As I listen to Tamie Smith reflect on her year, I begin to see that having our conversation here, at a picnic table beside her barn, has made Smith a bit of a sitting duck. In the few hours I talk with her at Next Level Eventing in Temecula, California, a swirl of activity tugs at her focus.
The barn owner pulls up and hands off bright tins of holiday cookies. Smith’s teenage son checks in; he’s here to repaint her jumps as a Christmas present. A rider passes us on a gray with a fluffy winter coat, and Smith asks how the “big hairy yak” went. The barn manager rolls up in his truck with a question about storage. Even Mai Baum, who watches us from a few stalls away and gently paws, seems to be beckoning for her attention.
Yet, Smith weaves these conversations into our own. She’s both warm and available to others and right here with me, candid and present. Being thoughtful about where she puts her attention is something she’s been practicing, she tells me.
“I would say that would actually have been one of my weak spots, in bringing up myself in the sport, is that I wasn’t selfish enough,” she said. “I would almost give myself too much to everyone else.”
Watching her expertly manage the buzz of others’ needs, I’m reminded that this is the trait that brought Smith to first cross paths with her now longtime partner, Mai Baum. Years ago, Smith encountered a lost-looking young rider who was walking a cross-country course at an event at Twin Rivers in California, when she noticed tears in the girl’s eyes.
“She looked really sad, and I go, ‘Are you OK? Do you need help?’ ” Smith remembered. “She’s like, ‘My trainer’s not here.’ And I go, ‘Well, come walk the course with me.’ ”
That teenager was Alex Ahearn, who was preparing to ride her young eventing project, Mai Baum, or “Lexus.”
“She went out of her way from her busy schedule to help me, and she didn’t even know who I was,” Ahearn said of their meeting. “I was kind of a nobody, right? It made me feel like, ‘Wow, she made the time to help me.’ It made me feel special in a way.”
Smith’s spontaneous offer to help an overwhelmed stranger kicked off a now-legendary partnership with both Lexus and his owners, Alex and her parents, Ellen Ahearn and Eric Markell. Ellen looks back on that generous moment at Twin Rivers as the “hallmark of Tamie Smith.” Alex and Lexus moved to Smith’s barn, and Alex later handed over the ride to Smith in 2015 when she left for college. The horse and rider have since cemented a formidable partnership on the international eventing stage.
For Smith and Lexus, 2023 was a landmark year in their nearly decade-long partnership. In April, the duo became the first American pair to win the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI5*-L in 15 years, and the image of an emotional Smith dropping her reins to wrap arms around Lexus—American flags whipping in the background—flooded social media. A few months later, the pair’s performance at the CHIO Aachen (Germany) put Smith on the podium for bronze, and pushed the U.S. team into silver.
So it’s a bit ironic that Smith believes that the events that set her and Lexus on course for this success in 2023 felt, at the time, like a massive setback.
A ‘Do Or Die’ Situation
In April 2022, Smith sustained an injury to her ankle taking a misstep off a trailer ramp. The pain was unsettling, both mentally and physically. That year, she said, she fell off every other horse, every other ride—“except for Lexus.”
“I was falling off because I was not balanced,” she said. “But I just knew that at those big competitions, I had to be so mentally on it.
“Really, I would say the turning point in my riding, my career and my partnership was Badminton of 2022,” she continued. “I just feel like there was something that just really clicked in my mental preparation, where I felt I was as a rider—and maybe my own self-confidence as well—even though the preparation going into Badminton was horrific.”
With the Badminton CCI5*-L (England) on the horizon, Smith had her five-star horse ready to roll, but she herself was not sound. Lexus was then 16, and she worried she would miss a shrinking window with her exceptional partner. Her situation forced her into a dilemma: Could she ride on, in spite of her nagging injury?
“It’s not every day that you have a horse to do Badminton,” she said. “I figured it was kind of a ‘do or die’ situation.”
With the approval of her doctors, she made a plan for pain management. To endure the grueling weekend at Badminton, she would numb her fractured ankle with lidocaine ahead of her rides. Each bank, ditch and giant brush fence Lexus cleared on cross-country, she navigated with only one healthy, feeling foot.
She says that the reality of hitting her physical limitations at Badminton forced her to rely on her mental game. What she lacked physically, she had to make up with resolve. Smith didn’t just bear the discomfort; she put into effect the mental preparation she’d been working at for months.
“Because the injury was very painful—I had fractured the tip of my ankle, but then I had torn all the ligaments around my talus and up my leg—I had to really mindfully meditate to get myself in a mental space where the pain wasn’t affecting my ride,” she said.
“It’s such a weird thing,” Smith continued. “People talk about ‘mind over matter,’ but it was very much that. I think because it forced me to really be within myself mentally, it just gave me another level of competitiveness that I didn’t really ultimately know I was missing.”
Smith was ninth at Badminton, and she believes it was more than the numbing that helped her to that finish. The experience validated the internal work she’d been engaged in during the months leading up to the event. Following a disappointing loss at Kentucky with Lexus in 2021—the pair had a frangible pin down plus time penalties on cross-country to finish overall ninth, after being second after dressage—and some “horrific” cross-country rounds with other horses later that fall, her coach recommended that Smith work on her mental fitness.
“That was kind of when I went, ‘I’m missing the mental piece,’ ” she said. “My coach at the time, Erik Duvander, said, ‘You’ve got to get this last piece fixed. You’ve got to get mentally more organized and more focused on your competitions.’ ”
That comment pushed Smith into the deep end of sports psychology. What she read about mindset, from the examples of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan and other elite athletes, confirmed something she already knew intuitively: There’s something more than physical talent that makes the greats great.
“For me, I always take everything 10 steps further. I dissected every piece of it and started researching and learning,” Smith said. “All they do, mostly, is they work on their mental fitness. I’ve seen this happen in sports—in riding, for that matter—you see riders that have won very big events that aren’t the most talented riders. They’re maybe on a great horse, or they’ve had a little luck their way. To me, it was like, ‘We’re onto something here.’ ”
Smith began to think of mindset as being as important to her competitive program as the more traditional aspects of her and her horses’ regimens. In practice, that meant the rider became “very particular” about the environment at big competitions, including the human traffic in the barn and the organization of the show schedule. She’s now intentional about making sure the things she can control align in a way to support her focus.
“Before every ride, I go away,” Smith described of getting into her flow state before legging up. “I usually go in my car and just spend a good half hour to an hour of just practicing meditating, or I visualize my course or my test. I just get into a place, and I stay there until I feel like I have overall peace.”
Ending The Drought
Smith feels that implementing a mindfulness practice has helped her to maintain a competitive edge when pressure mounts, whether that’s because of an injury, as at Badminton; the high stakes of riding on a team, as she did at the 2022 FEI Eventing World Championships (Italy) after Badminton, helping the team to silver and finishing ninth individually; or, in the case of Kentucky in 2023, the potential to be the rider to end her country’s dry spell.
Going into Kentucky last spring, Smith says her goal was to be on the podium. She gamed out a strategic plan for the weekend with the help of Graeme Thom, Ian Stark and Scott Keach.
“I did my due diligence, I’d say more than maybe previous years,” she said. “What am I leaving on the table?”
But after their dressage test, which left them third, Smith was disappointed by her score and worried that her podium aspirations might be dashed. Then on cross-country, she and Lexus rose from third place to first when the leaders faltered and she didn’t. In the tenuous hours before the final phase, when Smith was anxious to keep her lead, Keach, her show jumping coach, gave her an unusual pep talk that Saturday night.
“You gotta love the guy,” Smith said with a laugh. “He came up to me and said, ‘You ready to be a rider’s rider tomorrow, or are you going to be a spectator’s rider?’ I’m like, ‘What do you mean?’ He’s like, ‘Well, are you going to go in and ride well, or go in and choke? Doesn’t matter if you don’t have any rails; if you ride like a muppet, then you’re a spectator’s rider.’ ”
Having her riding compared to a “muppet” might not seem motivational, but Smith said getting ribbed by her coach in that familiar, friendly way eased the pressure. The next day, she and Lexus put down a history-making round, landing clean to an eruption of applause that signaled the end of America’s 15-year Kentucky drought.
From the sidelines, Lexus’ owners and team celebrated together. They’d watched the horse and rider enter the stadium with the entire country’s hopes on their shoulders.
“For me, what was the most concerning is the pressure on Tamie, because had she had a rail down, she would have fallen to third or fourth place,” Ellen said. “I think that’s the other thing about Tamie—that she is just a stalwart. She really does not let the pressure get to her. She rides to win.”
After years of unplanned obstacles, like Lexus’ strained tendon in 2016 and the delays from the COVID pandemic in 2020, each piece had finally fallen into place.
“It’s almost an infinite number of little things that can keep you from being on the winner’s stand,” Markell said. “And when it comes together, as it did in Kentucky, and you realize how many years it’s been since a U.S. rider stood atop that podium, it just underscores the difficulty, the challenge—and you know, the huge letdown when you get close but don’t get it, and then the absolute elation when you do something as [they] did in Kentucky.”
Two Very Different Years In One
When I sit down with Smith in the last week of 2023, she says that it’s only now, with the perspective of the past eight months, that she’s finally able to accept her monumental Kentucky win. In footage of the day, it’s plain to see that Smith is joyous. But in those photos, she said, she’s celebrating something bigger than herself.
“At the moment, when I jumped the last jump and dropped my reins and exploded, it was for everyone in the crowd,” Smith said. “It was for my owners and my team and Lexus. It wasn’t for me at all; it didn’t even feel like I won.”
Smith says that it’s taken all this time to accept her surreal victory lap around the Rolex Stadium as reality. “Reflecting back now, it was really spectacular,” she said.
It wasn’t just the scale that made her win difficult to internalize; it was the events that followed just a few short weeks later.
By the 2023 highlights on social media and magazines, including this one, you would think that Smith had an undeniably stellar year. And by some standards, she had her very best. But two things can be true at once. Because 2023 was the year in which Smith rode her 17-year-old horse to the most important win of his long career, but it was also the year she lost a promising young mare at the pinnacle of her shortened one. “Just looking back, remembering the crowd, and the people, and the American flags, it was just mind-blowing that that finally happened,” Smith said of Kentucky. “It just felt like it breathed life back into the hopes and dreams that we’ve all had. And for me, unfortunately, losing my mare a few weeks after that took it completely away, immediately. And so then, I just went back and went, ‘Gosh, could I just give that win back to keep California?’ I was a little bit numb, I guess.”
In June, Smith lost David and Julianne Guariglia’s 12-year-old Solaguayre California after the horse sustained an injury during her five-star debut at the Luhmühlen CCI5*-L (Germany). When “California” hit a jump during the cross-country, what at first seemed like a simple sting turned into a nightmare. She sustained a slab fracture and was euthanized when surgery couldn’t repair the damage.
“I think not having the choice was really hard,” Smith said, of getting the call from the veterinarian. “You know, we had no choice. They’d already euthanized her because the surgery failed, and her leg fell apart, so there was no way she could ever stand.”
Riding Through Her Grief
The loss hit Smith hard, but she had little time to grieve. At the time of California’s death, Lexus was already on a plane to Germany for Aachen. When he arrived, Smith, still distraught by California, was looking forward to seeing her steady partner all these miles from home. She hoped for a bit of comfort from Lexus, whom she describes as an affectionate horse.
“I run out to the field, and it was almost like he just knew,” she said. “He sees me, and right as I go to hug him, he takes his nose, and he shoves me. I go flying through the air and land on the ground. I’m literally in a pile, just bawling, and he just keeps grazing. He’s like, ‘We do not have time for your emotional outbursts.’ ”
She felt like her longtime friend, the gelding she lovingly calls “The Black Stallion,” was telling her that she didn’t have time to grieve California. His behavior all that week, on the ground and under saddle, was uncharacteristically “horrible.” She can joke about it now, as she remembers the shock of her typically sweet horse going suddenly cold.
“He was really horrible, no sympathy at all,” she said. “He was really tough love, old school. Like, ‘You don’t have time to get your feelings involved.’ ”
His owners, on the other hand, wanted Smith to have the time she needed to recover. They assured Smith that it was her choice to compete or not, and they would fund the trip regardless.
With a plan to “take it day by day,” Smith forged ahead. She and Lexus, the pair who’d made history just a few months earlier—and what now seemed like a lifetime away—took the international stage again. This time however, Smith was aware of the added pressure of performing well for her team, which included Liz Halliday (Miks Master C), Phillip Dutton (Z) and Will Coleman (Off The Record), shepherded by U.S. Chef d’Equipe Bobby Costello.
When Smith isn’t on her mental game, Lexus knows it. At Aachen, with the world watching, he made it clear to his rider that something was off.
“People got to see how quirky he is at Aachen in dressage and show jumping,” she said. “The dressage—he has never done this—he stopped, and he reared. I went to go around the side of the arena, and he reared. He ripped the reins out of my hand and blew his nose and started itching it.”
Smith decided to give him a minute to have this uncharacteristic outburst.
“He needs a moment to basically cuss me out right now. I haven’t been myself,” she remembered thinking as she watched the clock. “And then I picked up the reins and had a good test. Not a great test, but a good test.”
Again, as she warmed up for show jumping, Lexus felt backed off her leg and lacked confidence. That’s when Smith started worrying out loud about Lexus to her support team. There was no time for the pair to find their flow before their turn was up.
“I just went into the arena and started my course, and he felt horrible,” she said. “We ended up having one down but finished strong, and I came out of the arena and got off, and I go, ‘I think he just hates it in there. I don’t get it. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.’ ”
After show jumping, which took place before cross-country, Smith and Lexus moved into ninth. In the confusion and uncertainty of that moment, where horse and rider couldn’t seem to connect, Smith had a tough-love conversation with her husband, Dave Smith. As Tamie worried to him about what might be going on with Lexus, Dave could see that it wasn’t the horse that was struggling—it was her.
“He goes, ‘I’m just saying, if you don’t want to be number nine, you need to pull it together,’ ” Tamie said. “I looked at him, and I just started bawling. He’s like, ‘You can’t bring California back. She’s not coming back. You can’t do that. You can’t risk your performance right now. You decided to ride here, so freaking get it together.’ ”
Tamie let herself cry for California, and then her “killer instinct kicked in.” She snaps her fingers in the retelling, sounding the switch that allowed her to put aside her heartache and focus on the task at hand.
I think the word ‘fierce’ is a little bit overused these days, but that really does describe Tamie,” Costello said.
Tamie finally regained that fierceness, regrouped and began to prepare for the cross-country phase. She no longer felt sad—she said she felt angry—and she went into the final phase with a renewed sense of purpose.
“I went out and walked the cross-country again, and just got into killer mode,” she said.
The pair’s quick and steady performance pulled them up to third on the podium and helped the U.S. clinch second. The duo might have been off their game for the first two days, but they delivered. Tamie had her horse back, and Lexus had his rider.
“You know, it goes a little bit under the radar how fantastic they were at Aachen this year,” Costello said.
“They came back pretty close on the heels of a big Kentucky win, and then came to Aachen just a couple of months later to be just as sharp.”
A Rebuilding Phase
Tamie tells me she isn’t a New Year’s resolution person. She’s not looking for a wild transformation in 2024. But that isn’t to say she isn’t optimistic. She’s stepping into the new year with big dreams, and the program, people and mindset to back those dreams.
“I’m a little bit in a rebuilding phase; I went from thinking I had four or five five-star horses to having one,” Tamie said, nodding to Lexus in his stall. “Lexus is 18 this year, and although he feels like a million bucks, and I feel like we have a really strong chance at Paris, I also know reality. It could be, in a perfect world, a fairy tale.
“It’s a little bit of a reality check, because it’s almost the end of an era for Lexus,” she continued. “That makes me a little bit emotional when I think of that, because it’s been amazing—and I mean, it’s been everything. It’s been unbelievable and so tragic.”
Tamie considers herself a positive person, but she says it’s not a “rah-rah” blind positivity, and she certainly doesn’t shy away from the ups and downs of this sport. Part of her success—as was made especially clear in 2023—has been in her ability to accept both the good with the bad.
As she looks ahead to the next few years, and to the potential to take her horse of a lifetime to the 2024 Olympics, Tamie is hopeful. It hasn’t been an easy road to get to this place in her career, but that’s OK with her.
“I’ve never done anything in my career that’s been the easy way, or the safe way,” she said. “Because ultimately, in my thought process, I feel like that’s how you know the most, that’s when you learn the most, and that’s how you know, really, if you’re ready.”
About Mai Baum
Stats: Blk. g., 18-year-old German Sport Horse (Loredano 2, Ramira—Rike), bred by Gunter Gerling and owned by Alex Ahearn, Ellen Ahearn and Eric Markell.
Groom: Alyssa Dobrotin
Homebase: Next Level Eventing in Temecula, California
Barn Name: Lexus
Personality: “When it’s just him and I, he’s very, very connected, very sensitive and sweet and kind,” said Tamie Smith. “He’s treated like a king. I mean, they kind of all are treated the same, but he definitely gets some special attention.”
Owner Alex Ahearn added that he’s also become aware of his own star power.
“With the success he’s had, he likes to pose for pictures now, or look at himself in the dressage ring,” she said. “Once he hears the clicker on the camera, he knows how to look every direction and what his angles are.”
About Tamie Smith
Current Town: Murrieta, California
Spending Her Prize Money: “We just took our first vacation in over 10 years. I always say, ‘Yeah, we’re going to
go on vacation!’ But then, it’s always something. There’s always some project we have to do, or I can’t manage to get myself away from the barn. So after winning Kentucky, I said, I’m going to take a piece of my prize money and put it in a savings account, and I’m taking the family on vacation.”
Fun Fact: Smith’s homebase at Next Level Eventing in Temecula, California, has brought her career full circle. She has known the barn owners, Linda and Terry Paine, since she was just a 10-year-old exercise rider. “I was more of a stunt dummy,” she joked. “I had my first real riding job from them. Terry was big into race horses and hunting, so I came and rode, got paid 10 bucks to ride, and exercised four or five horses at a time,” Smith said.
This article originally appeared in the January 2024, issue of The Chronicle of the Horse. You can subscribe and get online access to a digital version and then enjoy a year of The Chronicle of the Horse and our lifestyle publication, Untacked. If you’re just following COTH online, you’re missing so much great unique content. Each print issue of the Chronicle is full of in-depth competition news, fascinating features, probing looks at issues within the sports of hunter/jumper, eventing and dressage, and stunning photography.