When Amanda Steege showed in the Second Year Green division at the 2001 Devon Horse Show, the vest she wore under her shadbelly was the same one her great-grandfather wore when showing at Devon in 1913. When she won the division championship, though, nobody credited a lucky vest. Like her earlier successes on the Ocala, Florida, circuit and at the Legacy Cup, her Devon championship reflected meticulous horsemanship and a talent that such top hunter/jumper professionals as Rick Fancher recognized long before she did.
By the time Amanda left her family's Red Acre Farm in Stow, Massachusetts, for Boston College in the mid-1990s, she was already pretty sure she wanted to make become a professional horse rider. She was less sure about measuring up to the high standards she'd set herself. "I knew I loved horses and I loved riding. But I didn't know if I was talented enough to do it on the level I wanted to."
Aiming for the Best
Amanda's benchmark for quality came from horsemen she'd grown up and around, beginning with parents Mitch and Kathy Steege. While Kathy kept Red Acre'as riding school going at home, Mitch taught Amanda and coached her at shows from lead-line classes on. "She didn't have a lot of nice horses to compete as a kid," he says. "They were tough and green. She learned that you don't just do everything one way; you adjust to the horse, so he feels almost as if he has trained you."
The parent-as-instructor setup?not always an easy one?worked for them. Amanda "had respect for what I said because I was so active in the business when she was growing up," Mitch says. "When we had little arguments, it was mostly because she doubted herself."
Amanda says she also learned a lot from a "difficult Children's Hunter" that she rode for a couple of years. "Even when you saw a distance, you had to stay quiet, sort of melt into her back a little." Another equine teacher was her beloved Junior Hunter One In a Million: "maybe not the fanciest in the workd, but definitely had the most heart; not necessarily the winner, but got ribbons everywhere, including a third and a fourth at the National Horse Show in 1993, my last Junior year."
For her last two Junior years, Amanda got additional help from top A-circuit trainer Bill Cooney. "She was already a good rider," Mitch says. "It's different, though, hearing that from your family and hearing it from leading professionals. Bill brought her along and bolstered her confidence."
Another big influence in these years was fellow New Englander Peter Wylde, a former equitation finals winner and eventual 1999 Pan American show jumping gold medalist. "I was always impressed by his riding and his horsemanship," Amanda says. "My best friend rode with him as a Junior; we'd watch her together, and he'd give me little pointers. I took a year off between high school and college and worked for him that winter in Florida, mostly grooming and flatting horses. That summer, when not showing with my dad, I worked for Peter at big shows."
Peter's high standard of hands-on care and management were a good match for those Amanda grew up with, says Mitch. "At a horse show, we got up at 3 or 4 a.m. and were the last people to leave?and we rarely left the show clean!"
Psychology, "Just in Case"
When Amanda started college in fall 1994, her choice of a psychology major reflected her uncertainty about her ability to succeed as a riding professional: "Sport psychology was another way I could be involved in riding, just in case."
Along with riding for Red Acre in the summers ("lots of Low and Pre-Green Hunters"), Amanda was able to ride during the school year partly thanks to former Peter Wylde client Kate Hunt. When Peter relocated to Europe, he asked Amanda to ride Kate's horses; twice a week, Kat drove 20 minutes into Boston from her farm to get Amanda, then drove her back to school after riding.
"The last time we'd seen Amanda was on ponies," recalls Cathy MacEnroe, who works for Kate. "When Peter recommended her, I said, "We don't want a kid; we want a rider! But from the first day she sat on a horse for us, she was nothing but professional."
An able student who graduated ninth in her class, Amanda finished her major degree requirements early (and picked up a minor in business as well). Then she began riding full-time as a professional for Red Acre. "Dad was doing most of the teaching for the business. I was most interested in my own riding, wanting to be really successful. Our customers are great, and I've never had anyone put a lot of pressure on me. I think I probably put more pressure on myself." Mitch says that although he proceeded tactfully in shifting some horses from himself to Amanda ("Customers are used to you, so you have to step out gradually"), clients were quick to accept her. "Her talent spoke for itself."
More surprising to Amanda was the support she got from other professionals. "It was intimidating when I first started having to go in the ring with top riders like Louise Serio and Down Stewart. Then sometimes I got a low ribbon or no ribbon, either because I made some mistakes or because I wasn't riding a top-quality horse. Ant he other riders were always there to tell me I'd done a good job and my time would come."
"Unseen" in the Limelight
That time was not far off. In early 1999, Red Acre client Anne Connelly bought Unseen (Alex), a 5-year-old Westphalian, as a Junior Hunter Prospect. Amanda showed the bay gelding Pre-Green a few times that year. The next year, she rode him to the top of the 2000 Zone 1 First Year Green Hunter standings, winning good ribbons at the Capital Challenge and Pennsyvlania National Horse Shows.
Heading into the 2001 Ocala circuit's Second Year Green division with Alex, Amanda also had a couple of other quality hunters, such as First Year Green Good Times. And she still had confidence issues: "The night before the first class, I dreamed that in five weeks at Ocala I didn't get one ribbon and I was devastated."
Amanda dug into her psychology training for tools to calm her nerves and bolster her performance. "When I ride in the morning, I take deep breaths to relax, then work the horse very quietly. Once the course is up, I come and look at it once before I get on. Then I only watch one or two other rounds before mine: I want to concentrate on my own horse, not on what another's done. Standing at the in-gate, I close my eyes and picture the horse I'm on going around the course. If there's a possible problem area, I picture exactly what I want to do."
Cathy MacEnroe remembers that by the time she saw Amanda in Ocala, those efforts were working: "She and her dad had such a system; whatever the horse she was riding, she walked into the ring with such presence."
Amanda and Alex won the circuit championship in their division, then?despite a broken wrist that sidelined her for eight weeks?kept the momentum going. ("Ocala really made me more confident," she says.) The pair had a victory in the Limited Pro finals at the Legacy Cup in Virginia. At Devon, just hoping to get a ribbon against top competition, Amanda ended up winning three blues with Alex for the division championship. At Fairfield Hunt Club in Connecticut, the pair were again Second Year champions; owner Anne Connelly rode Alex to a Children's Hunter championship as well. The horse's streak continued with a championship, then a reserve at the HITS Catskills circuit in New York.
For Amanda, this most successful riding year to date had given her confidence to widen her focus to other parts of the business: teaching, for instance, where her training helps her give students the same kind of assurance she learned to give herself. And she's discovered that preparing students' horses well?"so that then they go in the ring and they're good for their Mom!"?is as gratifying as showing her own.
With hopes of starting her own farm, Amanda's glad she did the extra work to earn a business degree. "Even just trying to figure ut how much I'm going to charge for board?so many things go into that. My economics and other courses really help me."
Her people skills will help, too, says Mitch Steege. "You have to learn to talk to customers and explain things in this business. I think her years at BC helped her social skills and her learning made her even more respectful of other people's viewpoints. Even if you don't agree with them, you try to understand."
This article originally appeared in the December 2001 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. Learn more about what it takes to go pro in "Tips for Going Pro" in the March 2012 issue.