Eventer Tamie Smith: The Real Deal

Missions, milestones and memories mark the ascent of West Coast eventer Tamra Smith.
Tamie Smith and Mai Baum traveled East to Virginia to compete in the 2015 Land Rover Great Meadow International Horse Trials. | © amy k. dragoo/aimmedia

We’re making memories!” is a rallying cry for West Coast eventer Tamra “Tamie” Smith. The mantra was on her mind not only as she headed out of the cross-country start box last year on her way to several wins but also at the outset of six cross-country journeys that began in the wee hours of the morning at her Southern California base. On those trips, she logged more than 3,000 miles of highway or skyway travel on her way to accomplishing a three-fold mission: to make an indelible mark on the national eventing scene, to stake her claim in the sport’s future and to come through for her many supporters. 

Mission accomplished on all counts.

Tamie’s 2015 was already stellar with three CIC*** wins in a row aboard Mai Baum, the 9-year-old German Sport Horse nicknamed Lexus: in July at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana; in early September at Copper Meadows in Ramona, California; and later that month at Plantation Field in Unionville, Pennsylvania. She also had many victories on up-and-coming mounts, including the Novice Horse and Preliminary Horse divisions at the 2015 U.S. Eventing Association’s Nutrena American Eventing Championships last fall. Anita Nardine’s 7-year-old Oldenburg gelding Favian won the former, and Judith McSwain’s 6-year-old Holsteiner mare Fleeceworks Royal won the latter and was then named 2015 USEA Preliminary Horse of the Year. Then in October, Tamie and Lexus, owned and campaigned through two-star level by student Alex Ahearn and Eric Markell, started in their first CCI together at the Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International in Elkton, Maryland. There they led from their 38.5 dressage score on through the show-jumping timers.

Bookending the year were selections to U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Eventing High Performance lists: In November 2014, she was named to the National High Performance list, which includes athletes considered competitive in domestic international-level competition and whom the USEF selection committee feels have future potential to be competitive anywhere in the world. Last November, she made the more elite seven-rider World Class High Performance list of athletes with the ability to be competitive anywhere in the world. In December, Tamie received the $30,000 Rebecca Broussard Developing Rider Grant and Lexus won the Overall Horse of the Year Award at the U.S. Eventing Association’s Annual Meeting.

At the 2015 Nutrena USEA American Eventing Championships with Fleeceworks Royal, Tamie wore friend Heather Morris’s cross-country colors in support of Heather’s brother Dylan, who was fighting cancer. | © Shannon Brinkman

Of her cross-country travels, the 40-year-old rider from Temecula, California, says, “I had to go back East and do what I did. I had to show them, and me, that I was good enough and not just with one horse. I had to show them that I’m a hard worker and that it’s my desire to not just be the best rider in the USA, but to be the best rider in the world.” 

“The energy that Tamie exudes attracts a similar kind of energy and people to her,” says Judith McSwain, a sponsor and owner of several horses over the years. “She has incredible drive and that transcends everything she does. She’s talented and hard working. She’s a good, kind, generous person and she loves, loves, loves her horses. She’s the real deal.” 

The First Milestone

The journey to the upper levels of eventing took several years, and Tamie sees clear milestones in her professional path. 

The first was connecting with Allen Clarke, an Australian horseman based in Southern California who inspired a sea of change in her approach. Allen is known for starting youngsters and working with problem horses, one of whom Tamie brought to him in 2005.

“You are either training or untraining your horse every time you interact with him,” is an Allen Clarke mantra, Tamie says. Fairness, clear communication, positive reinforcement, repetition and instilling the idea that “you are your horse’s protector” are hallmarks of his methods. Tamie had been curious about various natural-horsemanship methods, but it was Allen who crystallized for her the idea that training must be driven by how horses think, not how humans think.

“I realized that he knew something I didn’t know. I wanted to be good enough badly enough that I took all he said completely to heart,” Tamie says. She spent a few years working intensely with him and now incorporates what she learned in the training of all horses in her program. The methods comprise round-pen work that targets disengagement, submission and responsiveness to the aids, including body language and voice.

Tamie and those in her program use Allen’s methods “like people use certain exercises to help them stay focused. If we sense that a horse is sort of ‘out of himself,’ it’s time for round-pen work to get him refocused,” she explains. 

At-liberty bridleless riding in the pen is part of the program. “We start first on the ground and teach the horses simple voice commands, then implement them with the rider,” she explains. Especially for horses who are strong in the bit, the bridleless work builds responsiveness to voice, leg and weight aids, giving the rider control and the confidence that comes with it. “It was a pivotal point and a jump-start to a great foundation,” Tamie says of Allen’s influence. 

The resulting deep level of connection with her horses became common ground as she began working with U.S. Eventing Coach David O’Connor, an advocate of natural-horsemanship methods, in 2013. 

A Well-Used Grant

Mai Baum’s owners Alex Ahearn (center) and Ellen Ahearn congratulate Tamie after her victory at last fall’s Fair Hill CCI***, Mai Baum’s first three-star. | © Shannon Brinkman

The recipient of various training grants, Tamie describes the $15,000 Rebecca Broussard Developing Rider Grant for the 2013 season as “a catapult.”

“First, because it was a bunch of people saying, ‘We think you have what it takes’,” Tamie says of the grant committee. She was methodical in determining how to use the funds. Studying other riders, especially the German victors at the 2012 London Olympics the previous summer, Tamie decided that “getting better on the flat and more technical in show jumping” should be focal points going forward.

A student of the sport, she believes that “to develop into a well-rounded rider, you have to go other places.” Sometimes, that’s geographically, like competing in the East. Sometimes it’s tapping into expertise outside of the eventing world. For that, Tamie didn’t have to travel far.

Tamie’s base in Temecula is 10 minutes from show-jumping legend Susie Hutchison and an hour from jumping mentor Lane Clarke, Allen’s son. It’s also 45 minutes from San Diego-based dressage Olympian Steffen Peters, with whom Tamie has lessoned periodically to augment her everyday training with Niki Clarke (who is Allen’s daughter-in-law). She’s seen her scores in those formerly weaker phases improve accordingly. She’s also competed at open dressage and jumping competitions, including a few weeks at the HITS Thermal hunter/jumper circuit in early 2015.

Right Place At the Right Time

Tamie and Mai Baum on their way to a win in the 2015 Rebecca Farm CIC*** in Montana last July | © Shannon Brinkman

Moving to Tucalota Creek Ranch in 2012 was another career catapult. Since first going pro in 2005 and starting her business, Next Level Eventing, Tamie had been comfortable at a lovely, but small property in Murrieta. It was far from the hub of equestrian activity that Temecula has become. She admits to vacillating between staying in her comfort zone or finding the bigger facility required to accommodate the scope of her ambitions. 

The 42-acre Tucalota Creek Ranch, owned by longtime reining and working cow horse enthusiasts Kay and Alan Needle, had been vacant when Tamie first saw it. Her working student Amy Fox, 20, came with her and declared, “You have to move here!” 

“What do you know, you’re only 20,” was Tamie’s knee-jerk reaction, but she kept listening and looking around. Seeing the shady, quiet, expansive property today, it’s hard to imagine not grasping the possibilities right away. “It didn’t look like this then,” she explains. A sizeable investment of sweat equity by her Next Level Eventing team brought the property to its current state, and in the spring of 2012 Tamie moved in 10 horses.

Ranch highlights include an enormous covered arena where the USEF staged a second year of training sessions in January, big lawns, paddocks where most horses spend their days or nights, a dressage court with mirrors and conditioning tracks and hills. The program quickly quadrupled to its current 40-plus horses. 

Tamie, a USEA ICP Level 4 Certified Instructor, envisions Tucalota Creek and the team assembled there as a Mecca for eventing. “Our predominate focus is to help the USA get back on top in eventing,” she says. The vision leapt toward reality when Tamie’s best friend since childhood and fellow eventer Heather Morris returned to California in 2014. Now Heather’s Team Express combines with Niki Clarke’s Dressage Unlimited and Tamie’s Next Level Eventing to create a partnership and an effective launch pad for horses and riders.

In addition to Mai Baum and Fleeceworks Royal’s 2015 Horse of the Year honors, Heather’s Charlie Tango was Intermediate Horse of the Year and Niki’s Quincy was the U.S. Dressage Federation Fourth Level Horse of the Year. “We joke that East Coast riders have no idea there’s anybody doing anything west of the Mississippi,” Tamie says. “Here we are!”

Heather’s homecoming was the happy byproduct of heartbreaking circumstances. She had moved to Texas 14 years ago to ride with and then work for, Mike Huber. She returned to California to help her brother Dylan through his battle with stomach cancer. Tamie, Heather and Dylan had the family bonds of a shared upbringing, and accompanying Dylan in his fight for survival has been as much a part of Tamie’s life as her remarkable ascent in the sport. She credits him with sharing his gift for “smelling the roses” and the inspiration of his tenacity. 

Dylan’s final days came as Fair Hill unfolded last October. Heather withdrew Charlie Tango and flew home to Dylan while Tamie stayed to carry his fighting spirit across the finish line, as Dylan would have wanted.

It was an extreme example of Tamie’s ability to “just keep going,” observes Judith. “In the face of everything that was going on and wanting to be home with Dylan and Heather, she dug deep and pulled it out. That’s what she does.”

That Team Thing

Tamie with her close friend Heather Morris (left) and her head groom, Shannon McCormick (center). | © Kim F. Miller

An emphatic assertion that all successes result from a team effort dominates any conversation with Tamie. The team includes her horses, friends, family, owners, sponsors, coaches, fans and fellow competitors. She’s a prolific poster of social media and writer of old-fashioned thank-you note expressions of gratitude to those who’ve supported and inspired her. And the wording always suggests that every victory is a shared one. “No matter how busy you are, there’s never an excuse not to recognize those who’ve been behind you.”

It’s part of her nature and a skill that’s helped her get and keep an ever-growing list of owners, sponsors and supporters. Many owners started as students and got happily swept along into bigger roles. Ownership syndicates, with nonprofit status through the Professional Riders Organization, have helped Tamie stay well mounted with plenty of youngsters coming up the levels. 

The sports marketing agency Athletux has been instrumental in the business side of her success. The company is run by friend and fellow rider Frankie Thieriot Stutes, whose Chatwin Tamie campaigned successfully at the two-star level while Frankie was on maternity leave. 

Longtime USEF team selector Bea di Grazia noticed Tamie’s “athletic ability and her tenacity and bravery” years ago. More recently, the “whole package” of Tamie’s success is what stands out. “She’s figured out the whole mental game and learned how to build a business, putting everything together in the best possible way that makes everyone really enjoy the sport and get more out of their involvement.”

The win streak this fall “would never have happened,” Tamie says, without groom Shannon McCormick, who received the 2015 USEA Christine E. Stafford Eventing Groom Award. Assistant rider MacKenna Shea, newly on the USEF’s Eventing 25 list, is equally key, as are three working students who help maintain a ship-shape stable. 

“Details matter,” Tamie says. “Attention to detail in everything translates to attention to detail when you’re riding.” 

Sweet ’16?

Tamie’s and Mai Baum’s successful eventing season last year boosted her onto the USEF’s World Class High Performance list. | © Amy K. Dragoo/AIMMEDIA

Tamie’s and Lexus’ Fair Hill win earned them a plane ticket from The Dutta Corporation. Some assume Tamie will use it to fly him back to Kentucky next spring for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI****. She admits that’s tempting from the standpoint of 2016 Rio Olympic selection consideration, but it wouldn’t be best for the horse so she’s not doing it.

“It takes a very special horse to complete a CCI*** and any horse that does it comes out stronger and fitter and better,” she says. It’s time to let those lessons settle in. “Last fall, I asked him for hard, harder and hardest. He’s a very careful horse, and I don’t want to do anything that would shake his confidence. My focus is on developing him and doing what’s right for him regardless of what’s in the future for me.” She expects Mai Baum to run a three-star in the spring and perhaps do his first four-star next fall.

The Olympics, of course, are staged at the three-star level and Tamie’s talents and Mai Baum’s consistently stellar performances have certainly made their mark on the powers that be along with the rest of the eventing community. 

Rio or no, many more memories await for Team Tamie Smith.

Old School Upbringing

The pride in Tamie’s recounting of 2015’s highlights mingles with disbelief over how close she’s come to what she began dreaming of in 1984. She was watching Olympic eventing on TV and realized, “That’s what I want to do!” 

She had little idea what that entailed. “The blood, sweat, broken bones, the really good horses, the not-so-good horses, the broken-down trailer by the side of the road and the ‘How am I going to pay for that broken-down trailer by the side of the road?” Tamie reflects with a smile. “I certainly had a false sense of what it took to become a top rider.”

She and Heather Morris, now her business partner, grew up riding with Kim Scheid of Spring Creek Training in Temecula. 

Surprisingly, Tamie was timid. “I didn’t want to canter, I didn’t want to jump,” remembers the rider later recognized for her bold instincts. At Spring Creek, coddling was nonexistent. “We were raised with a ‘get it done’ attitude,” Heather remembers. “The horse was not necessarily your best friend. Whatever you needed to do to get over the jump, you did it.”

Kim Scheid recognized 8-year-old Tamie’s natural abilities instantly. “Tamie might have told you that I was mean to her; that I picked on her,” she laughs. “But she and Heather ‘had it.’ Consciously and being careful not to scare them, I pushed, pulled and guided them. Whenever they gave me more, I asked for more and they gave it.”

Tamie’s first pony, Pepper, “was a stinker,” Kim relays. “Tamie never wanted to come off. She always made every effort to stay on and that built up her strength.” She learned the upside of riding a runaway. “She learned to not clutch and pull and fight it, but to embrace it and ride them forward when they have a problem. I think that’s one of the reasons she’s so brave on cross country: She learned from the beginning that speed is fun.”

Tamie continued to ride and dream as an amateur. She juggled riding with a desk-bound career and being a single mother to her now 19-year-old daughter, Kaylawna Smith, a 2014 North American Young Rider Championship eventer who now works for dressage trainer Niki Clarke. There were tough stretches, throughout which her horses “were my sanctuary,” she explains. As an amateur in her 20s, Tamie recalls asking friend and mentor Chris Scarlett, “Do you think I’ll ever be able to do a one-star? It seemed impossible.”

Tamie turned professional in 2005 at the urging of her husband, Dave Smith. She reminds him of that fact when her life resembles that of a touring musician, on the road a lot and handling the highs, lows and unpredictabilities. Tamie’s “rock” and “hero,” Dave is a homicide detective so he understands the realities of ambitious and stressful yet rewarding career choices. When not working, he’s a familiar face on the West Coast eventing scene as a competition volunteer.

Though Tamie has been steadily rising to the top—she competed in the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event CCI**** in 2009 on Chaos Theory, she was a Nations Cup Team member in 2011 and she was an alternate for the 2011 and 2015 Pan American Games—too big for the breeches is an unlikely outcome for her. Judith McSwain recalls being at a Galway Downs event in Temecula with Tamie last year. Tamie had competed several horses and coached several students, yet wasn’t too busy or tired when the call came for people to collect cross-country pinnys at the end of a long day. 

Tamie calls Bea di Grazia “Mama B” and considers her, along with Bea’s husband and course designer Derek di Grazia (“Papa D”), mentors. Bea sees Tamie naturally assuming that role for others. 

“She is a good ambassador for the sport,” Bea says. “She’s made a lot of friends and learned a lot and is still always trying to educate herself. Tamie serves on several U.S. Eventing Association committees and usually shares a thoughtful assessment, good or bad, of proposed changes to the sport. She’s a fresh new face in our sport and someone that helps keep everybody in it tuned up as well.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

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