The small town of Middleburg, Virginia, has always been home for Alison Robitaille. She grew up there and attended Foxcroft School. Horse farms stretch out in every direction, and the latest excitement in town is the addition of two Thai restaurants and a sushi joint. If you’re looking for culture or nightlife, you’ll have to drive an hour or more into Washington, D.C.
But this is Robitaille’s special part of the world, and she can’t imagine living anywhere else. It’s here that she’s galloped the rolling hills to increase her fitness for show jumping, and where she’s fit in push-ups and wall squats in between making breakfast for daughters Zoe, 6, and Ava, 9.
A lot has changed within the past year, but two things unequivocally remain the same: Her passion for the sport and her unwavering commitment to her children.
Last year Robitaille returned to international team competition for the first time in five years, representing the United States on the second-placed Nations Cup team in Coapexpan, Mexico.
Aboard top horse Ace, the 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding (Berlin—Bella, Irco Polo), whom she’s partnered with for the past two years, Robitaille set her sights on the 2018 Longines FEI World Cup Final in Paris, and that paid off with a 14th-placed finish for the pair.
Back in Middleburg, Robitaille reflects on her whirlwind of a year, the journey back to center stage, and her hopes for the future.
COTH: What was it like attending your fifth World Cup Final?
Robitaille: I was very excited to be there, and I really took a lot more of it in than I probably did when I was younger.
I thought the first night was a hard course. I’m still getting to know [Ace] in a speed class setting, and I’ve jumped a fair number of big tracks with him, but to start off the first night in that format—going fast off the bat—we still need to get to know each other more. The speed caught up with us a bit by the end of the course, and I had one down, but overall I was really happy with the round.
The second day I felt really good going into it. I have all the faith in the world in my horse, and I know there’s nothing someone can build that he can’t jump. If I were to do it over again I certainly would’ve been a bit more efficient to be in the time allowed, but overall, I was thrilled with how he jumped the course. [She finished with no jumping faults but 1 second over the time allowed.]
On the final day I was thrilled with the first round. Again, I could still be better with the time allowed; it’s certainly something I’m going to keep working on with him at that level. [Again, she was 1 second over.] The second round, now looking back on it, I probably would’ve added a stride to keep him a bit more together, but hindsight is hindsight. [They had two down and a time fault.] Overall, I feel like he handled the competition really well. [It was] my first championship with him, and my next big goal is getting back to the World Cup Finals next year.
COTH: What are your thoughts on Ace’s progression thus far?
Robitaille: He was always a great horse—it’s more the progression of our partnership, us really getting to know and trust each other at that level. In spending a lot of time together and riding him every day, you start to learn each other’s ins and outs.
I really believe he gets strong sometimes [from the] anxiety of wanting to do a perfect job, and that’s not so different from me. Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself to make it perfect.
I realized that he misses his turnout. Luckily, on the last morning of the Finals I was one of the only people riding in the ring, so I was able to let him buck and play. It’s not a difficult thing to manage; it’s just realizing that he likes to have that release time.
For myself, it’s more about staying present, enjoying each moment as it comes, and not getting caught up in what’s going to happen.
COTH: You took time off from the sport to focus on raising your family. What was that period like?
Robitaille: [In 2008] I jumped a World Cup qualifier with Coral Reef Via Volo, and I found out the next week that I was pregnant. There was no sense in me trying to qualify for the World Cup Finals because I was due in April, so then I really slowed down riding.
After I had Ava [in 2009], [Coral Reef Via Volo] jumped double clear in the World Cup qualifier at Syracuse [New York], so it didn’t take me that long [to get back into it].
When I was pregnant with Zoe I started teaching a lot more. I built up more of a client business, and I continued riding some young horses as much as I could, but I really missed competition at that level.
After she was born [in 2011], I didn’t have a horse that was at that level. I sold a couple of the horses when I found out I was pregnant, so it took me longer to get back in the groove once I started riding again. I didn’t have many horses that I knew well.
COTH: How did you work through periods of doubt and uncertainty?
Robitaille: This is really what I love, and I feel very grateful to be in a position to do it full time. Obviously, there is a lot more juggling that goes on because my children, at the end of the day, are the most important thing. Before they started school, they used to come to the shows with me all the time. Now that they’re a little older and in school there’s more travelling for me, but they’re first priority.
COTH: Do your daughters ride as well?
Robitaille: Yes, they do. They competed in a little bit of walk-trot down in Florida. My younger daughter Zoe would ride every day if it came down to it, and my older daughter Ava loves to ride, and she loves her one pony, but she would rather spend all afternoon in the barn brushing her pony.
COTH: How have you found your balance?
Robitaille: You can’t aim for every day being a perfect balance, but I think overall it does work out. My husband [Andrew Robitaille] and I are divorced, and we have equal share of the girls, so this last year in itself has been a huge adjustment. I see the girls a lot less than I did when we were all living in the same house, but I’m a big believer in quality over quantity, and when I’m with the girls I’m totally with them, and we make the most of our time together.
When I got back from Paris on Monday, I picked my kids up from school that afternoon, and on Tuesday morning I went to Williamsburg [(Virginia) as a chaperone] for the third grade field trip. It’s awesome to pick right back up when you can.
COTH: What advice would you give to individuals struggling to find their own work-life balance?
Robitaille: The most important thing is that people have to find their own balance and not take a lot of advice from others. You just keep experimenting until you find what feels right for you. Everyone has such a different set of circumstances. It’s trial and error, but I think that’s what makes it fun, and equally, that’s what makes it fun about horses. Learning their personalities and what works and what doesn’t—having it be a new challenge all the time.
COTH: What are your goals for the future, both in and out of sport?
Robitaille: Enjoying each present moment. I don’t like to get too caught up in way down the road. My relationship with my daughters is first and foremost. Even though I travel a lot, my biggest goal is to maintain the close relationship that we have now as they grow up.”
I feel very lucky to have a nice group of horses. I’ve got Cedane D (Cornado NRW—Fee, Florestan), a really good 8-year-old, Ginger Pop (Luidam—Derrylea Grey Lady, Cruising), a 9-year-old that missed all of last year, and Cardi B (Radco d’Houtveld—Felicia Van De Vrunte, Obsession B), another 9-year-old that a group helped me buy this year in Florida. I’m looking forward to developing those horses and hopefully having a backup for Ace.
COTH: Cardi B?
Robitaille: Who, by the way, I had to look up. One of the owners said, “Let’s name her this! It’ll make you sound current. The kids will think you’re cool!” Because they know I don’t watch T.V. I looked up an interview with [her and] Jimmy Fallon, and it was pretty impressive. I laughed pretty hard.
COTH: Where will Ace go next?
Robitaille: I rode Ace today for the first time [since Paris], and he’s bucking and playing and feels great, so I’m going to take him to the Kentucky Invitational during the Land Rover Three-Day Event. He will then have a little quiet time until Upperville (Virginia) and then head out for the last two weeks of Spruce Meadows (Alberta).
COTH: And your plans for your up-and-comers?
Robitaille: Getting to know them and hopefully moving them up a level. Spruce Meadows is a long way to go, but I feel like [the horses] get six months experience in a couple of weeks. Getting to jump in different rings and with different sets of jumps on the grass, I feel like it helps them all mature quickly.