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June 30, 2014

Ringside Chat With Lillie Keenan: Expanding Her Horizons

Lillie Keenan has made quite an impression on the grand prix ranks with Pumped Up Kicks and now she's headed to Europe for her first Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup competitions. Photo by Mollie Bailey

At 17 years old, junior rider Lillie Keenan already has a long list of accolades to her name in the hunter, jumper, and equitation competitions. Keenan was grand junior hunter Champion at the Devon Horse Show (Pa.) in addition to finishing as reserve champion at the United State Junior Hunter National Championships–East (N.Y.) in 2013.

Her first grand prix victory came in June last year at the $125,000 Purina Animal Nutrition Grand Prix at HITS Saugerties (N.Y.). Later that summer, she earned team and individual gold medals at the Adequan/FEI North American Junior & Young Rider Championships (Ky.) before capturing team silver and individual gold at the Randolph College/USEF Junior Jumper Championships (Pa.).

Keenan capped her year by taking home two of the most prestigious equitation titles in the country—the Pessoa/US Hunter Seat Medal Final (Pa.) and the ASPCA Maclay Final (Ky.).

Not surprisingly, Keenan was awarded the Junior Equestrian of the Year by the U.S. Equestrian Federation at the end of 2013. She’s the first to acknowledge that last year was her best year yet, and she’s not wasting any time in continuing her climb up the ranks. Keenan has focused herself on the grand prix arena, where she has already made her mark with her horse Pumped Up Kicks, an 11-year-old warmblood gelding.

Now, her sights are set on her first senior Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup competition—she has been chosen to compete for the United States in Ascona, Switzerland on July 24-27 and in Bratsilava, Slovakia on Aug. 7-10.

You got to ride Beezie Madden's mounts Vanilla and Amadora at the Spruce Meadows Canada One Tournament on June 24-29, where you rode Amadora on the winning team in the Paramount Resources 1.30-meter Prix des Nations and rode Vanilla on the winning Paramount Resources 1.40-meter Prix des Nations team. Did you feel any pressure in the ring on her horses?

I think a lot of it was self-inflicted [laughs]. I knew that both horses were perfectly schooled and perfectly prepped, so if anything went wrong it was going to be me! But John and Beezie didn’t put any pressure on me; actually John Madden told me that the most important thing was that I enjoy the experience. It goes without saying that I felt like all the eyes were on me, though!

Your first show with Vanilla and Amadora was the Old Salem Farm Spring Horse Show (N.Y.) in May. How did that opportunity come about?

I showed both Vanilla and Amadora the in a 1.35-meter class and the medium junior jumpers. Vanilla won the medium junior classic and Amadora was fourth. I was also at school when I found out I would get to ride them!

John Madden had talked to [my trainer, Andre Dignelli] and said that they wanted to see the horses with a different rider. It can be intimidating to get on two horses that have been ridden by one of the best riders in the world, but I think they just wanted to see what they would do with a rider that wasn’t quite as experienced.

They were some of the nicest and best-schooled horses I have ridden. Neither of them was as difficult as I thought they would be! They’re really awesome and game, and they both want to win.

I think the reason they look so easy with Beezie is that they are just so incredibly well schooled. When they go in the ring, it’s something that they’ve already done a 100 times. And their flatwork is unbelievable!

Did you get any coaching from Beezie?

John helped me in the beginning, and actually Beezie prepared one horse for me the first day of Old Salem. After the show got going, Beezie did help me and put me in the ring. She told me some things I’ll keep with me forever.

Just having a different person telling you something, you learn so much. I’ve been with Andre for seven years, and he taught me how to ride and much more. I am where I am today because of him, but to have someone else—especially someone with Beezie’s accolades—watching me that knows the horses so well was an incredible experience.

How did you first find out that you made the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup teams?

I was in school when they sent out the email. My mom texted me—between classes, not during class!—and she said, “Did you see the email?”

So I thought “Oh, no. Maybe I should prepare myself [for not making the team].” And then said she “You made it!” I was really excited. And nervous. I was really thrilled!

Were the Furusiyya FEI Nations Cup teams a goal for you this year?

Last year was, I think, probably the best year I’ve ever had in my riding career and it might be my best year for quite some time. I was very successful in the young rider and junior divisions, and I wanted to work my way up. I applied [for the tour] because, right now, I have two really special horses. I figured I’d take a shot.

I didn’t go into thinking I would get chosen. I think it’s fantastic how they want to start and plant the roots so that the younger generation can really get experience. There’s a point at which my peers will make up the Olympic team, and getting experience in international competition for a championship-type event when you’re younger is extremely beneficial.

I went into it thinking, “I’m going to work toward [getting chosen for a Nations Cup team].” If I made it, awesome, if not, I’d reapply next year. My main plan for the year was to try to the bigger classes and get my feet wet in international competition.

Will this be your first time competing in Europe?

The first time I’ve ever shown internationally is now that I'm here in Spruce Meadows [Alberta, on June 23-July 13]. But I won’t have shown at any events outside of North America before we go to the Nations Cups.

How do you think your horses will handle the experience?

Londinium has been to some huge international shows with his previous rider, so I know that he is used to big, exciting events. I purchased both of them from Europe, so they’ve already made one trip in the other direction. I’m hoping that going back goes just as smoothly!

Pumped Up Kicks, or Kix, showed in the German championships once, and it was the only time before I got him that he really showed in a true 1.60-meter event. He doesn’t have as much experience at those type of events as Londinium does, but I’ve jumped bigger tracks on Kix. I think both of them will be fine, but it will be a newer experience for Kix, for sure.

Is showing at Spruce Meadows helping you to prepare for Europe?

I think that at least I’m showing outside of the country! I’ve been to shows in Europe, just as a spectator. Andre will go with me, and he has shown internationally plenty of times. Luckily I’ll have him and all of my teammates, so it will be a new experience, but an exciting one.

Depending on who you ask, there are definitely different expectations, but I just want it to be a positive experience. They have the program to bridge the gap between young riders and professionals, and it’s incredible that our country can do that. It’s vital to the future success of our team, and to feel like I’m a part of that, I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. Andre’s expectations are to learn a lot and have fun.

Want more? We've chatted recently with...

Bert Mutch, who took three years away from showing and now is back winning in the hunter and grand prix rings.

Katie Dinan, who's on the short list for the U.S. show jumping team for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

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