Ashlee Bond’s megawatt smile lit up the Del Mar Fairgrounds (California) a few weeks ago as she raced through the timers to win the $100,000 Longines FEI Del Mar World Cup qualifier. The victory was made even sweeter by the fact that her mount, 8-year-old Westphalian Donatello 141 (Diorado—Luna, Lamoureux I), is one she’s been developing for the past three years.
Though she retired top horse Chela LS this year, Bond’s string is full of young talent. Two weeks before her win at Del Mar, Bond took blue in the $20,000 Premier Equine Young Jumper Suitability Finals aboard the 5-year-old Belgian Warmblood gelding Ionesco Sitte (Hunters Scendro—Adora Sitte, Argentinus). Most recently, she finished ninth in the $100,000 Longines FEI Thermal World Cup qualifier (California) aboard Boheme De Fleyres (Vargas De Ste Hermelle—Traviata Des Fleyres, Easy Boy), an 8-year-old chestnut Selle Francais mare.
We caught up with Bond ringside at the National Sunshine Series at the Desert International Horse Park in Thermal, California, to find out more about her young horse program, life on the road as a young mother, and her plans for 2020.
COTH: Give us an overview of what you’re doing with these young horses. Are you breeding or importing or both?
Bond: We’ve toned down on the breeding, but we have two coming 2-year-olds and a 3-year-old out of Chela LS. We’ll have one more Chela baby, and then that will be our last homebred. We’ll continue to buy them at age 3 or 4. We try to find ones that are just super naturally gifted and have a good brain. We have our dentist do their teeth, and then Dad [Steve Bond] takes over in the flatting, getting them broke, understanding moving off the leg, rideability, all that stuff. Then I’ll start jumping them a bit, depending on the age.
What makes you want to start them from nothing or from barely broke?
When you get them young, you develop such a bond and a partnership, and that’s so hard to beat. With my new one [Boheme De Fleyres] she’s super talented, and I believe she’ll go to the top of the sport, but we’re throwing things at the wall to see what works. Does this preparation work better? Does that preparation work better? What does she need the day before? She is 8, and [Donatello 141] is also 8, but “Donnie” I’ve had for almost three years, and I know him like the back of my hand, but with “Boheme” it’s all these questions.
So the sooner you get them, the more of a relationship you have and the more you know how to prepare them correctly?
One hundred percent. At the highest level, the tiniest thing can make a huge difference. Today I didn’t add a smidgeon of leg over fence 3, and Boheme ticked it behind, so it’s just things like that, whereas Donnie, I don’t even have to think when I’m riding him; it’s just instinctual. I see a combination, and I just know how to ride it without thinking how to ride it. With [Boheme] I kept going over how I should ride into that vertical-oxer, like I can’t come in too fast; I can’t come in too slow. Maybe others aren’t like that, but my horses are very careful, and they give you 110% out there. I try to always have it be a positive deposit in the bank, so when you have them younger, and you’ve had a relationship with them for longer, it just makes everything so much easier.
It sounds like your dad is instrumental in your development process.
There is nobody like him. Luckily, he’s in good shape, and I’m hoping he’s got 20-plus more years! I hope he’s going to be in his 80s still getting those young horses ready. It’s not that I couldn’t manage it, or make it work, but it wouldn’t be as good. There are things he just does instinctually. He can feel what they need and how they need it, what they need to get the job done. It’s just natural for him; he’s amazing at that. I think it’s a completely different art form to be someone who knows how to break a horse, and it’s not really what’s taught in our sport at barns.
Chela LS was your main horse, and she retired earlier this year. Do you have a horse in your string who is like Chela?
Similar but different. I would say my new mare Boheme has the most fighter mentality, but Chela would fight against you, whereas this mare fights with you. Chela just had so much ability and carefulness, but she really liked to make me work. Donatello is the one who has filled her shoes because he’s doing the 1.60 meters now, but he is the easiest. He’s so light. You are never getting drug around the ring; he’s always right there with you. So I think he can do more than her because her downfall was her rideability. I could have done so much more with her if she had not been so strong.
Are you considering Donnie for the Olympics?
If all goes well, he’d be the horse I’d pick because I know him so well. He’ll be 9. McLain [Ward] rode Sapphire, and Daniel Bluman rode Sancha at 9. He’s got such a good brain; he’s always just been so mentally chill. People have told me to take it easy because he’s so young, and I feel like I have, in the sense of what he’s given me. He has so much ability. It’s easy for him, and he doesn’t get stressed out.
Your daughter Scottie is 3 now. Does she join you at horse shows, and how do you balance that?
Up until September, she and [husband Roy Meeus] came the whole time to every show. But now she’s started preschool, and we think it’s good for her to be in school and be around kids her age. So they come out for weekends [at nearby shows], and then when we go to Wellington [Florida] they’ll come the whole time, and she’ll do school there.
When [Roy and Scottie] are here I want to be focused on them, but then I’m here to do a job, so it’s a little hard to balance. I had a long time to wait for the class today, but when I start playing with her it’s like I’m then thinking I should be focusing on what I’m doing in the ring. It’s a little bit of trying to find that balance, but I think we do a good job. Roy is retired, so she always has one of us.
Is Scottie into horses?
She loves the horses. She has a pony named Charm that she rides at Far West Farms. She rides on her own, just trots around and stuff. It’s great. She cried at Del Mar when I was second in the national class, and I had to explain that I can’t win every one. But she loves the horses and enjoys being here.
So it sounds like you’re trying to have a normal life while also aiming for the 2020 Olympics?
Yes. Obviously they have to pick the team, but if everything keeps going how it’s going and Donnie is peaking, I think we have a good shot.
Was that part of your motivation for riding for Israel, so you could stay closer to home most of the time?
To be on the United States team, I would have to be on the road 24/7, including [going to] the East Coast and Europe. I couldn’t have the life that I have. I’m not an unrealistic person. When I decided to have a family, I knew it was never going to happen to be on the U.S. team, but I honestly really like where I’m at. I’ve always been Israeli and have had a connection to that part of me, and it just felt like the right place. I love the people on the team, and it’s really a great feeling, and I wouldn’t want to do it for anybody else. Now that I’m here I’m glad that it never happened before.
How did you overcome the disappointment of falling off at the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games?
That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me; I’ve called it “the best worst thing that ever happened to me.” I think it just made me put everything in perspective. Since WEG I decided to just ride for myself and my team and forget about everything else and forget about the pressures of winning. All these dreams and goals are amazing, but now I just pick my shows, work backward in the sense of what’s good for the horses. Then when I go into my classes I just go in there and do what is right for the horse in the moment, and that’s really changed everything. I’ve gotten so much more consistent, and our program has gotten better.
So you’re saying that after going in and falling off, the worst already happened, so what’s the point of stressing about a big class like that ever again?
One hundred percent. The worst happened, and yeah, it sucked in the moment, but I actually look at it as a really big blessing in my career because it really made me reevaluate how I approach what I do in the ring and at home and just everything. I had put so much pressure on myself because I had been out of the top of the sport for so long, and I had a kid, and Chela was out for so long, and I was riding for the new country, and I wanted to prove myself. And then it was like OK, you know, it can’t get worse than this. It’s only gone up from there. It’s been a blessing.