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September 27, 2011

Meet Jennifer Berol Bliss

Photo by Barbara Bower.

Dec. 1, 2002, was a hard day for me. I had officially aged out of the junior ranks. Seemingly overnight gone were the days when riding well and being willing to work hard directly correlated to having plenty of nice horses to show at top shows, without having to worry about much else. The bubble around my horse-crazy, but very safe, world had been burst.

Making the transition from junior to professional was truly like landing in a foreign country with a destination but no roadmap. Or worse yet, no quick fix like a GPS!

I’ve always known where I want to end up. I grew up idolizing riders like Scott Stewart and Louise Serio, who not only consistently won in the professional hunter divisions at the best shows, but also coached their students to wins too. It’s just been a matter of figuring out how to get there.

What I didn't realize at the time was that the glamorous part, like all those beautiful rounds at Devon and indoors, was the end result of so many other pieces of the puzzle fitting together. It was the icing on the cake, the reward for countless hours of planning and hard work.

As a junior, it was essentially all about me. Granted, I kept my horses at home and was very involved in their care and overall program. I was focused and committed to the point of near obsession. My riding was the central point of my whole life.

But all I really had to worry about was how my horses were going and how I was riding. Drop me off at a show, and I could tell you how to prepare and medicate the horses; how to do the office work and organize the braiding; how to ride around the course.

What I was unprepared for and blissfully unaware of was paying the bills; dealing with the complex personalities and opinions of clients; and all the paperwork and procedures that go along with running a business. In a sense, I had a head start growing up in a horsey family and having had a great deal of independence during my junior years.

Don't get me wrong—I had a lot of help along the way and was so fortunate to ride with many great trainers and catch ride many great horses and ponies. But I had a pretty healthy sense of managing horses and the day-to-day horsemanship aspect of it all.

The flip side of that coin, however, was that I mistakenly thought I had the "hard part" in place, and how difficult could the rest of it be? Boy was I wrong! I have come to realize that the riding and teaching is the easy and fun part of a professional's job.

Over the last almost nine years of trying to find my way as a professional, at the ripe old age of 27, I finally feel like I am starting to get closer to my end goals. I have experimented a lot, made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve also figured out a lot. I've learned to put stock in good old fashioned simplicity, whether training the horses by emphasizing flatwork and exercises instead of big jump schools, or just being open and up front with customers. I've learned to ask for help, whether by having someone on the ground for a difficult horse, or to deal with bookkeeping issues. I've been an employee, employer, and partner and learned that communication is a key to any relationship.

2011 is the first year that I’ve had a couple of hunters to show consistently in the professional hunter divisions. I've had some students that I have played a major role in developing over the last few years who have had success on a high level. I have, of course, gotten a great deal of satisfaction from that.

My own riding career, though, is something that I still strive for and dream about like I did when I was a kid on ponies. I am so happy to be making progress in that area, even if only on a small scale right now. This year was the first one since I was a junior that I qualified to show in the WCHR Hunter Spectacular in Wellington, Fla., and will show at all of the indoor shows. I was able to achieve new goals, like compete in the $500,000 Hunter Prix Finals in Saugerties, N.Y., this month and win the WCHR Northeast Region Emerging Pro Award.

Sure, I would love to have more horses to ride and show, but I also have to be present in the process of it all. It took years for me to get from the small ponies to the junior hunters and equitation finals, and I look back so fondly on those years and remember all the fun I had and lessons I learned.

This is just the next chapter in my story and evolution as a horsewoman, only this time I have to deal with the pressures of real life too! I just want to do it the right way, to be fair to my horses and clients and work hard and get closer to my dreams little by little. I try to remind myself that at this age the Scotts and Louises of the world were still on their way up too.

I look at people like Scott, who I know personally and have so much respect for. He is many years ahead of me, but he still loves what he does and always strives to be the best, without ever closing himself off to learning something new. The journey in the horse world really never ends, and that gives me great hope.

Jennifer Berol Bliss had a very successful junior career, which included achievements such as earning USEF Pony Finals championships, national championships in the pony and junior hunter divisions, and top 15 placings in all the major equitation finals. She ran her own business, Harris Hill Farm, from 2007 until 2011. In September 2011, she joined Sleepy Hollow Stables in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., as a rider and trainer.