Giving Talent Wings: Victoria Colvin

With the support of her family and trainers, Victoria Colvin has left stardom in the pony ring to pursue even bigger dreams.

On a typical horse-show morning, 14-year-old Victoria “Tori” Colvin rises as early as 4:30 a.m. She and her mother, Brigid, head to the showgrounds to tend to the hunters, jumpers and equitation horses of Scott Stewart and Ken Berkley’s Rivers Edge Farm. Tori rides the horses she’ll show later in the day—usually four Junior Hunters, an equitation horse, two or three jumpers and sometimes a green pony or two—plus one or two of Scott’s horses. When the show begins, she shifts into high gear, getting on one horse as soon as she gets off another. By the end of the day, she can’t remember how many rides she’s had. “I don’t think I can count them all,” she says. “They just tell me to get on a horse, and I go.”

Tori with her parents, Jim and Brigid Colvin | © Parker/Russell–The Book LLC

Judging by this -description, you might assume Tori has wealthy parents who supply her with a constant stream of show horses. Far from the truth. Tori’s father, Jim, is a hard-working, well-respected blacksmith originally from Pennsylvania. He met Tori’s mother through mutual horse friends during a layover she made while traveling home to Florida from the summer shows up north. A native Canadian and horse-crazy young girl, Brigid moved to the United States in the mid-1980s eager to work with the top trainers in the industry. She’d found her niche working as a barn manager/trainer for Doug and Sophie (now Crompton) Russell, developing a special affinity for teaching young riders. “I love starting kids,” she says. “That’s the best thing in the world!”

Brigid and Jim fell in love, married and moved to Loxahatchee, Florida. Because of a major surgery Brigid had when she was a teenager, doctors told them not to expect children. So Tori’s arrival in the fall of 1997 was a welcome surprise. “It was a miracle that we had her,” says her mother.

Building Confidence

From the beginning, Jim and Brigid hoped that Tori would like horses, but they agreed not to force her into the sport. “Yes, riding was our life,” says Brigid, “but the child has to be interested.” Unfortunately, when Tori was only 3, a lead-line pony ran away with her. “I couldn’t get her near a pony again until she was five-and-a-half years old,” says Brigid. “I couldn’t even get her to touch a pony!”

It took a very special pony to restore Tori’s confidence. Legendary horseman Gene Mische offered to lend her “the safest pony in the world,” Buster Brown, a former mount of grand-prix show jumper Michael Morrissey. Brigid describes him as “an older plain-bay pony, not beautiful, not a beautiful mover. But he was a really good pony. He was sainted! Tori loved him.”

Within three months Tori was showing Short Stirrup. “She was champion everywhere,” says her mother. “It was unbelievable!” As her confidence grew, her skills quickly surpassed the old pony’s capabilities. “He couldn’t do lead changes, and it wasn’t fair to ask him to do them,” explains Brigid. So they returned Buster Brown to his owners.

By now, Tori was hooked on showing. But, as Brigid says, “We are not a family of means that should be able to be doing this. We had a budget.” They started with a lease/option-to-buy on a pony named King of Hearts. With his sale money, they bought Carolina Small Talk. To provide Tori with increasingly competitive ponies, “we just kept flipping them,” says Brigid, adding that she and her husband were careful to choose ponies who would continue to build Tori’s still-fragile confidence.

When Tori was 7, they came across a Small Green pony named Ballou. “He was a skinny, wild little pony,” says Brigid. “But we fell in love with him and took him on trial.” Tragically, Ballou was kicked by another horse at the boarding stable. His shattered splint bone required four surgeries. “It was horrific,” says Brigid. “It took a year to get him back, but it was the best thing in the world for us. He is just amazing.”

Tori and Ballou won many championships, including the Small Green Pony Hunter Championship at the 2007 USEF Pony Finals. | © Randi Muster

Up to this point, Tori had trained primarily with her mother. With Ballou sidelined, she had no pony to ride, so she spent some time riding with and showing for pony trainer Jennifer Bieling. She also received a growing number of requests to catch-ride other people’s ponies.

Once Ballou was back in action, he and Tori took the A-circuit by storm. They won enough prize money at each show to pay for their expenses at the next show (entry fees, stabling, braiding, etc.). “That’s how we kept showing,” says Brigid. Worried the pressure to do well to afford continuing competing might not be fair to a child Tori’s age, Jim asked his wife, “If she makes a mistake, how do you think she’s going to feel?”

But Tori never made a mistake. In 2007, she and Ballou won the Small Green Pony Hunter Championship at the US Equestrian Federation Pony Finals. In 2008, she was named the best child rider on a pony at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show.

The Gift

Tori competed in—and won—her first grand prix at age 13 aboard Monsieur du Reverdy this spring in Wellington, Florida. | © manciniphotos

In these early years, Brigid attributed her daughter’s success to her excellent work ethic. “I knew she was good,” she says, “but I didn’t realize at the time how good she was.” When other people commented on Tori’s uncanny ability to ride course after course without “missing” (arriving at the -incorrect takeoff spot for a jump), she would tell them, “No, she just works hard.”

When Tori was 8, a friend suggested she catch-ride a pony for Scott Stewart, four-time winner of the US Hunter Jumper Association World Championship Hunter Rider Professional Finals. Scott describes what he first saw in Tori: “She has a natural feel for the horses—and the horses all really love her. And she’s really accurate. She has a good eye [ability to judge distances to jumps]. Most people have to work at it to get as good as she is naturally. It’s a very rare thing.”

A shy, quiet, down-to-earth girl, who is extremely modest by nature, Tori is just beginning to understand that her gifted eye isn’t typical. “I just go around the corner and see the distance,” she says. “It’s just there, even if the jump is 10 strides away.” She adds with a laugh, “I wish school was that easy! I wish I could just look at a book and write all the answers.”

Tori’s eye is so reliable that onlookers were shocked to see her horse chip (add an awkward stride in front of a jump) on course this summer. When she came out of the ring, says Brigid, “we told her, ‘Tori, you just made a mistake. It’s not a big deal.’ But she said, ‘No, there’s something wrong with the horse.’ It turns out he’d stepped on something and had a really bad bruise.”

Well-Rounded -Education

After Tori’s first catch-ride for Scott, he took her on as a student and exhibitor of his and his clients’ show ponies. In -exchange for this opportunity, Brigid began working for Scott and Ken, helping with everything from training to horse care and essentially becoming their on-the-road barn manager. “Brigid is very knowledgeable,” says Scott. “She’s a very good trainer and knows a tremendous amount about horse care. I could send her to a horse show with any one of my horses or students and know they’d be well taken care of.”

He credits Brigid for giving Tori a solid riding foundation—and both parents for providing valuable support. “Her dad is great,” he says. “Together, they’re teaching her all the aspects of horsemanship, from taking care of the horses to health issues and knowing what it takes to keep them happy. She’s going to be well-rounded.” He adds, “It’s really nice to work with the whole Colvin family. They add a lot to our lives and our horses’ lives.”

When Tori began riding with Scott, “she wasn’t the bravest,” he says, so he and his partner, Ken, put her on older, more experienced horses. “She rode a whole bunch of different horses. She got some good show miles on nice horses, so that gave her confidence to ride the greener ones.” In the last few years, Scott says, “She has conquered her fear. She’s pretty brave about everything now.”

In Tori’s first four years working with Scott, she won six championships at the USEF Pony Finals, including three grand championships. Five of these were on ponies owned by either Scott or Dr. -Betsee Parker. Tori was so successful in the pony divisions that other trainers -began to grumble that it wasn’t fair to other children to have to compete against her. So Scott decided to move her up to the Junior Hunters at the young age of 9, two to three years earlier than most kids make the move.

Although it was hard to ask such a young girl to give up the ponies, Brigid says, “He made the right decision. He just didn’t think it was right.” Tori still shows a few green ponies. “To me, that evens the playing field, because they’re very green and spooky,” says Brigid.

Choosing Horses

Brigid Colvin watches Tori at 2010 Devon Horse Show where Tori collected four championships, two reserve championships and the Grand Junior Hunter title. | © Amy Katherine Dragoo

Meanwhile, Tori had to make an important decision of her own. In her very limited free time, she’d become an excellent tennis player—so good that she was -offered a scholarship at the Chris Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton. “We were running ragged trying to do both, so I told her that she had to make a decision,” says her mother. She chose horses.

“Knowing that it was her decision made a huge difference for us. If you know they want it, you know you’re pushing for the right reasons.” Still, Tori’s parents make it clear that she can quit any time. “The door’s always open,” says her mother. “Any time she says I’m tired or I’m done, that’s it.”

To accommodate her show schedule, which takes her away from home for large chunks of the school year, Tori attends the #1 Education Place, a private school for child athletes. When she’s home in the winter, she goes to school from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., before heading to the barn to ride 13 to 15 horses. Her parents keep six horses on their property—two of their own and four of Scott’s. So after riding, Tori helps her mother with barn chores. Brigid says, “Sometimes we’re still finishing chores at the barn at seven o’clock and I think, ‘She’s awfully young to be doing this.’ But she wants to do it.”

Tori’s not at all deterred by the work. In fact, she admits, “I like picking out stalls. That’s really weird, but I do.” She adds with a laugh, “Except when I take out too many shavings and get yelled at for wasting money!” Feeding the horses too many treats is another of her minor crimes. “She spoils them to death,” says her mother. “Every time she goes down to the barn, there goes 25 pounds of carrots—which ends up being costly!”

Life Lessons

Both the tight family budget and the nature of Scott and Ken’s sales business taught Tori one difficult lesson early on: letting go of beloved ponies and horses. She grew especially attached to World Time, the Oldenburg gelding she rode in her first hunter derby when she was only 12. “He’s a really fancy horse, but he has a schoolhorse mentality,” says Scott. “I knew he would be a good, solid horse for her to ride. She was very confident on him.”

“He’s amazing!” says Tori about World Time. “He’s the safest, most automatic horse—and he has so much personality. He’s always happy.” Together, the pair won many Small Junior Hunter championships and finished fourth in the 2010 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals, competing against many of the best professionals in the country.

After the Derby Finals, Scott sold World Time. “It killed her,” says Brigid. “To her, the sun rises and sets on that horse.” Fortunately, the buyer was one of Scott’s clients, so the horse stayed in the barn—and Tori still sees him every day.

“Everybody forgets that she’s a young kid,” says Scott. “It’s hard for her when the horses are leased or sold to other riders. But we have 80 or 90 horses here, so there’s always a new project coming along.” Some of Tori’s recent projects have included Touchdown, a First-Year Green horse with whom she won the Overall Large Junior Hunter Championship at the 2011 Devon Horse Show, and Inclusive (Captain), with whom she won the inaugural $50,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby at the 2011 Hampton Classic.

Tori rode her first hunter derby on World Time when she was 12. The pair went on to win many Small Junior Hunter championships and placed fourth in the 2010 USHJA International Hunter Derby Finals. | © Shawn McMillen

“Captain’s jumps are unreal,” says Tori. “He jumps like five feet over oxers. It’s really hard to stay with him. I have to tell myself, ‘Heels down, back up, stay in the saddle, don’t fall off!’” As modest as ever, Tori said after Scott finished a close second to her in the Hampton hunter derby, “I honestly think he should have won.”

Now riding in the equitation, hunters and jumpers, Tori is learning to adjust her style for each discipline. Scott coaches her primarily in the hunters while Ken handles the jumpers, and both collaborate on equitation. “It’s three totally different rides,” she explains. “In the hunters, I have to be loose and forward. In the jumpers, Ken tells me to hold their mouths. In the equitation, I don’t have the best position, so I have to concentrate on that a lot. My back needs to be straighter, and I have to keep my leg still. Going around the ring, I can hear Ken and Scott’s voices telling me, ‘Back straight! Heels down!’ It makes me concentrate more—but sometimes I -concentrate on the jumps and forget I’m in equitation.”

This year, Tori was ranked first in the Pessoa/USEF Hunter Seat Medal standings with Scott and Ken’s equitation horse, VIP Z. Her chances of winning a big equitation final depend on many variables, says Scott. “There are so many great riders with great horses. It depends on who’s judging and what style of riding they prefer. Tori has a natural, beautiful riding position, but she is a rider, not a poser. She gets the horses to jump really well, which is important even in the equitation. ”

Scott adds that Tori has grown quite a lot in the last year and is now even more of an asset to the training business. “This year, especially, Ken and I can have her ride all of our young, green horses to see what they’re going to look like going their best and what we need to work on.”

Tori describes almost every horse she rides as “easy.” Scott explains: “Other people might get on the horses who she thinks are easy and find that they’re not. She gives them confidence and is so -accurate that they all trust her and believe in her. They all go the best for her.”

This holds true in the show ring, too, where Tori seems most at ease. “I don’t get nervous really,” she says. “My mom takes all my nerves.” Indeed, Brigid carries the same good-luck $10 bill and pennies in her pocket that she carried when Tori showed Short Stirrup. “If I forget them, I will drive back to get them,” she says. “I still get so nervous. Tori laughs at me and says, ‘Mom, you look like you’re going to have a heart attack.’”

Tori, in contrast, has always been cool under pressure, says Scott. “Even at the bigger shows, she puts in round after round of pretty flawless rides.” The Devon Horse Show is a perfect example: In 2010, Tori rode three ponies and four horses there, collecting four championships, two reserve championships and the Grand Junior Hunter title. In 2011, she won the overall Small and Large Junior Championships, as well as the Grand Junior Hunter Championship—and was named the best child rider on a horse.

This spring, Tori rode Monsieur du Reverdy, co-owned by Scott, Ken and the Colvin family, in her first grand-prix jumper class, the $25,000 Spring 6 Grand Prix in Wellington, and, only 13 years old at the time, she won. “It was at the end of the Florida circuit, but it was a class full of very good riders and horses,” says Scott. “It wasn’t just an easy, little grand prix. It was tough. She went in the jumpoff and didn’t even look as fast as she was because she did such tight turns, and it was just so smooth. It was really a pretty round to watch.”

From the ground, Tori found the grand-prix course daunting. She remembers, “When I first walked to the in-gate and saw it, I was like, ‘That’s huge!’ One oxer was so big.” But from the saddle, she felt completely confident. “He is such a safe, easy jumper, so you always know that he’s going to jump the jump. I just trust him—and he’s perfect.”

A Bright Future

In addition to riding hunter and jumpers, Tori rides VIP Z in the equitation divisions. | © Shawn McMillen

Someday Tori would love to win an equitation final, the hunter derby finals and maybe even ride in the Olympics. She leaves it up to Scott and Ken to plan her path -toward those goals, though. “They teach me so much,” she says. “They’re my idols.”

In the meantime, she’s just a typical teenager who prefers science to math and likes to read—but “only interesting books.” She’s a fan of the Twilight books and movies, but hasn’t fallen for Robert Pattinson’s über-popular lead character. “Jacob’s much cuter,” she says. “Believe in the werewolf!”

Most importantly, Tori’s an animal lover to the core. Even on her training days off, she begs her mother to take her to the barn to ride. She also dreams of starting a horse-rescue barn. “I want to save all the horses and animals,” she says. “I want to feed every skinny horse we drive by.”

Wherever her dreams and phenomenal talents take her, Tori’s parents will keep her grounded. “Every kid has a talent, whether it’s ping-pong or math,” says Brigid. “That’s the way I was raised, and that’s the way we’re raising her. We don’t treat her special. She’s just Tori. She’s just a kid. But she’s our kid, and we love her.” 

Nice Matters

Tori and trainer Scott Stewart collect their ribbons at the 2011 Hampton Classic. | © Shawn McMillen

Graciousness and sportsmanship are perhaps the most important lessons the Colvins want Tori to learn from Scott and Ken. “Nice matters,” says Brigid. “If she ever came out of the ring and was mean to anyone, Scott wouldn’t stand for it—and I love that.”

“We’re all doing this for enjoyment,” explains Scott, “and we’re lucky to be -doing it. We just have to keep in -perspective that everybody else is trying to do the same.” Tori understands this and is a good sport, he says. “When things go wrong, she congratulates the other -riders and doesn’t get that down about it herself.”

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