Thursday, Apr. 18, 2024

Tenacity Takes Tara Ziegler To The Top

Tara Ziegler’s mother received an interesting phone call from a friend one day in April. To her surprise, her daughter’s name had somehow found its way on to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** list of entries.

Tara had successfully completed her first three-star that past October at Fair Hill (Md.) aboard Bucking-ham Place, and that sparked big plans.


Tara Ziegler’s mother received an interesting phone call from a friend one day in April. To her surprise, her daughter’s name had somehow found its way on to the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** list of entries.

Tara had successfully completed her first three-star that past October at Fair Hill (Md.) aboard Bucking-ham Place, and that sparked big plans.

“As soon as I finished that and was qualified for a four-star, I asked my coach if he thought I could go to Rolex next spring. He just said, ‘No, you need more practice,’ ” she recalled. “Which I thought was kind of true, but you don’t really talk back to Phillip Dutton.”

“She did really well,” said Dutton of her Fair Hill run. “But I suggested she do another three-star before Kentucky. My reasoning was for her to get a few more skills going before she went. But she was pretty determined to get there, so I supported her.”

“No” didn’t sit well with Tara’s aspirations. She stewed over the prospect all winter, carefully monitored “Buck’s” fitness and progress and planned her competition schedule accordingly. She headed to Aiken (S.C.) to compete and take lessons with Mara Dean.

Rolex remained the beacon on her radar, but the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) sat in the backseat in case she or Buck didn’t feel completely ready.

“I had a few hiccups here and there,” she admitted. “I actually got confidence from them and learned from them.”

She shrugged off a rough ride at Red Hills (Fla.) in March and hopped back in the tack, remembering to learn from each round whether clean or not. After feeling good on a few more advanced courses in the spring, “I decided to go for it,” she said.

She signed and stamped her Rolex entry form on the closing day. It didn’t take long for her phone to ring. “My mother called and said, ‘Did you want to tell me something? Did you enter something?’ ” Tara remembered. “She thought I was crazy. But I knew I could do it, and I wanted to give it a try because I have such high aspirations for my horse. I knew we both needed the experience.”

“A lot of people thought she should have had a little more experience under her belt,” said Tara’s mother Kim. “But ultimately she was the one riding and normally has very good sense about these things,” she added.

When Jim Wofford reviewed the entrants for the Chronicle, he predicted that 22-year-old Tara would walk away from Rolex with a clean cross-country trip and his jocular “Whodat?” trophy for the “best placed, least known Rolex first-timer.”

Giving Them A Thrill
Though they did bring a few time faults across the finish and a hairy tale of narrow escape involving the Footbridge, they were faultless over fences, and perhaps eventers no longer quip “Whodat?” at the name
Tara Ziegler.

She’s trained Buck, now 12, since he was 6 and helped him quell some racetrack memories before his novice debut a few years ago. “He still had that memory of racing and tended to get really stressed out,” Ziegler explained. “I think it took two or three years for him to really relax.”

When Buck stepped into the main arena at the Kentucky Horse Park, the daunting crowd sparked those nerves. Tara’s top hat became a casualty of the stormy weather halfway through their test, which didn’t help Buck concentrate. He reared during their reinback and didn’t entirely cooperate with his lead changes.
“No, our test wasn’t great,” Tara said with a sigh. “But leading up to it was the best he’s ever done, and he tried really hard to be good. So I was still thrilled with him for that.


“And it was actually kind of ironic because the crowd and him acting up actually made me relax,” she went on. “It made me focus on staying calm for him and staying on. Besides, you really don’t think about all the people and what’s going on when you’re in there, you just stay focused.”

But Buck’s boldness usually shines through on cross-country, and Kentucky was no exception. “He actually saved my butt,” Tara said, referring to her near fall over the Footbridge.

“It was a bit of a nail biter to even listen to [as it was announced],” Kim said. “I did see the Footbridge later on video, but I was glad I didn’t see when it happened.”

The 16-hand gelding had powered through while Tara glued herself to the tack. She couldn’t help but laugh after pulling herself together and facetiously thought, “Well I guess I am at Rolex and I have to thrill the crowd.”

A Good Foundation
It would be hard to guess whether Tara first learned to tie her shoes or zip up paddock boots. Horses have surrounded her life since Day 1.

She trained with her mother, Kim, until her late teens. In fact, one of her first ponies, a 32-year-old, 10-hand pinto called Nancy, still lives at their barn in Lincoln University, Pa.

Kim grew up in Fresno, Calif., before graduating fom high school and moving to England for a year to ride. She stayed east after returning to the States to place herself in the core of eventing and make her business
training, competing and selling horses—many of them Thoroughbreds off the track.

Even though “the mother-daughter thing isn’t always the best,” Kim said in good humor, “we both have a lot of respect for each other and communicate well.”

They live 10 minutes from West Grove, Pa., so it’s easy for Tara to train with Dutton. “Phillip has always been a big influence,” she said. “I really respect him, and he’s a genius at what he does.

“But I definitely want to take more lessons in general,” she added. “My mother gave me a very good foundation. It just gets hard to take it from your mother sometimes. But she knows her stuff. I give her most of the credit.”

Though Buck hasn’t been the easiest ride, his talent seems endless. Dutton told Tara “this one’s worth the money” when they began training together.

“Tara’s a good natural rider and stays out of the horse’s way,” Dutton said. “The horse she’s riding now is a very quirky horse and takes quite a bit of understanding. He wouldn’t be very easy for most riders.”

And after some gentle readjustment, Buck, along with his quirks and eccentricities, became more than just an advanced eventing partner for Tara.

“In the early days, he needed a lot more of a technical ride, which [Tara] didn’t have to do before,” Kim explained.


Tara’s previous mount, Carakat, whom she rode through the young riders ranks, was a straightforward mare who’d rather her rider just enjoy the ride than get in her way.

“Buck’s kind of taught me how to ride again,” Tara said. “Bringing him along has been a neat process, and that’s what I love even more than eventing. I wouldn’t want to do this on a horse that I spent a ton of money on. I like that I got him to this point.”

Kim agreed, “Just getting a horse to that level is something pretty special. “We couldn’t afford to just buy an advanced horse so I think she’s really enjoyed it and is taking advantage of everything they can do together.”

Affording The Experience
Unfortunately, the almighty dollar plays an indubitable role in getting to the pinnacle of any sport, and when you’re just getting your feet wet at the top, cash doesn’t often fall from trees without some earnest endeavor.

But Tara’s initiative and motivation seem to have unearthed all the right resources. She started by getting support from the American Horse Trials Foun-dation after completing Fair Hill last fall.

“After that I felt like I had the nerve to ask for [help],” she said. “Then, right around Christmas time I sent out letters to people who have supported me and watched me grow up, letting them know what I was trying to do. I actually got a huge response—enough to get me through the spring.”

Tara considered every donation—whether $10 or $500—solid gold. They funded most of her entry fees so the money she made riding and training horses for other people could be spent on Buck.

“She’s worked really hard and had to pay for everything mostly on her own, particularly in the last three or four years.” Kim said. “What can I say, I’m a very proud parent. Especially realizing what a feat it is, being a part of the sport myself.”

Tara also works part-time as a caregiver at Home Instead Senior Care in West Chester, Pa. She delivers groceries, takes seniors to lunch and just offers company to those in need.

“At the moment I have a lady who lives nearby who has the start of Alzheimer’s. Her daughter and family work during the day so I take her out from 11 to 2, just to get her out of the house,” Tara said.

She hopes more experience will enable her to make more money giving lessons. Eventually she’d like to develop a breeding farm as well.

And with a degree in anthropology and religion from Lincoln University (Pa.), grad school is also an option. “But while I have the horse, I want to focus on that,” she said.

She has another prospect on the ground and showing major potential, her homebred yearling Northern Hat (Harry The Hat—Carakat).

“I swear he watched everything that happened in the ring from his field,” she said. “The first time I put the bit in his mouth he looked like he was thinking, ‘OK, what’s next?’ He’s been very easy, and I’ve got high hopes for him.”

In the meantime, Tara and Buck will kick on and plan to revisit Fair Hill this fall and Rolex Kentucky next spring.

Joshua A. Walker




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