Amidst the swirling influx of inspirational quotes and slogans that cycle through social media, mindset journals, books and refrigerator magnets, one has stood out to Alise Oken: “Every winner is a loser that never gave up.”
Though easy enough to read, the 32-year-old tries to live that adage, using it as a tool to help her maintain a positive attitude through the inevitable ups and downs of a career with horses.
“Something you don’t learn overnight,” Oken said. “Being a part of this sport for how long I have been, it’s something you learn over years and years of losing and winning.”
Last weekend in Drammen, Norway, she put that motto to work, rebounding from a 43-fault performance in the opening round of the Nations Cup at the CSIO3* Drammen to win Sunday’s CSIO3* Grand Prix with Gelvera.
“My partner Sean Crooks, he’s really good at the mental side of the sport and gave me a few books to read, like [those by sports psychologist] Bob Rotella and a bunch of mindset trainers,” she added. “The sport’s physical, but there’s also a big mental side of it. So I think it’s important to also test on your mental skills if you want to stay successful at a higher level, or at any level really.”
The Charlotte, North Carolina, native has seen her equestrian career weave in and out of the spotlight as it evolves. Bitten by the horse bug during summer camp as a little girl, she went on to become a top junior hunter competitor. While in college at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Oken decided she wanted to dedicate her career solely to the jumpers, and she sprung into it all-in with Olympic trainers Laura Kraut and Nick Skelton. She earned her pinque coat at just 23 years old, when she jumped on her first Nations Cup team in Lisbon, Portugal—an honor she repeated again in 2015 in Bratislava, Slovakia.
In 2017, she decided to spend her months after the Winter Equestrian Festival (Florida) in Europe, working alongside Stal Hendrix in the Netherlands as she developed young horses. Though she represented the U.S. again in 2018, she stayed mostly focused on the development side of the show jumping world with her business Hi Hopes Farm, LLC.
“I was at Emile Hendrix’s place for about four years doing that and bringing along young horses and learning that side of the business,” she said. “I kind of took a bit of a step away from the big sport of show jumping. I was riding young horses and selling them when they started jumping bigger.”
About a year ago, Oken’s young horses of years prior matured to the grand prix level, and she found herself entering higher ranked Fédération Équestre Internationale classes.
“It just takes time to develop the young ones,” Oken said, whose business is now based in Wellington, Florida and Lanaken, Belgium. “So, we buy them when they’re 6 or 7, and then it takes four or five years for them to be able to jump grand prix [classes]. So, the ones that I have now, I’ve had since they were between 6 and 8 years old. Now they’re older, and it all just came together where they can all jump in now. My parents are giving me the opportunity to keep them some of them and focus on jumping grand prix [classes].”
One of those horses was Gelvera, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare (Quality Time TN—Wunderful Vera, Numero Uno) she owns through Hi Hopes Farm.
“I got her when she was 8 through the Hendrix family, but when I got her, she was very, very green and she hadn’t jumped very much,” Oken said. “The quality was all there. When I tried her, I knew like she was very, very special. But she had a lot of character. Sometimes, that’s how it goes with horses. It takes time, and you can’t rush things or over jump them. You have to be patient, and if you’re patient and develop them slowly and in the right way, it’ll all come together.
“She has quite a lot of blood, and she’s very alert of her surroundings,” she added. “So, it took a bit of time for her and I to mesh together and have an understanding of each other. But the quality was always there. It was just getting us to work together. But for the past two years, she’s been very consistent and a very good horse for me.”
And with “Vera,” Oken got to dust off her pinque coat after five years to represent the U.S. in Europe. Alongside Jacob Pope, Nikko Ritter and Alessandra Volpi, she won the FEI Jumping Nations Cup Uggerhalne CSIO3* (Denmark) on May 26.
Last weekend, she and the rest of the U.S. squad traveled to Drammen, Norway, for another Nations Cup. Though she felt confident going into the first round, she and Vera picked up 43 faults due to a miscommunication.
“It was just to jump No. 2 out of a turn; she went one way, and I had to circle,” Oken said. “It took me a couple seconds to get her back to the second jump. So that’s where we had a bunch of time faults. For the jumps, she didn’t have a rail; she jumped the course clear. It was just me circling and trying to get back to No. 2.
“With horses, you never know,” she added. “They’re animals; they’re not machines. So, one day could not be your day, and the first round wasn’t for us. But I’ve learned that you can’t live in the past. I just tried to forget about what had happened, and I know the horse has all the ability and can jump those tracks. We came back in the second round and only had one down. Of course, I was disappointed to get that result for our team. But it’s the sport and how it goes sometimes. You can’t let it affect you because there’s always another day and there’s always another round.”
Leaning on her go-to motto, Oken shoved the first round out of her mind and focused ahead to the Longines EEF Series CSIO3* Drammen Grand Prix on June 4.
“I had a lot of confidence in Vera and the work we had done leading up to that,” she said. “When I walked the course, I really thought that it was big enough. It was solid; it’s a qualifier for the European Championships. So, it wasn’t an easy round, but I really had a lot of confidence in the mare.”
That confidence proved well-founded: The pair proved their first Nations Cup round was just a blip in convincing fashion by winning the grand prix over Norway’s Marie Valdar Longem and U.S. teammate Volpi. With the win, she became the first U.S. rider to win the Drammen Grand Prix since 2001.
“I felt like on Sunday I had something to prove,” Oken said. “You never expect it when it’s going to happen. But it was really nice to have a win and finish our tour that way.”
U.S. team chef d’equipe Anne Kursinski complimented their ride and their resilience after the win:
“Everybody here cheering each other on, helping in the warm-up ring. It was very, very exciting,” she said. “Alise’s mare had been a little difficult in the first round of the Nations Cup, so they redeemed themselves and proved that they deserve to be here. Alise rode beautifully, and the mare went great. Alex was faster in the jump-off but had a jump down. She really went for it and had the time, but that’s show jumping and that can happen. To end up first and third with just two entries in the class today, it was a wonderful, wonderful ending to this tour.”
Oken was reflective about what such a victory means, and how it underlines the mentality she tries to live.
“It’s difficult nowadays to find a really good job or find horses or whatnot, but if you really, really love the sport, you never give up,” she said. “You keep persevering and pushing and looking for opportunities. I think staying positive plays such a huge role in your success and not getting stuck in the past or negative thoughts. So, I really do try to emulate that idea, staying positive and always working and never really giving up.”