Teenagers aren’t known for being the most grateful human beings. But Nina Ligon, who's lucky enough to have five upper-level horses and a real shot at making the 2012 London Olympic Games at the tender age of 19, isn’t most teenagers.
“I’ve gotten where I am because I’ve been really fortunate in having good horses,” she said. “They teach me to be a better rider, and I'm really grateful for them.”
Ligon’s made headlines this year with some very grownup results. She won the Fair Hill CIC*** (Md.) in April and placed second at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) in May with Fernhill Fearless. Then, on July 29-31, she won the Pardubice CIC*** in the Czech Republic with Jazz King and placed sixth in the CCI*** with Tipperary Liadhnan.
Her impressive results mean she’s met the minimum eligibility requirement for the 2012 Olympic Games, where she hopes to represent Thailand as an individual with Fernhill Fearless, an 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse by Mark Twain. After graduating from the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., in 2010, she deferred her early acceptance at Stanford University (Calif.) for two years to concentrate on trying to qualify for the Olympics.
“I picked Thailand [over the United States] because I was born there, my mom’s Thai, and it’s a chance not only to be in touch with the culture but also to represent them in a sport that’s growing but hasn’t taken hold,” said Ligon, who chose Thailand as her nationality upon turning 18. She also said that due to the fact that Thailand does not have an equestrian Olympic team, the country appreciates her support and is enthusiastic about sending her to London.
She admitted it’s a bit of a rush to try to go to the Olympics next year. “Right now I have a great group of horses and a really good support team, so we’ll just push for this, and if it doesn’t happen, know that we really tried,” she said, emphasizing that a normal college experience is something she really wants, so horses may have to go on hold.
The Life Of An Olympic Hopeful
On an average day, Ligon can be found at her 1,390-acre farm in Esmont, Va., working her five horses: Fernhill Fearless, Chai Thai, Tipperary Liadhnan, Jazz King and He’s A Star.
“I like to get [all the horses worked] in the morning when it’s cool; they pretty much stay on the same schedule. That way everyone gets the same days off,” said Ligon. She also spends time mucking, cleaning tack and doing general horse chores.
For nearly three years, Ligon has trained with Kim Severson, an Olympic individual silver medalist and three-time winner of the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. Though she occasionally takes dressage lessons from Gerd Zuther, Charlottesville, Va., and jumping lessons from Katie Prudent, Middleburg, Va., Ligon said she struggles when she receives too much input from too many different directions and appreciates the relationship she has with Severson, who was on hand when Ligon won team silver at the 2010 Asian Games (China).
“Nina is one of the sweetest girls you’ll ever know,” said Severson, Troy, Va. “She’s a very quiet person, but I think this is why the horses like her—she’s quiet and effective.”
Ligon discovered riding when her mother, Pan Ligon, signed her up for lessons at age 5. After showing in the hunters, she joined the Deep Run Hunt Pony Club (Manakin-Sabot, Va.) where she found her passion for eventing. Ligon graduated with a B rating and was competing at the preliminary level by the time she was 13.
“I think it’s the cross-country that drew me to eventing—I liked the rush,” Nina said, admitting that it still occasionally terrifies her. That's surprising, given that she was named the 2010 U.S. Eventing Association Young Rider of the Year.
When she can take an occasional weekend off, she drives into Richmond to see her friends and re-charge away from the horses. “Most of my friends aren’t horse people at all. They think my sport is really neat—I know they don’t quite grasp it all the way—but they think it’s neat that I might go to the Olympics,” she said.
On many weekends Nina’s competitive schedule causes her and Pan to miss family functions and trips. She explained that her father, Austin Ligon, older brother, Aaron, and older sister Nisha, stand behind her and are fully understanding.
Pan and Nina spend more time together than your average mother and 19-year-old daughter. Nina called her mother a “good motivator” and gave Pan credit for helping her get to where she is today. “It’s like 30 percent me riding, 70 percent my mom organizing. She helps sort out all of the logistics—she says it’s good use for her MBA,” Nina said with a laugh.
For a mother-daughter pair who spend virtually all of their time together, Pan said activities aside from horses include: “NOTHING! We sleep, we each go to our corner, and then she watches video on her computer, and I watch it on mine.”
Nina added that occasionally they’ll go to the movies, but it’s rare.
“Nina, we have no social life,” said Pan, and they both laughed.
“We get along great,” said Pan. “I’m very aggressive, very quick—impatient, and Nina is slow, methodical—patient. But it’s a good complement. Plus Nina’s very obedient!”
With Nina’s Olympic goal in mind, Severson advised her student to spend even more time in the saddle, recommending that another “schoolmaster” would help conserve Fernhill Fearless, or “Sparky,” since it was the rider who needed the practice—not the horse.
They didn’t have to look far as Severson’s Irish Sport Horse Tipperary Liadhnan (Fast Silver—Gypsy Star), a seasoned four-star horse, was for sale.
Nina said, “I didn’t know ‘Paddy’ that well but I’d seen him compete. We kind of just fell into it. Kim wasn’t advocating him, she was just like, ‘Well hey, he’s for sale.’ ”
“I know that Paddy can give her experience, and that’s really what she needs to keep improving her riding,” Severson, 37, said. “She’s a strong and determined rider, but everyone needs practice.”
Nina and Pan agreed that the only way Nina will achieve her goals right now is with experienced mounts. As a worried mother, Pan said it was the safer option for one member of the team not to be green.
And Nina appreciates having a horse that isn’t learning the game at the same time as its rider. “I’ve gotten where I am because I’ve been really fortunate in having good horses. But still, you have to ride them—they don’t go around courses on their own!” she said. “I know I wouldn’t have gotten to this level at my age without Sparky—he was single handedly responsible for taking me up from preliminary to advanced and then to three-star.”
And she applies what she learns from Paddy and Sparky in the training of her less experienced mounts, like Chai Thai (Monte Carlo—French Step), a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood-Selle Francais.
“I think it just helps them move along a little bit quicker,” she said. She bought “Chai” as a 5-year-old. The experienced horses gave her the confidence and tact she needed to ride the gelding, who can be spooky and needs an aggressive ride on cross-country.
“They all teach you something,” she said.
On July 4-6, Nina competed in the CIC** Greenwich Park Eventing Invitational, the London Olympic test event, aboard Jazz King (Lion King—Jazz Time).
“It was a little disappointing,” she said of placing 33rd.
“[Jazz] pulled a shoe at the triple brushes and was really good to keep me on because I was on his neck completely—no reins,” Nina explained.
But after a rough cross-country course, they finished the event in style and had double-clear show jumping rounds.
Severson, who traveled with Nina and Pan to the event, said, “[Nina] was great. She rode like a professional.”
But even with all her success, Nina doesn’t aspire to ride professionally.
“I’m not a big fan of teaching; it makes me very uncomfortable,” she said. She describes herself as “introverted” and said she doesn’t have any interest in coaching students.
“I’ve never recommended she go into it professionally—we never have,” said Pan. “We told her it was a hobby, and I think that’s how she wants it to stay.”
“My parents have really stressed that if the Olympics don’t work out it’s not the end of the world, and I think that’s kind of how you have to approach everything in the sport—you have to take the lows as a learning experience,” said Nina.
“You’re always going to ask yourself, well maybe I could have done this a little differently. It’s too bad you have to learn through experience but that’s how it goes,” she continued, referencing the 2007 North American Junior and Young Riders Championships CCI* (Lexington, Va.) where she fell off in show jumping, just one fence away from winning gold.
Nina’s attitude that day—standing up, dusting off her breeches, and finishing the course with a smile on her face—portray the type of person she is.
“I am very proud of Nina for giving her all to try and ride for Thailand at the Olympics—a childhood dream which we thought would stay a dream,” said Pan.
In the months to come, Nina will have to continue achieving top placings, such as her CIC*** win at Pardubice, to secure the one individual spot allotted to all of the riders in Olympic Group G, which includes Asia, New Zealand and Australia.
On March 1, 2012, she’ll know for certain if she’s heading to the London Olympics.
“Whatever happens, happens,” she said. “But it’s very exciting either way.”
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