After years spent scraping together pennies to pursue his passion for eventing, Matt Brown had given up on his dream. He found himself working in a machine shop in his hometown of Petaluma, California, 20 years old and broke. He was desperately trying to find fulfillment in “doing the normal job thing.”
“I was disillusioned with the sport,” Matt said. “I knew I didn’t have the money to buy a nice horse and keep myself competing.”
His days spent working in the machine shop were a far cry from his teenage years, when Matt’s parents sold their home to fund his dream of one day representing his country at the Olympic Games.
As days turned into weeks and months, his dream started tugging on his sleeve once more. “After a year away from horses, I started working nights at a restaurant and riding during the day—random horses, young horses, anything I could find. I started getting back into it.”
Quietly, persistently and methodically, Matt, now 41 years old, worked his way back into eventing and is now representing the U.S. at the highest level of the sport. Every day he is grateful he made the decision to give his dream one more shot.
It All Started with a Free Horse
After a friend of Matt’s mother gave him a lead line lesson, the 6-year-old’s entire world began to revolve around riding. He acquired a free 30-year-old horse named Bullet with a broken jaw who liked to bolt. “I broke my arm falling off of her, but I loved every minute of it,” he said.
Matt started taking lessons with Andrea Pfeiffer out of Chocolate Horse Farm in Petaluma and instantly fell in love with eventing. When he turned 11, Matt’s parents, Paul, a land surveyor, and Jackie, a teacher, pulled together $3,000 to buy an Appaloosa gelding named Maximum Speed, or Max.
“Max was on a cattle ranch when we found him, but he loved to jump. He wouldn’t canter on the right lead—he would just do extended trot instead. At some point it clicked for him and clicked for me.”
Max took then 17-year-old Matt all the way to the 1993 North American Young Rider Championships in Wadsworth, Illinois, and ultimately to his first Advanced horse trials at Ram Tap in Fresno, California, in 1994.
“There’s no way Max should have taken me to the Advanced level, but he had more heart than just about any horse I’ve ever ridden,” Matt said.
Matt made the difficult decision to sell Max to fund the next stage of his riding career. He traveled east to work at Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, Vermont, for a summer when he was 19 and returned home to California horseless and discouraged about his prospects for continuing to pursue a competitive career with horses.
“We had bought Max for a few thousand dollars and my dad went into debt so I could compete and go to Young Riders,” Matt said. “I had a little bit of money left from selling Max, but I knew it wasn’t enough.”
So Matt decided to quit all of it—riding, training, teaching and his dream of one day reaching the Olympic podium.
After a year spent working in the machine shop and desperate to get out, Matt started brainstorming—perhaps it could be possible to build a sustainable training business and keep horses in his life.
Matt took the plunge and found that he loved restarting problem horses and finding ways to connect with them. He took up natural horsemanship and sought out other methods of training, even traveling to Montana to rope and ride the range with rancher George Kahrl. “The training side of it was fulfilling, but there was a part of me that kept going back to that dream,” Matt said. “Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics. There was a big part of me that thought, ‘I don’t have the money to do that. I don’t have the resources to do that.’ I had really sort of given up on the dream.”
Boy Meets Girl
By 2003 Matt had built a growing business as a trainer at Chocolate Horse Farm. Cecily Clark came to him for a lesson with her horse, “an 18-hand monster of a horse that was quite difficult,” Matt recalls. He remembers clicking with Cecily from the very start.
“He helped me a lot with my horse,” Cecily said, “but beyond that we pretty quickly figured out we were going to be together. He was trying to ask me out, and he told me he would go salsa dancing in the city with a group of clients and invited me to go, so I wasn’t sure if it was actually a date.”
It turned out to be a date, and Matt and Cecily have hardly spent a day apart since then. Matt had been considering starting his own teaching and training business at a separate facility, and meeting Cecily gave him the push to finally go out on his own.
“From the moment I saw him work with horses and saw him ride, it was very clear to me that he was really special in terms of his riding,” Cecily said. “But more than that, he was really special with the way he communicates with horses and can create a partnership really quickly.”
Cecily, who has a background in hunters and equitation, pursued further training in dressage and became Matt’s eyes on the ground, coaching him at home and at shows. They tied the knot in 2007, and by then Cecily was convinced there was more in store for Matt than a career as a trainer.
“It wasn’t until Cecily and I had been together for a while that she saw I wasn’t really pushing myself with my own riding,” Matt said. “Training-wise I was doing everything I could to become a better trainer, but to become a better rider and competitor, I think she saw a lot more than me.”
A Horse Named Flaxen
Five more years went by, with Matt and Cecily continuing to build their business, called East-West Training Stables. Matt furthered his own education by training with U.S. Dressage Federation medalist Volker Brommann and eventing power couple Derek and Bea di Grazia.
“I was teaching a woman named Valerie Fish at the time. This was during the 2012 London Olympics, and at the end of the lesson we were talking about the Games,” Matt said. “I happened to say that it had always been a dream of mine to compete at the Olympics. I’d never before been able to say out loud that I thought I could be good enough to actually do it.”
Valerie asked Matt what it would take to get to the Olympics and he explained the process of buying a horse with upper-level potential and then producing it to the highest level of the sport.
Her reply shocked Matt so much that his jaw dropped: “Well, why don’t we do that?”
Valerie and her husband, Bob, own Blossom Creek Farm in Calistoga, California, and also run the Blossom Creek Foundation, which exists to provide world-class training opportunities and funding to emerging riders.
The Blossom Creek Foundation’s core mission aligned perfectly with supporting Matt, who was off the radar as a potential top rider at the time. Bob and Valerie decided to support Matt in his Olympic dream and within a month they were all traveling to Ireland to shop for upper-level prospects.
Derek and Bea accompanied them on the trip to Ireland, which was the first time Matt and Cecily had ever gone shopping for horses abroad.
“We were in love with every horse,” Matt said. “I picked out three I really liked and Derek said no to every horse. By the end of the second day, I didn’t even know what I was looking for anymore.”
But Derek did. When they arrived at Carol Gee’s Fernhill Sport Horse Centre in County Clare, Ireland, Derek zoned in on a 6-year-old unassuming chestnut gelding named Fernhill Flaxen, an Irish Sport Horse by Castle Quest.
“I said to Cecily, ‘I hope we’re not looking at that horse,’” Matt said. “He had no neck. He was standing in the cross-ties like he was dead as a doornail, like he was asleep. I didn’t get a presence from him.
“He was creaky and felt stiff to ride, and every time landing off a fence he would grunt. He wasn’t on my radar, but Derek really liked him. The next day we went back and jumped him and kept putting the jumps up and up and up. You wouldn’t have watched him and said he was an incredible jumper, but he never put a foot wrong.”
Derek and Bea told Matt that Fernhill Flaxen was the horse that everyone should buy but passed on because he’s not impressive to look at. Matt trusted their advice, and the Blossom Creek Foundation imported the horse to the U.S. When they discovered his original name had been Lismakeera Super Socks, they rechristened him Super Socks BCF, now known in the barn as Flaxen.
Matt and Cecily traveled on to England to meet 2004 Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law, who helped them find 6-year-old BCF Belicoso, or Holden, also an Irish Sport Horse. With two top prospects in his barn, Matt felt one giant leap closer to achieving his dream.
Bursting Onto the Scene
Matt’s first impression of Super Socks BCF changed during the horse’s first ride in the States after being imported, when he promptly bucked off Matt. “What he showed me is there was a spark there.”
Their partnership blossomed, and Super Socks BCF placed third in his first CCI* at Twin Rivers in Paso Robles, California, in 2013, and followed by winning his first Intermediate at Woodside. He concluded his first season in the U.S. by finishing third in his first CCI** at Galway Downs behind stablemate BCF Belicoso, who won to give Matt the first CCI** victory of his career.
The following spring in 2014, both Super Socks BCF and BCF Belicoso moved up to Advanced, two decades after Matt had competed in his one and only attempt at the level with Maximum Speed. Matt won his CIC*** debut at Twin Rivers with BCF Belicoso and placed fourth with Super Socks BCF.
Making a Move
With Matt officially on the national radar and Super Socks BCF ready to compete in his first CCI***, he and Cecily hosted a fundraiser to pull together enough money to send the horse to the 2014 USEF National CCI*** Championships at Fair Hill International in Elkton, Maryland.
They stopped in Texas along the way to compete in the Adequan USEA Gold Cup Advanced Final at the American Eventing Championships and placed third. Then it was on to Fair Hill, where Super Socks BCF added only cross-country and show-jumping time penalties to his dressage score to finish 21st in his CCI*** debut.
That performance landed Matt on the 2015 USEF High Performance Eventing National Training List. With 2015 being a Pan American Games year, Matt had a chance to make the U.S. team. He and Cecily decided once again to shoulder the financial burden and head east with both Super Socks BCF and BCF Belicoso to compete in the Pan Am team selection trials at Jersey Fresh in Allentown, New Jersey.
“It was a huge push for us to come to the East Coast again to compete at Jersey Fresh. Then while we were on the East Coast for that trip, we ended up losing the lease on our property in California where we had our business,” Matt said.
“I knew if Jersey Fresh went well we would have to be back east for longer ahead of the Pan American Games. At that point I had two choices: I could fly home to move my business at the same time I was trying to make the team or stay east because I had a huge opportunity and my career was finally starting to go in the right direction.”
Matt and Cecily decided to leave behind their home and business, moving east permanently and setting up a new base in the eventing mecca of Cochranville, Pennsylvania.
“For the next year we basically had no business,” Matt said. “We were surviving on loans and the generosity of others while we started a business again from scratch.”
Following the selection trials, Matt ultimately did not make the Pan American Games team, instead named as an alternate with BCF Belicoso.
“It is a big accomplishment to be named an alternate, but the day of the last training session, when the team went north to Toronto and I went home—that was tough,” Matt said. “I had left everything at that point to try to make that team. I started questioning myself. I had no business. Did I do the right thing?”
Redemption at Boekelo
His luck turned one month later, when Matt received two competition grants to make his overseas competition debut with Super Socks BCF at Blenheim Palace CCI*** in England and BCF Belicoso for the Nations Cup Final at Boekelo CCI*** in the Netherlands.
But those plans soon unraveled. BCF Belicoso injured a tendon to prematurely end his season and Super Socks BCF suffered a bout of colic.
Thanks to treatment from the team at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center, Super Socks BCF survived the colic scare without needing surgery. While he was not able to recover in time to compete at Blenheim, he was able to go to Boekelo in place of injured BCF Belicoso.
“Having everything fall apart before Boekelo made it easier to go and focus on having it be a new experience,” Cecily said.
Super Socks BCF delivered a strong dressage test at Boekelo, a clear cross-country trip with 5.2 time penalties and a clear show-jumping round with one time penalty to finish in sixth place on 52.6 as the highest-placed U.S. horse. Matt’s performance helped boost the U.S. Nations Cup team to finish in second place.
“I had a moment as I was riding into the show-jumping ring with everyone watching,” Matt said. “It was the most atmosphere I had ridden in at that point. I felt like, ‘This is where I belong and this is where I want to be.’”
The result qualified Super Socks BCF for the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event in 2016, Matt’s CCI**** debut and a selection trial for the U.S. team ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Two out of three phases at Kentucky went their way. Super Socks BCF put in a competitive dressage test for 46.5 and jumped around cross country with a clear round and 10 time penalties to sit in 13th place going into show jumping. But the final day did not go to plan, with four rails down and four time penalties added, resulting in a 21st-place finish.
Still a strong performance in their CCI**** debut—and the best result from a first-time combination at Kentucky that year—the outcome ultimately saw Matt and Super Socks BCF named an alternate combination for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
Not the End of the Journey
With 2017 being a year with no major championships, Matt and Super Socks BCF returned to Kentucky with one goal in mind—to better the disappointing result from 2016. Both horse and rider rose to the occasion, with Super Socks BCF jumping clear and inside the time on cross country despite pulling both of his front shoes. As one of only five pairs to make the optimum time, Matt and Super Socks BCF moved from 19th to fourth place going into show jumping.
One rail down and 5 show-jumping time penalties added saw Matt and Super Socks BCF finish in sixth place at Kentucky, the best performance of their partnership to date and a long way from the day the horse bucked him off in California. Matt was subsequently named to the USEF Eventing High Performance Elite Training List and on the radar for the 2018 World Equestrian Games.
With so many pieces of the puzzle seemingly falling into place for Matt and his team, he has unfortunately faced another setback this year. Super Socks BCF, having badly bruised both front feet due to pulling his shoes in his efforts on cross country at Kentucky, will be sidelined for the 2018 season, taking Matt out of contention for the U.S. WEG team. BCF Belicoso is also currently sidelined with an injury.
“It’s going to be very difficult for me not to be competing at Kentucky this year and it’s very difficult to know I was so close to almost getting on a team. I have struggled with that,” Matt said. “I am trying to have the mindset of everything that happens is in my best interest because it’s an opportunity to learn and grow.
“There are a lot of really good riders in this country, but a lot of them feel exactly like I did—‘I don’t have the money. I don’t have the resources. I’m not good enough.’ Those people need good coaches to push them and say, ‘If you really want this, then go for it. It’s possible. It’s not easy, but it is possible if you are willing to put yourself out there.’
“That’s what I have to keep telling myself. I’m not at the end of this journey. I quit on this dream once because I chose to listen to the naysayers and to my own negativity. That is a mistake I will not repeat. It’s something I will have to keep striving for and pushing for and believing in. The one time I gave up on this was because I gave up on my belief, and at the end of the day it’s people who lose their belief that quit.”
This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.