by Jennifer Webster, first printed in the October 2014 Equiery
On September 12, beloved hunter trainer and rider Elizabeth Solter lost her battle with breast cancer. She was 47. People and horses loved Elizabeth Solter. She was able to inspire both to go places and accomplish things–to do things they weren’t even sure they could do. “You never lost your confidence, because she always believed in you. She made you believe,” recalled Hunter (Boggs) Messineo, a Davidsonville native who began riding with Solter in 2005. The two remained close friends even after Messineo sold her horse and stopped showing.
Another client and friend, Cindy Allner (Reisterstown), remembers “an exceptional horsewoman who–beyond her riding ability–loved and respected her mounts. They would do things for her that no one else could get them to do.” Allner also noted that Solter had an “extraordinary ability to teach (to others) what was innate to her.”
Allner first became acquainted with Solter in 2001. Solter’s mother Beverly had just lost her own battle with breast cancer. Her mother had also been her business partner at their Upperco family farm, Amberley. Solter, recently divorced and with a toddler son to raise, was ready to start over. She moved Amberley to Berlin (near her sister Kristin) and restarted the hunter/jumper business, this time on her own.
Allner at the time had three children under the age of five, had a home on the Eastern Shore and a “rotten horse” that needed help. “My friends told me that some hot-shot trainer had just moved to the Shore and that I should go see her for some help. I thought to myself that in no way was a person of [Solter’s] caliber going to want to take me on, but she did. And she gave me my very first lesson while she held my infant son in her arms, so that I could ride. That’s just the kind of person she was.”
Pam Baker remembers the same kind and humble soul. “As successful and famous as she became,” Baker recalls, “she never changed. She never had a big ego. It seems funny to say it, but she just accepted that she rode very well and handled it with grace.” Baker, a lifelong horsewoman and trainer from Virginia, first got to know the Solter sisters when they were little girls, as their mother–despite also being a lifelong horsewoman and trainer–approached Baker about teaching and coaching her daughters.
“She won a lot, even back then, and the ponies we had were not easy,” said Baker. She remembers Elizabeth as “always the same. She was as a child as she was later on, when she was winning in top competition [as a professional]. You tell her what to do, she thought about it for awhile, and she always made it happen. She rode a horse the way it felt good to her and the horses loved her. I told someone once,” Baker continued with a chuckle, “a client of Elizabeth’s who had just watched her get [that client’s] not-so-easy horse around the ring with style and ease, ‘Elizabeth is half horse!’”
Success at Any Age
Solter’s successful career as a hunter rider began in the 1970s on such notable ponies as Old Fashioned, Daisy Mae, Farnley Blue Chip, Scooby Doo, Indy Anna, Toulouse, and Smart Cookie–many of which were owned by others. Quipped a friend and competitor: “She basically sat on every pony who was giving its rider a hard time!”
Solter’s junior years on horses were no different. She regularly competed horses for other trainers, such as Chris Wynne (Virginia Beach) whose “fifteen-hand, little loppy-eared Thoroughbred” Bandit, was Grand Champion at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden with Solter in the irons. For Baker, Solter competed the Junior Hunter Clear Cut, after the horse’s owner and regular rider was injured in a serious accident. Clear Cut went on to become very famous, but at the time, had never had a major win. “They won the Winner’s Stake at Harrisburg,” Baker said, “which was a really big deal. Elizabeth was always successful, no matter what the horse. She got the best out of all of them.”
Solter graduated from high school in 1986 and immediately turned professional. Her winning ways continued in the hunters, on her parents’ Sea Wasp, a former race horse. The gelding was twice American Horse Show Association (now U.S. Equestrian Federation) Horse of the Year and won the very prestigious Founder’s Cup, at the Upperville (VA) Colt and Horse Show three years in a row. Elizabeth Burke’s Magical Moments, whose wins included tricolors and blues at Upperville, Devon and the indoors, was another notable mount for Solter. She also began having great success in the jumper ring, on another Amberley-owned off-the-track Thoroughbred, Western Run, with whom she had big wins at Devon and the Hampton Classic.
Her first Grand Prix win came on another horse she developed, Flirtatious, at the Prix de Penn National at Harrisburg in 1994. Solter and “Flirty” continued their wins in 1995, the year that Solter was named the American Grand Prix Assocation (AGA)’s Rookie of the Year. The same year she took the title of first-ever World Champion Hunter Rider, a combination of honors that no rider has been able to duplicate since.
The Great Rox Dene & Many More
And then there was Rox Dene, Elaine Boylen’s grey mare of unbelievable talent and style who, with Solter, won every major title a show hunter could win in the U.S., multiple times, and still managed to retire by the age of ten. With the help of Rodney Bross (who trained all of Boylen’s horses; Solter later married Bross and they had a son, Allen), the pair earned the Grand Hunter Championship at Washington, Harrisburg, the Garden, Upperville and Devon.
In addition, Rox Dene was the AHSA Horse of the Year four years in a row (1991-1994), the Chronicle of the Horse’s Hunter of the Year in 1992, and Overall Horse of the Year in 1994. Rox Dene is a member of the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame, and has been called the “Hunter Horse of the Century.”
Messineo remembers Solter as one of the hardest-working professionals she has ever known. Not long after she had gone out on her own, Solter traveled to Florida for the winter circuit with no staff, only her friend Dawn Childs and “a bunch of clients’ horses. “You would see them at the ring, Dawn holding onto four horses while Elizabeth rode one, got off, changed the tack, and got on another. And when they were done for the day, they would go back, clean all of the stalls and tack themselves, and start braiding [for the next day]. She knew what it took to get it all done, and she did it.”
The past decade for Solter was a period of regrowth, both personally and professionally. She met and married Aaron McMullan and they had a son Eden, now nine. Her business continued to flourish and she traveled much of the year up and down the East Coast, riding and competing horses for a number of trainers and owners. She rode Townsend to Reserve Champion at Devon for Dale Crittenberger and Peter Foley. She rode the hunter Lennon and jumpers Trilussa and Stella Cadente for Kaleidescape LLC, and with Sabre Springs won ribbons from Florida to Kentucky to Devon for Douglas Wheeler.
Solter was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. She went through aggressive treatment and a long recovery, yet “never missing a day of work,” remembers Allner. “She did not like being sick, and she did not let her illness define her.” In 2013 the cancer returned, and other forms of treatment were pursued and seemed to worked. But this past winter in Florida, Solter began experiencing additional symptoms and pain. Still she kept riding and winning, competing up until the second HITS show in Culpeper in late July. Baker said this was the first time Solter acknowledged her progressing illness. “To me that was so impressive; here she was, fighting for her life, yet she carried on, riding and winning, like everything was the same.”
“You never heard her complain,” said Allner. “She taught a lesson to my daughter and me the week before she died.”
Elizabeth Solter passed away at home in Berlin on September 12, “wrapped in love with her entire family surrounding her,” as was posted on the Facebook page her family set up just a few days before her death so that friends could celebrate her life, share photos and stories which the family read to her, and now honor her memory. In addition to her husband, her sons, her sister and family, Solter is survived by her father, J. Ritchie Solter, Sr., and two brothers, John R. Solter, Jr., Thomas Solter, and their families.
“Horses were a big part of her life,” Baker said, “but from a very young age, what Elizabeth wanted the most in her life was to have a family. She loved football, she was a big Redskins fan, and she told me that some of her best times were spent with her boys going to football games.”
“She lived life to the fullest,” said Allner, “and she loved her family.”
“We lost a really good person,” added Baker, “a genuinely, genuinely good person.”
On October 23, 2014, the Washington International Horse Show will be hosting a dinner in honor of the late Elizabeth Solter to benefit Capital Breast Care Center. To purchase tickets to this event, please click here.