Optimism runs in Tamie Smith’s DNA. While COVID-19 shut down the country and its horse sports, Smith still managed to make a bit of lemonade in a lemony situation.
“The silver lining to all this is, I feel, making the horses better,” said Smith, Temecula, California. “You can fine-tune the horses to go to a competition and win, or you can train them to really fill their holes—because ultimately you get caught up in trying to win too much, I think. This [pandemic] has forced everybody to really just get to know their horses better and figure out where those holes are.”
This mentality worked in her favor when the results came flooding in at The Event at Rebecca Farm, held July 24-26 in Kalispell, Montana, where Smith took the top three places in the advanced division with Mai Baum, Danito and En Vogue—as well as winning intermediate and preliminary divisions on new mounts Galicia and Solaguayre California.
“I’ve been forced to basically just work on the fine-tuning and the basics and little things that make huge differences,” said Smith. “I’ve used that competition money that we would normally use to compete to really get better and get the horses stronger. It really paid off this weekend.”
What has been your mentality in dealing with COVID-19?
I had maybe a week of kind of going, “What do I do? Do I keep training? What am I supposed to do?” Then gut instinct went, “You know what, I don’t have to go to a horse show to make my horses better. So, I’m going to train. And what do I need to get better in?”
I got super self-reflective on my weak links. My show jumping has been one of those. If you were to compare all of my three phases, that would be the one phase that I needed to improve most. I just became a student of that sport and started working with Ali Nilforushan.
I’m naturally a very strong rider, which is a benefit but also a detriment. I rode quite a lot of difficult horses in my career growing up. The strength piece and scrappiness has been something that’s been good for me to learn, but now [I’m working on] the finesse and just not hindering the horse. Being able to do enough without doing too much, that’s a very hard thing to do. In our sport of eventing, there are times when you have to be scrappy. So, you can’t be too soft, but you can’t ride too hard. It’s a very difficult thing to go through how you instinctively react when you need to. But when you don’t need it, [you need] to be so in tune and so ultra-focused. Being just enough without being too much, that’s been, I think, the breakthrough that I feel like I’ve nearly figured out.
What were your emotions when they announced the 2020 Olympic Games were postponed?
My black horse [Mai Baum] is in such great form. It’s disappointing in that aspect because he’s in the best form he could be in. I feel with how well he’s going, he could have had a real shot at doing well there. But also, I think that [with] our country in eventing—and my other horses that are in contention for Tokyo—another year is going to help. Just from the start of COVID to now, I’m a better rider.
I think it’s set us up for the U.S. to do quite well next year in Tokyo because everyone who is listed on the elite and pre-elite team right now has a couple of great horses that could be in contention, No. 1. But No. 2, every single one of us is able to train better, train differently, be more into, “You’re not training to compete; you’re training to make your horses better.”
What is it like having your daughter Kaylawna Smith-Cook competing at advanced with you and getting fourth this weekend?
This would have only been her third advanced. For her to go and have that great of a showing was fantastic. We had fireball shots and Champagne [to celebrate]. I’m so proud of her, and what’s really cool—I had Kaylawna when I was quite young; we’ve kind of grown up together a little bit.
There’s the best photo of Kaylawna and me, and we’re talking to [U.S. eventing performance director] Erik Duvander who’s our coach—I had just come out of the ring on Mai Baum, and he jumped fantastic. Erik goes, “You had three beautiful rounds, but your daughter was better.” We just all started laughing. She’s naturally talented, and she has such amazing feel, so to see her really being able to shine is just awesome. It’s like a mother’s dream come true. I can’t wait until she kicks my ass.
In an article we published on Kaylawna, she mentions her take on the Black Lives Matter movement as a bi-racial woman. What conversations have you been having at home?
It’s such a different perspective for me because I have a white husband who’s a police officer and a half-Black child. And I went to high school in a predominantly Black and Hispanic school, so those were my friends, and that’s who I hung out with. I saw and experienced what they experienced. It was awful, and that was in a very modern, very liberal type—California, you don’t get much more liberal than that.
I saw the racism that Kaylawna’s [biological] father experienced. We’d be in a white neighborhood getting pulled over because I’m a white girl with a Black man. That is real.
I have American Indian in me, so I’m very dark-complected. A lot of people just assumed that I have an ethnic background and [that my husband] Dave was her dad because he was so much around. But Kaylawna did experience different types of discrimination in school.
With Kaylawna, my husband and I were always very neutral about it. You’re a human being. You’re not identified by the color of your skin. You’re a human being, and you need to be raised the way you should be raised no matter what color you are.
There is a lot racism in America, and that needs to change. But there is a lot of really good law enforcement. We don’t even watch [the news] anymore because it’s very hard to see. I think [as parents] we’ve done a good job at kind of keeping it just very real. I read her article. I was like, “Exactly. That’s exactly the message. You can be a victim, or you can be proactive in it. It’s your choice.”
What’s something about you that people might not necessarily know?
I had my kids before I really became a professional. I didn’t even do my first advanced or even my first FEI competition until I was 30. I don’t think most people would know that.
I spent basically my 20s raising my daughter and just getting to be a better rider. I wasn’t competing a lot. I had a horse, but I didn’t have any money.
What have you learned from being a mother? Does it translate to your riding? Does it affect you mentally?
The first time it affected me was when Darren Chiacchia, who was an Olympic level eventing rider, the star at the time, had a really bad, horrific fall. It was the weekend right before we had a big event. I was green. It must have been one of my first couple FEI at-the-time three-stars. I remember looking at my husband and my son standing on the berm as I was warming up, and I remember just thinking, “What am I doing? I could go out there and have a fall and die.” Then I went, “Yeah, what are you doing thinking that you idiot? You’ve got to get your act together.” I hadn’t ridden at that level yet. So, it was new for me. The higher the level, the higher the risk. And you stop, and your mortality is a little bit shaken in a way. But I quickly [went], “You have a great horse; you’re a good rider, making good decisions, and you’ll be fine.” And I’ve always kept that in my mindset.
When I put my foot in that stirrup, I have to be a competitor; I can’t be a mom. For me, I can’t be a mom, or I get too emotional. Just the amount of focus you have to have, and that’s something I had to learn.
[But being a mom has] kept things in a very realistic perspective. When the ups and downs are going, I always had my kids. There’s nothing better than when you’re in a pile bawling your eyes out thinking your life’s over, and you’ve got a little munchkin hugging you thinking you’re their world. You’re like, “You know what, yeah, it’s not all about the horses.” There is so much more to life than being in the competition ring and thinking that’s the end all be all because we do get caught up in it sometimes for the wrong reasons.
Your path to upper-level eventing was different from your peers. How did it end up helping you, or what did you learn from it?
When I say people said, “You have no chance,” they were right. I mean they were 100 percent accurate in what they were saying. I didn’t have a chance. But it was just what I did with it. Half of me knows that my life could have been a lot easier had I had a different approach. My parents were divorced in high school. I was a mess—I was all over the place and just not good. I never was the kid who partied and drank and did drugs. I just rode my horse. But what happened was my horse got hurt, and then I had a boyfriend, and then I got pregnant right out of high school. Here we are, 24 years later. But what I just did with that situation was, I went, “How can I help the younger generation?”
I have working students, but they’re there to learn how to be better human beings not just learn how to be horsemen. And 90 percent of them have a sketchy path of something that they’re dealing with. They’re struggling with family issues from the worst thing you can imagine to maybe not so bad. Everybody’s got their story. I feel like that’s kind of what my mission has been to try to give back to the sport and give back to young adults. I try to be a good example of hard work and good horsemanship and how to persevere through every mountain and valley you can possibly go through. It’s good for them to see what I accomplished when the odds were 100 percent against me. For me, I want to be an inspiration for those people who feel like they have no chance. I do get people who will message me and say, “I’m a young mom, and I don’t even know how I’m going to do this. But you did so I must be able to too.”
I think society makes it seem like if you don’t have the conventional cookie-cutter upbringing, that it’s not good. But I feel like I’m so much better of a human being because of it. My dad always said growing up, “It’s important for your growth. It’s going to make you a better person.”
I just keep trying to mentor the girls—and guys— that come and try to teach them how to have a work ethic and how to be better. Most of us have some sort of back story, no matter our upbringing or support, and everyone needs someone they can lean on. So many that have come to work [with me] have needed someone they could look up to, strive to be, or learn what real hard work is all about. I’m proud of the program I run and proud of everyone who has ever stuck it out and learned. They’ve all become better people—graduates, directors of companies, and/or four- and five-star riders themselves. It’s something that has made me very proud.