Alexandra Ryden is perfectly comfortably among the sea of custom Vogel and Der-Dau boots at the Hampton Classic, but they are sometimes a reminder of just how far she’s come from where she started, getting outfitted for her first summer pony camp with a pair of faux-leather cowboy boots from that famous tack store called Target.
“That’s how much we knew what we were doing,” she said with a laugh.
Neither of Ryden’s parents come from horsey backgrounds; it was a childhood friend desperate for a buddy to attend the local pony camp with her who started Ryden’s journey.
“She wanted to do a horseback riding camp,” said Ryden. “No one in my family had ever ridden before, so we had no idea what we were doing.”
“I started that one-week day camp, and then I loved it so much,” she said. “And so I begged my parents for a weekly lesson. I did a weekly lesson for a year, and then we slowly progressed to leasing a pony. Then we bought our first pony to do the short-stirrup, and then I read about Pony Finals. I told my mom I wanted to do Pony Finals, so we found a barn in North Carolina that did local AA shows, with Laurel Tinney.”
Fast forward about a decade, and Ryden is training with Stacia Madden with an impressive string of top-level horses. Four of her five mounts will be with her in Bridgehampton, New York, this week, showing in the equitation classes, junior hunter and the high junior jumper division at the Hampton Classic.
Ryden knew early on that she wanted to go all-in with horses and be competitive, after seeing glimpses of that sport in the glossy pages of magazines.
“When I started riding my grandma subscribed me to a bunch of horse magazines,” she said. “That’s how I discovered that there is a whole other level to riding, past what I was doing at the time. It started with reading about Pony Finals and wanting to go there. Then I’d read about equitation finals, and later read about jumper championships like Prix des States and Young Riders, and those became my goals.”
Her North Carolina barn would travel to Ocala, Florida, for two weeks each winter, and she found herself wanting to stay for the entire circuit.
That led her to Bobby Braswell in Ocala, who she trained with for two years, before he connected her with Madden at Beacon Hill Farm (New Jersey) in late 2020. With Madden at the helm for equitation, Ryden now also relies on Max Amaya for coaching in the jumper ring.
“Bobby’s really good friends with Stacia,” she said. “And when I decided that I really wanted to go to [the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Florida] and compete with the top equitation riders and the top jumper riders, he was very supportive of the transition.”
Her drive is paying off. She’s hot off her first trip to the Gotham North/FEI Jumping North American Youth Championships (Michigan) with HighFive, a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Cardento—Derke, Heartbreaker). She and “Cinco” will be competing in the high junior jumper division at the Hampton Classic.
While Ryden is focused on moving up through the competitive big-eq and junior jumper classes, you won’t find her in the hunter ring consistently.
“From a young age, I was never really crazy about the hunters,” she said. “Even when I was in the ponies, I started in the pony jumpers.”
She’ll make an exception at the Hampton Classic with her 7-year-old Oldenburg Gratitude PS (Cornet Du Lys—Conzina). Her family purchased the gelding in December with equitation classes in mind, but he will gain a little extra mileage this week with Ryden in the junior hunter ring.
“He’s kind of my young project that I’m bringing along. He usually specializes in the Maclay, [USEF Hunter Seat] Medals, and also does some [Washington International equitation classes]. I’ll most likely do him in the Medal/Maclay at the Hampton Classic,” she said. “And probably just one indoor final this year just to kind of dip his toe in the water, since this will be his first year competing at indoors.”
She’s partnered with veteran equitation star Heroy Von De Hei, a 15-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding (Muscaris D’Ariel—M. Terracina) for Sunday’s $10,000 Hermes Equitation Championship class. “Heroy” won the same class with former rider Mimi Gochman in 2018. Ryden showed him for the first time in the 2021 ASPCA Maclay Finals (Kentucky), and this season they’ve picked up top equitation ribbons including a fifth in the WIHS Jumper Phase at the Devon Horse Show (Pennsylvania) in May.
“He’s very good at the [Platinum Performance USEF Show Jumping Talent Search] and technical courses,” she said of the gelding. “He’s also a little bit older, so we try to do less classes with him. So usually, we just do him in the USET. That’s his specialty.”
Locadeur is Ryden’s most recent acquisition, having arrived a little over a month ago from the junior jumper ring. He’s transitioned to a new career in the equitation ring, and the pair are set to compete in the Dover Saddlery/USEF Hunt Seat Medal and the Washington International Equitation Classic this week.
Ryden, 17 and a high school senior, is in her final year as a junior rider. She’s already signed on with Auburn University (Alabama), where she’ll join their riding team next year. It wasn’t just Auburn’s famous riding program that attracted her to the school.
“I applied for the engineering school; that’s what I’m most interested in right now,” she said. “Obviously, a lot can change once I get there. But right now that’s my current focus. I’m very math- and science-oriented. I always have been; it just comes naturally to me in school. And I am really interested in applying for computer engineering, because if I decide I don’t want to go professional in the [horse] industry, I want to have a regular job. I figure computer engineering is something that I can do from anywhere: traveling, riding and working.”
Ryden takes all her classes online, and even though she may not be getting the traditional high school experience, she credits her trainers and peers at Beacon Hill with creating an environment that values teamwork and camaraderie—good preparation for joining a collegiate riding team.
“I love having all the group lessons because you don’t only learn from yourself, but you get to learn from everyone else and how they ride the course,” she said. “So you kind of get five lessons in one, watching everyone else do it. And I like Stacia’s training method because she’s very straightforward. She tells it to you how it is. You can tell she cares a lot about how we do, and I listen.”
Ryden has a solid vision for her remaining time in the junior ring before heading to college. “I’d like to start consistently doing the high classics,” she said. “And I’m also hoping to maybe by the end of the year start doing some lower-level FEI classes, and then to also qualify for all of the eq finals. And next year do the Young Riders team [after competing on the Junior team this year].”