May 06, 2021

Humbled by Horses: A Conversation with Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride

USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

“Horses are so humbling,” says Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride with a wry laugh.

We are speaking a few days after the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event. She is on her way to go cross-country schooling with her beautiful black horse Favian, before tackling the CCI4*-L at Jersey Fresh.

Her week wasn’t supposed to pan out like this. She and Favian should have been resting on their laurels after completing their first CCI5* at Kentucky. However, they fell on the cross-country, and ticking that five-star box will have to wait for another day. Luckily, they are unharmed, Favian has already “cruised around some easy stuff” on an earlier cross-country schooling outing, and Vizcarrondo Pride is determined to start righting the ship at Jersey Fresh.

Favian is her only Advanced horse - something which is vanishingly rare among CCI5* competitors these days. It is of great benefit to Vizcarrondo Pride, therefore, that riding isn’t the only string to her eventing bow. She is also an FEI judge at the CCI4* level and is seeking promotion to Level 3, which would enable her to officiate at the CCI5* level.

Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride and Favian. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo

“I’m pretty sure I'm the only four-star judge still riding at that level in eventing,” she says. “It really helps keep me current and up-to-date with the sport.

“Last year a lot of competitions got cancelled. Favian is my only Advanced horse and he doesn’t run very often - I want to save his legs - but judging meant that, for example, I could go to Great Meadow and judge the four-star, and it was like I rode it 65 times. Being on ground juries gives me the chance really to observe, take in what I have learned, and take it back to my riding. I may not be competing at an event, but when I am judging I am walking the course, assessing it, watching it ridden and thinking, ‘Did it ride like I thought?’ I am seeing what course designers are doing; what trends are developing, what theories are they testing?

“I am learning so much, and giving back to the sport feels good, too.”

At 40-years-old, Vizcarrondo Pride is undoubtedly one of the younger regular ground jury members to work at a high level. Most only come to it when their own sporting careers are over and, as the average age of top-level eventing riders has increased a great deal in the past couple of decades, there are not many faces as fresh as Vizcarrondo Pride’s on judging panels.

She explains: “It was a two-part thing, really. I am lucky enough to have two super-strong lady riders and horsewomen as my biggest mentors in Linda Zang and Marilyn Payne. Linda trains and does the testing for our eventing judges; she can ride it, teach it, judge it. Marilyn - who I think is the only person to have judged at the Olympics twice - is the same.

Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride and Favian. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo

“Both have this sense of being able to come at things from so many different angles and perspectives. They have so much experience and so much common sense. Both have flown millions of miles gathering all this knowledge about eventing, jumping straight off the red-eye to ride at 7:30 a.m., and are passionate about sharing that. It’s contagious.

“And, in 2007, I fractured my lower back - I was taking my coat off while on a horse, got my arm stuck in the jacket, and fell off backwards. The doctors told me, ‘Don’t move for three months and it will probably heal . . . ’

“What was I going to do during that time? It brought me to the realization that I wasn’t going to be able to ride forever, and yet horses are my whole life.

“Linda and Marilyn would say to me, if I complained about something, ‘Well, do something about it. Fix it. Find a solution. So I had time and the availability to start the judging program.”

No one can become a judge overnight. Vizcarrondo Pride has worked her way through the national grades and the FEI levels, and in 2016 was the inaugural recipient of the Roger Haller Grant, which allows officials seeking promotions with their licenses the financial boost to be able to travel and make the most of their seminars and apprenticeships. In 2017 she was able to understudy the ground jury at the European Championships in Strzegom, Poland, and judging at a big British event is among her aims.

Valerie Vizcarrondo Pride and Peter Gray at the 2020 Great Meadow International. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo

“You up your game by competing or judging in Europe,” she says.

“I really appreciate being on ground jury panels - as the youngest and least experienced - with these amazing people who have done Badminton three times, who have judged at multiple championships, and so on. The instinctive level of detail, the stuff they assess in just five seconds, is tremendous.”

Judging and riding have a number of similarities, she points out.

“Judging makes you just as nervous! You absolutely want to get it right, and you have to know exactly what to do when something goes wrong. You have to be ready with fresh eyes for every single horse and rider every single time. You have to be strong, mentally, and on top of risk management. As a ground jury member, you walk the cross-country course and approve it. If I look at a fence and I don’t want to ride it, that’s a red flag - and I think the fact that I am a current rider is probably my biggest contribution right now.”

None of this means that her own ambitions on the back of a horse are in any way diminished.

“I have unfinished CCI5* business,” she declares with a laugh. “Representing my country is still a goal. And Kentucky has left me that much more motivated to have one or two more horses [competing at a high level] in my barn; Favian is my horse of a lifetime, but I want more chances.”

It could be a big fall this year for this intelligent, engaging woman; she hopes to be able to take the seminar and the exam to become a Level 3, CCI5* judge - and there’s a new CCI5* on the US calendar at Fair Hill...

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