Unsung Heroes of High Performance Horse Riders
How Teamwork Makes the Dream Work
By Tania Millen
High performance riders often attribute their success to a team of committed supporters and professionals who help them achieve their best while keeping their horse’s best interest at heart. But successful teams aren’t simply a collection of farriers, grooms, owners, saddle fitters, sponsors, sports psychologists, and veterinarians. According to three top-level Canadian riders — amateur jumper rider Stephanie Valdes, 2020 Paralympian dressage rider Winona Hartvikson, and veteran three-day eventing Olympian Kyle Carter — there’s a lot more to it.
Of the three riders, Carter has been at the top of his sport the longest and has reflected a lot on how teamwork contributes to success in equestrian sport. Originally from Alberta and now based in Florida, Carter has three-day evented internationally for more than 20 years, riding at the 1999 Pan-American Games, earning a team silver medal at the 2007 Pan-American Games, riding at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and earning another team silver medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. He says, “The reality is that no one can claim to be self-made; we all rely on someone for something. The number of people that you depend on in [three-day-eventing] is huge.”
Kyle Carter on Madison Park helped Canada’s eventing team secure the silver medal at the 2010 World Equestrian Games. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
He says riders have to find trustworthy, loyal, reliable, skilled people to look after non-riding details so that riders can concentrate on their riding. “That allows you to be successful because you’re not distracted,” he says. “The more you take on, the less time you have to devote to your specific skill set. If you surround yourself with people who are exceptional in their roles, it takes the pressure off having to oversee those pieces.”
He continues, “If you think you’re going to oversee everything, every aspect of what’s going on… then you're going to be overwhelmed. You’re never going to have the time to be truly successful. You have to be able to rely on other people.”
Carter’s dream team starts with the horse. “You have to have the right horse underneath you. If you’re riding the wrong horse, you’re not going to get very far,” he says.
The rest of Carter’s team revolves around looking after the horse and rider. “There are two athletes,” he explains. “One is your horse and the other is the rider, and the idiosyncrasies and health of both of them are vitally important to success. So, you have to look at all the different things that are required for your horse and your rider, and then weigh out what’s most important for each of them.”
He says that riders need to know a fair bit about a lot of different things — from farrier work to footing and lameness to conditioning — so that they can select the right people and make knowledgeable decisions. He says figuring out what’s most important and what to prioritize comes from a deep knowledge of horses and the sport, plus knowing what skills specific professionals have, and how they can help you.
Carter explains that riders also need to figure out what help they need to become the best competitive riders they can be. He says, “We all have to address our deficits and that doesn’t mean you can’t put some of that responsibility onto someone else. You need to be willing to give up some control.” For example, he explains that having someone else put training on your horse to help you become more competitive might be a great choice.
“When I think of teams, I think of having the right staff. I want people that actually like the horses. That might not be something that matters to other professionals, because I know people that are awfully mean to their horses that are very successful on the scoreboard. It just happens to be something that I think is important.
“A really good groom… recognizes and sees things before they develop into an issue,” he says. “They know what to worry about and what not to worry about and that only comes from years and years of mileage. I also think about having the right owners — those that are loyal to you, that want to see you succeed, and that are willing to sit out the failures with you, because there’s always going to be failures.
“If I can have a horse last for a long time and compete internationally for a long, extended period of time, that makes me super happy. And I want owners that want that as well. So, you have to figure out what kind of people you want around you.”
Carter believes that mental health is important too, saying, “It’s easy to think of the owners, your farrier, vet, grooms, and staff, but equally important is having people on your side that are supporting you emotionally and mentally. If you’re trying really hard to become a top rider, you’re serious about it, and you’re putting in all the work and all the effort – that’s a 15-year process at least. You need someone who you can rely on when you’re down, who knows that it’s worth the struggle, and who’s there to support you and help you along mentally. You have to address the idea of failure and pursue success with the acknowledgment that failure is a real possibility. Your role is to find people that match your need.”
Now in his 50s, Carter says, “The person who always has my back and has been there for me for about 26 years is my wife, Jennifer. She keeps so many things on track that I don’t have to think about them. I’m very fortunate.”
Stephanie Valdes also feels fortunate to have a strong team behind her. Originally from British Columbia but currently based in Belgium with Tiffany Foster’s Little Creek Equestrian stable, Valdes show jumps internationally in two-star grand prix and 1.45-metre classes as a 20-something amateur. Valdes believes that achieving success at a high level requires a huge support system, saying, “If you see me and my horse in the ring, you’re only seeing one small part of the team. So many people are involved… we’re just the faces representing their efforts.
L-R: Louise Persson (barn manager of Little Creek Equestrian), Stephanie Valdes riding Cyber Lady Z, Candace Green (former groom), and Tiffany Foster (coach). Photo Stephanie Valdes collection.
L-R: Stephanie Valdes, Wendy Valdes (mom), Bailey Underwood (former groom and long-time friend) holding Wendy Valdes’ hunters Class Act and Cool Charm. Photo Stephanie Valdes collection.
“Even though show jumping is an individual sport, there’s no way to succeed on your own,” she says. “Developing your skills is just one part of achieving results. Learning to rely on your team is so important because you can draw on the collective knowledge and experience of everyone involved and use that to inform your decisions.”
She continues, “[What] makes my team so strong is that we have common goals and similar values. Horse welfare, competition, and love of the sport drive our decisions and actions, so we’re successful because we’re all focused in the same direction.” Valdes’ advice to other riders who are looking for valued team members is to obtain guidance from an experienced horseperson you trust who has the same values, and who will discuss issues openly and honestly.
When asked about her dream team, Valdes says, “First and foremost, there is no team without my horses. They’re my partners and ultimately it’s me and them in the ring working together.” Then she mentions her groom, the barn manager, and staff at Little Creek Equestrian, along with her veterinarian and farrier. She says, “With my horses feeling their best, I can work with my coach Tiffany Foster to set goals, make plans, achieve the results I want, and deal with the inevitable ups and downs by focussing on long-term objectives.”
L-R: Makayla Barta (rider friend), Stephanie Valdes, Izzy Coxe (rider friend), Tiffany Foster (coach), Niko Keshtkar (rider friend). Photo: Stephanie Valdes collection
Then Valdes says, “The most important part of the team is my family and friends who support my dreams and goals. I am so lucky to have so many people encouraging me and making both the amazing and difficult times so much better.”
Winona (Noni) Hartvikson is a para-dressage rider in her 60s based in Langley, BC, who has ridden on Canada’s Paralympic Teams. She was tenth in para-dressage at the 2018 World Equestrian Games, and ninth individually and eighth in the team test at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. She says, “Teamwork really does make the dream work in high performance horse sport. It’s even more vital for physically challenged athletes who require special equipment, carers, and physical therapy around the clock. Getting a horse and rider combination to a championship has to be a team effort because we can’t do it on our own. For example, I get around on a motorized scooter and require help getting on and off the horse. I also need a carer during competitions, and when I compete, all of my equipment has to be shipped with me.”
Groom Courtney Palleson with Onyx at the Para-Dressage Horse Inspection for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. Photo: Equestrian Canada/John Stroud Media
Winona Hartvikson and Onyx competing in the Individual Test 3 at the Tokyo 2020 Para-Dressage Individual competition. Photo: Equestrian Canada/John Stroud Media
Hartvikson’s team includes her horse Onyx that she’s had since 2019, her husband, groom, local grand prix level dressage coach, saddle-fitter, vet, farrier, sponsors, and Onyx’s co-owner, Jane MacDonald. Hartvikson states that MacDonald and her husband are imperative and she wouldn’t be where she is today without them.
“Jane’s sponsorship and encouragement to get to the Paralympics has been a key component. She goes above and beyond by providing personal support at every turn. The other key person is my husband, Duncan. He was able to build trust with Onyx and allow him to gallop forward which totally changed his fitness level and approach to work. That… was instrumental in Onyx being more rideable for me.”
Hartvikson notes, “It’s important to know when to ask for help and to find the right people to help you. Your team is entrusted with your most valuable asset: your horse. The care and management of the horse are critical and… a good groom is worth their weight in gold. So, select your team, trust your team, and focus on the basics. When you surround yourself with positive and like-minded people, it’s more fun.
Winona Hartvikson’s groom Courtney Palleson with Onyx. Photo: Noni Hartvikson collection
Winona Hartvikson and Onyx training with coach Wendy Christoff at home in Langley, BC. Photo: Noni Hartvikson collection
L-R: Winona Hartvikson’s groom Courtney Palleson, coach Wendy Christoff, and co-owner and supporter Jane MacDonald. Photo: Noni Hartvikson collection
“My team is highly motivated and everyone collaborates to solve problems,” she says. “Because we’re a great team, there’s a much higher likelihood of producing great results. Everybody’s time, work, and input matters equally. There is mutual respect, we have a common goal, we each know our part, and we all work equally hard to the best of our abilities. They focus on helping me perform my best but when I ride, it’s just me and the horse.”
Although it’s only the horse and rider who are on centre stage at competitions, and who receive the ribbons and medals, Carter, Valdes, and Hartvikson all agree that it takes an enormous team effort to get that horse and rider into the ring. All three riders said that having team members who are loyal, trustworthy, have the horse and rider’s best interests at heart, and are playing for the long haul, allow them to get on with training and riding at the top of their sport. They have absolutely no doubt that like-minded team members are imperative to the success of horse and rider combinations, and that teamwork really does make the high performance dream work.
Related: The Magic of Ian Millar
Main Photo: Kyle Carter competing on Gaillard Lancer at the 2020 Red Hills International Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Florida. Credit: Shannon Brinkman, courtesy of Equestrian Canada