Leslie Howard has been coming to the Pennsylvania National Horse Show for as long as she can remember. A member of the gold medal-winning U.S. show jumping team at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and the silver medal-winning team at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, she's one of the United States' most decorated grand prix riders.
Howard won the 1986 World Cup Finals (Sweden), but it's been nearly 11 years since she competed at a final. She's hoping that will change with the addition of Jane Clark's Tic Tac to her string. Although it's taken some time to gel with the 10-year-old Belgian Sport Horse stallion (Clinton--Panama Du Seigneur, Darco), she's picked up a series of top placings this summer, including a big CSI-W win at Spruce Meadows (Canada).
Howard took some time out of her busy schedule at Harrisburg to sit down with us and talk about Tic Tac, a recent victory and her Harrisburg memories.
You recently won the $100,000 Angelstone International CSI-W (Canada) with a broken leg. What happened?
“I was at Spruce Meadows and I fell off in the first class, the very first class there. It hurt but I didn’t think it was that bad. I tried to ride the next class, and I did, but I knew it wasn’t very good. So I went to the vet [on the show grounds] and got x-rayed. Long story short, they emailed the x-rays on to my orthopedic guy and sure enough it [the left fibula] was broken.
I really wanted to try to aim for [the Rolex FEI World Cup Final] for next year along with the [Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games], so I’ve sort of been taping it up and going. It’s not bad now; walking is harder than riding. But it’s fine, it’s been about four weeks now. So it’s holding it’s own. I just have to be careful and try not to overdo it.
When you’re winning it doesn’t really bother you that much. Had I lost, that would have really bothered me!”
Did your doctor advise you not ride?
“Well he’s a great guy. He’s a polo player himself and his wife has showed with me over the years. He’s worked with the U.S. women’s ski team a lot, so he’s used to people needing to get back in the ring ASAP [to compete]. It was a very minor injury because it really didn’t involve any ligaments or tendons. It isn't the weight-bearing bone so if you had to break your leg it’s the best way to do it.”
Can you tell me a little bit about your top horse, Jane Clark’s Tic Tac?
“Yes, he’s a lovely horse. Really super. He’s a little bit young and lacking in experience but I think he has all the potential [to go to WEG next year] and it’s just a matter of putting it all together.
He’s 10 this year. As a 9-year-old he had a very good career in Belgium with his previous owner, Jérôme Guery, who’s an excellent rider. And he had really done everything. He’d done some two- and three-star grand prixs, up to his last grand prix with Jérôme, which he won, was actually 1.55-meters. So he was already pushing up that ladder and had a great record and a great career as a 9-year-old.”
What’s he like to ride?
“He’s a great match for me. He’s very hot, he’s very bouncy, and he’s a little feisty. For me it’s a great match because I like them that way.
"I do ride him out maybe two or three hours before [a big class]. He does get a lot of warm-up just to get his focus just because he is a stallion and he does need a good flat to get his brain organized or else he gets a little bit unrideable.”
What has it been like getting to know him this year?
“Like any new partnership, you have to go through the ups and downs. Especially in his case, he’s only been ridden by Jérôme since he was 2. So he only knew one ride. And Jérôme is a very good rider, but everyone is different so it took him awhile to adjust and me to adjust and I would say it started to click sort of mid-summer.”
How long have you been coming to Harrisburg?
“I came [to Harrisburg] when I was 11. I don’t think I’ve missed a year. So 46 years. Scary huh? You know, in those days it was the Medal Finals and then it was the hunters and now it’s the jumpers, it’s the World Cup qualifier.”
Do you have a favorite memory?
“Not really [a favorite memory]. I got a ribbon in the [Medal] finals when I was 12 here. That was a big day for me. I think I was seventh or something. But that was memorable because it was the first ribbon I’d ever gotten in a finals. [Howard also won the 1972 ASPCA Maclay Finals (N.Y.) at age 15.] And I guess my other memorable moment was taking over the ride for Greg Best and I got second in the grand prix [on Gem Twist.] It was my first ride on that horse and he was a lovely horse.”
What are your future plans for Tic Tac?
“The World Cup Final next year. I have very good standings for that right now so that’s looking like it’s a pretty sure go.”
When was the last time you competed there?
“Las Vegas in 2003 on Priobert De Kalvarie.”
How much time do you spend teaching versus riding?
“I still do a fair amount of teaching. Maybe a little more riding, 60/40, but right in there somewhere.
"I do find teaching enjoyable, provided you have kids with talent. And they're hard workers.
"You know, also it’s just part of how one makes a living. I’ve never been very good at making a living through riding and teaching or dealing, and I’ve never been good at selling horses. If I don’t like the horse I find it hard to sell to it to someone else. I’m very bad at that!”
Are you on the lookout for any more horses to add to your string?
“I have two 8-year-olds that are doing nicely, that will hopefully move up next year to do some grand prixs. I’d love to find more horses, the problem is really just finding the people to buy them. I’d love to have 10 horses, but unfortunately for that you need more owners, more sponsors.”
What are your thoughts on the state of U.S. show jumping?
“You just need the best horses, that’s all. With the exception of Beezie [Madden], we don’t really have anyone that has great depth in terms of having the best.
"I don’t think it’s any huge mystery. We just need better horses. It’s not like we don’t have great riders. It’s the case of finding that extra special horse. That’s hard. There are a lot of good grand prix horses out there, but there are very few great championship horses."
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There will be a full report from the senior week of Pennsylvania National in the Nov. 4 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. Check out the Pennsylvania National's website for results. There's also a live feed at USEFNetwork.com.