by Katherine O. Rizzo (first published in the December 2021 Equiery)

On October 17, Valerie Pride of Harwood became the first, and only, Maryland-based event rider to complete the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill. Competing at the CCI5* level has been Pride’s long-term goal and having completed her first CCI5*-L in her home state made the experience just that much more special.

From Western Trails to International Eventing
Pride was first put on a horse when she was just six weeks old as her mother gave her pony rides aboard her prized Arabians. These early riding experiences were in Indiana where her mother mainly trail rode in Western tack. “When my mom remarried, we moved to the East Coast and I joined Annapolis Pony Club,” Pride explained.

The transition east was a bit rocky at the start as most of her new pony club friends were riding English so Pride made the switch as well. By the time Pride was 16, she was driving around the Annapolis area with her dog and a saddle, riding and training horses for others while also teaching lessons. “When I went to college, I decided I needed to take a break from horses so I could focus on my studies but that didn’t last long,” Pride said with a laugh. “I just couldn’t handle not being in the saddle and luckily had an owner that was willing to send me a horse.”

Pride balanced riding and studies quite well and graduated from St. Mary’s College of Maryland in 2003 with degrees in English and Psychology. She also continued rising up the ranks of the U.S. Pony Club, achieving the A level, the highest level of USPC.

During this time, Pride fell in love with eventing and competed for Area II as a Young Rider while dreaming of her own five-star debut. “I had watched the five-star at Kentucky hundreds of times and was really excited when I heard there would be a five-star right here in Maryland,” she said.

A Five-Star Partner
Pride’s road to the Maryland 5 Star would not have been possible without her four-legged partner, Favian. The 13-year-old Oldenburg gelding was bred by Anita Nardine in California and was initially campaigned by U.S. Olympian Tamra Smith. “He had done a few different things as a young horse and won the Novice Horse division at the AECs before I got him,” Pride stated. At the time, Pride did not have any FEI level horses in her barn and was starting to feel a bit anxious. “I was starting to worry that I’d forget what the feel of riding at the FEI levels would be like but had also recently sold a horse for a decent price so had a bit of a budget to spend,” she said.

Pride did not want a completely green horse and so her search for something that had at least a season or two of eventing began. “It was really hard to find what I wanted,” she said. “I had a few horses that failed vettings and I was about to start looking across the pond when I reached out to a friend in California to see if she knew of anything out there.”

Pride’s friend, Liza Horan, mentioned Favian as a horse she had been keeping an eye on and really liked. Pride immediately called and had him vetted before she even saw him in person. “I probably would have bought him without ever sitting on him honestly,” she said. “He’s just everything that I was looking for.”

With the help of Elizabeth Bonner, owner of Sudley Farm and one of Pride’s biggest supporters, Pride brought Favian to Harwood in 2016. “I just adore him. He’s very casually confident on cross-country and he’s beautiful too. A stunning black horse,” Pride said. Pride bases her Blue Clover Eventing business out of Sudley Farm, which Bonner purchased eight years ago. “Strange fact… I used to work at the farm when it was an old racing barn! Dreams come true and it’s now a world class sport horse facility that I’m based out of,” Pride said.

Over the past four years, Pride has trained Favian and moved him up the levels in eventing to the top level of the sport. This year, they started out the season at Pine Top in Georgia in February and completed their first CCI of the year at The Fork at Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina. There they placed 18th in the CCI4*-S division.

Their next stop was the CCI5*-L at the Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day event. This was to be Pride and Favian’s five-star debut and Pride felt they were more than ready. Unfortunately, the pair had a mandatory retirement after Favian fell on cross-country. Both horse and rider were unharmed and ran around the Jersey Fresh International CCI4*-L in May.

After taking a summer break, Pride and Favian placed 22nd in the Intermediate division at the American Eventing Championships before finishing 11th at the Stable View Okotberfest CCI4*-S in September. All in all, the fall at Kentucky is the only cross-country jump penalty on Favian’s record.

Valerie Pride’s first eventing experience was a USPC Eventing Rally held at Fair Hill!

The Maryland 5 Star
In a special twist of fate, Pride’s first five-star completion came on the very grounds of her first event, as her first eventing experience was at Fair Hill while participating in the Delmarva Region’s annual eventing rally. “It is crazy to think that I’ve now jumped around the five-star at the same place!” she added.

Pride arrived at Fair Hill for the Maryland 5 Star with a mix of excitement and anxiousness to see what the new five-star would look like. “No one knew what Maryland was going to look like but everyone was talking about fitness and if their horses were fit enough for the hills,” she said. When she pulled into the event, Pride was pleasantly surprised by the grandeur of the venue. “They made it feel in so many ways that you weren’t just competing at a horse trials at Fair Hill. You were at a five-star! I’m pretty sure I said to myself, ‘this is really happening!’”

By the first horse inspection on October 13, Pride felt ready, and so did Favian. “He totally puffs himself up for the jogs,” she said with a chuckle. “He knows they are all watching him.”

The next day, Pride headed to dressage warm up aboard Favian. “I didn’t have anyone there to coach me and that was rough. I started to doubt what I knew about dressage but got some encouraging words from David O’Connor as I entered the warm up ring so that helped,” she said. “Favian felt amazing in warm up! He was so much stronger than this spring.” Pride, who is also a licensed judge, ended the dressage phase with a score of 31.9 to sit in 11th place after the first day of dressage. “It was fun to know that your week was off to a great start,” she added.

Competing on the first day of dressage also gave her all day Friday to focus on cross-country and gave Favian a rest day before the big cross-country test. “The cross-country course was so unique. Like the double keyhole corners… how did [course designer] Ian [Stark] dream that up!” she said.

After walking the course several times, Pride and Favian left the start box on October 16 ready to attack the course… well at least Pride felt ready. “Favian was so distracted by the tailgaiting at the start of the course. I actually had to tap him with my whip to try and get him focused on the job at hand. I kept trying to tell him that all those people were his admirers,” she laughed.

By the time they got to fence 5AB, the first water on course, Favian clicked into gear. “The course started to turn away from the tailgates at that point and he locked on and just kept on going. I had my horse back,” Pride remarked. As the course progressed, Favian felt more and more confident and Pride took all the direct routes.

Then at the last water, “I second guessed myself a little and thought about taking the longer, easier route but Favian felt great so we took the direct route.”

The hesitation at the start of the course caused the pair to add 12.4 time faults to their dressage score and moved them down to 23rd place. The drop in placing did not dampen Pride’s excitement over how well cross-country went. “It just felt great to finish my first five-star and to have so many people there supporting us,” she said. “But then you had to put it all aside and get ready for the next day.” The “next day” being the final horse inspection before show jumping.

Favian passed the final inspection Sunday morning and Pride entered the show jump warm up ring later that afternoon. Overall, the show jump course was presenting competitors with technical questions that were causing several rails to drop. Unfortunately, Pride and Favian also dropped a few rails but stayed in 23rd place overall. “He got a little tired at the end [of the course] and was slightly twisting away from the jumbotron while we went into the triple,” Pride explained. “To have two rails in the final second was disappointing but you just don’t know what horse you will have left at the end of shows like this.”

In the end, Pride was the only Maryland-based entry to complete the CCI5*-L and for this, she is very proud. “I’m so proud of being a Marylander and being in Area II,” she said. “And so proud of Maryland. It is really special to get to compete at home and I hope other Maryland eventers get to experience this sort of thing. Being able to compete at the highest level of our sport right in our home state.”

Winter Homework
Heading into winter, Pride is planning a trip to Florida to compete at the World Equestrian Festival in Ocala. Her winter competition plans include jumpers, however, not eventing. “Favian needs the practice and to get his show jumping muscles more fit. I’m hoping doing a lot of jumper shows will help improve this phase for him moving forward,” Pride explained.

While Favian will be working on show jumping, Pride is continuing her own education as an international eventing official and judge. Pride is currently a Level 2 Eventing Judge through the USEF and a Senior Eventing Judge through USEA. “I’m working on my Level 3 so I’ll be able to judge at the five-star level,” she stated.

After Florida, it’s off to Kentucky to take another stab at a five-star.

A Side Story on The Mighty Theodore
An additional member of the Blue Clover Eventing team is Theodore, a 13-year-old registered Miniature Horse that accompanies Favian everywhere. “Favian is kind of mean towards other horses but also hates being alone and we kept trying to figure out a companion that could help keep him relaxed,” Pride explained. “And then we found Theodore and it was love at first sight!”

Pride also explained that she always asks permission to bring the Mini to competitions but so far, all show organizers have said yes. “They seem to understand that some horses need a companion in order to perform their best,” Pride said. In order to travel to FEI-level competitions, Theodore is micro chipped and has his own passport!