Written by: Kim F. Miller

This year’s North American Young Rider Champions are devoted to their horses and their horsemanship in ways likely to lead them on to the highest rungs of their discipline’s international ladder.

Thumbnail for NAYRC 2013 Gold Medallists

Ayden Uhlir – Dressage

This back-to-back gold medalist has given up a lot to pursue her dressage dreams. The Texas native chose an online high school path in seventh grade, then moved to Washington State the summer before her senior year to live near her coaches. It’s been small stuff, like avoiding risky runs for fear of getting injured on family snowboarding vacations. And it’s been big stuff, like hearing herself described as standoff-ish, even arrogant, over decisions to skip social opportunities to better focus on riding.

Only those who don’t know Ayden would describe her as anything other than outgoing and friendly. She’s energetic and enthusiastic to the nth degree, as evidenced by her spontaneous out-gate dance after hearing the 71.605% that took her to the top of this year’s Young Rider individual podium in Lexington. But she understands, more than some thrice her 18 years, that success and sacrifice are two sides of the same coin.

“In order to focus I have found that I have to make the space around me emptier,” she explains. People outside the sport have questioned her and her family’s decision to “put all my eggs in one basket,” she acknowledges. “For me the decisions were no brainers.  I want this life.  I have never wanted anything else.  To make sacrifices to achieve my dream and to feel daily the wholeness and contentment I feel when I am in the saddle doesn’t seem like a sacrifice.”

The rewards have already been many. Independence, athletic accomplishments that helped attract college scholarship offers, lifelong friendships with equally ambitious young riders and horsemanship knowledge are chief among them.  “Most of the time I see the sacrifices as deposits I have paid for a future I dream of.  Over time I have come to realize that sometimes what seems a negative can be a blessing or learning experience in disguise.”

As college neared, Ayden began scouting locations where she could continue her international ascent and attend a good school. She first called USEF Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg for advice, and wound up determining that their ideas and expectations were nicely in synch. Jeremy is based in the Seattle area. The region’s appeal, along with an academic scholarship offer from nearby Seattle University, tipped the scales toward a Northwest relocation. The final decision was made on the final day of last year’s NAYJRC, where Ayden and Sjapoer took gold in the Junior division. “Jeremy arranged a ride home for Sjapoer and, in a whirlwind, we were off!” she recalls.

An only child, Ayden says her parents’ acceptance of her move away from home typifies the nature of their support. “They understand my commitment and their belief has always been, as long as I continue to do my end, they will continue with theirs.” Even with a tow-the-line kid, it’s a lot to ask, she knows. “Imagine trying to parent over the phone!”

The focal point of Ayden’s next two years is qualifying for the Brentina Cup and gaining European mileage, then making a bid for the Pan Am Games in 2015. She admits to “being a dark horse” for those goals, but counts on a familiar game plan. “Work hard, stick to our plan and visualize that anything is possible.”

In addition to her parents, Ayden is grateful to a remarkable support team. Jeremy and his partner Shauntel Bryant’s coaching continues to be critical. Under Jeremy’s direction, the USDF’s Long Term Strategic Planning has helped “me keep on track with my goals, and held me accountable to meet them.” Visualization is a tangible aspect of her training thanks to two years working with sports psychologist Dr. Jenny Susser.

Ayden shares a one-bedroom apartment with her grandmother and has permission from Seattle University to live off campus so she can continue her training while pursuing a sports psychology degree. A full slate of barn and home chores are par for the course after many years as a working student for her first trainer, Bre Dorsett in Texas. “I did barn jobs from assisting the vet and equine dentist to cleaning bird waste off windowsills with a toothbrush,” she recalls. “I rode any and every horse Bre gave me the opportunity to ride and it was a great base to start my growth as a rider.”

In the three years she’s owned her now 14-year-old Cantango son, Ayden has grown six inches to 5’8”, helpful given that Sjapoer is 17.2 hh. With Bre’s guidance, the Uhlirs bought him as a horse to grow into, and he has been that despite some challenges. He’s not a fan of travelling and “is a tad accident prone,” Ayden notes. At their first NAYJRC appearance in 2011, he cut his eyelid off and she suffered a kick that landed her in the hospital. “But once we bonded and began to really trust each other, the sky has become the limit.”

Lillie Keenan- Show Jumping

Lillie began riding at the now-gone Claremont Riding Academy in New York City. “The ring was about the size of a living room and had six cement posts in the middle of it,” she recalls. At the time, Lillie enjoyed the typical sampling of youth sports and music lessons. “When I was nine, my mom said I should find something I really loved and that she’d do everything possible to help me succeed in it. I chose riding immediately.”

Good choice.

Now 16, Lillie has since distinguished herself in every arena. In 2007, she won all three USEF Pony Finals divisions in her first of several dominant years there. In 2011, at 14, she won the $100,000 USHJA Hunter Derby Finals in a mostly pro field. In her first NAJYRC appearance last year, she helped Zone 2 to Junior division team gold. This past June, Lillie won her first Grand Prix, riding Pumped Up Kicks to blue in the HITS Saugerties $125,000 Purina Animal Nutrition class.

The long winning streak hasn’t dulled victory’s thrills. Lillie’s calm outward demeanor in Kentucky belied the nail-biting realities required to earn double gold. “People tell me I look relaxed, but I am not relaxed. I can’t sit still. I’m not calm. The Championship is such a special event with all of the best young riders, many of them my close friends, fighting for the same thing.” The intensity knob was cranked to 11 at the Horse Park. “I always put a lot of pressure on myself because I want to be as perfect as possible, and this was added pressure because I desperately wanted to do my part. We all felt it. We are a strong team and we always have that chance for gold.”

A high point was sharing the individual podium with close friend and teammate Charlotte Jacobs, who entered the last of five grueling rounds as the leader, but dropped an unlucky rail while Lillie and Londinium, an 11-year-old by Lord Pezi, went clear to win. “It could have been either one of us,” says Lillie. The friends-since-pony-days also shared a post-press conference water gun dousing from their teammates, then it was back to the barns “where I spent a long time hugging my horses.”

Having accomplished so much so young, Lillie acknowledges the specter of peaking too soon. “I don’t look at it that way,” she reflects. “It’s not like I’m expecting to win the WEG at 20. That sounds absurd to me. It’s more these are milestones on my way. I don’t think I am ahead of anybody else my age, but I have had a lot of luck, great support and wonderful horses.”

Though her dad thinks she’d make a great brain surgeon, Lillie foresees a professional riding career. Entering a challenging junior year at a so-far understanding, yet demanding school in NYC, she’ll continue to juggle competing with maintaining excellent grades. Bigger Grands Prix against tougher competition are her main focus these next few years. With college fixed on her agenda, the juggling act will continue.

Thanks to a deep string of mounts, Lillie competes nearly every weekend while rotating horses in and out of downtime at Heritage Farm in Katonah, NY where they are based with trainers, Andre Dignelli and Patricia Griffith.Accomplishment runs in Lillie’s blood. Lillie’s father played college football, her older brother played professional hockey in Sweden and her sister is a professional ballerina. Lillie followed her mother’s footsteps. Pam Carmichael Keenan rode as a junior, succeeding in hunters, equitation and jumpers. “Many professionals remember and still compliment her riding. They tell me I should ride like her!”

Pam’s contemporaries back in the day included Olympic show jumpers Joe Fargis and Conrad Homfeld, with whom she reconnected when Lillie’s Claremont instructors suggested that her daughter’s talents might outstrip their facilities. That’s how the Keenans found their way to Heritage Farm and the rest is history – still very much in the making.

Caroline Martin – Eventing

Caroline is recognized as one of the sport’s leading up and coming young riders. While getting there, she’s ridden for the Nicaraguan polo team and earned a Bareback Puissance title by clearing a 5’8” wall with her Young Rider partner Quantum Solace. The nearly 6’1” 18-year-old is a lovely spokesperson for her sponsor Mane & Tail, but above all, the online high school graduate is one busy teen.

Caroline lives in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania, on her family’s late 19th Century Buckwampum Farm. The name comes from the area’s Indian history, rather than any relation to her coach of the last few years, Buck Davidson. Buck calls her “Kid” – always – and that’s an apt hint at her boundless enthusiasm for the sport.

“I am living the dream,” Caroline says cheerfully of days that usually include riding for five or six hours, then setting jumps or otherwise helping Buck conduct lessons that run up to the dinner hour. “You can always learn so much by watching,” she notes. Along with her horses and her parents, Randy and Sherrie, Caroline gives Buck all the credit for her successes. “He’s my mentor, my idol, and not just about how to ride horses, it’s also about how to be a better person.”

She first met the Pan Am Games gold medalist and son of eventing legend Bruce Davidson six years ago. “I was upstairs in my room doing homework and I heard somebody shooting hoops in our driveway.” She was an eventing newbie at the time, yet recognized him and had a sense of his place in the sport. The Martins had invited Buck to Buckwampum Farm as a counterpart to his Florida operation. Initially, Caroline continued eventing at the lower levels and enjoyed other activities. But while visiting home during a year spent living in Nicaragua, “something in me just clicked.” When she came back to the States for good, a serious eventing path emerged as her life’s desire. She signed on to an online high school program, completed this past June, and signed up for Buck’s rigorous coaching program.

Buckwampum Farm has been featured on historic barn tours, but it was not a training facility when the Martins bought it 11 years ago. Helping transform it has been part of Caroline’s education. She and Buck have “our art projects,” like drilling holes in jump standards and making flags for fences on a cross-country course that includes an Advanced level water complex. Coupled with an indoor ring, a dressage court and an outdoor show jumping ring, “It’s paradise,” Caroline enthuses.

Buckwampum’s growing amenities, however, don’t hold a candle in Caroline’s eyes to the horses which live there. That includes Quantum Solace, aka “Nacho,” the seven-year-old Argentinian Thoroughbred who came to Buck’s attention as a show jumper three years ago. “I was one of the first to sit on him and there was just something about him,” Caroline recalls. “We were meant to be.”

He came after her mare Classic Touch, with which she debuted at Novice level in 2008, and together they progressed to Preliminary by 2011. Buck’s former four star horse, Titanium, is the newest of Caroline’s significant equine others. She began riding him last fall and is targeting the Fair Hill International three star this October.

Caroline’s string ranges from a 15.1 hand mare to big warmbloods and horses who excel and/or struggle in eventing’s different phases. “I’m always learning something different and gaining more feel that I can transfer to another horse.”

The thrill of Young Riders gold came with plenty of fun. In her first trip, in 2011, she represented Area II (Mid Atlantic). This year, wanting to ride for Area III coach and Canadian Olympian Kyle Carter, she went out for the squad representing Florida, where her folks also have a home. Except for meeting them at competitions, Caroline didn’t know her new teammates, but after two weeks in Kentucky “they are friends for life.”

Nacho had his shoes pulled after Young Riders and will spend the rest of the year in pasture, but Caroline wants no such breaks. As Horse Sport International went to press, she was readying horses for horse trials in New Jersey, Vermont and Michigan.

Come September, there may be a defense of her Bareback Puissance title, earned at the Plantation Field Horse Trials. “I’ve always ridden bareback since I was little and Buck says I’m better without a saddle than with it.” Given what she’s accomplished with all her tack, that’s an intriguing thought.