This young professional’s limited funds haven’t stopped her from living her dreams.
I’ve emerged!” joked Marla Amormino after topping the 2010 World Champion Hunter Rider Emerging Professional year-end national standings. But really, Amormino, of La Crescenta, Calif., came into her own long ago and is just now getting the accolades that her years of hard work have earned.
Buckling down and getting things done on the way to a goal is nothing new for Amormino. In 1996, her last year as a junior rider, she made a deal with trainer Karen Healey. Amormino got to travel east to the indoor equitation finals—a goal her finances could never accommodate—because Healey and others pitched in to make it possible.
Amormino, who’s never owned a horse of her own, had spent all year working with Healey to develop East And West from a green prospect to a reliable equitation mount.
“She had worked with this little horse for a year, and I feel like when kids work hard, they deserve the experience,” Healey said. “She was always nice and appreciative. There were actually some other clients in my barn who very nicely pitched in to help with the expenses because they all liked her.”
Part of the deal Healey made with Amormino was that in exchange for riding East And West and going to indoors, Amormino was responsible for all of the horse’s care. Amormino mucked his stall, groomed him, wrapped him and attended to him all the way through the finals.
“Karen paid for the horse’s flight, and she didn’t charge me training,” Amormino said. “Indoors wasn’t so successful for me, but it was a great experience. I thank her to this day for helping me do that.”
Amormino, 33, has spent the time since that last junior year steadily building her skills as a professional horseman. For the last three years, she’s worked as the road manager and assistant trainer for Jim Hagman at his Elvenstar Show Stables in Moorpark, Calif. She organizes the horses’ and Hagman’s schedules, does the office work, rides and teaches.
“She’s very talented, and everything she rides loves her, from the small ponies to the big giant warmbloods,” said Hagman. “She’s got a wonderful feel, and she’s also a great person to be around.”
Making A Life Of It
Riding and showing have been Amormino’s first love ever since she started at age 9.
“I started at the pony rides in Griffith Park, where they strap you in and you go round and round. Then we’d rent horses, and my dad would take me on the trail western. One day I saw kids riding at the [Los Angeles Equestrian Center] in Burbank, jumping with their helmets and boots, and I said, ‘Daddy, can I?’ That was it. It was over,” Amormino recalled.
Amormino started taking lessons at The Paddock Riding Club in Los Angeles, Calif. “I’ve known her since 1989 when she was a 10-and-under rider,” said Hagman. “I saw her every weekend at the L.A. County shows for years. She rode whatever there was to ride.”
Eventually, Amormino began riding with the Karazissis family at their Far West Farms and spent her last three junior years with Healey.
But Amormino’s family’s finances prevented her from having the typical junior career of multiple ponies and junior hunters. She made her way through her junior years on catch rides. “It bugged me that I couldn’t have horses as nice as everyone else, but it didn’t make me mad or negative,” Amormino said. “I knew that if I had a horse, I couldn’t afford to show. It was one or the other. Nick Karazissis and Karen Healey always made sure I had a horse to show.”
When she graduated from high school, Amormino had to make some tough choices. “We didn’t have the money to send me away to college, but Nick Karasissis said he had a job for me if I wanted it. It was in Malibu, and hey, what am I going to say to that?” Amormino said.
There, she taught a lot of beginners but also got to show. “That’s what got me into it,” she said. “I decided the money was pretty good, and it’s what I love. So I decided to make a life of it.”
Amormino spent some time working for Betsy Woods and Randy Henry, then found her way to grand prix rider Richard Spooner for three years. “I did all of the billing and organized horse show entries, so all Richard had to do was ride,” she said. “I didn’t show very much, but I got to jump a lot of big jumps in lessons. I learned a ton about the jumpers.”
“Marla was always a fantastic worker,” Spooner said. “She was very passionate about the horses and always put the horses first. It’s about a lifestyle with Marla; she’s a horseperson. I always felt comfortable having my horses under Marla’s care.
“What I most liked about Marla was her ability to cowboy up,” Spooner added. “I have a tendency to have some horses that are a little on the wild side, and although she came from a hunter and equitation background, her passion outweighed her concern for her own physical safety. I always respected that. It takes a lot for someone to tough it out on the most difficult of horses as well as have the skill to ride the quality horses with subtlety and touch.”
Putting Education To Work
After her first stint at Spooner’s farm, Amormino struck out for some different experiences. She worked for trainer Randy Durand and then with Cece Durante-Bloum at Newmarket. Along the way, she started an association with the Esse family, helping Olivia Esse with her ponies.
That relationship with the Esses led her back to Spooner’s farm four years ago. She helped Olivia with the hunters and equitation horses, while Spooner trained the jumpers. They stayed there 10 months, then the Esses moved to train with Hagman, and Amormino went along, taking her job with Hagman.
“To this day, I say to myself, ‘Oh, I learned that from Randy Durand. Or from Richard or Karen.’ I’ve taken a lot of knowledge from everyone, and I think it’s great,” she said. “I can’t tell you how much I’ve learned from Jim [Hagman], too. He’s a nice man and a hard worker and very supportive. He’s taught me so much. I couldn’t have won the Emerging Pro award without his teaching.”
There weren’t many rides for Amormino to show for Hagman, since his business focuses on junior and amateur students, but she made the most of what she had. She showed Sydney Hutchins’ Cappuccino in the 3' pre-green division and Esse’s Illusion in the regular working hunter classes.
In 2010, Amormino and Illusion showed in the regular working division just four times over the summer, then earned good ribbons at the Capital Challenge (Md.) and Washington International (D.C.) indoor shows. Esse was grand junior hunter champion on Illusion at Washington.
Hagman points to Illusion’s transformation to winning hunter as part of Amormino’s education. “Illusion had been a jumper, so his idea of leaving the ground was to load up and spring. I showed Marla how to get the right canter, get his head and neck out, and get him long and slow so he had to push off the ground and round over the jump. She learned a lot about how the horse’s body worked in jumping. And she has such great feel and ability that it’s easy for her to do as soon as she learns how to do it,” he said.
He added that she has a great eye for distances, balance and timing. “She has a great background and education, but at some point you have to stop just riding whatever you have to think about, ‘What’s this horse all about?’ and figuring out how to get the best out of them,” added Hagman. “Marla’s a small person, so she can’t physically battle a horse. She has to find a way to get them to work with her.”
Standing just 5'1", Amormino can still hop on ponies and ride effectively. “I can’t say enough terrific things about her. She can ride a small pony and a 17.2-hand warmblood and do a great job on both,” Hagman said.
This winter, Amormino expanded her education even further, traveling to the FTI Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.) for three weeks, helping trainer Liz Reilly with some ponies. At the end of her time there, she rode Illusion in the World Champion Hunter Rider Palm Beach Hunter Classic Spectacular and watched Esse ride Small Affair to the top of the WCHR Junior/Amateur Palm Beach Hunter Classic Spectacular.
“It’s really great. One day I jogged eighth, and Louise Serio was behind me. I figured that was like winning. In one class, I was second to Peter Pletcher with a 90. I was like, ‘Really, a 90 didn’t win?’ It was great being around new people, and it was fun to experience,” Amormino said.
With the Emerging Pro title on her résumé, Amormino looks forward to making an impact on the WCHR Professional national standings this year. “Right now, I want to try to make the top 10 in the nation for WCHR. Last year I finished 13th, which is really good,” she said.
Hagman is encouraging her in her quest. “There are a lot of good riders, but there are very few who get a chance to be great, especially with riders like John French and the rest, who get offered the rides first,” he said. “But she’s a great rider. And she’s just a nice person. She’ll never be the kind of person who gets too big for her breeches.”
Amormino isn’t planning on breaking out and building a business of her own in the near future. “At the moment, I’m happy doing what I’m doing, and I still have to think about what my future holds,” she said.
Regardless of what happens in the future, Amormino has won the respect of her fellow professionals. “She really wants to be successful in the sport, and it’s in her to be one of the best,” said Spooner. “She’s had to start from nothing and gradually work her way along, so I’ve been very happy to hear of her success.”