa would bring me a string of Advanced horses and I would be competing in the Olympics immediately. That’s not real life.”
Instead, she became the first woman in her family to attend college. A straight-A student and an accomplished lacrosse player, Valerie was awarded an academic scholarship to St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMC). “At first, I thought I would take a year off from riding, but that barely lasted one semester,” she said. “It was important for me to keep riding throughout my college years.” While earning high enough grades to be named class valedictorian, she also competed in the North American Young Riders Championships.
“Money was always an issue,” Valerie said. “So I rode track horses, sale horses—anything that was offered to me in order to gain saddle time. It ended up really helping me to become a better rider. I firmly believe that we are shaped by everything we do. Learning the good and the bad of different horses made me into the rider I am today.”
After graduating from college, Valerie realized that she wanted to devote herself to horses as a career. Over the years that followed, she immersed herself in the sport, working at barns and riding under mentors such as Karen O’Connor, Linda Zang and Marilyn Payne, among others, and eventually opening her own stable. While Valerie was able to bring several horses through the Intermediate and Advanced levels, she typically had to sell the horses as part of her business and never had a horse that could take her all the way to the top.
A New Perspective
Then, in 2008, Valerie was faced with a new challenge—and gained a new perspective—when she broke her back in a fluke riding accident. “I was taking my coat off,” she said, “And I had it halfway off when the horse freaked out. I went off and hit the frozen ground hard. I couldn’t ride for three months, which was the longest period of my entire life in which I was not on a horse. At that point I realized that I may not be able to ride forever and should probably come up with another plan.”
Ever the optimist, Valerie remembered a quote that has since become her mantra: “Man does not grow old. Man becomes old by not growing.” Taking those words to heart, and with the encouragement of her mentors Marilyn Payne and Linda Zang, who are also top-level judges, Valerie decided to pursue another avenue of the sport by becoming a judge. It was a long and highly involved training process, but one that Valerie found incredibly rewarding. “Judging has helped me so much with my riding,” Valerie said. “Every test I judge, I’m actually riding along in my mind. I basically have a front-row seat and I’ve learned an incredible amount.”
Now a Level 3 FEI judge as well as an ‘S’ judge, Valerie is one of the youngest people in the world to hold these licenses. She is one of the few people in the world—if not the only person—currently judging at the FEI level while actively competing at five-star events. “I feel so fortunate to be judging,” she said. “I feel like I’m helping to shape the future and create more confident riders and horses. I always want to pay it forward. And I’m forever grateful to Marilyn and Linda for encouraging me to pursue this dream.”
Valerie’s success as a judge has opened many new opportunities for her, including the invitation to spend the summer judging in England, where she and Favian will be based at the farm of legendary eventer William Fox Pitt. “I’ll learn how to ride with the best and judge with the best,” she said.
At home, Valerie thrives on the support of her husband, Kevin, a professional firefighter and an accomplished golfer. “It really puts my life in perspective when I think of him out there risking his life, battling fires. He keeps me grounded. He is my strength,” Valerie said. “I owe him the world.”
Valerie also feels blessed that she is able to earn a living by doing what she loves best—riding, teaching and judging, while surrounded by the company of horses. “Who knows—maybe I will ride in the Olympics one day, or maybe I will judge there,” she said. “I want to be out there inspiring people. If I can make it, anyone can. I hope I can inspire people to believe in themselves.”
For more information, visit www.blueclovereventing.com
Photos by Isabel J. Kurek, www.isabeljkurekphotography.com