For the past several years, Sara Gartland has been guided by a new mantra: “Always say yes.” As a result of this philosophy, this horseless Ph.D. candidate has found herself immersed in a riding community that is broader and more diverse than she had ever imagined. From the Devon Horse Show’s Dixon Oval (Pennsylvania) to the streets of Middleburg, Virginia, if there is a horse to ride, Gartland, 30, has probably been there.
Growing up in Cochranville, Pennsylvania, Gartland’s love of horses was strongly influenced by her mother (and fellow horse lover) Judith Gartland, who didn’t have the opportunity to ride as a child. Sara and her sister, Melissa Gartland, were both introduced to horses at a young age and helped with chores on their family’s farm.
“We just dove all in,” said Sara, remembering her early start in the hunt seat arena. “My mom didn’t want us riding out in the fields. I think she thought that keeping us in the ring was a way to contain us.”
The Gartland family worked hard to provide opportunities for both daughters to ride, but they didn’t have the financial resources to afford competitive young horses. Instead, they took on experienced animals approaching the end of their showing careers, competed and learned from them for a few seasons, and in exchange offered the animals a lifetime retirement home. Ten horses currently live at the Gartland’s property, six of whom are fully retired.
Sara and Melissa competed extensively in local and rated hunter divisions, ultimately showing in the “A” level junior hunters. But in high school, a friend of a friend recommended that Sara check out the Cheshire Pony Club (Pennsylvania). Though she didn’t commit fully to the organization, Sara’s brief membership was still influential.
Though only a member for two years, she attended an eventing rally at Fair Hill (Maryland) and was immediately obsessed with the idea of trying eventing herself.
As a teenager, Sara made her eventing debut at Plantation Field (Pennsylvania) riding Sand Dollar, her former large pony hunter. “I think we maybe provided some entertainment,” she said with a laugh.
When Sara was 15, she lucked into her horse of a lifetime. Always A Lady was a strapping 14-year-old Hanoverian-Thoroughbred mare (Abundance—Jamie Ann) who had competed through the advanced level with Virginia Jenkins Rowsell. “Lady” had bowed a tendon, and though the injury had been beautifully rehabbed, the mare was no longer suitable for the intensity of work required to be eligible for elite team selection. “Lady took me from nothing to the advanced level,” said Sara, who competed the mare conservatively during their time together in order to prolong her career. “We ran advanced together when she was 21.”
In 2007, Sara began her undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware, earning bachelor’s degrees in secondary mathematics education and history. She extended her studies to five years, sometimes taking classes only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so she could travel between the university in Newark and where Lady was living in Aiken, South Carolina. Finding the balance between school and the commitment of conditioning an upper-level horse was worth it for Sara in the end. “I knew Lady only had so much time left at the upper levels, and I really wanted to try advanced,” she said.
Their advanced debut coincided with Sara’s graduation, and she was hired at Elkton High School right out of her student teaching program. She worked there as a math teacher for five years while also completing a master’s in education online. With Lady’s retirement and the commitment of real-world responsibilities, Sara wasn’t sure where to go next with her equestrian pursuits.
Luckily for her, Lady wasn’t ready to hang up her shoes just yet.
“Lady wasn’t too interested in actually retiring, so I decided to give it a go with her foxhunting,” Sara said.
Sara first tried foxhunting when she was in her early 20s on Sand Dollar. Despite having tackled cross-country fences larger than most eventers ever dream of, initially, Sara was tentative to try foxhunting. “I had this idea of foxhunting as being wild and crazy and anything can happen,” she said.
But riding alongside her mother and sister with the River Hills Foxhounds (Pennsylvania), Sara and Lady both soon learned that foxhunting allowed them to do what they loved best—cross-country, without the need for the intense conditioning required for upper-level eventing. “I am a competitive person, and this met my desire to learn and grow,” she said. “I saw the camaraderie and fun of it.”
Soon Sara was riding up front with the masters, and she learned how to both manage a field and whip. “Lady loved the hounds,” Sara said. “She just followed them with her eyes. I could just let my reins go, and she would follow them. She was happiest up front or on her own, so being staff worked for her.”
For most amateurs, learning the rules and etiquette of foxhunting on a retired eventer while getting established in a new career would be plenty to do. But Sara has a thirst for new experiences and a family that is all too happy to unwittingly drag her into them.
For nearly five years, Judith and Melissa had been dabbling in the world of side-saddle, attending Camp Leaping Horn in New Jersey every summer and showing lightly in both rated and unrated divisions, but Sara had been reluctant to try it herself. In 2015, her family was competing in a two-day side-saddle extravaganza in New Jersey; Sara planned to cheer them on.
“They texted me to bring dark britches and a stock tie,” she said.
Upon her arrival, she discovered that her family had signed her up to compete in the groom’s class, which is intended for riders who have never previously ridden aside. Dressed in a borrowed habit on her mother’s horse, Sara discovered that riding side-saddle was quite a bit of fun.
“So the next season, I put a side-saddle on Lady,” she said. “I do better practicing on my own, and Lady never loved ring work, so we practiced cross-country.”
Sara began not only foxhunting aside but also competed in U.S. Equestrian Federation hunter derbies and at the Brandywine Summer Series at Devon; she and her sister even rode a side-saddle pas de deux at Dressage at Devon to a “Downton Abbey”/“Game Of Thrones” mash-up.
“I realized that [side-saddle] was a ticket to amazing things,” she said.
As a side-saddle rider, Sara has been invited to participate in the Middleburg Christmas parade as well as the National Side Saddle Show in the United Kingdom. “Riding side-saddle has helped me to realize there is a bigger horse community in this area, doing lots of different things,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be highly competitive to be highly fun.”
Lady died in 2016, but Sara has been able to continue her side-saddle pursuits riding her mother’s mare Wilona WF, a 13-year-old American Warmblood (Waldaire—As You Wish WF). Both mares are products of the Watermark Farm breeding program, where Sara had been a working student. Sara helps her mother to keep her two foxhunters in shape and helped to introduce one of them to the sport this season.
While Sara was expanding her equestrian horizons, as a teacher, she was also learning that social issues were impacting her students’ abilities to learn in the classroom. A professor in her master’s program noticed Sara’s passion for education and personal development and suggested that she pursue a Ph.D. in the future.
In the fall of 2017, Sara returned to the University of Delaware, studying sociocultural and community-based approaches to education. She is currently about halfway through a four-year program, and when done, she hopes to help address social issues in the classroom through research and mentoring of teachers.
Balancing full-time graduate-level coursework, a research assistantship and riding five or six days a week is a skill in and of itself. Sara lives on the family farm and admits that being able to walk out the front door to the barn is a huge advantage. But not having a horse of her own has continued to open up other possibilities for her as well.
“James Paxson, who is joint master and huntsman for River Hills, has been a huge support,” said Sara. “He has a string of wonderful staff horses, and when I am working I can ride them.”
In January of 2019, Sara took a whirlwind trip to Ireland to celebrate her 30th birthday. During her four-day trip, she managed two days of mounted foxhunting, one day on foot with a beagle pack and one day in a car following a stag hunt. “A week or so after I got back, I had the opportunity to hunt with Cheshire, and the morning of that hunt, while mucking stalls, I thought that if I had already accumulated six different hunts just in the month of January, I could probably make 30 happen in the year,” she said.
Now Sara is on a quest to hunt with 30 different packs, mounted or on foot, this year. “I love watching the hounds work and learning how different huntsmen and whips work with their hounds, so this is a very fun goal for me to work towards,” she said.
While Sara still hopes to return to the elite levels of sport in the future, she says that she has also learned the importance of being “responsibly ambitious.” While teaching school, Sara had tried returning to the one-star level in 2015 but took a hard fall at Plantation Field (Pennsylvania). She and her horse both walked away, and she learned an important lesson.
“The horse was fit enough, but I don’t think that I was fit enough,” said Sara. “I will probably try to return to the level I was at before I started to teach full time, and if it happens it’s great. But if it doesn’t, I won’t be heartbroken.”
Sara says that she does some of her best thinking from the back of a horse and often frames papers while wandering around the dirt lanes near her home on a loose rein.
“I have learned there are many cool and fun things to do with horses that don’t require intense levels of fitness or jumping high jumps,” she said. “Just getting on and forcing myself to carve the time out to ride is my moment of zen.”