Horse Girl: Ashley Stannard
Ashley has always felt like a big sister to me. She took me to all of my shows, drove me to lessons and taught me a lot. I owe a lot to her for always keeping horses in my life.
Now she has her own successful barn and has overcome so much to get where she is today. Enjoy!
When were you first introduced to horses?
As a kid we would go on trail rides. Well, I would be too scared so I would never go on the trail rides, but my family would go. I would stay back at the barn and some poor working student would have to walk me around in a circle. So that was my first introduction to horses.And then my first introduction to lessons and riding as a sport was when I was ten.
At age 10 did you know this was your future?
I wouldn’t say from a professional standpoint that I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Horses were always just my number one focus.
I was just obsessed with horses. But I didn’t necessarily want to be on them or touching them. I just liked to look at them and be around them. That was my favorite part. I loved the barn. I was just very, very, very fearful of riding. Not to the point that I didn’t want to ride, it just made me very scared.
When did you overcome that fear?
It probably took me three years to get to the point where I could ride a horse on the flat and jump small jumps without having that body-numbing fear. It took a long time to get to where I could actively ride a horse or handle a problem or a challenge. I don’t know at what point that totally went away.
I still have a lot of nerves and anxiety when competing at a high level, which I think I’ll always have. Riding a 1.20 used to be like, oh my gosh, and now I’m going into a 1.20 like it’s nothing. I think it’s just time in the saddle, and that gives you the right answers and experience.
Do you think there was a specific horse that really got you to overcome it, too?
There has been a different horse in each season of my riding. Like without Palm Beach, I couldn't have overcome my fear at all. My first horse, Apollo, really got me into competing. Without him, I would have never gone to the next level. Then there was Fiona, who got me riding bigger jumps, and then probably Whisper, my horse that got me into the Grand Prix.
When you’re getting ready to go in the ring, how do you handle your nerves?
I definitely think about my breathing a lot. This probably isn't the best, but in the back of my mind when I’m waiting at the gate and I'm next to go in, I think, “In a minute and half this will all be over and you can think about how fun that was.”
But really focusing on breathing, visualizing my course and picking out different places on the course I really want to focus on.
Every time I start a course for a big class, I say something to my horse, too. I have for sure said, “help me” and things like, “are you ready” and then I give them a pat and I start.
You went to college for Equine Science. I know one of your classes was creating your dream barn, but what else did it entail?
It was a four-year program to get as much information as you can in a classroom setting, which is impossible.
It starts with basic equine care and then it gets more complex. We had anatomy, farrier methods, we had nutrition, we had teaching techniques, hunter jumper issues. There was one semester called “keeper” where you have a string of eight horses that you are in charge of for an entire semester. That was terrible.
When you were in school, did you know you wanted to start your own barn?
No. I mean I knew I was going to train horses at a young age. I think I was around Fifteen and I was at the barn (because that's where I was all day long no matter what) and my trainer at the time, Jimmy, turned to me, and she was like, “You know you’re going to be in this industry forever right?” Everything that I did and everything I wanted to do focused on being around horses in a professional way. Not in a hobby way.
There was brief moment that it wasn’t all horses, and you were a in sales/assistant?
I knew how much money it took to do it and I knew that I was either going be a professional or have a job where I had to make a lot of money and probably didn’t have a lot of time to afford to do it as an amateur.
While I was in college I saw a lot of trainers that were burning out, medicated, or in marriages that just never worked—a lot of negativity and competitiveness in an unhealthy way. I didn’t think that was a world I really wanted to be a part of.
Also my father really made it clear that in his ideal world, I would do something that made money. For the same reasons, he saw a bunch of broke, unhappy, unethical horse trainers. I think it was a combination of all of those issues, appeasing my dad and wanting to try something different. Also, my trainer at school told me I wasn’t good enough to do it, and you know if you hear something like that, you kind of say, okay. It’s hard enough without people telling you that you can’t do it.
I wouldn’t change that sales job for anything. Because without that year, I wouldn't be as 100% sure this is exactly what I want to do.
I feel the same way. I’m very clear now how important horses are in my life since I’ve had so much time apart from them.
That’s part of growing up. You can’t know all those things right away. You wouldn’t know how important horses are until you don’t have them.
So after the sales job you went to Wisconsin?
Yes. Not a great experience, but it contributed to my education in a great way. I rode young horses. I rode a stallion, which I didn’t have a lot of experience with. I met this amazing woman named Sylvia, who is an incredible dressage rider. She taught me a lot about dressage, flatwork, connection and seat. I think I went there to meet her. And then I was miserable there. Haha.
But then you moved to Arizona and shortly after started your own barn. How was that?
I didn't sleep. I remember just waking up in the middle of the night thinking, “What am I going to do about saddle racks?” I didn’t sleep for probably three months because my mind was so busy wanting to make it everything I wanted it to be. I didn't have any money. I had a few clients. I was fortunate that the owner was really good to me. He provided the staff and let me board my horses for free, which allowed me to put my efforts and funds into marketing and branding.
I really did everything. It’s kind of crazy to think about that.
So, how long was it like that?
My business grew pretty quickly, I would say it was probably a real, real struggle for a full year.
Was there ever a time that you thought you couldn't do it?
No, because for the first time it was mine. My business, my brand, my name, my everything. I would keep thinking of ideas. We would do barn bowling night, margarita Fridays every Friday. I made it fun. I hung lights in the trees, I had music—I did everything I could to stand out.
When I first started, I had a pretty wealthy client that I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t have the tools, means, facility or experience to have her, and she ended up going back to the lady that I worked for. That was a hard pill to swallow, but I wasn’t ready to have a client and horse of that caliber at that point in my career.
I talked to you about this before, but there is a large generation of “in-betweeners” that want to ride, but don’t have a job that supports it yet. How did you support yourself through that stage?
My dad helped me through high school, with just enough. He bought me a horse, paid for board and then I worked. I started training at 14, and at the horse shows, I would work. In college, we had a show team and we raised money as a team to cover the show costs. It didn’t cover everything, but it helped.
I also body clipped horses a lot and got $100 for each horse. I would use that towards horse shows.
It’s interesting, because with every obstacle you had an equally supportive community that believed in you.
Definitely. I think you can’t get through this sport without that. And I think about that with my students, like how can I pay it forward? You can’t do this alone.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles for getting into the industry?
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder and harder to do this sport without money, which is a big conversation right now. The pyramid of people that can actually do this sport is getting smaller and smaller.
What do you think needs to change?
Part of it is the governing body, USEF. USEF has all these rules about miles and fees. Horse shows keep getting more expensive. They were talking about doing more schooling shows, but then you get into not having the correct officials or drug tests and people can break the rules. It’s really complicated.
What advice would you give to horse girls that see themselves being in the industry?
Work hard, find a place to take lessons and make yourself a staple of that place. Whether they wanted it or not, I was there all the time. And I’m pretty sure they didn’t want me there in the beginning, but I did everything I could. Put yourself in a place to learn.
How do you define a horse girl?
Someone who understands that horses are intelligent, athletic, funny animals, and really value and enjoy that. You don’t have to compete or ride or have a horse, it’s just about appreciating the animal for what they are.
Thank you, Ash!!
If you’re in Tuscon, AZ check out Ashbrookfarm.com !
Ashley and I in 2007