Free Rein With: Andrew Ellis

Jul 10, 2020 - 8:03 AM

Since 1990, Andrew Ellis has worked his way up the horse show ladder, from jump crew to in-gate to announcer and now show manager, but his climb hasn’t been easy.

Born in California, Ellis moved east after his parents divorced, first to Camden, South Carolina, then to Durham, North Carolina. He grew up riding hunters with Max Bonham, then with Carroll Hill and Carol Barber. He also enjoyed foxhunting and was a junior whip at Red Mountain Hunt (North Carolina).

Ellis’ mother Effie Ellis and stepfather Nick Ellis were both passionate riders, as was his sister Sissy Ellis.

When Andrew was a teen, he volunteered at a local veterinary clinic and eventually left college early to start grooming.

A bad riding accident shattered his leg when he was 16, and after multiple surgeries he developed an opioid addiction. He eventually went to rehab and is now an outspoken advocate for equestrians struggling with drug addiction.

Andrew’s also a popular show manager and announcer. Some of the more than 40 competitions he’s managed or officiated at include the Lexington Spring Premier (Virginia), Lexington National, Keswick Benefit (Virginia), Brandywine Valley Horse Show (Pennsylvania), Rose Mount Farm Horse Show (Virginia), Pin Oak Charity Horse Show (Texas) and USEF Junior Hunter National Championships.

He’s a certified EMT and was chair of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Safety Committee. He’s been involved with several other USEF and U.S. Hunter Jumper Association committees and with USHJA Zone 3. He was a founding director of the USHJA and won the Founding Director’s Award in 2005.

Andrew Ellis- Teresa Ramsey
Andrew Ellis (pictured with wife Catherine Ellis) is a popular show manager and announcer and is a recovering opioid addict who’s used his platform to help other riders struggling with addiction. Teresa Ramsay Photography Photo

Andrew, 50, runs Haven Hill Farm in Warrenton, Virginia, with his wife of seven years, Catherine Ellis. He has two stepchildren, Tyler Thompson, 17, and Hannah Thompson, 22. His daughter, Taylor Ellis, 21, competed as a junior and is currently studying pre-med at North Carolina State University.

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Andrew created and posted an extensive set of guidelines on Facebook that were shared many times and have been adopted by other show management teams.

How is COVID-19 affecting horse show managers? What challenges are you facing?
It creates a lot of unknown, and people, in general, don’t do well with unknown. I think, like horses, horse people like continuity and consistency, and we’re all sort of creatures of habit. We all follow such set routines and go to the same horse shows year after year, so this big deviation creates a lot of anxiety because of such unknown circumstances.

The differences from state to state, for example, in Virginia our governor has not been very clear on what equestrian activities should do, while [in] other states the leadership has been clearer, so they have a direction, but a lot of us don’t have a direction.

Many have struggled with direction from the USEF and what’s happening with points and indoors and junior years. There are just a lot of unknowns.

With the travel associated with horse shows, a lot of people are nervous about staying in hotels, going to restaurants, and what are sports going to look like in the future because of that. That can be a positive though, because I think a lot of people will maybe focus on showing more regionally or locally moving forward. I’ve applied for some new horse show dates in Virginia based on the premise that I think people will want to stay closer to home.

We’ve had to shut down our barn throughout this and have really tight restrictions. There’s a lot of financial uncertainty.

For a lot of us, for the independent contractors that most of us are at horse shows, it really leaves a big unknown, and it’s hard for us to get traditional assistance like for those who can apply for unemployment, or if we worked full time there are benefits to that that a lot of us who work show to show have to worry about.

How do you think COVID-19 will change horse shows in the future?
I think it will change how we travel and the [number] of days we travel. It will change from a manager’s perspective how we set up tents and social gatherings and how many people we allow in spaces like warm-up rings. It will require us to pay more attention to disinfecting things like bathrooms and party areas. That will probably be forever changed.

I think it will change economically the product that we offer the competitor. We may look at people showing over one day instead of two days, trying to lessen the amount of time people spend in hotels and traveling. It’s probably going to require increased staff and materials that could potentially be costs that are put back on the competitor.

You’ve talked openly about your addiction to opiates. When did you realize you were addicted, and how did you turn your life around?
I had an accident when I was 16 and shattered my femur and had about 12-14 surgeries over the years. As I got into my 30s, I had my hips replaced, two times each hip, and I was on a lot of legal opiates. It was during a time prior to our country really recognizing the problem. Doctors didn’t realize the addiction potential for pain medication, and a lot of the doctors wanted to do the right thing and make their patients comfortable. Big pharm was pushing the opiates onto doctors, and they weren’t really being forthcoming about the potential for abuse. The country had a sort of wakeup call and started being proactive about realizing what this medication was doing to people.

One day a friend who is a husband of a trainer approached me and said, “I can tell you’re struggling, and I think you need to get help.” He got me into a rehab in North Carolina called the Samaritan Colony, and I went there for a month. It was probably the scariest, hardest thing I’d ever done. I came out of there, and I haven’t taken an opiate since for the last nine years.

It’s been enlightening because I went back to school to study substance abuse, and I learned a lot from just the education I got in rehab. It allowed me to see the whole opioid epidemic from a completely different perspective being sober.

I studied social work with a specialty in substance abuse and addiction. I have probably two more classes until I finish my degree, so I need to go back and finish.

We’ve had some people in our horse world that have died from overdoses, and I notice that a lot of people don’t like to speak out about it. It’s sort of a hush-hush topic at times, and so I just committed myself to put myself out there to help. If anybody needs help I’ll certainly speak to them about it. I’ve had a lot of people privately reach out to me and ask for help, and I do what I can, either try to get them into rehab or some sort of program or linked up with somebody else in the horse world who’s in recovery.

There’s actually quite a good network of people that are in the same boat. There are a lot of us. I’ve been working at the Charles Town racetrack [in West Virginia], and I was approached by somebody from the track about some drug problems. They had an overdose recently of one of the young exercise riders. We started something in the horse show world called Jump Sober [on Facebook], so we’re starting something in the racing world called Race Sober. It’s going to target opioid and hard drug addiction in the racing world.

We all talk and communicate. We’ll have conference calls or Zoom calls for people who are struggling. A lot of the times it’s just as simple as linking up one horseman or woman to another who’s struggling and just providing a network of support.

What advice do you have for someone who’s struggling? Or for someone who knows a person who’s struggling?
Don’t be ashamed. Most addicts and people who are struggling feel ashamed of their addiction. There’s no reason to be ashamed because a lot of the time you can’t help it. You think about the [number] of horse people who have been hurt or have an orthopedic injury who get prescribed opiates, and they don’t have a choice in that matter. Before they know it, they’re addicted.

If you know someone, be compassionate, and let them know that you’re not going to judge them and that you’re there to help if they want help. If somebody’s addiction is becoming destructive to themselves or others, then that’s where people have to get organized to have an intervention, especially if people are riding messed up or not being responsible parents—things like that.

The best thing is education. Someone asked me once if USEF should have drug testing. I’m not really in favor of that. I think before the USEF does any more regulatory work, they need to spend the time educating people. In addition to having [the USEF] mental health hotline, maybe including addiction services would be a good thing. Some sort of financial assistance program that can help those without insurance go to rehab would be another big thing.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in the horse show industry?
[During the pandemic] it’s dealing with the unknowns. [Generally] it’s probably that it’s so expensive now to rent facilities, staff. For example, one of the shows I do in the spring, our budget is over half a million dollars for the week. You’re running a corporation for a week at a time, and you have one pandemic or let’s say one bad week of weather, and it can be a catastrophic event.

Another thing that worries a lot of the smaller show managers is, like you see the new Ocala facility [World Equestrian Center (Florida)], and I don’t want to pick on them, but there are a lot of mega managers coming out. There’s a guy who has very deep pockets who can do great things for our sport, but it makes a lot of the little show managers nervous that, “Hey, how are we going to compete?” It’s a little like mainstream America, like a small business being knocked out by Walmart. Like what’s happened to the local hardware store because of Home Depot.

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the big management groups; I think they do amazing things for the industry, but we tend to sometimes forget about the little guy.

The most rewarding thing?
The friendships and the family [around each show]. They’re such an important part of our lives because we live and breathe and eat and sleep and are together traveling and navigating the horse show world together. The biggest benefit is the relationships we cultivate. Plus, getting to be around horses and having the freedom that the horse world gives us comparatively to having to go to work every day 9-5 in an office. At least for myself, I’m not the type of person who can go to the same office every day. I’d go stir crazy. It’s really nice that we get to travel. If it’s cold in Virginia, we can pack up and go south. We’re like our own carnivalistic world in a nicer atmosphere than the average carnival!

What qualities do you look for in a horse?
The initial look of the horse—my wife is really good at picking out a certain type. There are so many different reasons we look for horses, but I’d say the most important thing we look for is the certain type. We specialize in hunters, so we want to have that hunter look. We look for a good mover. We look at a lot of 2- or 3-year-olds, so we’re just evaluating them on the movement and initial look.

My wife always asks the people we’re buying horses from in Europe, “Are they snuggly?”

In a person?
Honesty, integrity, open-mindedness and compassion.

What’s the most valuable piece of advice you’ve been given?
Take things one day at a time.

If you could ride any horse, past or present, who would you choose?
Soleil, my wife’s pre-green horse, but she would never let me!

Do you have any hobbies outside of horses?
Scuba diving, fly fishing. I love to read and cook, and we love to travel. My specialty when I cook is probably Italian food. My wife is a pescatarian; my stepdaughter has been a vegetarian. I’m in a household with four or five different cuisine choices, so it’s like being a short order cook!

What’s the last book you read?
“Bravo Two Zero” by Andy McNab, who’s a former SAS operator in the British military.

What’s the last TV show you binged?
“Ozark.”

Is there any other profession you wanted to try?
I am also an EMT, and if I could be anything, it would be a SWAT medic.

What three things are most likely to be found in your refrigerator at all times?
Coca-Cola, whipped cream for my coffee and half-and-half. We drink a lot of coffee!


This article ran in the June 15-29, 2020,  issue of The Chronicle of the Horse as part of our Readers’ Choice Issue.

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