BY ELIZABETH PHILLIPS
Someone recently asked me how I went from the Adult Hunters to competing in a Grand Prix in two and a half years. As I thought through all the pieces that had to come together for this journey of mine to happen, what became clear is that the starting point was John Barker.
I arrived at Eight Oaks a solid adult hunter rider. I had two hunters—a mare that I showed and a gelding that I had been told preferred a professional ride. My very first day at Eight Oaks, Johnny asked me if I wanted to learn how to ride my gelding, and gave me my first lesson on him that day. I was thrilled to finally be riding my horse, but the most important thing I learned that day was that Johnny had unwavering confidence in his riders. That first summer with Eight Oaks, I moved up to the 3’3” AO Hunters with both of my horses, and the possibilities of what I could dream to achieve opened up because of Johnny’s ‘I believe in you’ attitude.
My first winter with Eight Oaks, I headed to Ocala, where my husband, Craig, and I have a farm, while Johnny, and the rest of the Eight Oaks Team went to Wellington. Johnny committed to coming up to Ocala as often as he could, and made it clear that he would be there whenever we needed him.
While taking my first lesson at Redfield Farm, where we were going to train when Johnny wasn’t in Ocala, I saw the most beautiful grey jumper. It was, literally, love at first sight. I called Johnny and begged him to come up to Ocala the next day to see this horse, and although he definitely thought the idea of looking at a jumper that I had seen across the Redfield ring was crazy, he drove up and I tried Fascinate the next day. Johnny asked what my goal would be with this horse. I had no experience in the jumpers, so competing in a Grand Prix was not even a distant thought. I replied that one day, I wanted to compete in the High Adult Jumpers. “Ok, then, Johnny said, let’s get to it.”
I was completely out of my element in the jumper ring. All my years of hunter riding gave me a propensity to use the entire ring for turns and to collect more than my fair share of time faults as I navigated around the Low Adult Jumper classes. One of the things I remember Johnny telling me is to, “Forget the results and focus on the execution of all of the different elements in the course. You’ll get the results you want soon enough.”
The harder Johnny worked, the harder I worked. His enthusiasm was contagious. Before long, Fascinate and I were competing in the High Adult Jumpers. It was new, fun, and exciting.
After showing for the first time in the High Adults, Johnny asked what my new goal would be. He explained that while I worked on my skills in the High Adults, it would be good to have a goal to work towards. I said, “I guess, it would be to show in the AO jumpers.”
That sparked an eight state, thirty-plus horse odyssey as Johnny and I tried to find me a second jumper. We left no stone unturned. I tried so many wonderful horses, but kept searching for ‘The One.” Johnny let me lead the way, yet kept me in check and on track. After months of searching, we finally found Caruso.
I stepped right into the Low AO Jumpers with both horses. What Fascinate lacked in experience, Caruso had in spades. When Fascinate was sidelined for almost an entire year with a bone bruise, Caruso stepped up and kept my forward momentum going.
The courses Johnny would build for my lessons often seemed impossible. Each aspect of a course was carefully designed to allow me to practice different technical skill sets. Sometimes the jumps were huge, too. But, he broke each course into pieces until I got them right. I don’t think we ever ended a lesson without me feeling more confident about my riding than when we started. Johnny told me that his goal was to prepare me so that nothing I ever faced in the show ring felt beyond my skill level. And, to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a course that was harder than some of the ones Johnny built for me.
After a couple months in the Low AO Jumpers, Johnny felt I was ready for the medium AO’s Those 1.30-1.35 meter jumps looked enormous. After all, I had only been showing in the jumpers for a year. Nevertheless, Johnny believed in me. I heard, “You’re either winning or you’re learning,” a lot.
That second winter, Johnny, again, made a huge commitment to drive regularly from Wellington to Ocala to teach me. By the end of the Winter Circuit, he said I was ready to show in the High AO classes. I was, honestly, slightly terrified walking into those classes for the first time, but Johnny’s enthusiasm, confidence in me, and assurances that I was ready, gave me the push I needed. Caruso was champion our very first week in the High AO Jumpers.
That was the second-to-last show I attended with Eight Oaks. My husband’s career took us back to Connecticut, and I said goodbye to the Eight Oaks Team. I spent that summer and fall fine tuning Caruso and waiting for Fascinate to rehab from his injury.
Winter 2020 arrived, and training with Jenny Jones, I had the best winter show circuit—ever. Finally back in the show ring, Fascinate, the little horse I had bought to ‘one day, show in the High Adults’ flew through the Low and Medium Jumpers. I had a really proud moment when I took him into his very first 1.40 class and he was double clear and 2nd. He cruised around the High AO Jumpers, and even did his first 1.45 class—ever—with me. Like every equestrian, COVID meant not showing for a while, but by summer we worked with Michael Kirby when Jenny headed home for the season and got back to competing. Fascinate jumped double clear and placed 4th in his very first Grand Prix.
Since leaving Eight Oaks, I’ve had the privilege of working with several amazing trainers who have each helped me immeasurably. I have learned so much from each of them, but the foundation of it all is the confidence, enthusiasm, and work ethic Johnny gave me as a rider. Thank you, John Barker, for your contagious belief that given enough hard work and determination, anything is possible, and thank you for giving me the opportunity to dream big.
Liz and her husband, Craig, live at their Ocala, FL based Stoneleigh Farm. When not in a saddle, Liz advocates for the rights of children in foster care and people experiencing homelessness.