After breakout performances in the past six months, this young California rider is emerging as a serious Rolex FEI World Cup Final contender.
Ashlee Bond had perfectly realistic expectations when she shipped her horses from Southern California up to the Spruce Meadows Masters in Calgary, Alta., last September.
The 23-year-old never dreamed she’d score two big-money wins with her homebred mare, place second amongst a field of international greats with her brand new grand prix mount and qualify for the $937,867 CN International with her veteran horse.
But what surprised Bond most of all was what came immediately after those performances—an impromptu meeting and pop quiz from U.S. team Chef d’Equipe George Morris.
“Right after I had come out of the ring at Spruce he said, ‘There’s three things that I need to ask you,’ ” Bond recalled. “He said, ‘First of all, where do you want to go in this sport?’ ”
Having been on horses since she was 6 months old, the Hidden Hills, Calif., rider was quick to convey that she was aiming for the top. In her youth, Bond had once been named best child rider at the HITS Indio Desert Circuit (Calif.) six consecutive weeks with a different panel of judges each time. She rode in her first grand prix at age 16—where she placed first and second—and completed the 2004 Olympic selection trials three years later.
By her early 20s, Bond had developed a reputation for being a gutsy young talent, and her breakout performances at Spruce Meadows didn’t escape Morris’ notice. Unfortunately, her hairstyle didn’t either.
“He said, ‘OK, my second question is, can you put your hair up in your helmet?’ ” Bond continued, alluding to her lifelong lackadaisical habit of leaving her long, blonde ponytail untucked in the show ring. “And I said, ‘Yes! Yes, I can do that!’ ”
Bond answered Morris’ third and final question—whether she could braid her own horse—with an eager promise to learn. And with that, she had officially earned her U.S. Equestrian Team red coat.
“She stood out in the big ring against the big boys,” Morris said. “I spotted her in top company because she was aggressive, accurate and competitive. And she answered yes to all three of my questions, so I gave her a wild card bid to Argentina.”
Bond and three other developing riders from across the country comprised the Nations Cup team which, under Morris’ tutelage, went on to earn gold at the Buenos Aires CSIO last November. And if the transformation Bond’s career has undergone in the past six months is any indication, she’ll be representing the United States for years to come.
A Beneficial Break
In the past two years, Bond has settled into her position as co-proprietor of her family’s farm, Little Valley. Her father Steve Bond oversees the breeding and training side of the operation, while Ashlee handles the competition. As the daughter of two horse- and Hollywood-loving parents, her predisposition to showmanship has always seemed natural.
“My dad grew up in Israel until he was 12, and he used to steal donkeys from caves of the Arabs and ride them around and then set them loose—the little terror,” Ashlee said, laughing. “I think horses have been a love of his since he was a little boy.”
Steve moved to Los Angeles and pursued a career in acting, most notably starring on General Hospital in the 1980s. But over the years he also managed to find time to rodeo, riding broncs and bulls, and compete successfully in cutting. He worked at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, in Burbank, played polo and eventually took up grand prix show jumping at age 40. His wife, Cindy, who is the COO of a film production and distribution company, also shares his passion for western and English riding.
“The horses were pretty much it,” Ashlee said of her childhood. “My parents really saw the riding as something I would do forever I think, so they put that as my No. 1. School was obviously important, but the riding was it for me.”
Ashlee started lessons at age 3 and soon began showing ponies with the Karazissis family at Far West Farms. She continued to move up the ranks until 2001, when she competed at the North American Young Riders Championships (Ill.), anchoring her fourth-placed team on a horse named Pablo and winning the non-championship division with Fabius 45.
That summer she also placed first and second in her first grand prix, the $50,000 Cosequin Grand Prix at HITS Tahoe (Nev.). She continued full steam ahead for the next three years, training mostly with her father, and tied for 25th overall in the 2004 Olympic selection trials with Fabius 45.
Completing the trials was the greatest learning experience she’d had up until that point, but doubt had already begun brewing in Ashlee’s mind. Like many teenage riders, she was beginning to feel burnt out, and she’d also injured her back that year while trying some young horses in Mexico.
“That was an excuse to be able to quit,” she admitted. “And I felt like I just didn’t have any more goals at that point. It was just life telling me to put it down for a minute and see if it was something that I really wanted. And it was the best thing I ever did for myself, because if I had forced myself to stick with it, I really would have quit for the long run.”
Ashlee took the next 2 1⁄2 years to re-evaluate. Instead of heading to college, she opted to work for her mother’s company, Promenade Pictures, reading scripts. She also dabbled in songwriting and even recorded a track with a producer, but she decided a career in music wasn’t appealing either.
“I love to sing but not actually for people,” she said. “Last year at Thermal [Calif.], they asked me to sing the National Anthem for one of the World Cup qualifiers, and it was the most nerve-wracking experience of my entire life. I’ll ride in a 1.60-meter-plus grand prix every single day and not have any nerves like that. It was terrifying. That’s not for me.”
Still unsure of her aspirations in the fall of 2006, Ashlee accompanied her mother on a trip to New Zealand for some location work on a film. Fittingly, her experiences there were reminiscent of many a teen movie plot: girl travels to a beautiful, remote locale; girl is bored and lonely; girl embarks on a wild adventure and rediscovers her lifelong passion.
“I was sitting on my butt and doing nothing,” she recalled. “So I called around and found a place up in the mountains where you could go riding over 3,000 acres with wild horses and sheep and rivers and stuff.”
When asked about her experience, Ashlee simply told the proprietors that she “could ride,” and they sent her out with a male guide her age.
“After we started going, I think he realized I was a rider, so we eventually ended up just flat-out galloping. He actually ended up falling off, which was pretty funny,” Ashlee said. “But it was the best experience. I totally fell in love with what’s so great about what we do. We’re all about the competition, and that’s important, but it’s really about being one with the animal. It brought me back to the reason I started riding in the first place, and I’d totally lost that.”
“So that was it,” she added. “I got home and haven’t been off a horse since.”
Fast forward two years, and Ashlee is now a dominant young talent. After placing ninth individually in Buenos Aires, she and Cadett 7 are aiming for the Rolex FEI World Cup Final in Las Vegas, Nev., this April. They’ve won three grand prix classes in the past two weeks on the HITS Desert Circuit, and with two more qualifiers to go, Ashlee is currently the third-placed U.S. rider in the West Coast League standings.
“I think Ashlee has made the commitment over the last 18 months to really be serious about getting to the top of her game,” said Richard Spooner, who has helped train Ashlee intermittently since her childhood. “She’s getting better all the time. A lot of the time, success breeds success for young riders. Once they get a shot in the arm, they start believing in themselves, and when they believe in themselves, they ride better and do better. It all spirals up.”
Despite her young age, Ashlee is drawing on a wealth of experience with several different mounts of varying
talent and temperament.
Pablo, a horse the Bonds bought in Europe for a mere $30,000, took Ashlee and Steve into their first grand prix classes. With a drapey front end and a need for major leg, he wasn’t an easy ride. Lapaloupe, on whom Ashlee won that first grand prix, was never expected to make it to that level at all. And her other top horses, Fabius 45 and Chivas Z, were no less complicated. But she said she learned from each and every one.
“Now I’m fortunate enough to where my parents could buy me a made grand prix horse, but back then we figured we might as well do it on our own,” she said. “And I think it made me a better rider. I wasn’t just given made horses; I had to make horses and ride difficult ones. I credit that to why I’m seen as ‘gutsy,’ I think.”
Steve retired from competition when Ashlee returned to the show ring, so all the Little Valley horses are now hers to campaign. That includes several homebred siblings out of their Dutch Warmblood mare Surfer Girl (Best Of Luck—Brave Tune), who are coming up the levels.
“My dad is amazing when it comes to breaking the horses and getting them prepared and knowing what they need, and that’s what he loves,” Ashlee said. “We like to do a little bit of breeding, because it’s so great to be able to say that you made a horse and to take it all the way from being a baby to the grand prix.”
Ashlee readily admitted, however, that her current star isn’t a homebred. Cadett 7, a 12-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Cor de la Bryere—Ginella I), was imported from Europe as a junior jumper mount for Aurora Griffin. The Bonds purchased the horse early last summer when Griffin went off to college, and Ashlee clicked with him almost instantly. Just two weeks after the sale, the pair won the $59,751 Sun Life Financial Reach For The Sun Grand Prix at Spruce Meadows.
“We’ve really formed a bond that I think every rider hopes to feel, and I’m very blessed to have him,” Ashlee said. “And I would say he’s the only one of my horses that’s really straightforward, so I’m really enjoying that!”
Coming off their Nations Cup triumph in Argentina, Ashlee’s coaches agree that she and Cadett 7 are a particularly promising partnership.
“She’s always been incredibly talented,” Spooner said. “Even back when she was a pony rider it was obvious. Now she has a fantastic horse, and she’s done a brilliant job bringing out the best in him. In the past I think the horse had what I would call ‘sufficient’ results, and Ashlee has developed him into an international contender.”
“She’s doing very well on the West Coast this winter,” echoed Morris. “I’m getting good reports. She had a very good reputation [in her youth], and that’s followed her throughout her career so far. She’s definitely a talent for the future.”
Whether or not Ashlee and Cadett 7 make the trip to Las Vegas for the World Cup this spring, the young rider has come a long way from the career indecision she struggled with three years ago. She’s now relishing the pressure of being a serious contender.
“I try not to think about it, but when I have more pressure on myself I tend to rise to the occasion,” she said. “When I went to Spruce with all the people and everything going on there, I put in more consecutive good rounds than I had ever done. And now coming off of the gold-medal Nations Cup team, my horse and I are really coming together, and confidence is so important. So I’m excited, and I hope.”