Getting To The Next Level

Jun 16, 2014 - 10:25 AM
It is because of this incredible horse that I was able to step into the grand prix ring for the first time. Photo by Elegant Strides Photography

Finding out you’ve been selected to be a part of the George H. Morris Gladstone Program inspires a lot of different feelings. Beginning at the application process, you ask yourself, “Am I good enough? Am I experienced enough? Do I have all of the resources to do this correctly? Am I even the type of candidate this program is looking for?”

In my (almost) 30 years I have worked my way through the levels to finally achieve a lifetime dream of competing at the “grand prix” level. I say “grand prix” because most of the classes I compete in are 1.45-meter and lower, but I know there is another level out there.

I want to be a part of the competitions that draw high-caliber riders and horses from around the world, that are designed with an increased degree of technicality, and that offer a high level of achievement. Being a part of the George Morris program is my first real step towards those competitions, and I will stop at nothing to be a player on that international stage.

Growing up in Minnesota, with an irrational fear of riding yet still demanding to be taken to every other week lessons, I was not the student you foresaw having a career in the horse industry… ever. I lucked out—I learned from a man that believed in classical horsemanship, from a generation that followed the greatest horsemen of the ‘60s and ‘70s. A focus on flatwork and an emphasis on the horses’ well being was the standard.

I rode with Bill Nunn of Skyrock Farm from the age of 9 until after I graduated from William Woods University. While at school, Linda McClaren and the rest of the WWU faculty continued to teach me valuable lessons. I lost my hunter/jumper snobbery and learned a love for riding Saddlebreds.

Kim and Andy Barone were my next advisors. Kim, an inspirational young professional, showed me how to run a business, while Andy taught me how to win, how to sell horses and how to be tough. When I graduated from college and tried to get a “normal” job, it was clear that being in the horse business wasn’t a choice anymore, it was what I was destined to do.

Then, 1,700 miles south of the beautiful state of Minnesota (I have an overwhelming amount of state pride!) I found myself as an assistant trainer in the unlikely city of Tucson, Ariz. Though at many points I thought moving to Arizona was a huge mistake, it turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.

I opened my own training program, Ashbrook Farm, in 2010, and have watched it grow from only four horses in training to more than 20 in just four short years. It was a terrifying gamble, and quite frankly still is, but one that has paid off in more ways than one. Managing both humans and equines (mostly the humans) is the most challenging and rewarding experience I have ever encountered.

It was here that I stumbled upon one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities with a beautiful, athletic, and unbelievably wise mare, Whisper VC, whom her teenaged owner had lost interest in.

Although she came to me a few months after having a foal, overweight, and very hairy, she had large ears and brown eyes that looked straight at me as if to say, “I know more than you.”

It turns out, she was right.

The once fat and hairy bay mare turned out to be a school horse at the grand prix level. It is because of this incredible horse that I was able to step into the grand prix ring for the first time at HITS Arizona in 2012. She held my little hand and told me to keep breathing, since she could sense that was a struggle.

I bought Whisper and paid her off over a two-year period. I’m still not quite sure how I did that while paying for the rest of my life expenses, but I did. I’d do it again because to me, any sacrifice is worth wearing those white breeches in the biggest class on Sunday. It’s what I live for. The sense of appreciation I have for Whisper can’t be put into words.

She has allowed me to do the one thing I have always dreamt about, given me the confidence to bring other horses up to this level, and is truly the reason I have the opportunity to participate in this amazing clinic with one of my life-long idols.

I was one of 20 riders in the country selected for the 2014 Gladstone training program with George Morris. I’m headed to Annali-Brookwood Farm in Antioch, Ill., on June 23-28 to ride in front of George Morris. I am most likely the greatest “underdog” of the group. I haven’t been to a show since April, I’m taking a client’s horse on which I have done one grand prix (and who is supposed to be a children’s/adult jumper), and oh yeah, I had an emergency surgery to remove my appendix a week ago.

Are all of these things ideal? No. However, few things in my life thus far have been ideal.

Luck, perseverance and a lack of known limitation have gotten me this far and I don’t foresee giving up anytime soon. I will show up to that program with my overly packed tack trunk, a fit and capable horse, a mostly fit and capable human and a grit and desire to get to the next step in my career.

Ashley Stannard is a young professional who owns and operates Ashbrook Farm in Tucson, Ariz. She and her Ashbrook Farm clients compete at shows throughout the Southwest. Ashley is also a member of the USHJA Zone 8 Jumper Committee.

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