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March 18, 2011

Amber Levine Has Crossed Over To The Dark Side

Less than three years after her maiden cross-country school, Amber Levine rode Nantucket Red to third place in the 2010 Galway Downs CCI**. Photo by Amy McCool Photography.

The eventing bug has bitten this hunter/jumper professional hard, and there’s no turning back now.

From the outside, it looked a bit like a quarter-life crisis.

By 20, Amber Levine had capped a successful junior career and was enjoying a burgeoning young professional role on the West Coast hunter/jumper circuit. Riding for years with Susie Hutchison had prepared her for the next step in life, an assistant trainer gig with Ned and Hope Glynn at Sonoma Valley Stables in Petaluma, Calif.

At home, she’d proven her talent for working with young horses, and on the show circuit she’d excelled in all three rings. Levine finished fourth at the U.S. Equestrian Federation Talent Search Medal Final—West (Calif.), advanced to the flat phase of the ASPCA Maclay Finals (N.Y.) and helped Zone 10 tie for third in the Adequan/Prix de States Junior Jumper Team Championship (Pa.) in 2006. The following year she qualified two horses for the North American Young Riders Championship and stepped up to contest her first grand prix.

So Levine had never even considered giving eventing a go. Why would she? She’d already established the secure and rewarding professional life that many young riders aspire to, and opportunities were abounding. And after all, she’d thought, “Those jumps don’t fall down.”

Yet somehow, less than three years after her first cross-country school, Levine was collecting the yellow ribbon at the Galway Downs CCI** in Temecula, Calif.

She’s gone over to the dark side, and she’s not turning back any time soon.

The Right Horse

Levine, now 23, blames (and credits) several “eventing friends” for luring her into the sport, but the conversion also wouldn’t have been possible if she hadn’t teamed up with Nantucket Red—a horse equally inexperienced in the sport, and one she almost wrote off completely.

In 2008, Levine found herself with a project horse that didn’t suit her and wouldn’t sell, so she set up a cross-continental trade with Don Stewart in Ocala, Fla. But the horse she got in return, Nantucket, didn’t impress her all that much either.

“I didn’t think he had a ton of scope, and he wasn’t my ride,” she said of the chestnut Westphalian gelding. “But you could grab mane and just sit there. He was flashy and cute, and I thought I could sell him quickly as an equitation horse.”

But she couldn’t. Nantucket spent a few months on the market at the Glynns’ SVS, and while he packed around the hunter, jumper and equitation rings, no one rushed to write a check.

Meanwhile, her friends were ramping up their persistent nagging to join in a cross-country school, and as Nantucket didn’t have a day job, Levine put him on the truck. He popped easily over a few logs and bigger fences that she later learned were preliminary-level questions. Before she knew it, they were entered at training level at Inavale Farm Horse Trials (Ore.). They placed a respectable eighth, despite a too-fit horse and unintentional airs above the ground in their dressage test.

Levine was still committed to her day job in the hunter/jumper world, but moonlighting as an eventer proved addictive. The next season, the gelding still hadn’t sold, so she kept moving up through the levels, competing at intermediate by the end of the year. By 2010, when the gelding ran his first advanced, he’d become a completely new horse.

“I had a lot of people asking me, ‘Why wouldn’t you just stick with the hunter market? There’s more money in that,’ ” Levine recalled. “But I wouldn’t do it to him. He loves this. Before he was like, ‘I’ve had 70 kids up to this point—who knows who’s riding me tomorrow?’ Now he’s developed a really happy personality, and I couldn’t take that away from him.”

Levine’s close connection with Nantucket, now 11, is one of the reasons her eventing trainer John Camlin, a fellow convert from the hunter/jumper world, thinks their partnership has been so successful.

“She really believes in that horse,” said Camlin, of Onalaska, Wash. “She never hurried anything, never complained about doing the homework. She’s spent so much time with him. I guarantee if she went in his stall and looked down she’d know if a tendon was 1 millimeter bigger. That’s the real story of their relationship.”

Why Change Anything?

“I love the events and the fitness work and everything that goes into making it happen,” said Levine, of Santa Rosa, Calif. “When I started, it was just a cute idea to do something different and see what happened. Now I’ve gotten so wrapped up in it. I absolutely love it.”

But feeding her growing eventing addiction doesn’t come easy. She still works full time for the Glynns, training and showing their young horses. They’ve been fully supportive of her other riding career, allowing her the flexibility she needs to train and compete. But sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Before starting the half-hour drive to SVS every morning, Levine and Nantucket watch the sunrise together on their hacks out of Santa Rosa Equestrian Center; she returns each night for flatwork after she gets off work. Levine trailers Nantucket to the beach for gallops and to dressage judge Lilo Fore’s for regular lessons, and she squeezes in the occasional jump school whenever she can. If that wasn’t enough to keep her busy, she also has a second project event horse in Santa Rosa to train and compete.

At horse trials, Levine hears the occasional jibe about hunter princesses who don’t know how to muck stalls, and at hunter/jumper shows she hears comments dismissing eventing mounts as crazy Thoroughbreds with strange clip jobs. But Levine disproves those stereotypes by using her cross-training to excel at both sports. The formal dressage instruction has improved her flatwork on the hunters and jumpers, and schooling cross-country made her a more forward rider in the horse show ring. And her eventing competitors know better than to hope she pulls a rail in the final phase at horse trials.

According to California trainer Heather Bailey, who’s watched Levine progress from her first cross-country school to advanced horse trials, Levine’s early days in Hutchinson’s barn with a strong emphasis on horsemanship and work ethic gave her the right attitude to succeed in both avenues.

When Bailey’s husband John Strassburger was seriously injured in an accident with a young horse last year, Levine was among those who found time to help Bailey with their young horses at their Phoenix Farm in Healdsburg, Calif. 

“She’s an amazing person and an incredibly hard worker,” said Bailey. “She’s also very intellectually curious and humble, and that really helps. She’s not afraid to ask about things like nutrition and conditioning. She doesn’t think she knows it all already. And it helps that she’s naturally very talented as a rider.”

But Levine refuses to take any of the credit. As she gears up for the season in which she hopes to get a CIC*** under her belt and perhaps qualify for a CCI***, she deflects any praise to those around her. 

“I think I just got incredibly lucky,” said Levine. “I found people that understand my schedule and a trainer who understands that I can’t conform to exactly how eventing normally works and somehow the right horse just fell into my lap. Everyone understands that the top level of both sports requires incredible effort, will and drive. I do feel a pull toward eventing, but I have the perfect situation now. Why change anything?” 

 
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