Ashlee Bond: At Full Tilt

A lifetime of involvement fuels the commitment and ambitions of one of showjumping’s leading riders.

Credit: © cheval photos Wistful is coming into her own after a successful winter competition season.

California native and three-time World Cup Jumping Finals qualifier Ashlee Bond approaches a typical workday in the same way that she handles fences on a grand prix show-jumping course: with enthusiasm and resolve, always at full tilt. In the space of no more than 30 minutes on a quintessentially sunny afternoon at her family’s Little Valley Farms—located in Hidden Hills, just north of the hubbub of Los Angeles—she supervises a young horse’s introduction to a treadmill, reviews a riding plan with a teenaged student on a lunch break, conducts a quick tour of the facility’s 10-stall barn and surrounding pastures, then settles into a pleasant spot overlooking a large, irregularly shaped arena filled with jumps. The blond-haired, blue-eyed 28-year-old smiles easily and often as she recounts her considerable accomplishments of 2013—a year, at that time, only a few months old. 

There are noteworthy achievements in the saddle and out. But with nary a hint of bravado or boast, she describes launching Ashlee Bond Show Jumping to establish herself formally as a trainer and coach. Then she moves on to talk animatedly—and appreciatively— about her trio of grand prix horses. Agrostar is a talented 9-year-old approved Oldenburg stallion by Argentinus whom she bought two years ago in Germany after only a single ride. He has the potential, she says, to be her most talented mount. Then there’s Wistful, a 10-year-old Dutch mare by Grand Star who impressed Ashlee during the winter competitive season by settling in mentally in a way she never has before—an indication, Ashlee says, that the mare is fully coming into her own. Last, but certainly not least, there’s Cadett 7, a 16-year-old Holsteiner gelding, who is as reliable as he is talented, and who carried Ashlee into show jumping’s big-time ranks in 2009 and continues to keep her in the upper echelon. 

Ashlee uses the words “amazing” and “thrilling” repeatedly to describe the performances of the latter two horses during the just-concluded HITS Thermal Desert Circuit. Their efforts, she continues, are responsible for her second-place finish among American contenders—just behind defending champion Rich Fellers—in the FEI World Cup North America West Coast standings. In addition, two qualifier wins earned them and their rider a trip in late April to the Rolex FEI World Cup Jumping Final in Gothenburg, Sweden. At the time this story was written, she was planning to take Wistful and Agrostar (Cadett 7 was sidelined briefly after banging his cannon bone) and the event hadn’t yet been contested. Still, for Ashlee, what a year it’s turning out to be.

To the Saddle Born

“Ashlee Bond is a very talented rider to the jumps,” says none other than the legendary George Morris. “She’s a fierce competitor. She’s a winner.” Certainly high praise, indeed. 

“I do love to win,” Ashlee admits. And since her first competition more than two decades ago, victory seems to come quite easily. But it’s certainly no fluke. 

The elder of two children of filmmaker Cindy Bond and actor and lifelong equestrian Steve Bond, Ashlee was raised to be a rider. Her father’s riding résumé includes cutting horses, reiners and even bulls, along with jumpers. She first sat on a horse when she was 6 months old, and her parents began giving her riding lessons when she was age 3. By 6 she was competing, and she rapidly progressed through the pony, hunter and equitation ranks before ascending in the jumper division. Ashlee competed in her first grand prix in 2001 at age 16. That year the U.S. Equestrian Federation and Pacific Coast Horse Shows Association named her Grand Prix Rookie of the Year. The accumulating awards and accolades were satisfying, and Ashlee found it easy to establish goals for the future. It was natural to aim for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But that accomplishment was one that proved to be elusive. 

Ashlee finished 25th overall in the selection trials. She cites the experience as one of the most valuable opportunities of her life. She had suffered a back injury before the trials and, at the ripe old age of 19, simply felt burnt out. “I didn’t have any more goals at the point,” Ashlee remembers. 

For two years she dabbled in other professions, including the film business, and she traveled. While scouting a film location with her mother in New Zealand, she couldn’t resist an unexpected opportunity to ride. Galloping flat-out across the mountainous countryside and among wild horses reignited her passion for equestrian pursuits. It reminded her why she fell in love with riding in the first place: It was “all about the connection to the animal,” she says.

Back to What Matters 

Since her return to show jumping in 2006, Ashlee has demonstrated her devotion to the sport in many ways. “Life is so short, and what we do is so unbelievably fun,” she says. “I really appreciate it.” She offers these sentiments with sincerity and conviction. What’s more, she lets her actions speak as loudly as her words. 

At home on the West Coast circuit as well as in Florida, at Canada’s Spruce Meadows and throughout Europe, she’s consistently a contender among the sport’s top riders on horses she clearly values and enjoys. An effervescent personality gives her a winning way with people, too, and ultimately that’s a benefit for the sport. On her way to the autograph table after placing ninth on Wistful at the AIG Thermal $1 Million Grand Prix in California in March, she delighted fans gathered for a group photo by graciously agreeing to stop and join in. Some 5,000 friends and fans routinely follow her on Facebook and Twitter, and it’s common for the voice mail on her cell phone to be full. 

Still, no matter how popular Ashlee is with the people around her, her focus never strays long from the horses in her life.

An Uncomplicated Approach 

As a trainer Ashlee strives for simplicity. Her first priority before working with any new horse is to see that he’s “happy in the mouth,” and she calls on equine dentist Tony Hannan to conduct a thorough exam before anything else is done. “I can’t tell you how many horses come in with big sores in their mouths because their teeth haven’t been cared for properly or weren’t cared for at all,” Ashlee says. “You can’t expect any horse to go well until his mouth is happy and healthy.” 

Then it’s time to get down to basics. In working with both youngsters and older horses, who typically arrive with a training issue or two, Ashlee starts with an investigative ride. She’ll outfit a newcomer in a mild snaffle that allows her to get a read on strengths, weaknesses and other issues that might interfere with training. “I want to see how strong the horse is, how heavy, how stiff or supple and whether he might be locked up on one side or the other,” she explains. 

Then Ashlee begins to formulate a training strategy. An important goal is to get the horse to give in his body. “I want to put a little right leg on my horse and have him move to the left,” she says. A step or two at a time is fine, and Ashlee is quick to release leg pressure as the horse’s reward. “You have to give a little to get something,” she says. 

That notion is one of the core principles of a training system that Ashlee refers to as “an open-minded approach.” Another of its tenets: “If you can’t get it done at the walk, you won’t get it done at a higher gait.” And then there’s the concept that each of a rider’s leg and hand aids is a door, and it’s necessary for one to always remain open. “The horse always needs to have room to go somewhere,” Ashlee explains. “If you close all the doors, that’s when the horse has nowhere to go but up or crazy.” 

“She has a real talent with young horses,” observes Richard Spooner, an elite show-jumping competitor with more than 100 grand prix victories, who taught Ashlee as a Junior. He believes this will be key to her long-term success in the sport. “I think we’ll see in the future that she’ll have great success on the horses she gets as youngsters.” 

Step By Step with Students 

As a coach Ashlee’s goal is to shape her students’ natural gifts through straightforward instruction that challenges without over-facing to build confidence— an approach not unlike the one she employs when working with horses. A recent lesson for 16-year-old Jasmine Hainer, of Hidden Hills, California, offers insights into Ashlee’s step-by-step technique.

Already successful at 1.10-meter classes aboard a 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood named Atmosphere, Jasmine aspires to compete confidently in the 1.20-meter division at Spruce Meadows this summer and, if all goes well, venture into the 1.30-meter ranks after that. But, as the young rider admits, she has a habit of thinking “at a million miles an hour,” and that’s proving to be an impediment to her progress. 

What happens, Ashlee explains, is that Jasmine—like many riders—has “a tendency to look at the whole course and think, ‘Oh my God, that’s a lot of jumps!’” What’s necessary, instead, is to “look at each jump as an individual effort and think about how you’re going to get from one to the next, one step at a time,” Ashlee says. Simply put, “Don’t overcomplicate things,” is the best advice she has to offer. 

To accustom Jasmine to focusing solely on angle and pace, “Ashlee had me walk the course and put my hand on each jump exactly at the point where I wanted to jump it—either dead center or slightly to one side if I was planning an angled line to the next fence,” the young rider explains. “Then she had me stand where I wanted my horse to land and focus on my next target.” 

The next day, Jasmine climbed into the saddle and rode the same course, but poles on the ground replaced the jumps. The day after that, she tackled cross-rails, and the next, the course was set at 1.10 meters. After all the practice, the distances came up naturally and Jasmine’s brain moved in real time rather than in a mad rush. The exercise “helped me regain my feel and sense of connection to my horse,” she says. “And when I’m relaxed like that, my horse is, too.” 

Lessons Still to Learn 

For all of her prowess in methodically developing the show-jumping skills of horses and riders, Ashlee knows she still has lessons of her own to master. A life lived successfully at “full speed ahead” sometimes is vulnerable to impetuous impulses.

“My inner demon,” Ashlee says, “not only wants me to win, but to beat everybody by two seconds.” And that can lead to risk-taking, which invites mishaps, such as the two falls she took during the recent Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida. “My mind was racing ahead of the action on course,” she says, and that got in the way of her judgment, just as it does for her students. But it had a meaningful purpose. 

British Olympic gold medalist Nick Skelton “took me aside, very nicely, and said, ‘I have to tell you something. You’re naturally a fast rider. Stop trying to win. Ride for second or third. Take a breath now and then.’ I realized he was telling me if I did that, I would be more consistent—and ultimately win more.”

As her former coach Richard Spooner sees it, being a naturally talented rider also works against Ashlee sometimes. He recognized her innate ability right from the start and was “pretty convinced” of her international potential when she was just 8 years old. But “ because it comes naturally and she doesn’t have to think much about what she’s doing, it’s sometimes difficult for Ashlee to make a small change and for it to be permanent,” he explains. In adjusting her ride for a specific horse, “She has no problem doing whatever needs to be done,” Richard observes, “but she does have to remind herself to stick with the new system or she’ll return to her natural way of riding.” 

For the Future 

After this spring’s World Cup, Ashlee’s plans have her returning to Spruce Meadows in the summer. Then it’s on to vying for a team spot at next year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games in Normandy, France, and she’s got her sights set on the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But Ashlee is also looking forward to staying closer to home and pursuing passions that make for a balanced life. Come October 13, she’ll wed her fiancé Sage Clarke, a farrier she met through fellow grand-prix rider Lane Clarke, Sage’s cousin. 

“Right now I’m obsessed with decorating our new house,” Ashlee laughs. And though she can’t say much about it yet, she’s delighted to report that there’s a movie in the works about her sport. “It’s going to be the first real-deal show-jumping movie, and it’s based on a true story,” Ashlee says. She’s serving as a consultant for the production now, but with her star power and winning ways, it’s easy to picture her as leading lady, taking on the role with everything she’s got.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.

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