Practical Horseman Podcast Transcript: Liz Halliday-Sharp

USEA's 2020 Rider of the Year and Olympic hopeful, Liz Halliday-Sharp, speaks candidly about her path from young Pony Clubber to international five-star eventer. She also shares her ambitions for Tokyo, plus, how her experience in motor racing applies to her riding career.

Below is a full transcript of the Practical Horseman Podcast with Liz Halliday-Sharp.

Opening quote—Liz Halliday-Sharp: I love this quote that Erik Duvander always says. He says, “If you’re not winning, you’re learning,” and I actually think that’s really awesome. I try to take that with me a lot. Of course, a good reminder of that is Tryon last year when I was in the lead and had the last fence down in the show-jumping, which still hurts. I’m not gonna say it doesn’t. And I think when the initial hurt wears off, you have to go back and say, “Well, what could I have done better? How could I change that?” I always try to say you take what you can learn with you and throw the rest in the trash. I think that’s an important way to go forward—try to always learn from the mistakes, but not dwell on too many aspects of them, because that’s not healthy either and that doesn’t make you better. But, you know, you have to own them. You have to own what’s gone wrong and you have to figure out why it went wrong and how you can be better. And that’s what we’re all trying to do is just be better all the time. Everybody’s going to make mistakes sometimes, you’ve just got to keep finding a way to make the good moments better.

[Music fades in toward the end of Liz’s quote and then back out at the beginning of the introduction.]

Liz Halliday-Sharp and Deniro Z on their way to a 10th place finish at the 2021 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event

Introduction—Julia Murphy: Welcome to the Practical Horseman Podcast, featuring conversations with respected riders, industry leaders and horse-care experts. The show is co-hosted by Practical Horseman editors, and our goal is to inform, educate and inspire. I’m Julia Murphy and this week’s episode is with accomplished five-star eventer and Team USA member, Liz Halliday-Sharp.

During our conversation for this podcast, Liz told me about her journey in the sport—I love how she talks about taking hunter/jumper lessons as a child in Southern California and not really loving it, so she moved onto Pony Club and that’s where her passion for eventing started. When she was 21, Liz took a leap of faith and moved to England to train with William Fox-Pitt for a year, but one year turned into 20. She’ll go more into her time overseas in a little while.

You’ll hear Liz talk about some of the most influential horses in her life, from a horse in England called “Cheese” to her current Olympic-qualified mount, Deniro Z. Plus, Liz let’s us in on how her experience as a race car driver applies to her career as an international eventer.

After nearly 20 years in England competing and making a name for herself, Liz returned to the states full-time in 2020, headquartering her operations in Ocala, Florida, and Lexington, Kentucky. Following a massively successful season including nine international wins, more than any other rider in 2020, and an additional 16 national wins, Liz was named the 2020 U.S. Eventing Association’s Rider of the Year, making her the first female to win the award since 1981—I did the math for you, that’s 39 years.

This year, Liz has continued competing at the three-star, four-star, and five-star levels with several of her horses. At the 2021 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event, Liz and Deniro Z claimed 10th place in the CCI5*-L. Now, Liz has her eye on the prize—the Summer Olympics in Tokyo—she’s hoping for the opportunity to represent the U.S., which she’ll touch on in this podcast.

Before the conversation with Liz gets underway, I want to thank the sponsor of this week’s podcast, Bimeda. Bimeda might be the biggest animal health company you’ve never heard of till now. Bimeda’s products have been trusted by veterinarians and owners since the 1960s, when their Irish roots began. Bimeda is one of the largest producers of dewormers, like Equimax, Bimectin, and Exodus. World renowned equine athletes also rely on Polyglycan, a patented formula that replaces lost or damaged synovial fluid and ConfidenceEQ pheromone gel, which reduces and prevents equine stress. Consult your veterinarian and visit to see where to buy their products.

Julia Murphy: Alrighty, so, question one—How did you get interested in horses and horseback riding?

[00:04:08] Liz Halliday-Sharp: It’s kind of funny because none of my family rode at all, it was all me, I guess. But, as long as I can remember, I always wanted to ride. I know that I was always into horses, even when I was very small. My mom said I was in love with the horses that lived up the road from us. I mean, I was riding the tree in the backyard with a towel on the back and a jump rope for reins from as early as I can remember. So it was always a dream.

Julia Murphy: So what was it about horses and the sport that’s kept you involved for so long?

[00:04:44] Liz Halliday-Sharp: I’ve always been an animal person and really, I just enjoy that partnership with horses. It’s such an intense sport. It really is two athletes working together. And for me, when I first joined the [United States] Pony Club when I was quite young, that was my introduction to eventing. I knew that was what I enjoyed the minute I tried it and went cross country. I’ve always enjoyed the training aspect of three different disciplines. I really enjoy the day-to-day—all different things and teaching the horses to really be with you and to have that real partnership that the sport involves. I’ve always been a big fan of the training and the day-to-day more than even just the competitions.

Julia Murphy: Can you maybe touch a little bit more on the Pony Club and how you started in the sport?

[00:05:34] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Yeah, so, I first started riding when I was 8. I actually did a tiny little bit of hunter/jumpers because I grew up in Southern California and that was more the thing. And, I didn’t love that. I had an opportunity to go to Pony Club just with a little leased horse from the small barn that was down the road for me. It was Fallbrook Pony Club in Southern California. Just a little one, but I think sort of my first taste of cross-country and I was pretty much sold. So, that was a real step forward.

And then I did a bunch of my ratings. I can’t even remember, I think I did up through my B [rating]. And, I did the Pony Club Championships when I was 13 and that was a lot of fun. I was on the show-jumping team. I did a whole bunch of stuff [in Pony Club] and that really got me into eventing, because of course in California, it’s not as big. And certainly back then, it wasn’t as easy to go eventing as it is now.

Julia Murphy: Who were some of your mentors or people who have influenced your riding over the years?

[00:06:40] Liz Halliday-Sharp: One of my biggest mentors/influencers would be William Fox-Pitt, for sure. I had the opportunity to move to England when I had just turned 21 and I went to work for him. I would say I really didn’t know anything at the time. I sort of thought I knew a lot, but I really didn’t. I’ve really learned a lot from him through the years. He’s still a good friend and I look forward to seeing him in Kentucky next week.

I also have to credit Don Sachey. I was based at their farm, Raintree Ranch, when I went to college at University of California Santa Barbara. He actually really gave me the kick up the backside that I needed when I was a freshman in college and sorta trying to still ride, which is really difficult. I’m sure anybody who’s tried to do that knows it’s difficult when you’re growing up and trying to find your way. He actually really pushed me to move to England, which I give him a lot of credit for that. I think possibly if I hadn’t had that push from my family and from him, I wouldn’t have taken that plunge, which became such a big part of my life. They’re probably the two of the biggest ones. And, of course I had a lot of help from Joe Meyer for a lot of years when I was in England as well. He really helped to push me on when I was still kind of learning my way.

Julia Murphy: Did you graduate college and then go to England or did you go before you graduated?

[00:08:11] Liz Halliday-Sharp: I went before. I had done three years and I actually went in good standing and I went to spend a year away. I say a year in quotes now, because a year became nearly 20. I was meant to just do a year working for William and then come back and finish up. But, that just didn’t happen. I don’t think it’s heavily influenced my life path. I was a marine biology major, which I really enjoy, I still enjoy that. But, do I think I would be working toward that path now? No, I don’t. It would be nice to have finished, but I’m pretty happy with the way the world has taken me.

Julia Murphy: Why do you like eventing—that specific discipline? What is it about eventing that you love so much?

[00:09:06] Liz Halliday-Sharp: I suppose there’s a lot of things about it. I think you don’t event unless you enjoy cross country. I think you’re definitely on the wrong career path if you don’t like to jump solid things at speed. But for me, it’s not just about that, it’s sort of the all three disciplines. I really enjoy that side of it—different training every day, trying to be good at three very different things and teaching your horse to be good at three different things. I really, really enjoy that and I always have. I do love dressage as well, but I can’t see myself without the other phases in my life. Maybe whenI’m older and in my 60s I’ll be happy to just be a dressage queen. But, right now I really enjoy that whole aspect of it. I enjoy it just from the competing, but also from a training perspective. I like having that schedule where you’re trying to keep things interesting for the horses, but still teach them to be better at all three phases.

Julia Murphy: And speaking of your horses, can you tell us about some of the most influential horses in your life? Who they were and what they were like and why they were so influential for you?

[00:10:15] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Probably my first really special horse for me, I suppose, in stepping me up was a lovely Irish horse called Bally Supreme. His name in the stall was “Cheese”. I did not name him, but I am a believer that it’s bad luck to change their stable names, so it stuck. I got him, I want to say, I think my second year in England and he had not done that much, I think he’d maybe done a few preliminaries over there. Anyway, we went from doing our first intermediate together all the way up to my first then three-star, now four-star, which we did at Boekelo in Holland. He jumped double clear. I would say Cheese was not blessed with a huge amount of scope, but what he lacked in scope and gallop he made up for in heart. He just would do anything for me and I think I owe him a lot. We learned a lot together and he gave me that taste of the upper level that I wanted.

And then, I mean, there’s been a lot of influential horses in my life. But of course, another one is a wonderful horse called HHS Cooley. He was the first Cooley horse I had and I now have a very long standing relationship with Cooley farm. He also took me around my first five-star at Kentucky a few years ago. I had him from … I think he’d done one small event when I got him. Went from the bottom up to five-star, which is pretty cool. Sadly, I lost him in an accident. Not that many months after I did Kentucky when he was entered for [Burghley Horse Trials]. That was obviously a really big …. it was a very difficult moment in my life, but also as a horse that I owe a lot to, because he had a huge heart and he helped me fulfill some dreams.

I think I have plenty of horses now that I would like to say are influencing me. I have a lot of really special horses in the barn now, so that’s pretty exciting.

[00:12:15] Julia Murphy: I’m sorry to hear about your loss with that horse. It sounds like you guys had a really wonderful relationship.

[00:12:21] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Yeah, we were good friends.

Julia Murphy: Tell us about some of your most favorable wins.

[00:12:26] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Last year was obviously a really big year. That was pretty cool for me, winning [Great Meadow International] and [Plantation Field Horse Trials] on Deniro Z was really cool. I had quite a few really great FEI wins last year, which was awesome. But [Great Meadows and Plantation] were kind of big ones for me. Just trying to make our mark and show that we could be up there and start from the beginning and keep it. It was pretty cool. I think you always remember your first FEI win, first long-format FEI win. I suppose I won’t forget that, because when you’re young, it’s the big dream. When I went to an event called Alden in England, I won the CCI1*-L over there—well, now two-star—on a Welsh-Cob cross. Actually, he was quite a talented horse. He sounds like a lump, but he wasn’t. That was a big moment in life. You don’t forget about that. But, hopefully, there’ll be even bigger ones to come soon.

Julia Murphy: Of course, in this sport and with the horses, competing does not always go as planned. How do you deal with just not winning in general or if you don’t compete as well as you would’ve liked to, or if you were a little disappointed, how do you deal with that?

[00:13:48] Liz Halliday-Sharp: I love this quote that Erik Duvander always says. He says, “If you’re not winning, you’re learning,” and I actually think that’s really awesome. I try to take that with me a lot. Of course, a good reminder of that is Tryon last year when I was in the lead and had the last fence down in the show-jumping, which still hurts. I’m not gonna say it doesn’t. And I think when the initial hurt wears off, you have to go back and say, “Well, what could I have done better? How could I change that?” I always try to say you take what you can learn with you and throw the rest in the trash. I think that’s an important way to go forward—try to always learn from the mistakes, but not dwell on too many aspects of them, because that’s not healthy either and that doesn’t make you better. But, you know, you have to own them. You have to own what’s gone wrong and you have to figure out why it went wrong and how you can be better. And that’s what we’re all trying to do is just be better all the time. Everybody’s going to make mistakes sometimes, you’ve just got to keep finding a way to make the good moments better.

Julia Murphy: Do you ever get nervous? And if you do, how do you handle your nerves?

[00:15:02] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Absolutely, of course. I think if you don’t get nervous then you’re not human. Of course people get nervous. But, I think I do perform well under pressure. I’ve always been someone that likes that sort of high pressure environment. I love a competition environment. And, I think every time you’re in a position where your nerves are high, it makes you better because you learn to deal with them better. So, I certainly have a bit of a system now and I try to just channel myself into the moment—a little bit tunnel vision, I guess. When you’re nervous, you just focus on the plan and you’re prepared and you have your plan, then you just go in and you execute it. I’m not someone that has huge issues with [nerves], but it’s of course it’s there. Of course it’s there, everybody gets nervous. I’m always trying to just make sure that I put that into the right place so that I perform better rather than let it get in my way.

Julia Murphy: And speaking of these nerves at high pressure situations or competing, can you touch a little bit on your driving days and how that may have impacted the way that you handle these situations?

[00:15:22] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Absolutely, back when I was racing, I was racing at quite a high level and it was unbelievable pressure. I can’t even express how much it was, because I was doing longer races for the most part, between six hours and 24 hours, so you were nearly always in a team with another driver or another two drivers. Our job was obviously to keep the car in one piece, but be performing at a very high level and be very consistent with the lap times despite the traffic. And then, of course, you’re dealing with that and also trying to make sure that you’re up to standard against the other drivers on your team, or above them, and perform for the whole team, because it’s not just winning as drivers, you’ve got all the mechanics behind you and everything. It certainly was a huge amount of pressure, and if you’re in the car for three hours, and you’re trying to perform at that maximum level all the time, it’s a lot to deal with.

But, I loved it. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely loved it, it was absolutely wonderful. But, I think that that has helped me. I’ve been in that place before and I think, I hope, that that is something that will help me be a very good team member, is having had all that level of pressure with the team so many times before. I’m very much hoping to bring that with me when I get my chance to represent my country.

Julia Murphy: How did you get into that?

[00:17:51] Liz Halliday-Sharp: My dad was into racing. He actually was an instructor, a racing instructor, for a long time. Mainly he raised historic cars and that sort of thing. He taught me to drive the race car when I got my driving license and we actually shared a car together—it was a 1967 Datsun 510, actually. It was a super cool car. It was a lot of fun to drive and we shared that for a few years together and then it kind of just progressed on from there.

I feel very, very lucky that I got to race some of the best tracks and some of the best races in the world. It was a really, really amazing experience that I will never forget. And, I still miss it, but I feel that I’m riding better now that I’m focusing on four legs instead of four wheels, or both together.

Julia Murphy: Going back to the four legs instead of the four wheels, do you have any routines before big competitions? Like, say, Kentucky or looking forward to the Olympics. Any kind of routines?

[00:18:54] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Right now, I’m just trying to take a breath because I’ve been on the road for six weeks competing, which is amazing. It’s been wonderful, but, it’s just really nice to be home for a minute. But certainly, for the big competitions, I like to really have a schedule. I make a plan with my girls every night so we have every hour mapped out, what the horses are going to do through the day, what they need, everything, so that there’s no anxiety from not being sure of what the plan is. I think that’s really important so you can just focus on the job.

And, I’m definitely a very visual person. So, before I ride around the cross-country or anything like that, I literally would have to ride it in my head. I like to just have a moment and just shut my eyes and just ride through my plan. I find that that really puts me in a good place, because I’ve sort of got the system down then, if that makes sense. Obviously, with horses at this level, not everything goes to plan, but if you know what you’re planning to execute, then that makes it easier, I think.

Julia Murphy: So, what is your training philosophy like?

[00:20:07] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Probably my biggest training philosophy would be that I treat all horses as individuals. I think that’s very, very important that it’s not just one way for each animal or there’s not just one bit or one answer, anything like that. I’m very much a believer that they’re all individuals just like we are. I think if we approach that and I try to teach my students that too. Mostly, when I have a new client, I usually have a sit on the horse just so I have a feel. I think that makes a really big difference in helping them to understand it. Because, quite often, you can’t feel the same thing that you see. Sometimes that helps take you to the solution a bit quicker. But yeah, that’s definitely my main philosophy.

Julia Murphy: How would you describe your teaching style?

[00:20:58] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Wow. I don’t know. I feel like that’s a question for the students. I guess I’m quite involved. I probably say more than some people want, I probably talk too much for some people. But, I would say definitely, if things are going very well, I wouldn’t always look at the clock, if that makes sense. I wouldn’t say, “Oh, well, we have to go for 45 minutes.” Like, I’m not really a believer in just pushing the horses past what you’ve achieved. If the horses done a brilliant job and it’s done in 30 minutes, then maybe we chat through some stuff and we work our way through. But, I do think it’s important to teach what you have in front of you and not always watch the clock. I think that sometimes people come away with a bit more that way. And, I’m not saying I cut all my lessons short, that’s coming out wrong. But, we’re definitely trying to go for making sure everybody learns something and they have homework to go away with. That’s big part of my goal—to give people something to work with when they leave.

Julia Murphy: And do you ever find when you’re teaching your students that there happens to be one thing that a lot of them need to work on? Or, is there one thing in your training that you specifically like to focus on for your students to work on?

[00:22:25] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Yeah, I definitely think that most people, I find, don’t use their leg enough. I’ve always said, I think especially people with hotter horses, I always say, “The hotter the horse, the more leg you need to put on.” That’s something I find. Most people think they have their leg on the horse, but they don’t. That tends to make a big difference. Certainly, in the jumping, I would say nearly everyone, I find myself telling them to pull their shoulders back and sit up a little bit more in front of the fence. I find that makes a really big difference, because a lot of people don’t realize they hold on with their knees and then you can’t put your leg on, and then your body tips forward, and then your horse loses confidence or you can’t put your leg on when you need it. So, that seems to be one of the biggest things—to teach everyone to sit up taller and just relax through their upper leg and put their lower leg on the horse. It seems to make a really big difference.

Julia Murphy: Do you have any type of favorite exercise?

[00:23:21] Liz Halliday-Sharp: I do. In most of my clinics, we definitely do a good few courses, because I think the only way you get better at courses is by doing them. So, I put a lot of bending lines, because that’s such a thing now at all of our events is you’ve always got the related distance on a bending line, which nobody’s comfortable with. So, we do a lot of that.

And, lot of what I work on now as well is having a line of two fences, usually an oxer and a vertical, that’s set for six or seven strides. Probably like six strides, generally. And then we’ll have people go down that and while it’s small, go down that in seven strides and then maybe go down in eight strides. It’s just teaching the horse to have gears and adjustability. I think that’s a really big thing, is being able to move them on or bring them back and have them listening and really with you. So, that’s something I do, again, in a lot of my teaching at home and also in a lot of my clinics. We start with that, work our way through. And then, say, I’m a big believer in doing courses, maybe doing things that don’t make you comfortable, because the only way you get better is by facing things that make you uncomfortable. I set pretty challenging courses—a lot of related lines and a lot of bends and just ways to teach people to be more comfortable with that.

Julia Murphy: Why do you think you’ve been so successful as a rider?

[00:24:50] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Well, I think I could still be a lot more successful than I have been. I’ve just been working really hard, just trying to get better, to be honest. I also think it’s been really great that I have some wonderful owners and supporters that have helped me to keep some of the young horses that I’ve sourced. I think suddenly, it feels like forever when you find young horses and you think, “Oh, they’re never going to get there,” and suddenly they’re all stepping up to four-star and that’s really cool. Then, you suddenly have a great string of horses that you’ve been able to produce in the beginning and that’s something that’s been really Nearly all my horses now, I’ve had from four or five-year-olds, and a lot of them were bought to be sale horses and maybe we’re a little too tricky, but very talented. I’ve luckily got this wonderful string of owners who’ve helped to buy them so that I could keep the ride and keep producing them. It’s fun that they’re starting to come on up through now. So that’s helping me to be successful, is having good horses, I think, definitely. But, I feel like I still have a lot of work to do, so I’m going to keep working hard.

Julia Murphy: And what is the hardest part of this sport for you?

[00:26:07] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Certainly for me, I’m kind of a workaholic. I think this sport more than other horse sports, you find yourself on the road a lot and just very, very busy. Just trying to get through all the training that the horses need and all those different things. So, I do find that I don’t really stop. That part is tricky for spending time with my husband and spending time away and getting stuff done in the house. Just all of that. That is a challenge. It’s also great, I love that side of it. But certainly, when I was in England, I was on the road four days a week, just trying to get to the gallops and take the horse to the aqua-trainer and things that we’re trying to do and trying hard to be more efficient with all of that. Training horses to be eventers, there’s a lot of things they need to do and the fitness level is high. It’s just very, very busy. I find that I don’t have much time to stop, which I guess I don’t like to stop that much, but sometimes it would probably be a healthy thing to do.

Julia Murphy: We talked about your younger self a little bit before, but if you had to give advice to your younger self, what would it be? Or do you have any regrets or anything like that?

[00:27:29] Liz Halliday-Sharp: I mean, the biggest thing I would say is, I would tell my younger self to work harder and fight harder. I think I was not the dedicated person I am now, and definitely didn’t have the work ethic I have now. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was always a busy person. But, I think if I just had that focus that I have now, I think I would have been much better back then. Quite frankly, I wasn’t very good when I was younger, so I’m not even going to say I was. That’s my feeling for everybody on the younger side. I just tell them, “If you want it, you just should work hard for it.” I think that took me moving to England to really understand what it took and what commitment I could have. That taught me to work that much more. I think that’s what I would tell myself. Just fight harder. If in doubt, fight harder.

Julia Murphy: What’s next for you? I know we have Kentucky in a week and a half and then we’re looking at the Olympics coming up. So, can you tell us your thoughts on those two things and what’s next for you?

[00:28:51] Liz Halliday-Sharp: This spring, obviously, the whole focus has been putting in a good performance at [the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event]. So, that’s the next step. Then, I very much hope that the next big step after that is a trip to Tokyo. That’s my whole goal this spring. It’s been great, too. We’ve had a bunch of young horses that have stepped up a level this spring, so that’s been fantastic. I’ve got a few horses going to [Jersey Fresh International] and then, probably a lot of our younger horses will have a little break. Even the ones who’ve all moved up a level, they’ll have a little break in the summer, because I think this season in America can become very, very long, so they need to have a little bit of time off. But certainly my full 100% focus right now is on Kentucky and then the next step after that.

Julia Murphy: Looking at the Olympics—Deniro Z or Cooley [Quiksilver]—do you know which one you might go with or which one you would like to go with if you’re given the opportunity?

[00:29:51] Liz Halliday-Sharp: Yeah, I definitely think Deniro [Z] is the horse that should be selected and I very much hope that we are selected. But, I would also hope that I could put Cooley Quicksilver in there as a definite consideration as a reserve. He’s a very good horse, he’s only a 10-year-old, but he’s a good horse. [Kentucky] is his first five star. He’s got big shoes to fill. He’s a good horse and he’s quite a fighter and quite a character, which I think is important in eventers. We’ll know a lot more next week, but right now my goal is for Deniro to be selected to the team and I will do my very best to put in the best performance we’ve ever put in next week [at Kentucky].

Julia Murphy: I really, really appreciate you taking this time to talk with us and I just know our listeners are going to love to hear this. So, it’s been really awesome. I appreciate you giving us a little insight into your life.

[00:30:49] Liz Halliday-Sharp: No worries. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

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Conclusion—Julia Murphy: Thanks for listening to this week’s episode with Liz Halliday-Sharp and a big thank you to the sponsor of this week’s episode Bimeda. Learn more at Join us again for upcoming conversations with eventer Carolina Martin and show jumper Lucy Deslauriers, who are both vying for a spot on their respective U.S. Olympic teams. You can subscribe to the Practical Horseman on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. While you’re there, please rate and review the show. I’m Julia Murphy and you’ve been listening to the Practical Horseman Podcast.

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