Monday, May. 20, 2024

Throwback Thursday: Alex Ahearn Talks About Growing Up With ‘Lexus’

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“He was a little girl’s horse, so he acts that way,” Tamie Smith once said of her Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L winner partner Mai Baum. “He’s a very cuddly, sweet guy.”

That little girl—now an adult working in pharmaceutical marketing in Los Angeles—was Alexandra Ahearn, who has owned the German Sport Horse (Loredano—Ramira, Rike) gelding since 2010, when she and her parents, Ellen Ahearn and Eric Markell, with the help of her trainer Michele Pestl, purchased him as a 4-year-old at an auction in Germany.

“The reason the person wanted to put him in the auction was because he wasn’t the nicest horse they had at the farm—which is ironic, because look at what he’s done now—but their sport isn’t eventing. They mostly did show jumping,” recalled Alex, 27.

For Pestl and Ellen, who traveled to the South-German Horse Auction to look for an eventing prospect for 14-year-old Alex, he fit the bill.

“I had an older horse at the time, but I needed a new, up-and-coming horse because I wanted to go at the higher levels,” Alex said. “We got ‘Lexus’ as a project for me in the future, but I still had my old horse.”

Alex Ahearn jump schools a young Mai Baum at the Washington farm of her trainer Michele Pestl. Photo Courtesy Of Alex Ahern

Unlike many imported horses, where the formal name comes first and a nickname develops afterward, Alex said he came with the name Lexus, and they picked his show name. 

“Mai Baum is ‘May Tree’ [in German]. He’s born in May—his birthday is on the 20th—and he has branding on his butt that’s a Christmas tree,” she said. “It sounds nice, I think.”

Moving from an 18-year-old Morgan-Quarter Horse cross to a 4-year-old bred for sport was a big transition for 14-year-old Alex, so Pestl took a leading role in his early training from their base in Renton, Washington.

“He didn’t really do too much before we got him, [and] he was a lot when he was 4,” Alex said. “He was very spooky. He didn’t know what was going on around him. So, in a way, I was nervous to take over the ride, because I was used to riding an 18-year-old horse that took me through the ropes.”

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Washington-based Pestl took Lexus to his first few events, then handed the reins over to his young owner after a few successful outings at beginner novice. From there, Alex and Lexus “grew up together,” as Smith would later say.

An early gymnastics school with Pestl for Lexus and Alex:

“After he got trained a little bit then I took over and took him up the levels from beginner novice to what’s now the three-star level, the old two-star,” Alex said. “It’s crazy because he’s 17, and we’ve had him since he was 4. It’s crazy to think about how far we’ve come.”

Alex and Lexus had lots of early success through the preliminary level.

“I don’t want to sound cocky, but we did win a lot of things together,” she said. “I understand they weren’t huge events or big titles, but pretty much anything we entered we would be first place.”

Watch their junior novice cross-country round at Galway Downs (California) from November 2011, the end of their first year competing together:

Nonetheless, she echoes Smith’s description of Lexus when she says the picture he presented to the outside world wasn’t necessarily how he felt to the person on his back.

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“That’s the thing about Lexus: It might look easy from the outside, like he’s just floating along, but when he was younger at the lower levels, he would be really fast because the jumps were really low. I would say cross-country is his favorite phase because he just loves to run. But when it got bigger, you’d have to kick him a lot. I would be exhausted because I would always be pushing him to go faster and faster. 

“It’s interesting,” she added, “because when I’m watching Tamie go it looks so graceful, but I’m like, ‘I’ll bet she’s exhausted.’ Because I was exhausted.”

Alex and “Lexus” on their way to winning the CCI2* at Galway Downs in March 2014. Captured Moment Photography Photo

As they moved up the levels, Alex and Lexus began having stops on cross-country. Around the same time, she graduated from high school in Washington and found herself with the freedom to pick her next step: college or moving to take a working student position.

“We really had to learn the ropes together, [and] I feel like at the upper levels it got a lot harder because we started having run outs and stops. For me it was just hard because I’m an amateur—I’m a young rider, so I didn’t know what to do,” Alex said. “Then when I found Tamie at Twin Rivers [California], and she was like, ‘Come work with me. I’ll help you with Lexus; learn from me, and this and that.’ So that’s what I ended up doing. It was a little bit defeating to do so well at lower levels and have issues at upper levels, but that’s kind of how it goes.”

A teenaged Alex with a baby-faced Lexus at one of their early shows. Photo Courtesy Of Alex Ahearn

After spending his competitive career out West, it was Alex who took Lexus across the country to contest his first Fair Hill International (Maryland), where they competed in the CCI3*-L division. While Smith finished fifth in the 100-plus strong class aboard Twizted Syster, Alex and Lexus had two stops cross-country to finish 68th. (Historical sidenote: also competing in the intermediate three-day that year were Lexus’ fellow 2023 Kentucky CCI5*-L entrants Jollybo, who finished 30th; Palm Crescent, who was eliminated cross-country; and Landmark’s Monte Carlo, who retired cross-country, at that Fair Hill.)

“It was after that horse show I decided that I wanted I wanted to go to college,” said Alex, who was 19 at the time. “Horses and eventing were a really big part of my life for a good 10 to 11 years; then I was a little bit burned out. I kind of wanted to experience life without waking up at 5 a.m. and finishing your day at 8 or 9 p.m.”

That led to a now-famous 2015 dinner conversation in which Alex offered Smith the ride on Lexus. 

Alex flew from Los Angeles to Lexington, Kentucky, to celebrate her childhood horse’s first five-star victory with rider Tamie Smith. Shannon Brinkman Photo

“I had always known the potential that this horse has had, not just from what people had told me, but what I experienced riding him as well,” Alex said. “I took her to dinner and was like, ‘Hey, I think I want to go to college.’ But me and my parents never wanted to sell the horse. We wanted to keep him in the family, but I didn’t want him to go to waste. I wanted him to—like this weekend—to have a title to his name. He’s created a lot of titles. I always felt like he had a greater purpose, and I couldn’t take him there.”

Today, with his 2015 Fair Hill International and national four-star championship title joined by a 2022 FEI Eventing World Championships (Italy) team silver medal and, as of last weekend, a national five-star championship to his name in his Land Rover Kentucky CCI5*-L win, that instinct has proven true for the horse Ahearn has owned for more than a dozen years.

“I feel like, just thinking back to where we started a small barn in Washington, and it was so close to my house, so I would just hang out with him in the field, he would be eating grass,” she said, “it’s just crazy to think about where we are now.”

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