Most people walking a five-star track for the first time are intimidated by the maxed-out fences, tricky combinations and serious terrain. But five years ago, when Booli Selmayr first walked the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L course during a trip to spectate at the event, she had one thought: “I can’t wait to do this.”
Fast-forward to 2022, and Selmayr will finally get her chance. She’ll make her five-star debut in Lexington, Kentucky, with her Irish Sport Horse Millfield Lancando. She and the 15-year-old gelding of unrecorded breeding have had a few bumps on their journey to get to the event, but now she can’t wait to tackle the track she’s been thinking about for years.
“Maybe it’s a childish thing, but if I like a horse I believe every one is going to go to Kentucky, and they have to prove me wrong,” said Selmayr, 34. “I’m very fortunate to have nice horses in the barn right now, and in my mind every one is going to go to a five-star.
“When I tried [Millfield Lancando] he was everything I dreamed of,” she continued. “He’s got long legs; he’s super rangy—he’s everything I’d seen in my Badminton videos when I was a kid. I got him with the intent of, ‘OK, this is going to be my five-star horse.’ ”
A Special Horse
Selmayr got Millfield Lancando from Kevin Keane six years ago when the horse was going preliminary and qualified to go intermediate. She now owns him with Kelly Morgan and Jacqueline Thorne. They started at preliminary, and when Selmayr moved him up to intermediate she realized they still had plenty of communication issues to iron out.
“Preliminary was so easy for him to go around, but really he was just cantering over the fences,” she said. “At that level the combinations are far enough apart, you’re still able to save a situation [if you get in trouble]. When I moved up to intermediate all of a sudden things are that much wider, and you’re traveling that much faster. The questions come up so much quicker—they’re now three strides away, not six strides away. I was like, ‘Oh wow, our rideability is terrible.’
“I’d like to think I’m a relatively crafty cross-country rider, so sometimes I can get things done without the rideability,” she added. “Unfortunately because he was so much bigger than what I’d had to deal with in the past, my craftiness wasn’t working.”
Midway through 2017 “Lance” sustained a suspensory injury requiring six months of stall rest then several more months of tack walking and rehabilitation. Selmayr saw a silver lining in the news that she and Lance would get to hit the reset button on their training. She took her time rebuilding her partnership with him, and they came back to competition a little under a year after the injury.
“We went back out at preliminary, moved up to intermediate; we were checking all the boxes,” she recalled. “It was at Pine Top [Georgia] two years ago that I moved up to advanced. I remember sitting there and saying, ‘If he does this all right then our partnership is good, and everything makes sense, and all the time waiting really came around.’ I left the start box being completely unsure. I was like, ‘Either we’re going to have run outs left and right, and he’s going to be broken afterwards, or I’ll be fine.’ While I was on course I was like, ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had on this horse.’
“Because he’s so big, one assumes he needs an aggressive ride,” she continued. “I had him in a clinic with Lucinda Green, and she said, ‘Gosh, for such a big guy he’s incredibly sensitive, so it’s lucky that he’s got a woman riding him.’ Not saying men are aggressive, but I think as women we tend to be a little more sensitive to how they’re feeling at the time. He has a lot of tension and energy in him even though he keeps it all inside.”
To keep Lance relaxed Selmayr will talk to him as they’re competing, and she says he responds well to verbal praise, even if it draws some strange looks from bystanders.
“I’ll say, ‘You’re just amazing Lance, look what you did,’ ” she said. “It’s really funny because you feel the tension start to defuse when you’re just playfully chatting with him. When I’m training on the flat, if he’s giving me a hard time, I’ll say, ‘Oh, Lance, try harder.’ I know if I kick him then and there, it’s not going to work. He’s very sensitive, but you do need to be consistently there for him. He definitely needs his hand held a little bit. If you stop holding his hand, he’s like, ‘Oh my god, where’d you go?’ ”
Bobby Costello, who’s been helping Selmayr for about five years, has watched Lance develop into a horse who’s ready for a five-star.
“It has been a journey, because he’s not a straightforward ride,” said Costello. “It was probably after the first couple times I helped her at a couple CCI3* shorts and a long that I was like, ‘Wow, this horse is actually a cross-country machine.’ I think he’s always going to be a challenge in the dressage, because he wasn’t built for the dressage to be easy. But she just kept chipping away. She’s gotten quicker and quicker in the cross-country; he’s improved every single year in the dressage, so she won’t be far out of touch after that phase [in Kentucky].”
From The Hunt Field To The Galloping Lanes
Selmayr grew up in Katonah, New York, with parents Klaus and Nina Selmayr. They would take their Arabians on trail rides, but the slow lane never interested Booli. She would abscond into the woods to jump whatever she could find, and when her father would take off galloping, she’d hold on for dear life and follow along, grinning from ear-to-ear.
She joined the Golden’s Bridge Hounds Pony Club (New York), where she got her first taste of both eventing and foxhunting with the Golden’s Bridge Hounds. Her parents had a small farm with nowhere to ride, so as she got older she kept her horse at the hunt’s kennels, and she worked off her board.
“The huntsman, Donald Philhower, was great,” she recalled. “My mom would drop me off in the mornings, and I would help him at the kennels then he’d drive me to school. Then he’d pick me up after school, and I’d work in the kennels. At the kennels they had a big open piece of land across the street, and that’s where I would ride.”
While she did compete and hunt, her focus was always on horsemanship. After earning her Pony Club B rating and finishing high school, she took a series of working student jobs, including one with Mark and Tanya Kyle in England, where she worked with sales horses and upper-level eventers. By the time she was 19 she found herself working as a whipper-in for Millbrook Hunt (New York), working once again with Philhower, who’d moved to Millbrook by that time.
“Honestly, I thought I would only be there two or three years, and I ended up doing it for seven,” said Booli. “I would not trade those years in for anything. Was my life competition focused? No, but the horsemanship that I learned and the learning how to run a barn of horses that had a really tough job with minimal finances was invaluable. You have to figure out how to keep these horses sound and keep weight on them and also learn how to ride them across the country—you really get to learn what a horse is capable of.
“That’s always in the back of my mind when I go to a cross-country course,” she added. “I’m like, ‘You know what guys? This is manicured ground. We can do this. This isn’t some shale rocky hill with potentially wire and a stone wall we have to clamber over at the bottom. You’re fine.’ ”
During her seven years at Millbrook, she started riding Castle Diamond, who took her to her first advanced. As her confidence in herself as a competitor grew, Booli knew if she wanted to excel in eventing she’d have to dedicate herself to the sport full time. So in 2014 she left the hunt and started working for Bonnie Stedt’s Fox Race Farm training event riders. She still had Castle Diamond, whom she’d compete when she had time, and Kerry Millikin, who was stepping away from coaching, sent students her way.
One day Boyd Martin sat her down and told her that she could have a cushy life as a trainer, but if she wasn’t careful that would consume her, so she’d better hustle in her spare time. Mindful of his warning, she started off on her own two years after leaving the hunt, first splitting her time between hunt horses and event horses at her Fox Valley Sport Horses and eventually focusing more on the event horses.
These days Booli has 15 horses in the barn, about half boarders and half horses in training with her for competition or sale. In addition to a few 3-year-olds she also has a rising star in Urania, currently competing at the three-star level, and several mid-level eventers, with Lance at the top of the pyramid.
“She’s always struck me as a very, very good horsewoman; some people have been around horses from the time they were little kids, and she’s obviously been a worker at it since the time she was a little kid,” said Costello. “Those people really interest me as far as helping them. Good horsemen like her are practical and pragmatic, and I think she’s also very hungry and very serious about what she does.”
Showing Her Grit
With a string of horses in the barn and her first Kentucky in her sights, Booli’s life is quite different from just a few years ago when a string of bad luck seemed to plague her.
In 2017 things started off strong as she and Morgan’s Jaeda finished seventh at the Pine Top CCI4*-S (Georgia), but in late spring Lance injured his suspensory. Then at the Pedigree Bromont CCI4*-L (Quebec) Jaeda collapsed and died while on cross-country. A necropsy revealed that the mare suffered an acute diaphragmatic hernia, a common equestrian injury that doesn’t present any warning signs.
Booli was heartbroken, and she credits her support system—including her parents and her boyfriend Alex Conrad—for helping her work through the grief. When she returned to Millbrook, she took one day off to hike and kayak with Conrad, then the next day she was back in the barn riding and teaching. She credits her background in the foxhunting world with teaching her that she could grieve and carry on simultaneously.
“It gave me a little bit of agricultural hardness,” she said. “You can be sad that your favorite hunt horse had to retire because he injured himself, but guess what, hounds still need to be fed, and the other horses need to be exercised. There’s no time out; you just keep going. That helped me cope with getting through it.
“When you’ve grown up having horses in your backyard, you had to work to keep them going, and you never get to pause and say, ‘Woe is me,’ ” Booli continued. “The horses are still hungry, and they still need to be taken care of. I was very fortunate to have parents who would say, ‘Oh, it’s too bad, but you can cry and muck a stall.’ Not that they were rough or tough—they’re the kindest people in the world—but they taught me that I could be sad and keep going.”
Then in November of that year she suffered a fall at home that caused internal injuries and prompted emergency surgery, but she didn’t break any bones. The doctors told her to sit out for six months, but she started riding quiet client horses within five weeks.
“She’s one of those people who tucks [her sadness] away and moves forward,” said longtime friend Sarah Tompkins. “She has moments like any human where things catch up with her, but she has this incredible way of pushing through no matter what. She’s extremely determined.
“Something knocks her down, and she finds a way to pick herself back up again,” she added.
Booli now spends winters in Aiken, South Carolina, and the rest of the year in Millbrook, New York. Her team of trainers includes Costello and Boyd Martin for cross-country, Lendon Gray and Bobbi Carleton for flatwork, and Peter Wylde for show jumping.
“She’s obviously got an unbelievable work ethic, great feel and awesome talent for riding,” said Martin. “She’s also fun to be around, one of these people who is a fierce competitor but always has a smile on her face.”
Gray has been teaching Booli on and off for decades. She described her as an ideal student.
“She’s terrific to teach,” said Gray. “After a lesson she went home and did her homework, and that’s not always a case. [The best students] make the most of the lesson and go home and work on it so we can have a new lesson the next week and not the same lesson the next week.”
Booli heads to Kentucky fresh off a third-placed finish with Millfield Lancando in the advanced at the Cloud 11-Gavilan North LLC Carolina International (North Carolina), held March 25-27. She feels confident with her preparation for Kentucky, which included three qualifying runs at CCI4*-L competitions, one more than was required. As for what she’s looking forward to for Kentucky? Part of that is already in the rearview mirror.
“My favorite part of Kentucky was doing my entry,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I just clicked that!’ I know the entire week is going to be major deep breaths of relief every time I get through a phase. So I think however we finish up the weekend, the end will be my favorite.”
A significant cheering contingent from Area 1 will be traveling to watch Booli compete, and she has instructions for them.
“I keep joking around saying, ‘OK, everyone, get to the Head of the Lake, and everyone wear their swimmies. If I fall off, I need you to all jump in with me,’ ” she said. “It should be a fun crew of people, and it is so kind of them to be making the big trek down to cheer me on and support me. I’m glad I’m giving them a good reason to come.”
This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our April 2022 issue. Subscribers may choose online access to a digital version or a print subscription or both, and they will also receive our lifestyle publication, Untacked.
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