When you’ve ridden bareback in front of thousands of clapping, cheering, whistling spectators on a formerly wild Mustang with only 120 days of training and just a rope to hold onto, the butterflies you battle while competing at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event seem easier to tamp down.
That’s how upper-level eventing rider and Mustang ambassador Elisa Wallace explained the feeling of going into the electric Rolex stadium on the final day of the competition last April. After jumping clear on cross country in the pouring rain the day before, Elisa found a top-10 finish at her first four-star event within her grasp.
It was the culmination of a long journey, one that began when her father and fellow upper-level event rider, Rick Wallace, first placed her on a horse’s back at age 2. She was eventing by 4, and though Elisa did a stint in the hunter world—qualifying for and competing at the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 1995—she ultimately returned to her first love.
As is often said in eventing, it’s a sport of high highs and low lows, both of which Elisa, 33, of Jasper, Georgia, has experienced in her quest to reach the top. She produced two horses to the three-star level nearly a decade ago: Jackson, a Thoroughbred gelding she bought off the Internet for $700 as a yearling, and Leap of Faith, a promising Thoroughbred/Holsteiner mare.
But both horses suffered career-ending injuries, with Jackson’s occurring just two weeks before Elisa planned to travel with him to England to compete at the 2007 Blenheim Palace International Horse Trials.
More Doors, More Windows
Without any top horses to compete, Elisa focused on training young prospects, hoping one might be her next big star. What she never expected was to become an advocate for American Mustangs along the way. As she puts it: “There are always more ways than one to get back to the top—more doors and more windows.”
There are roughly 30,000 to 35,000 wild Mustangs living in the western United States, with about another 50,000 kept in holding pens run by the Bureau of Land Management. Organizations like the Mustang Heritage Foundation seek to promote adoption of these horses through competitions like Mustang Million and Extreme Mustang Makeover.
Elisa didn’t know about the plight of American Mustangs until her friend Rebecca Bowman encouraged her to adopt one and enter the 2012 Extreme Mustang Makeover in Clemson, South Carolina, where trainers put 120 days of training on a Mustang and then auction the horse to raise awareness for the breed.
With no upper-level horses in her barn at her training base, Rosemarie Spillane’s Rock Creek Farms in Jasper, Elisa decided to give it a go. “I signed up, picked up my Mustang, brought him home,” she said. He was a stallion so “I thought, ‘Great, my barn owner is really going to think I’m crazy.’ A lot of people did think that.”
She had the stallion gelded and named him Fledge—after the magician’s nephew in The Chronicles of Narnia series—and began working to develop a bond. After years of enduring the ups and downs of trying to get back to the highest levels of eventing, Elisa found herself having fun again with a horse.
“The thing with horses is you have to find what makes you happy at the end of the day. The bottom line is it’s about being with horses and enjoying horses,” she said. “That’s what’s great about the Mustangs. You can go back to being a kid and playing with your horses. I think a lot of times people forget to do that.”
Elisa and Fledge placed third in both the handling class of the Extreme Mustang Makeover and the trail class to qualify for the finals, where the trainers and Mustangs perform a freestyle demonstration in front of a boisterous crowd. She rode Fledge bareback with just a neck rope, which many of the trainers use to show a level of trust and communication, she said.
Would Fledge listen to her cues despite the distraction of the crowd? “I had no idea what to expect going in, but Fledge fed off the atmosphere,” Elisa said. “The more people clapped, the better he got.” They performed movements like piaffe and sliding stops and jumped over three verticals in the middle of the ring.
In the video of their freestyle, which has since been viewed nearly 250,000 times on YouTube, you see Elisa give Fledge a reassuring pat on the shoulder before she asks him to gallop around the ring with her arms outstretched.
Training Mustangs ultimately taught Elisa more than she ever thought possible about herself, the spirit of horses and eventing. “With your Advanced horses and your Mustangs, you have the same relationship because there’s such a huge amount of trust,” she said.
“With the Mustangs, they have to give up and trust you and let go, and so do the event horses. They have to trust us that we’re going to make it on the other side of the fence. And we have to be willing to trust them, too. You’re saying, ‘I’m trusting you, buddy. Now please trust me.’ You have to be willing to do what you’re asking your horse to do, and that can be the hardest thing.”
A Return to the Top
Elisa’s chance to return to the upper levels of eventing came a year after the Extreme Mustang Makeover when she met Simply Priceless, a 13-year-old Australian Thoroughbred gelding. “Johnny,” owned by David and Jill Hopcroft, had competed at the three-star level on the West Coast before coming east to recover from an injury.
While the Hopcrofts originally approached Elisa’s father about taking the ride on Johnny, he was busy campaigning his own three-star horse at the time. Since Elisa was competing only one horse at the Novice level then, she decided to take the ride. That decision ultimately set her on a path for Rolex.
“He’s tricky and quirky, but I always had faith. I just knew he was a Rolex horse,” Elisa said. “That was the goal. For the past two years since I had my first ride on him, I always had Rolex in mind. My whole schedule with him was directed toward getting there.”
When Johnny arrived at Rock Creek Farms, Elisa worked on establishing a bond with him—the same type of relationship-building she does when developing a partnership with a new Mustang.
“At home, people see Johnny and say he’s like a puppy dog, but he’s a completely different creature at horse shows. His nerves kick in, and I say, ‘Just wait until the switch flips,’” she said. But, as it often goes with horses that make it to the top levels of eventing, “that switch is what makes him such a good cross-country horse.”
Going to Rolex
Elisa and Johnny placed third in their first CIC*** competition at Chattahoochee Hills in Fairburn, Georgia, in May 2014 and eighth in their first CCI*** at the Bromont International Three-Day Event in Quebec one month later. An eighth-place finish at Red Hills CIC*** in Tallahassee, Florida, this past March qualified them for Rolex.
But that proved only half the battle. Considering Johnny’s history of nerves in dressage and show jumping, Elisa worried the Rolex stadium at the Kentucky Horse Park, which seats about 10,000 exuberant fans, would be his undoing.
“I thought for sure the atmosphere was going to cause him to explode, so I took him somewhere every weekend, whether it was to a schooling show or a different farm,” Elisa said. “The idea was to expose him to as many places as I could.”
Two weeks before the event, Elisa called Karen O’Connor to ask for help. Karen, a multiple Olympic, World and Pan American Games medalist, retired from competing in eventing in 2012 but continues to coach a number of students. She watched Elisa and Johnny at a competition in Ocala, Florida, and had a few ideas to try.
Johnny reminded Karen of Prince Panache, the Thoroughbred gelding with whom she won Rolex in 1999 in addition to a team bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. They decided to try some of the same exercises with Johnny that Karen had successfully used with “Nash.”
One of the biggest obstacles proved to be Johnny’s reaction to entering the dressage arena. He would stay relaxed outside the ring, but as soon as Elisa started to go down centerline, he would become tense and nervous, which snowballed throughout the remainder of the test.
“Karen opened both ends of her dressage arena at C and A. We worked mostly at the canter because that helped him relax better, and she would have me work on lead changes and small circles outside the ring,” Elisa said. “Then we would come back in and canter down the centerline. We did that over and over, and he got to where he would take a deep breath and relax coming into the ring.”
They also worked on establishing the right connection. Karen had said, “It’s not what the horse’s mouth feels like, it’s how your hand feels to the horse’s mouth.” The phrase stood out as a light-bulb moment for Elisa.
“When you go to make contact, your first reaction is to think, ‘My horse feels heavy,’ as opposed to thinking, ‘What do I feel like to my horse?’” Elisa said. “Karen would tell me to soften my elbows, which kept my hands steady and allowed the connection to stay softer. By keeping a soft connection with him and not allowing him to disappear, he would come up to the bridle and meet me.”
Elisa and Johnny spent a lot of time on a 20-meter circle under Karen’s watchful eye in their final preparation for Rolex, moving through different lateral exercises like shoulder-in, haunches-in and renvers.
All the while, Karen repeated the same mantras: “We want him to be accepting of our aids. No matter where we put him, we’re going to make him feel balanced and secure. We want him to understand everything we are asking of him.”
“Going into Rolex, we had a plan,” Elisa said. “Karen had faith that I could lay down a really good score in the dressage, but you never know until you get there.”
Elisa and Johnny drew an early position in the order of go at Rolex, which meant they would perform their dressage test on the Thursday of the event. With Karen’s exercises helping them both to stay relaxed in warm-up, Elisa and Johnny entered the Rolex stadium. “Normally he’s looking for an excuse to be scared or worried, but he just stayed with me the whole time,” Elisa said. “In the serpentine [toward the end of the test], I started smiling because it was actually fun.”
Elisa and Johnny scored 50.8 in their first ever four-star dressage test to sit in fifth place at the end of the first day of the competition. Karen high-fived her as they left the ring and tweeted “Nailed it!”
But their work was far from over. Cross country loomed ahead with a forecasted 90 percent chance of rain. The riders were buzzing about Derek di Grazia’s course, which nearly all agreed was bigger and more formidable than in years past.
Elisa walked the course four times to hash out her strategy, including once with Karen. “Karen was very adamant about coming in with a plan. It’s a four-star course. You can’t just go in expecting things to fall into place,” Elisa said.
Setting up for a jump through the turn became a major theme on their course walk. “We talked about squaring up your horse in a turn to make sure the horse’s shoulders are straight to the jump,” Elisa said. “It’s especially important to make sure your horse’s shoulders are straight in combinations. If not, you can get in trouble and have your horse hang a leg.”
Karen gave Elisa certain jobs to do around the course: “Give Johnny a little tap behind your leg when you come to the Head of the Lake. There’s a lot to look at there with the big crowd.” And “Evaluate how he is feeling on the back side of the course after the Hollow. You can catch your breath there.”
“Before I went out of the start box, [Karen] sent me a text: ‘Don’t let anyone take it away from you,’” Elisa said. “To me that meant: ‘It’s your course. You need to own it, and you need to take control of it.’ I went in with the mindset that I was going to attack the course.”
Heavy rains fell as Elisa and Johnny left the start box, and she focused on settling into a rhythm and executing her plan: “In those types of conditions, you just have to ride your butt off.”
Clearing the famous Head of the Lake stands out as one of Elisa’s favorite memories. “I was a little worried about that, but my horse read it perfectly,” she said. “Landing after the last jump and hearing the crowd roar— that was amazing. That gets you pumped up.”
Elisa channeled that energy around the rest of the course. “It was an amazing feeling to get to the finish. You go through all of these emotions. There’s anxiety mixed with adrenaline, and it’s thrilling to realize you’ve done it,” Elisa said. “I got off and just started hugging everyone.”
They had jumped clear around their first four-star course, accumulating just 7.2 time penalties to sit in 12th place as the best Rolex rookies after cross country. But there wasn’t much time to savor that victory. Johnny had to face the Rolex stadium once more the next day.
Show jumping has been a challenging phase for Johnny, both because of his nerves and because of his technique over the fences, Elisa said. “He tends to hollow a little bit, which makes his job harder.”
Johnny looked and felt great the next morning at the final horse inspection. Elisa walked the course with Karen and found that Johnny’s energy level seemed good as they started warming him up for show jumping: “I felt like I had a fair amount of horse and gas left in the tank.”
Knocking on the Door
Elisa and Johnny had five rails down in show jumping to finish 17th, completing the event as the highest-placed Rolex rookies. “When I came out of the ring, [U.S. Team Coach] David O’Connor told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s OK. It’s 100 percent fixable.’” That helped soften the blow, she said.
“It still punches you in the gut, but that’s what you love about the sport. It’s more about being competitive with yourself and being a better rider within yourself,” Elisa said. “It was awesome to compete against Michael Jung and William Fox-Pitt, and I accomplished my goal of finishing in the top 20. I was knocking on the door, and I wasn’t that far away.”
With that in mind, Elisa hopes to take Johnny to Blenheim this fall, the same event she aimed to compete at nearly a decade ago with Jackson. “It’s funny to think that nine years ago I was trying to go there,” she said. “You set your goals when you have big dreams, and you need to have those goals whether they are short-term or long-term. Then you take it one step at a time and keep plugging away.”
There are countless people to thank for helping Elisa accomplish the lifelong dream of getting to Rolex: her parents, Rick and Laura; her husband, Timothy Harfield; Karen O’Connor; and Rebecca Bowman, who introduced her to the Mustangs that ended up playing an integral role in the journey.
Elisa ultimately purchased Fledge at the auction at the conclusion of the Extreme Mustang Makeover. Now he accompanies her to demonstrations along the East Coast—including this year’s Rolex, where she presented a demo in addition to competing with Johnny—to help raise awareness for American Mustangs.
She continues to adopt and train Mustangs, competing in competitions like the Mustang Million with Rune and Nimh and most recently with a gray mare named Hwin at Mustang Magic in Fort Worth, Texas, which pits past top-placing Extreme Mustang Makeover trainers against each other.
Elisa once again ditched her tack and rode Hwin bareback with just a neck rope for the freestyle. They performed flying changes, canter half passes and passage and cleared a 4-foot brick wall in front of a sold-out crowd of nearly 3,000 at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo in January, ultimately finishing fourth.
Now Elisa hopes to combine her two worlds and take a Mustang to the upper levels of eventing. Hwin in particular shows enough scope over fences to make Elisa think she might have what it takes. “I always like to root for the underdogs,” she said. “If a horse has four legs and a big heart and enjoys his job, they can do a lot.”
It’s a fact she knows firsthand.
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.