Oct 01, 2021

The Success of Her Students Helps Lillian Heard "Get It Right"

USEA/ Leslie Mintz photos

Individual sport is an inherently selfish way of life - it has to be. Of course, the team behind a top sportsman or woman is essential to their success, but once you’re out there on the field of play, be it an athletics track, a swimming pool, or a cross-country course, it is down to you, and you alone.

In eventing, the rider is the top of the pyramid. It is interesting, therefore, to speak to Lillian Heard, who is busy preparing LCC Barnaby for his ninth CCI5* run at Maryland next month, about the slightly different nature of her competitive life. Of the 26 horses in her barn in Cochranville, Pa., around two-thirds of them are ridden and competed by students. At every event, Heard not only has her own performance to focus on- she also has theirs.

“If my students have a bad day, I feel like I did. I genuinely get really annoyed for them,” she says. “Their success is tied in with mine and my success is tied in with theirs. It is so intimate, and we are all so invested in each other.”

Lillian Heard coaches a student riding Heard's former five-star mount Share Option. USEA/ Leslie Mintz photo.

The 35-year-old says: “I didn’t seek to be this person that these young adults come to train with, but I had one and then they told a friend, and then more came and joined!”

Heard rents a barn from her mentor, Boyd Martin, a mile away from the main part of his property, and he often passes clients on to her.

“All these kids are really dedicated. They are going Intermediate and Advanced, and we are at the same shows and competing at the same level, so it’s a really competitive, serious, and positive mentality at the barn, all working together for a common goal,” she explains. “It’s unusual because not many professionals are willing to split their time, but we’re all in it together and tell each other everything. I think it is really helpful for them to be part of a top program.”

But how hard is it to focus on her own performance at an event? “The shows are okay, actually, because I teach them so much at home that if I don’t show up to a warm-up they still know what to do. They are at a high level now, so they enjoy focusing on themselves.”

Ensuring her students are prepared for each outing is the key to Heard’s program’s success. “It is hard every week to make sure I’m not so frantic that I haven’t thought of everyone, or haven’t forgotten that someone needs to go cross-country schooling, for example. It can be hard managing everyone’s different needs, but I write a schedule every day. Normally I start at 7:00 a.m. and don’t finish until about 5.30 p.m., with a new horse to ride or lesson to each every 30-45 minutes, so it is very fast-paced. I have to make sure I stop and think and process, and remember exactly what I want to work on with this horse, rather than just getting through it. But at competitions it is way easier - we have a routine, and they have their horses and I have mine.”

Lillian Heard and LCC Barnaby. USEA/ Leslie Mintz photo.

Barnaby, now 15, is one of Heard’s seven horses in her current string. She commented that he feels the best he’s ever felt, and the pair are looking to make amends at Maryland for their uncharacteristic elimination during cross-country at Kentucky in the spring.

“It was his fifth time around Kentucky and I had finished every time previously, so that was very upsetting,” Heard admits. “It was a really dumb fall. He just ran out and I plopped off.”

“It was a good wake-up call,” she continued, “because that horse is an amazing jumper. He jumps everything you point him at. I had got too blasé and expected him always just to go, and I wasn’t riding him properly, not in the way I ride the green horses, but more like he was a carousel horse.”

She has had a rethink and has altered the way she rides him: “I now actually ride him to the jumps; it feels so much better and I can tell he is so much more relaxed with it. It was an unfortunate situation, but I feel like I’ve got something out of it. He is now in his prime to do the best events of his career in the next year, but I need to be on point for that.”

Heard competed in the UK at Burghley in 2017, 2018, and 2019, finishing 18th out of a huge and highly competitive field in 2019. Her 2021 plans had focused on Badminton, but Covid caused the Gloucestershire CCI5* to be canceled.

Lillian Heard and Barnaby. USEA/ Leslie Mintz photo.

“I would love to take him there next year if there is a way to get there,” she stresses. “He’s not going to win these CCI5*s, but he is so seasoned that I want to get the experience of these big tracks with a horse who I know really well and feel confident on.

“It took me three years to figure out Burghley, so now I need to get to Badminton so that when I have a horse which can be really competitive, it’s not my first time there and I know what I’m doing.”

Heard found Barnaby, an Irish Sport Horse by the Cavalier Royale son Guy Cavalier, in Ireland as a 5-year-old while she was working for the dealer and agent Carol Gee, whose Fernhill horses are scattered across top competition yards round the globe. When she moved to England to work for Tim Rusbridge he came with her, and finally back to the US.

“Barnaby is the boss of the barn and always has been,” she laughs. “He wants everyone’s attention, he thinks he is the best and he tells everyone that he is. He is bossy, but in a hilarious way; he doesn’t want you to come too close and will pin his ears back at you unless you give him treats. Everyone loves him.”

Heard has worked hard to improve his flatwork, and his recent scores suggest there is more to come in that phase.

“He wasn’t the easiest horse to train, because he is pretty hot-blooded and excited, but we now know each other so well. He still isn’t fancy, but he isn’t difficult,” she says. “Riding him every day is just awesome. I know what he is going to do, he knows what I am going to do - we’re completely in sync. It’s taken 10 years, but we’re on the same page. We have figured it all out together and have such a bond.”

Barnaby’s best friend is Heard’s first CCI5* horse, Share Option, and they are turned out together.

“The two of them will be part of the team here forever,” she promises.

Lillian Heard and Dassett Olympus. USEA/ Leslie Mintz photo.

In the line-up below Barnaby, 8-year-old Dassett Olympus stands out. He has just moved up to the CCI4* level, and Heard hopes he will do a CCI4*-L this year. “He’s pretty green but really exciting,” she says.

She has three “cool” rides at CCI3* level and a couple of promising youngsters. “I thought, after Share Option and Barnaby, I’d have a big gap because it takes a while to bring them on, but they’re coming along quite nicely.”

It isn’t just Heard and the students who are competing at a high level.

“Izzy, my head girl, just moved up to Advanced for the first time with a horse she has brought on; he is a bit of a rogue creature and she did a CCI4* and went clear,” says Heard with pride. “I actually had a run-out around that same track, but it was just so rewarding and so great that she did it. I have more than one chance to be happy at the end of the day, because it’s not just me, it’s them too, and their success is just as important. It is an awesome feeling to have so many chances to get it right.”

Lillian Heard and her barn family. Photo courtesy of Lillian Heard.

It takes a special person to want to share so much with others. Heard talks of the “energy and passion” that her students bring to the team spirit of the yard, but it is evident that that flows directly from her into them. Lucky them.

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