Alexis Mierzwa has wanted her own horse for as long as she can remember. A hard worker with fine attention to detail, Mierzwa learned the ins and outs of caring for high-performance horses as a teenaged working student at SBS Farms in Buffalo, New York, under Susie Schoellkopf and Jen Alfano.
While finances prevented Mierwza, now 42, from owning a horse of her own, her time at SBS helped lay the foundation for her partnership with the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood-Thoroughbred mare Ever Sinful, whom she began leasing in August 2018.
“Coffee Bean” is the first horse Mierzwa has leased, and that experience has given her the confidence to finally contemplate buying something of her own. With more experience under her belt and with the support of ad hoc trainers—including eventer Karen Conk and hunter/jumper trainer Sandra Ruiz—Mierzwa is ready to take her passion to the next level.
“At SBS, we only got them older, pretty well trained being as it was a sales barn,” said Mierzwa. “If there was anything young-ish, the professional was riding it, so that’s something that I haven’t really experienced much with, and I’d really like to do that. I think I’m capable of doing that now with the education I have; I have a great support system—especially where I’m located in Virginia—to accomplish that. The other thing too is I really can’t afford to buy something to go out and compete at the level I compete at, so I’m going to have to get something and make it.”
In her time as a working student, Mierzwa learned the importance of maintaining a sense of gratitude while keeping her head down and working hard. These perspectives have extended into her dentistry career, where she works to empower those around her at Cedar Creek Dental, the Winchester, Virginia, practice she opened in 2015.
“When I started this practice, the goal was to create a work environment where people wanted to come to work every day; they had fun at work; they were proud to be a part of this team and what we do,” said Mierzwa.
“I’m a little bit of a late bloomer with a lot of things, but my pursuit of happiness is a well-balanced work-life relationship,” she added. “It took me a long time to figure out what that happiness is, and I’ve found that I do really enjoy taking young people and helping support them to find their destiny and their goal and their place in life, and I get a lot of fulfillment out of that. With the horses, just to learn more, be a better horsewoman and just trying to be successful at that, too, because it’s the first time in a long time that I can afford to show and do everything again.”
Testing The Balance
A horse-obsessed kid, Mierzwa had long dreamed of becoming a veterinarian, but she changed course in college. “I always kind of knew I was going to go down the medical path,” she said. “I realized I like animals a little too much, so I needed to do something that wasn’t so emotional for me.”
Mierzwa moved on to dentistry, and she graduated from the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine (New York) in 2004. She relocated to Los Angeles for her general practice residency at Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital. She began working for Winchester Dental in 2009 in Winchester as an associate and eventually realized she wanted to start her own practice.
Though building her own business was a huge time commitment, Mierzwa knew she still needed to carve out saddle time. She leaves home for work at 7 a.m. and will head to the barn after hours around 6. She gets home just before 9 p.m.
A little over a month after Mierzwa began leasing Coffee Bean, the pair debuted at the Lexington National Horse Show (Virginia) in August 2018. They didn’t place in their first class, but the mare attracted attention after she approached the low adult amateur jumper division like it was a 1.50-meter grand prix.
“She’s really hot, and I needed to learn that with the hot ones, you need to ride with more leg, and I was kind of taking it off because she was hot,” said Mierzwa. “So, flat lessons for days helped. We got the mechanics fixed, and she learned that she didn’t have to save both of us, and she only had to jump as big as the jump was, so after that, each day got better.”
Mierzwa set her sights on attending the 2018 Washington International Horse Show Regional Horse Show and Zone 3 Finals (District of Columbia) with Coffee Bean. There, she rode to a second-placed finish in the Adult Amateur Jumper Zone 3 Championship. In 2019, the pair qualified to attend the Washington International Horse Show and the Pennsylvania National Horse Show.
“When I first got Coffee Bean, I was like, ‘Here are some lofty goals for the year; let’s set them,’ ” said Mierzwa. “When I got in, it was pretty emotional because we worked really hard, and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it.”
Owning her practice means she never has to ask permission to take time off for a horse show, but she also can’t ask someone else to cover her work.
“A lot of times, it means I’m up late at night doing admin work, treatment plans, payroll, all sorts of paperwork that an owner needs to address,” said Mierzwa. “So, I just have to find time in between for that and be there for my team even when I’m not in the office through either email or phone calls. But the horses I absolutely make time for. It’s hard, and sleep is usually the thing that loses when I’m getting that done, but it’s OK; I’m having fun.”
One challenge of practice ownership Mierzwa hadn’t anticipated was a global pandemic. Her practice caters to people who fear going to the dentist. From the specially trained staff to the patient massage chairs to the certified therapy dog George Washington, a Brazilian Mastiff who helps calm patients, the practice is set up to help patients relax.
And the business model was working until COVID-19 hit.
“We were closed for a month,” Mierzwa said. “I was doing a lot of treatment—emergencies and hygiene—during that month. It’s hard because I had to lay off people, and we’re just starting back up full time.
“We’re still having some patients fall off because they’re scared,” she added. “I’ve invested some money in upgrading some things to accommodate for this, extra gear and such. We’re making a go of it.”
Stress-induced effects of the coronavirus have also affected Mierzwa’s health, and she recently had her first multiple sclerosis flare-up in 15 years.
“I’ve had a pretty significant relapse,” said Mierzwa, who was diagnosed with MS during her first year of dental school. “My vision is bad all of a sudden from all the bad stress. It might affect my practice. We’re open for full business today, but I’m having to limit what I’m doing a little.
“I’m on steroids to calm it down and see how it settles,” she added. “If I need to go get glasses I will; I’ve never worn them before. Hopefully, it won’t be permanent. Far vision isn’t really good. Close up’s not too bad. Of course, I rode all weekend. The [MS] might affect that. If it doesn’t go away, I don’t know how much jumping I’m going to be able to do.”
She’s still intending to try, though. She’d hoped to go young horse shopping in April, but with travel restrictions in place, that plan is on hold. She hasn’t given up her dream of owning her own horse, but for now, Mierzwa is just grateful for her time with Coffee Bean.
“I’m learning a lot about ownership,” Mierzwa said. “She’s not at a full-service facility, so I get out there almost every day to groom her, make sure she’s OK. I’ve got to set up all the vet appointments and keep an eye on those things that have to do with her. I’ve never had [a horse] for a long, extended period of time, so you start building that relationship.”
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