After five years dedicated to one another, the amateur rider and her unlikely grand prix horse claim their first victory at the Aiken Spring Classic.
By Tricia Booker
When Erin McGuire tried Kasarr at the end of the 2013 Winter Equestrian Festival circuit in Florida, she wasn’t all that impressed. In fact, she recalled picking up the trot, trying to get him in front of her leg, and then pulling up to ask his owner if the horse could even get down the lines.
“I’m not sure she understood what I asked, because she didn’t speak English and just nodded,” said Erin, laughing. “So, I kept going and Jack (Towell) put the jumps up to the top of the standards in the $20 ring, and he did it, so we had him vetted.”
After “Benny” passed the pre-purchase exam, he arrived at Finally Farm in Camden, South Carolina, where Erin met up with him again two weeks later.
“I walked in the barn all excited to see my new horse. I asked (barn manager) Alberto Ramirez where he was, and he grunted and pointed to the cross ties,” she said. “I looked over and thought, ‘Oh my God! Where’s my horse? They sent the wrong one. This is a pony!’”
The diminutive Benny stands “15.2 hands on a good day,” Erin noted.
But from that inauspicious start, the now 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Gratianus—Liberus H) has grown leaps and bounds in Erin’s heart and carried her to her first grand prix victory on April 21 in the $25,000 Aiken Spring Classic Grand Prix in South Carolina.
“He wasn’t bought for this job, and at no point did I think I’d want to do this or actually do this and be successful,” she said of her grand prix career. “For whatever reason, this horse has more heart than all of my previous horses combined. He has such a fighting spirit. If you look at him, he’s small and built funny and shouldn’t be able to do what he does. But he just does it.
“Reflecting back, take a horse like Casallo, my Junior Hunter. I thought he’d be my horse of a lifetime, and he’s a great horse, but he had success with me and Liza and all of those who have ridden him,” said Erin. “He’s a really good horse. But with Benny, he’s performing for me. It’s not that I’m the best rider or he’s the best horse. We’re a team, and he performs for me. This horse is my pet now.”
Trainer Liza Boyd agreed and credited Erin for creating such a strong partnership and bond with Benny that has contributed greatly to their success together.
“She’s done an incredible job with that horse, and the dedication and hours she devotes to him have made him the horse he is today,” she said. “That little horse has exceeded everyone’s expectations.”
Lows and Highs
Erin, of Cornelius, North Carolina, purchased Benny to be her Low Junior Jumper and as the horse she would take with her to the University of South Carolina. “I was aging out of the Juniors, and I had Casallo. I thought he was the nicest horse I was ever going to own, but my time with him was coming to an end. My mom said she’d buy me a jumper to ride but nothing fancy,” she said.
Erin and Benny made their show ring debut at the 2013 Aiken Spring Horse shows.
“We went straight into the Low Juniors, and it was terrifying,” she recalled with a laugh. “It looked good on paper, but it was scary. We hit the ground running, and I fell on my face the first few times…literally and figuratively. I fell off in the speed class and then won the classic and we were grand champions. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses!”
While Erin was off at USC focusing on school that fall and winter, the Finally Farm team traveled to the Winter Equestrian Festival circuit, giving Erin time at home to train and work with Benny.
“The first year I’d been doing the 1.30m/1.35m, and had been doing well, so Liza said, ‘Maybe you can jump the grand prix at Aiken.’ The key word was, ‘maybe.’ I took it and ran with it!” said Erin.
“I knew I wasn’t fit enough to do a grand prix, but my roommate at the time took me to a group fitness class, and I hated it. I wasn’t strong, and it intimidated me. I’d never touched a weight in my life. But I went once a week and started seeing results, and then I went three times a week,” she said.
It didn’t take long before Erin was totally into fitness and training, and she started working for Emma Williamson, a veterinarian and chiropractor who happened to also teach fitness classes. Erin then became an instructor herself, teaching weights, kickboxing and spin classes.
Fitness quickly became a passion, and Erin said it made her a better rider—and not only because she’s stronger and fitter, but also mentally balanced.
“It changed my life,” she said simply. “Fitness became an outlet and took the pressure off of riding. For 17-18 years, I’d been defined by horses. I’d dedicated my life to it, doing online school and riding multiple horses. College and fitness gave me something else to take the pressure off my riding.”
That spring of 2014, Erin was well prepared to tackle her first grand prix. She and Benny competed in the 1.40m at the Atlanta Spring shows and she’d spent the winter in fitness “boot camp.”
The first week’s grand prix was canceled due to rain, however, so Erin and Benny competed in the Open Welcome class the second week.
“I wanted to win that Welcome so badly, and I went so fast the horse turned out from under me and I fell off,” she recalled. “So, going into the grand prix that weekend I thought, ‘Here goes nothing!’ I’d already fallen off.
“Liza wouldn’t even come to the schooling ring; she was so scared for me,” added Erin smiling. “I know she was thinking, ‘Those jumps are bigger than the horse! Why are we sending her in there?’”
In the end, Erin and Benny had a respectable debut, finishing 13thwith just one rail down in the initial round.
“After that first grand prix, I was so happy to think we did it. One year ago, at this same show I’d face planted in the Low Juniors, and now I’d jumped around a grand prix like I knew what I was doing!”
In between their grand prix debut and their first victory at Aiken four years later, Erin kept a solid plan of action and realistic goals while she attained her bachelor’s degree in psychology and then her master’s degree in sport psychology.
“I competed in more grand prix classes and in the High Amateur-Owners,” she said. “I had success here and there, but it’s not about the winning. I try to target horse shows where I’ll be competitive and also challenged. I’d rather be fifth in the grand prix than win in the Low Amateurs.”
Along the way she’s picked up lots of grand prix ribbons—even a few red ones—but that blue remained elusive.
More recently, with Finally Farm spending the 12-week circuit in Florida over the winter, Erin picked out a boarding barn closer to Charlotte where she could keep Benny while the Towells were away. There, she began working with dressage trainer Amanda Paris.
“She’s very patient with us,” said Erin. “Benny is not a flat savvy horse, and when you ask him to go on the bit he’ll spend more time and effort trying not to do what you want. I tell him, ‘If you just gave in, life would be so much easier!’ But that’s what makes him such a special horse and a winner. He has that fighting spirit!
“Amanda’s not teaching us upper level dressage but functionally she’ll help us for the job we’re trying to do,” she explained. “That dressage training has given us an edge and helps us achieve our personal best.”
Erin noted that Amanda is just one of the many people who have helped her achieve her dreams in the sport, and she remembered the wise words veterinarian Diane Schiereck said to her when Benny was vetted.
“To her credit, Diane knew then and said, ‘Yeah, I think you’ll like what you have in this horse. I promise you, he’s more than you think.’”
So, after adding a grand prix victory to what’s already an impressive resume, what’s next for the pair?
“That’s the $1 million question,” Erin said laughing.
“There was something that Liza told me after I won that hit home,” she continued. “I was crying and emotional because so much goes into it. You buy a horse and it doesn’t go well at first—you have good shows and bad shows. But you ride the horse when it’s 100 degrees, so you’re used to it and can have success at the summer shows. You ride when it’s too cold and all you can do is tack walk. That’s success. And then each victory is just as sweet. Liza said to hold onto the feeling and don’t ever take it for granted. Treat each victory as your first and don’t ever let it go. Now, it’s like, ‘OK. It could never happen again, or it could happen at the next show.’ I’ll treat every class like a brand-new slate. That’s good advice moving forward.”
Liza couldn’t be happier for Erin, and to have her first grand prix victory happen at Aiken made it even more meaningful.
“Erin’s been showing at Aiken since she started in the 11 and under equitation,” said Liza. “She then won everything in the Juniors and then steadily moved up in the jumpers. Winning the grand prix there was really emotional, and the whole horse show was happy for her and cheered her on, from the show management to the staff to the other trainers. Everyone really likes Erin and admires her hard work.”
Erin is in no rush to decide on her next major competitive goal for good reason. She’s currently establishing a new business, Remarqueable Athletic Solutions LLC, where she’ll specialize in sport psychology, fitness and nutrition for athletes.
“For years, I thought if the stars align I might win a grand prix. And they did. There were nine in the jump-off, and Daniel Geitner went first and fast but had a rail down. I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I can win this.’ It was terrifying. Then, I had a burst of emotion. I’d been dreaming about this moment since that first grand prix in Aiken. I thought, ‘What am I going to do with all of this emotion?’ Yes, I can go in and ride poorly, but if I’m going to be a sport psychologist I’m not allowed to psych myself out. So, I talked myself down, and it was a testament to my sport psychology training. I did it.”
While Erin thanked her family, friends and many supporters for encouraging and supporting her through the years, she said she wouldn’t be where she is in the show ring and in life without the Towell family and Finally Farm.
“I really can’t thank them enough,” she said. “They’re like family now. I’ve been with them going on eight years, and I came to them as an insecure, average rider with no social skills or personality. And what they’ve done for me as a rider and a person is wonderful. You can’t buy that; it’s all just so remarkable.”