You Have To Play To Your Strengths

Oct 25, 2019 - 3:00 PM

Sometimes the best advice isn’t the easiest to take. We all need that friend who will tell you what you need to hear, even if you don’t want to hear it. While talking with my friend and business partner, Don Leys, last spring, he asked me about my plan for Leena. We’ve been friends for years and over the past couple have done a fair amount of business together. Don helped me find Leena when I was looking for a unicorn on a laughably small budget two years ago and has been one of my most trusted advisors for her development.

My plan was to move her up this season, do a couple of mini prixes, and be confidently going clear at 1.30 meters. He said that seemed reasonable, but what was the specific path I was going to follow to achieve that? I internally shrugged my shoulders at this point. I really didn’t know. My personal life was a bit of a hybrid $#it show/dumpster fire at that moment, and I was consumed by everything except making a plan for my horse. So I asked him: What would he do if Leena was in his barn? Don told me to find the best possible rider and enter her in classes where we were confident she could get good results and build her record.

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Leena jumping around like a champion. Teresa Ramsey Photo

The catch: that rider probably isn’t me. And he was right. My mental game was in shambles, and I was completely burned out at the thought of competing my personal horse. I’d met Leena as an un-rideable, semi-feral, but incredibly talented 6-year-old, and I was struggling to learn to ride her as a bold, broke and game 8-year-old. To me, she was still the baby bunny that I wanted to protect (and attempt to control) in the ring. What she needed was to be competed like a real horse if she was ever to become one.

After I recovered from the blow to my ego, I realized that Don had done the hard thing as my friend. It would have been much easier for him to say, “Sure, show her yourself. Have fun.” But my business isn’t about my personal enjoyment, and he knew that. I get a lot of enjoyment out of it, but at the end of the day, the horses’ needs and training always come first. And if I wanted to move Leena up with the goal of eventually selling her at profit, me making mistakes around 1.30 meters on a green horse because I didn’t have my head in the game wasn’t the answer. I’d already proven to myself (and some spectators) that she was forgiving. Now she needed to prove that she could also be the winner.

The planets aligned when I learned that Silvio Mazzoni was returning to the Middleburg, Virginia, area last spring. Silvio is an exceptional rider and trainer who has a reputation for getting the best out of a horse and giving them confidence in the show ring. The conversation I’d had with Don was fresh in my mind, and I wondered if Silvio might be the ideal choice to bring Leena up the levels. He was.

Fast-forward to May, and Silvio piloted Leena to win the $20,000 UVA Children’s Hospital Jumper Classic at the Keswick Horse Show in her first night class. Without a doubt, I’d made the right decision. I could see that Leena was happy, her oversized bunny ears perked forward as I offered her a banana at the in-gate after her jump-off. When you know a horse well, you learn their body language. In that high-pressure atmosphere, a huge crowd up against the rail, under the bright lights, I was nervous just standing on the ground. Silvio was cool as a cucumber, and that radiated to my horse. It was just another day in the office for Leena, and she was learning to focus on the fences, not the fiasco going on around her.

In the days that followed a couple of good friends sent messages congratulating me. I replied, “It’s a beautiful blue ribbon, but it’s not mine. It’s Silvio’s.” One of them responded, “That’s your ribbon too. He may have had the ride that night, but you made the horse what she is. You produced her.”

She was right, and I started to find a new sense of joy and pride in the role I had played in training my horse.

Some people didn’t understand why I was having another rider show Leena. She wasn’t misbehaving. To them, there was no reason why I wouldn’t show my own horse. As a professional, there’s a pressure to move up the levels in the show ring, but also pressure to run a successful business. And one piece of advice Don gave me was that I needed to run my barn like a Fortune 500 company. Does the CEO fix a broken computer? No, he calls the IT guy because his time is better spent running the company. He told me, we all have strengths in this world, and mine are centered around teaching, training and finding perfect horses for my customers. I don’t want anyone to think that he told me I was a terrible rider or anything like that, quite the opposite, but as my friend, he knew that I wasn’t in the right spot to give my horse the experience she needed.

And a funny thing happened: When I threw my efforts into running the best possible business, everything improved. Over the summer I was fortunate to have Samantha Wolfram, a rider who works for Don and me in Belgium, spend a few months here while Jeri Ryan, my working student, rode for Don at Stal Leys. The working student exchange was one of our better ideas. I was thrilled to have Samantha’s help, and Jeri got the experience of riding, training young horses, and competing in Europe. Samantha and Leena got along particularly well, and it quickly became apparent that she was an ideal rider to compete her. She has since returned to Belgium and continues to ride for us overseas. Jeri returned to Virginia with a whole new appreciation for what goes into training and selecting imports for the American market, and her riding has improved by leaps and bounds.

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Working students Samantha Wolfram and Jeri Ryan show off their ribbons

The past couple years I began traveling to Europe roughly every six to eight weeks to shop for horses. In the process, I’ve been lucky to meet some wonderful connections and other like-minded horse people throughout Europe that share the same goals and integrity that is central to my business. With every trip, my network has grown, and I’ve lost count of how many horses I’ve imported. I started out with the mission of filling the gap in the hunter and jumper market for quality horses in the mid-five figure range. My first priorities are always temperament and soundness. After that I will do my absolute best to find a horse that meets my client’s specifications within their budge. Many buyers are intimidated by importing a horse sight unseen, so I decided early on that I would not encourage a customer to import a horse that I did not want to have as a sale horse in my barn. Because, if it’s not a match, I wanted to be able to offer to help resell the horse. Everyone’s tastes are different, and finding a horse is a lot like finding a husband, but some guys are universally good guys and deserve a spot in my sales string if they don’t suit their intended owner, and those are the horses I put on a plane.

I learned that I love the matchmaking process. And with access to high-quality, talented and fairly priced horses, I’m able to continue expanding a part of my business that brings me great satisfaction. As my business has grown and become more successful, I’ve actually started riding better. When I finally took the pressure off of myself to compete, for the first time in years, I wanted to show again. And not the prideful, “I want to prove to anyone and their brother that I don’t suck,” want to show again. I felt calm, prepared, and I was able to shut out all the nonsense that had pervaded my thoughts and overridden my natural abilities in the show ring. I didn’t care what people thought. It wasn’t about getting a ribbon or winning an entry fee back (Leena had already won enough to cover all her entries this season even if I completely laid an egg, and she had proven that she was the winner to anyone who cared to ask). I’d executed my plan for her for the season. Competing her at the Piedmont Jumper Classic in Upperville, Virginia, was a bonus round.

And of course, Leena did not disappoint. It was my first time pulling on my whites in nearly three years and exactly two years since I met Leena. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our anniversary than with the double-clear round we laid down in the $10,000 open jumper classic. Our fifth-placed ribbon definitely felt like a first. I know it’s a terrible cliché, but it rings true: Every day with a horse like Leena is a gift, and I walked into that ring not feeling nerves, but gratitude. Because I don’t know if someone will make me an offer on her that I can’t refuse. I don’t know she won’t do something absurd in the paddock tomorrow and become a broodmare at best. As I walked through the in-gate, I thought, “All I have is now, and isn’t it wonderful that I get to spend it with her.”

After the victory gallop, a friend stopped me and said, “You got your balls back!” Once I stopped laughing I said, “Yeah, something like that. But I had plenty of help along the way.”

His reply stuck with me. He said, “That’s OK, we all do.” As riders, we don’t talk about that enough. I challenge you to show me a successful upper-level rider who exists in a vacuum. We all need our village. We all need our friends who can tell us the hard truths and help us set our egos aside so that we can be better – better horsemen and women, better riders, better trainers and in some cases, ultimately better people.


Paige Cade established her boutique hunter/jumper training and sales business, Country Fox Farm, Inc. in Middleburg, Virginia, in 2015. She specializes in creating personalized training programs for each horse and rider and is devoted to helping her students reach their competitive goals on the local and rated circuits. Paige regularly travels to Europe to import seasoned show horses and prospects for her clients. Paige would like to thank Antares Sellier, Purina, Dr. Sallie Hyman and Total Equine Associates for their continued support. 

You can follow her on Instagram at @paigecade.

Read all of Paige’s Chronicle blogs.

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