Apr 01, 2024

James and Helen Alliston: Sharing Life, Horses and Eventing

By Allie Heninger - Sidelines Magazine
Lauren Ann Pace Photography photos

This story originally appeared on SidelinesMagazine.com.

While many spousal partners may choose to keep business and family separate, such is not the case for the duo behind Alliston Equestrian. From riding and coaching to winning the American Eventing Championships, husband and wife James and Helen Alliston do everything together, every day. While it’s been more challenging than for most, operating their business on the West Coast rather than further east with the majority of the eventing community, this successful pair has taken it all in stride—and come out on top more than once in their competitive careers.

Despite being born on opposite sides of the world, James and Helen’s paths converged to find each other in the eventing community of California, where they would eventually combine their knowledge into a successful riding school, training program and upper-level competitive operation. With childhood upbringings more alike than one might initially think, it’s no surprise that these two riders have so easily meshed into this happy, horse-centric lifestyle.

PONY CLUB CHILDHOODS

Helen grew up in Redmond, Washington, as your typical barn rat kid, cleaning stalls at the neighborhood barn in exchange for riding time. “My barn was based around Pony Club, so riding was Pony Club,” she explained. “It was a lot of fun. It made it kind of a group activity, which is nice because riding's obviously a single-person sport most of the time, until you're on a championship-level team. It's nice to kind of have a social feel.”

Helen emphasized the importance of the kind of education programs like Pony Club can bring, something she and James work to emulate in their current riding academy. “It brought in the unmounted learning, which is huge—a lot of kids that we meet in our teaching now don't know how to put on a wrap, those kinds of basic things that were second nature to me, and probably James, too, as a kid.”

James also grew up with Pony Club, just on the other side of the globe in Gloucestershire, England. “I did a lot of Pony Club stuff in the Minchinhampton branch,” James said. “We were small but mighty! We did it all—gymkhana and mounted games.” James also allowed that he owes a lot of his success to the people that helped propel his riding career from the start. “I've been fortunate; I've ridden with some of the greats in the sport,” he admitted. “Helen's obviously from a less-horsey part of the world than me, so I'm just very lucky to have had a lot of lessons and work for and with really, really great people. I think you learn a little bit off everyone.”

While James had readily-available horse experts in his early career, Helen was traveling across the country to receive the best possible riding education and opportunities. “The really nice ladies in Redmond that I grew up riding with—Joanna Fowler and Duschka Fowler—made the biggest impression on me as far as hard work and just loving horses,” Helen said. She continued her travels to further her education in her Junior years. “I worked for Rebecca Howard in North Carolina for a while, and she exposed me to the proper competition world and how to keep show horses healthy.” Of course, Helen attributes the role of her most influential teacher to her now-husband. “James is probably number one,” she admitted with a laugh.

Both Helen and James took gap years from college to spend immersed in the horse industry, James apprenticing for Bruce Davidson, Sr. before returning to Oxford in England. “I had an extended period of time with Bruce when I was quite young—I didn't know too much and was very eager to learn,” James said. “I definitely think his sort of system—he got his horses really fit, and how he was churning out Advanced horses—was really good, just producing them always. That's stuck with me, I hope. I think having a long career in the sport is about being able to produce good horses.”

EAST TO WEST, STUDENT TO PARTNER

James made the permanent move to the United States in 2007, moving in what he calls “the opposite direction” of most eventers in favor of finding more opportunities for himself in the States. “Most people go west to east and then to England, whereas I've gone the other way,” he said. “It would be a little bit easier, I would say, starting out when you're on the West Coast because it's a smaller group of top professionals. It's a big, big area, so I think it's easier to get going out here. On the East Coast—especially like your Unionville, Middleburg, Ocala—there's a lot of good professionals out there, so it's a pretty tough market to get into when you're young. I think we sort of started out here and found we can make it work, which was awesome. We have no desire to start again.”

When trying to find a new base for himself in the U.S., the West Coast wasn’t necessarily James’ first choice, but it ended up becoming his permanent home. “I got a call from Graceland Equestrian Center—they're friends of ours now, Chuck and Peggy Moore,” James recalled. “It was actually Johnny, Chuck's brother, who left me a message and then Chuck phoned me. I was in England, so I got all these messages from Johnny and Chuck Moore, these brothers from California, wanting to talk to me about their equestrian center, and I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are keen!’”

The Moore brothers asked James if he would like to come teach at their center, and essentially take over their business there. “I told him I'd never taught a lesson so I might not be who you'd want, definitely not qualified to do this job!” James laughed at the memory of how big of a deal the offer was to him at the time. Chuck asked if he could just fly James out to try the job anyway, and James eventually agreed. “I spent three days with him and his wife, Peggy. They're just really nice people and were like, ‘You'll learn on the job, just come out.’ So I did—I sort of inherited a business, I guess, having no teaching experience. It was amazing what those people were willing to help me do.”

Helen moved to James’ operation in the Bay Area in 2012, shortly before the pair founded their East Bay Riding Academy in 2013. “I had just come back from North Carolina—back to Seattle—and I was trying to do Young Riders' Championships, but there weren't any qualifiers in Washington, so I had to come to California to do that,” she explained. “I based with James for two months and then I just stayed!” Helen and James were married in November 2019 at Galway Downs in Temecula. “We have a pretty good life,” Helen laughed. “We wake up every morning and go hang out with each other all day.”

The Alliston duo has been running their riding school since, as well as a competition program, bringing any of their students that are willing to the many West Coast events they frequent—about 15 students on average. Day in and day out, James and Helen are all horses, all the time. “We do everything together—we do the teaching together and riding together,” Helen said. “I’d say James does more of the jumping stuff, and I do more of the dressage.” The two clean up pretty well at their event exploits, and are rarely out of the top five.

SELF-MADE TEAM MEMBER

James changed his nationality from British to American in early 2022, before attending the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Netherlands CCIO4*-NC-L at Military Boekelo in Enschede, Netherlands, as part of the U.S. Eventing Team that year—his first overseas FEI competition. He and Alliston Equestrian’s young gelding Nemesis were the cross-country pathfinders at Boekelo, but the pair unfortunately did not pass the second horse inspection and could not carry on to the show jumping phase. James and Nemesis went on to take 20th place in the 9-year-old Canadian Warmblood’s first five-star competition at the 2023 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event.

In 2022, both Helen and James took the American Eventing Championships by storm. Helen was named the USEA American Eventing Championships Adequan Advanced Finals Champion aboard their Oldenburg gelding Ebay. She holds this as one of the highlights of her career thus far; rightly so, Helen admitted: “I won $30,000, so that tops!”

The pair seemed intent on leaving none behind, as James also took second, third and fourth place in the Advanced championships aboard Paper Jam, Nemesis and RevitaVet Calaro, respectively. For extra measure, he claimed second and third place in the Intermediate championships as well, riding Golly Martin’s gelding Monkey as well as their own mare Karma.

For 2023, James was once again named to the U.S. Team for the FEI Eventing Nations Cup Netherlands held at the Military Boekelo-Enschede, this time aboard the recent Rebecca Farm CCI4*-L champion Karma. The young mare has only been in international competition for a year, but has taken to it with flying colors. James and Karma were the top U.S. finishers at Boekelo, finishing on their dressage score of 35.9

“It's been awesome,” James said of their recent upper-level accomplishments. “It's cool to have these opportunities, and I think our clients kind of dig it too, right? Some of them I would say may not necessarily know a ton about the sport, but they understand if you represent your country. I think it's great for me to have these opportunities. I think it’s really exciting for Ric Plummer, who owns Karma with me and has helped me with Karma, because he's American. It's only a good thing.”

One important note behind the Alliston Equestrian magic is that they not only have barns full of extraordinarily talented horses, but own nearly every one of their horses themselves. This is a rare occurrence on the international eventing stage, which makes their success all the more impressive. “The American team thing probably encourages me to get a bit more help in terms of sponsoring the horses and owning the horses, too,” James noted. “I think this definitely made a bit of an uptick in that, so that'll help.”

Helen has owner partners helping support her two upper-level horses currently, but, she admits, “Up until recently, that was it—it was just us.” Helen’s current goal is to continue working toward her first five-star competition. “I have a horse right now, Flinterro Z, who looks like he's got the right pieces for that,” she said. “That's kind of my big goal right now—to build on that, hopefully.” Helen and Flinterro Z were the second-place finishers at the same event at Rebecca Farm in 2023 that James and Karma won—adding yet another shared success to their trophy case.

“It's hard to do it all on your own,” James admitted, emphasizing the added difficulty due to their geographic location. “We've done a good job trying to sort of make it work, but you do need some help—all those big guys on the East Coast definitely have big syndicates and things like that, which help. I've had people—Ric Plummer has been constant—but we don't have those sorts of resources to go out and buy expensive horses. Basically, if we get a horse that we really, really like, we have friends that will help support with the expenses, but it's not like if I find a horse, I can get someone who can maybe buy this. I think only a very few in the country have that.”

A DIFFICULT NATURAL

The story of Karma, the only mare who went to the Netherlands to compete at Boekelo for the United States, is certainly an interesting one. The mare was bred by Patricia and Katie Crowley, an Advanced-level “regular” on the West Coast, before arriving at Chocolate Horse Farm with the Allistons’ close friend Andrea Pfieffer. Andrea then called James and Helen to see if they would be able to help with the “pretty difficult” project. She told the pair that Karma, while still a young horse, was having issues freezing while in the ring, and was rather unpredictable. James agreed to have the mare sent over so they could see if they would be able to help address some of her problems.

James recalls the day that Karma arrived; she came off the trailer from the short ride absolutely drenched in sweat. “She was obviously a bit of a nut—sweating like 200 pounds off in the trailer, and you could see sort of this greyhound silhouette,” he described. “It just looked like something that went through a high level of stress. We put her in the stable and she’s climbing the walls, trying to stand up and look at the other horse next door. She was pretty antsy, pretty unsettled.”

Helen recalled that they had to move Karma’s stall at least five times before finding an environment that the high-strung mare was comfortable with. Thankfully, the young mare’s beautiful movement and quality was instantly apparent in the ring, and James was able to work with her on the freezing issues—almost too well, in fact, as the mare then had an issue with wanting to take off on him.

While James admits he was somewhat on the fence regarding taking the horse on permanently, Helen was enthusiastic about Karma’s potential and encouraged James to try the mare over some jumps, where she also seemed to excel. “He said, ‘No, I don't want her; she’s too crazy,’” Helen recalled. “So I said, ‘Fine, I'll ride her!’ I wouldn't be able to ride one side of that horse, but I just knew if I said that, he'd take her.” And take her he did, the pair quickly moving up to the Intermediate level by the end of the mare’s first competitive season, even winning their final event at the level that winter. With the help of Ric Plummer as co-owner of the mare, the pair was able to bring Karma along to where she is today.

Karma ended up surpassing all odds and expectations to maintain highly competitive scores and placings in the upper levels of the sport. “She came around in the jumping,” James said. “I remember the first time I cross-country schooled her, I was thinking, Oh yeah, we're on to something here. She’s very natural. Just trotting a circle was always very challenging, but the cross-country—right from day one, she was a natural.”

Rarely out of the top five placings, the mare has become a testament to the Allistons’ successful program as just one of the many talented young horses the pair has produced. From a nervous prospect to winning on the international stage, Karma is living proof of the excellent education brought to the West Coast’s eventing community courtesy of Alliston Equestrian.

For more information, visit allistonequestrian.com.

Apr 12, 2024 USEA Foundation

Applications for The Event at Rebecca Farm Travel Grant Due June 1

The Event at Rebecca Farm (Kalispell, Montana) is renowned amongst members of the eventing community for its exceptional competition venue, genuine hospitality, and stunning backdrops. The Broussard Family Charitable Foundation and USEA Foundation are excited to share that travel grants to this iconic venue are returning once again for 2024 to assist riders traveling to Montana to compete in the CCI3* and CCI4* divisions at this year’s competition which takes place July 17-21.

Apr 12, 2024 Resources

Heads Up Competitors! Important Information Surrounding Entry Form and Liability Waiver Requirements for USEA/USEF Eventing Competitions

When aiming to compete in a United States Eventing Association (USEA) recognized competition (national competition or international competition), licensed or endorsed by the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), understanding and fulfilling the specific requirements for entry forms and liability waivers is crucial.

Apr 12, 2024 Emerging Athletes U21

USEA Names Athletes for 2024 EA21 Regional Programs

The United States Eventing Association (USEA) is pleased to announce the athletes selected for the 2024 USEA Emerging Athlete U21 Program (EA21). USEA Young Rider program members aged 21 and under are eligible for the program. The purpose of the USEA EA21 Program is to identify and provide consistent quality instruction to the next generation of elite event riders.

Apr 11, 2024 News

Weekend Quick Links: April 13-14

Are you following along with the action from home this weekend? Or maybe you're competing at an event and need information fast. Either way, we’ve got you covered! Check out the USEA’s Weekend Quick Links for links to information including the prize list, ride times, live scores, and more for all the events running this weekend.

Official Corporate Sponsors of the USEA

Official Joint Therapy Treatment of the USEA

Official Feed of the USEA

Official Saddle of the USEA

Official Real Estate Partner of the USEA

Official Equine Insurance of the USEA

Official Forage of the USEA

Official Supplement Feeding System of the USEA

Official Competition & Training Apparel of the USEA

Official Horse Boot of the USEA