Ringside Chat: Le Lion Reserve Champion Caroline Martin Is Capitalizing On Her Wilton Fair Grant

Oct 27, 2022 - 2:55 PM

At age 27, Caroline Martin has already carved out a formidable career path through the levels of international eventing. In the almost 10 years since she won the 2013 Adequan/FEI North American Youth Championships Young Rider individual and team gold medals, she’s established a well-known sales business. And this year, she’s taken the leap of putting that business on the back burner temporarily while she, as the recipient of a 2021 USEA Foundation Wilton Fair Grant, immerses herself in six months of intensive training in England with Rolex Grand Slam winner and three-time British Olympian Pippa Funnell.

While her season ended a few days earlier than expected—she’d planned to run the Pau CCI5*-L (France) with her longtime partner Islandwood Captain Jack but withdrew today at the first jog, saying he was a bit body sore after two weeks of traveling in France—she had a remarkable time last weekend at the FEI Eventing World Breeding Championships, held Oct. 20-23 in Le Lion d’Angers, France. There, she placed second in the CCI2*-L 6-year-old championship with HSH Connor, an Irish Sport Horse gelding (Connor 48–Galwaybay Merstona, Mermus R) owned in partnership by Caroline, her mother Sherrie Martin, and the McElduff family. Martin and Connor won the U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse Championships in the 4- and 5-year-old classes too.

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Caroline Martin and HSH Connor placed second in the CCI2*-L 6-year-old championship at the FEI Eventing World Breeding Championships, held Oct. 20-23 in Le Lion d’Angers, France. Libby Law Photo

Martin also rode HSH Blake to 10th place in the CCI3*-L 7-year-old championships. Owned by Caroline and Sherrie Martin and Mollie Hoff, the Irish Sport Horse gelding (Tolan R—Doughiska Lass, Kannan) was the recipient of the 2022 Holekamp/Turner Young Event Horse grant, which funds one winning young horse and its American rider to attend the World Young Horse Championships.

Martin, of Miami Beach, Florida, says training with Funnell has been the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Learning from these top people like Pippa, we all have the same worries and fears as riders and professionals,” Martin said. “It’s amazing to have such great education and mentors. It’s much easier to learn how to cope when things go wrong when you can learn from the best.”

Martin speaks openly about the worries that many athletes, especially young professionals, face but rarely discuss.

“I’m extremely insecure about my skills and riding and if I can make it to the highest levels, if I’ll ever be good enough,” she said. “It’s amazing meeting Pippa; she’s one of the best riders in the world, and she shares just the same amount of insecurities as I do.”

We caught up with Martin at Pau to hear more about her trip to Le Lion and what’s next for her and her string of top youngsters.

Did you arrive to the championships with a special game plan in mind for each horse?

We’ve been preparing both horses for this championship since they were 4 and 5. It’s just been on our bucket list, and we’ve been working on it for years. The game plan over the weekend was just riding them the same way we’ve been training them. There’s really nothing fancy that we do. We just do correct training, and, especially with Pippa, we were more than ready. Also, getting them ready in England helped quite a bit, because we picked shows leading to this weekend that were a little bit harder, with tough terrain and a lot of atmosphere. So they were more than ready when we got there.

Can you tell us a little bit about HSH Blake and HSH Connor? What are they like to ride?

My business partner Kelly Hutchinson bought HSH Connor [HSH stands for “Hutchinson Sport Horses”], the 6-year-old champion, as a 2-year-old from Ireland. She broke him and then sent him to me as a sales horse. And then when I got him, I absolutely fell in love with him, but I didn’t have owners for him originally. I produced him to the 4-year-old championships, which he won. Eventually I met the family who co-owns him with me, the McElduffs, and they agreed to purchase him.

He’s very sharp. He doesn’t like being touched, and he’s very, very aware about everything. “Connor” will always be skeptical of things, and “Blake” loves everyone.

Kelly also found Blake for me as a future sales horse. We call him “Princess” because he’s very much in your pocket. He likes being treated as No. 1. He’s honestly just a little princess, and he’s a pretty boy.

They’re pretty different to ride, but they’re both very careful and very brave. Blake is a cross-country machine, very straight and honest. Connor is very aware of everything happening on the course.

It means a lot to me that I get to have really super owners and partners who trust me and believe in me and believe in these horses, and that they let me keep the ride, because that’s just so special. Just thinking about not having them in my barn breaks my heart because they’re such lovely animals. I love being around them both, and they’re such great competitors.

How did your riding career start?

Neither of my parents came from horse backgrounds. Long story short, when my mom was about 40, my dad made a little bit of money. My mom had always really loved horses, so she’s like, “Can we please get a horse?” My dad is so selfless, as soon as he had enough money he wanted to get one for her. So it was just kind of fate that there was a local eventing barn nearby. She went there, and she bought an off-the-track Thoroughbred. She took me to the barn every single day, and I caught the bug.

My parents and I are very close. I talk to them every day; nowadays they’re my best friends. My dad is my biggest mentor, and my mom’s my biggest cheerleader, and they’re over here in France right now with me. They’ve been here for three weeks during the shows with me and supporting me. We’re just having the best time.

What’s it like training with Pippa Funnell?

It’s super intense. We spend probably five hours a day training together, whether it be horsemanship or riding lessons. And she’s also mentoring me on how to run my business better back home in America. She’s just absolutely fantastic; she’s a really intelligent and career-minded woman. And we both love our dogs—we’re obsessed with them!

I’m normally so busy trying to sell horses and make a living, it’s hard to focus on my winning sometimes. So it’s really nice to get these six months to come base myself in England and train with Pippa, and just be able to focus on my own string of horses and take lessons and learn. It’s been absolutely life-changing. And the grant is only for riders under age 29, so we can go immerse ourselves in this knowledge that’s over here. It’s not often an Olympian opens their doors and allows someone to come train with them and not be stressed about making money at the same time. It’s been amazing.

What’s it like as a young professional balancing riding and competition with business? 

I run a big sales operation, and we sell about 70-80 horses a year. I sell horses also for [hunter/jumper professional] Emil Spadone and [Dutch breeder and dealer] Paul Hendrix too, and I have an Irish business partner, Kelly Hutchinson. So between the four of us we sell quite a few horses.

That’s the tricky thing with my career being a multi-level event rider—it’s a very, very difficult balance between trying to make money and make a living, and then also trying to go after your career.

Being an upper-level rider has always been my goal since Day 1, but as we all know, horses are very expensive. So that’s how I got into dealing horses. I really enjoy producing them, selling them, and sourcing them. It brings me a lot of pride, and I love making sure that our country has top-quality event horses.

How are you splitting your time and horses between the U.S. and Europe?

That’s actually a really great question. I’m definitely still trying to figure out the right balance. The competitions here in Europe are just incredible; there are definitely more spectators over here.

Pippa and I are trying to figure out a good balance of me being able to come back and forth. But I don’t want to feel like I’m spread too thin–I don’t like to do something if it’s not 100% of my full ability. I don’t like half-assing things. For now, next year I think we’ll fly over two horses that I’ll compete with here in the spring, and then I’ll leave them with Pippa for the summer while they go on vacation.

What advice would you give to an aspiring pro when it comes to business? 

My biggest advice would be to think outside the box. I’ve always just wanted to be an upper-level event rider and not have to worry about anything besides riding my horses, But I had to figure out a way to make it work financially and figure it out quickly. So I thought outside the box: I called a few people in Ocala and asked if I could go work for them, clean stalls, whatever I needed to do to make some money. It just so happened that I connected with Emil Spadone there, and he asked me about selling horses, which led to that new path.

I think it’s really important to have good mentors. I really wouldn’t be anywhere I am without Paul, Emil, Pippa, and so many people I know.

Another big thing is that you’ve got to enjoy it when things go right, because it doesn’t happen all the time in the horse world. So if you have small wins, you’ve got to take advantage of it. And I love waking up on Monday morning after a big show and going into the barn, seeing all the horses and giving them buckets of treats. Seeing them happy makes me happy.

What are your goals for the rest of this year and through 2023?

I fly back to Pennsylvania on Monday and hopefully start making some money. I have 13 sale horses waiting for me at home that I need to get going and get sold, and we’re flying over six other sales horses from Europe within the next few weeks. So I have about 20 horses which I’ll need to start training, so that’s the big goal for next year.

I compete at the upper levels because I love riding in team competitions. I don’t know if the federation wants me, but I’m going to try my best to hopefully get qualified and get my horses prepared for the Pan American Games [taking place October 2023 in Santiago, Chile].

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