A typical week in Briteney Mercer’s life as a criminal defense lawyer might involve 70-plus hours working on six or seven separate cases, a trial or two in court, a quick yoga session and some time with her boyfriend, but all of her stress melts away after a three-hour weekly commute when she steps into the barn for some quality time with her adult amateur hunter, Conviction.
“Riding is the only time in my life when I think there’s literally a physical shift in me when I get to the barn and get out of the car,” she said. “That’s the only time when I don’t have to think about shutting off the lists in my head and the other things I’m worrying about. It’s the only time when I just get to focus on what I’m doing and I’m so in the moment that I don’t even have to think about reminding myself to be in the moment.
“It really does feel to me like the best therapy in the world. I think that I would have a hard time finding any quiet in my mind if I didn’t have the time that I spent at the barn,” she continued.
Mercer grew up near Seattle and rode competitively on the Appaloosa circuit. She won multiple national and world titles as a youth, and continued riding through college, paying her way by working at a barn and using her student loans.
“I didn’t tell my dad!” she said with a laugh.
After graduating from law school at the University of Washington, Mercer realized she didn’t have the time or money to keep riding, but just couldn’t give it up completely.
A trainer at the western barn where she rode in college suggested trying a hunter/jumper barn where she would be able to ride a school horse. She found Archway Equestrian Sports in Woodinville, Wash., to be the perfect fit.
“As soon as I started riding at a hunter/jumper barn, I was totally hooked,” she said. “That was 2003 and I’ve never gone back to western.”
While she had a job right out of law school, Mercer found she didn’t always have a predictable schedule, so when she got her first raise, she started leasing a horse who taught her the ins and outs of jumping.
Mercer, of Seattle, was able to eventually afford her own horse, an off-the-track Thoroughbred she named Acquitted, who she trained to be her first adult amateur hunter. She eventually sold him to a warmer climate due to some health issues and bought Conviction, or “Winston,” a year and a half ago.
Around the same time, Mercer started training with Jeff and Shelley Campf at their Oz Inc., near Portland, Ore., which involves a three-hour drive that she makes every Saturday morning after spending time with Brian, her boyfriend of 10 years. She comes home Sunday evenings.
“I hate to say it, but he knows where my priorities are!” she said. “I see him all week, but it’s definitely hard. My vacations are spent at horse shows. My weekends are spent with Jeff and Shelley in Oregon. He’s incredibly patient and incredibly understanding about it. I feel like I’m lucky to have someone supportive.”
Winston, a 6-year-old Holsteiner gelding (Cassiano—F-Lucia), lives with the Campfs during the height of the show season, but comes home in late September to live with their former assistant trainer, Tara Neculescu, who’s based about 30 minutes from Seattle, making it a bit easier for Mercer to stop by and ride after work during the winter months.
Mercer, 37, competes Winston in the adult amateur hunters and Shelley campaigns him in the pre-greens.
“I have a hard time with the buying and selling aspect of horses,” said Mercer. “I like to have a horse that’s also a pet. This one really fits the bill. He’s totally an amateur horse—he lets me take him on walks and spend all the time I want sitting in his stall. I’m sure if Shelly ever has to do him in the conformations she’ll have a heart attack. Sometimes I have to step away from the jumps when she’s schooling him because if he sees me, he constantly looks for treats!”
Mercer noted that as an amateur, it’s important for her to have a trainer who understands the stresses she faces on a daily basis, and Shelley fits that bill.
“She’s the first coach I’ve ever had that really seems to understand some of the special stresses that amateurs deal with—between dealing with the costs and balancing a career and getting to the barn and making it all work,” she said. “She really seems to get that. She spends equally as much time focusing on having fun and making it worthwhile and making it a positive experience and I’m so grateful to her for that. She and Jeff are just top-notch coaches.”
“I really think that amateurs are a unique breed,” Mercer continued. “We’re stressing about so many things at the same time. I think sometimes I come to the show and I am so wound up because I’ve had to wrap up my work and on Monday I know I’ll have a trial and I have four days [at the show] and I know I have to be good and I don’t want to waste my time and my money. Shelley does such a good job of reminding me that this is what I do for fun. This is what I do to calm down.”
Because she only has one horse and can only ride at the shows during the competition season, Mercer makes sure she’s fit to ride by doing yoga and barre classes, although she admitted it’s not the same as quality saddle time.
“I feel like amateurs get such a bad rap because we do stupid things in the ring, and it’s not like I don’t hear what my coaches are saying, but sometimes my brain just leaves my body in the ring!” she joked. “It’s so nice to know that when I come out, if I have an ‘amateur moment,’ that Shelley’s just going to pat me on the leg and say, ‘We’ll figure it out, but did you still have fun?’”
Since she’s been practicing law for 12 years, at Schroeter Goldmark and Bender for the last four, Mercer has the ability to make her own schedule, but if she misses work for a horse show, she knows she’ll have a busy week playing catch up.
“Usually I can balance it,” she said. “I take a look at my schedule for shows next year this time of year and I put horse shows on my calendar. My paralegal knows those are dates you just don’t plan anything else!
“There are obviously things I can’t work around,” she continued. “My clients’ cases go to trial. A few years ago I had a murder trial that lasted for six weeks. It was rough. I could certainly see the effects of not being able to ride. I was in trial every day for six weeks. Having something like that where somebody’s life is literally on the line takes a huge emotional toll, but not being able to have my release and my time at the barn took a huge toll on me too.”
Mercer finished her season as the USHJA Zone 9 adult amateur, 18-49 champion. She’s hoping to compete on the East Coast next fall in the adult amateurs and the Ariat National Adult Medal, but whatever happens, she’ll just be happy for the experience.
“My goal is to go to Capital Challenge [Md.] next year and I feel like I’m really with the right person to do that, but I also feel like if I screw up, it’s not going to be the end of the world and we’ll laugh about it and have a glass of wine at the end of the day,” she said.
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