By: Nancy Jaffer
She looks familiar, that slender blonde rider doing spins and sliding stops on a beautifully trained reining horse. You just can’t put a name with the smiling face because it’s out of context.
For most of her riding career, Sarah Willeman was an equitation champion and show jumper. She is best known for a series of brilliant victories that included the AHSA Hunt Seat Medal Finals and the USET Medal Finals East, as well as the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association’s Cacchione Cup while she was a student at Stanford University in California.
“Sarah was an amazing person for me to help,” said Missy Clark, who trained Sarah during the height of her success. “She’s probably one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life, one of those rare finds who could transfer her intelligence into her riding. Sarah ended up being such a wonderful competitor. She could always deliver the goods on the right day, and that is not easy to find.”
But back problems made it too painful for Sarah to continue in Grand Prix jumping. At one point, she was told she would never ride again. So she began thinking out of the box about how to continue her involvement with horses, even if she wasn’t able to jump.
“If I can’t show at that level now,” she remembers thinking, “maybe it would be fun to try something totally new. I always thought it would be fun to learn western and of all the western disciplines, reining is the one that appealed to me.”
“It has elements that are fast and athletic and involves a lot of finesse also.”
Sarah pointed out she never considered doing it seriously, but events took their own direction. She made a reining connection through the McQuay family, since Colleen McQuay, who trains hunters and thus was in Sarah’s world, is married to Tim McQuay, one of the top reining trainers. Their daughter, Mandy, has been a star in both jumpers and reining and her husband, Tom McCutcheon, also is one of reining’s biggest names.
After Sarah met them in Texas to talk about reining, she bought a little horse, “kind of a learner model” and took him back to California. She found the sport was just what she needed.
“It’s very relaxing, just riding around on a reining horse, and they’re so beautifully trained. It’s a whole different feeling. They’re so soft and balanced, once you get them going, you leave the reins totally loose and do everything off your legs, your seat and your voice,” she observed.
On a return trip to Texas, Mandy and Tom asked if Sarah had any interest in owning a horse Tom could take to the 2006 World Equestrian Games.
The next thing she knew, she owned Ruf Hearted Jac, a stallion which served as the USA’s reserve horse for the WEG.
She was hooked and went on to her own competitive success with Jac and several other horses. Meanwhile, she bought a glamorous stallion called Gunners Special Nite, with which Tom blazed to glory at the 2010 WEG, winning both individual and team gold.
Willeman and Turnabout Farm suddenly had become names as big in reining as they had been in the equitation ranks. Her stallion is a star in his sport, just as Sarah’s Grappa and Hurricane had been in equitation and show jumping.
Gunner is understandably popular at stud and Sarah is now into the breeding business. “It wasn’t something I intended to do,” she explained.
“I just kept having such great experiences with it. There’s nothing in the world like walking out in the pasture with the foals, or the yearling colts or fillies. I go down there to Texas and I disappear into the pasture. I love hanging out with the young horses.”
Last June, the 31-year-old rider, who has a master’s degree in fiction writing from New York University, married amateur-owner show jumper Philip Richter at his family’s farm New York. The wedding photos show horses in abundance, and Phillip has started competing successfully in reining. Sarah’s new life has worked out perfectly.
“One of the things that got me wanting to be more involved in reining is that it’s such a nice community of people. It’s kind of like a big family. People go out of their way to help each other.”
Asked for her opinion on Sarah’s involvement with reining, Missy said, “I’ve seen video of her doing it, I think it’s neat that she branched into another part of the industry and is getting a lot of enjoyment out of it.”