When Alexa Lapp started working for eventer Jennie Brannigan in 2012, the plan was to help out for a month or two until Brannigan found full-time help. Lapp traveled from her home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to Ocala, Florida in the winter of her Junior year of high school, having finished a substantial amount of school credit in her Freshman and Sophomore years and completing her schooling with a combination of on-campus and online courses. Six years later Lapp is still working for Brannigan and their partnership has opened up opportunities for the 19-year-old Young Rider.
Lapp was born 20 minutes from Brannigan’s barn in Coatesville, Pennsylvania right in the heart of eventing country. “I started riding around age five and took my pony to some events, as a kid, then competed Kevin Keane’s old Intermediate horse; my first trainer, Bonnie Wallace, also owned horses for Ryan Wood,” she said.
At the end of 2017, Brannigan and two other riders were suspended for testing positive for a prohibited substance under FEI Anti-Doping Rules for Human Athletes at the Ocala Jockey Club International Three-Day Event in Reddick, Florida. Brannigan is making the best of her situation by getting behind the horses and riders in her barn, and lucky for Lapp, she was chosen to campaign Brannigan’s 2017 USEA Horse of the Year, Cambalda, AKA “Ping”, an Irish Sport Horse gelding owned by Tim and Nina Gardner.
Nina Gardner with Ping and Alexa. Photo courtesy of Jennie Brannigan.
Before the Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials, Brannigan shared a post on Facebook applauding Lapp’s work ethic and wishing her luck with Ping. “Alexa Lapp showed up and has worked incredibly hard for every opportunity . . . she is not a kid who comes from money but her work ethic is incredible and she shows up every day and tries hard,” said Brannigan. “When we had a horse in the barn no one would buy for a cheap price, (the awesome Paprika) I asked Erin Hurley if I could make payments to buy her for Alexa and watched her take the horse from Training [level] to CCI2* without ever complaining that I made her run slow at every horse trial cross-country or wasn’t more competitive.
“Hard work pays off . . . and tomorrow because of Tim and Nina Gardner she will have her first start on my good friend Cambalda. My current situation has not been the easiest but it has made me grow to remember why I love eventing in the first place and truly find joy in not my own competitive goals but others and that is a real silver lining.”
Lapp said, “Jennie got her suspension and was making plans for her horses, trying to figure out what was going to happen; I’d done a lot of fitness work with Ping, long trot sets and things, and we got along well. She talked to the Gardners and they were totally game for me to compete him. I have a little two-star horse but she’s not that competitive, and I think Jennie arranged it as a bit of a thank-you for working for her, and because it would be good for my career.”
Lapp’s previous ride, Paprika, a chestnut Thoroughbred mare, was a Gardner homebred who Brannigan sold to a student; the mare competed up to the Preliminary level and came back to the barn as a sales horse, but Lapp said nobody would buy her because she has a cyst in her stifle. “Jennie consulted with the veterinarians and they had a feeling it wasn’t going to be an issue, so she bought her for me to ride and we did our first two-star at the Jockey Club last year.”
Alexa and Ping in the dressage at Rocking Horse. Photo courtesy of Jennie Brannigan.
Now it’s time to pay it forward: Brannigan’s student Sydney Shinn‘s horse got hurt, so Shinn is riding Paprika while Lapp enjoys the ride on Ping. Shinn placed fourth in the Preliminary Rider division at Rocking Horse III Horse Trials.
Lapp is grateful for the Gardners’ support with their horses. “Even though the Gardners didn’t own Paprika any more, they bred her and they still love her, and they love watching all the horses they’ve bred go,” said Lapp. “I also got the ride on Luna and Hopscotch, and it’s awesome that they trust me to compete their horses. The fact they’re letting me ride Ping is unbelievable, they certainly could do other things with him (he’s 16), but Nina was there by the ring watching and cheering us on.”
It is not unusual for successful upper-level horses to show young riders the ropes, but some horses are trickier than others. Lapp said that if she rides well, Ping goes well, but he doesn’t give her 100% in the dressage unless she works for it. She described him as “a little quirky and very Irish.”
“Ping is really cool on the flat, you can get him to this next gear where he’ll get the good scores, but you really have to ride well to get the best out of him. If you do ride well he really punches it out! The show jumping is probably my weakest phase and he has an incredible show jump record, and he is pretty forgiving if I get him to a bad spot to a jump.”
On cross-country, she said, “Ping is completely different than my other horse; he left the start box with so much power and I was like, ok slow down it’s just Preliminary! You can take him down to anything, I totally missed at one jump and he said, ‘It’s fine, I’ve got it’. He powers right off the ground, it’s a pretty crazy feeling. I think he was a little shocked by how small the jumps were though, he’s been going Advanced for a long time, but he was totally cool about it. I think it was low key and he probably had fun – I didn’t have to kick him at all!”
Photo courtesy of Jennie Brannigan.
The pair is headed to the one-star at Red Hills International this weekend, after competing for the first time at the Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials at the Preliminary level.
“It was surreal at that one show to see my name with his, it was crazy!” said Lapp.
At an age when many head to college, Lapp plans focus on her riding and keep working with Brannigan for the foreseeable future. “When I started here I didn’t plan not to go to college, but Jennie is an incredible teacher and gives us amazing opportunities. If anyone could make the best of the situation Jennie is in, it’s Jennie; she looks at it as an opportunity for Steph and I rather than a loss for herself. I may be biased, but she’s been incredible about it. My riding has improved so much in the past couple months. I can’t say enough good things about her, she cares so much about all of us. I don’t think a lot of people get to see that side of her.”
As for her future plans with Ping, Lapp said at the moment she is going day by day and trying to enjoy every ride, but if things go well at Red Hills and then the Carolina International, their big goal would be to compete at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships at Rebecca Farm in Montana this summer.
“After Red Hills we’ll do the Intermediate at Carolina International, and he’s entered for Young Riders, so that would be our big goal, to go to Montana. But I’m trying to take it one day at a time.”