Dear Horse Sport,

What a ride we’ve had. When I think back to my many years with you, both in and out of the saddle, I feel such a sense of gratitude. Gratitude for the childhood I had back in New Jersey. Gratitude for the trainers who took an interest in me. Gratitude for the horse that changed my life forever, and for a career that allowed me to serve both you and my country.

You shaped my life from its earliest days and informed my earliest memories. Every formative experience from my childhood was horses. From days spent on my aunt and uncle’s Thoroughbred breeding farm in New Jersey with my twin sister to starting at 13, my uncle giving us the pick of his yearlings to prepare for the yearling show at Monmouth Park Racetrack.

I didn’t have a formal lesson until I was 18, but on my uncle’s farm, I learned on the ground—and eventually, in the show ring and in the hunt field. I was never short on passion. I knew then that you were what I was meant to do, and that’s where I was meant to be.  

I think my family did too. When I told my parents in my senior year of high school that I wanted to continue to pursue riding at the highest level that I could, they supported me. Instead of college, they allowed me to travel to the rolling Cotswolds of England to work with Jack Talbot-Ponsonby, the man who trained British riders to medals at the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Olympic Games.

The three months I spent there, learning with other international students, was the first extended time I’d spent riding abroad. But it wouldn’t be the last.

As you know, a good horse has the power to transform your life. When I returned home from England, I met the horse that would alter my course, although I didn’t know it at the time.

Evening Mail was a former racehorse and what they called a “morning glory.” He was fast in the morning but wouldn’t run in the afternoon. Because of that, my aunt was able to buy “Willy” for just $1,500, and I went to work making him into a show horse.

It didn’t take long. In those early years, we were successful in the Green Working Hunters at Devon and at other major shows in the East. Evening Mail’s star was officially on the rise, and during one winter while we were training in Aiken, N.C., a director of the U.S. Equestrian Team recommended I take Willy back up to Gladstone, N.J. for Bert de Némethy to evaluate.

To this day, I can still see the movie reel of that day in my mind. When Bert got on my horse, I saw magic happen. The thing that most people don’t know is, Bert wasn’t a very pretty rider, and there were probably very few who ever saw him actually jump a jump. But on the flat, he was masterful, and when he stepped off Evening Mail, and handed the reins back over to me, my only thought was, I need to learn to do this.

Sally Ike and Eventing Mail in Florida, 1965. Photo courtesy of Sally Ike

Then as now, horse sport, there is no greater joy for me than the ability to have a conversation with a horse through its training. I was fascinated by the ability to have that exchange of ideas, and then watch the message click in a horse’s mind. The diversity and complexity of three-day eventing was a natural fit for my passion, and the doors that it would open brought me to extraordinary places.

I had a show hunter business back in New Jersey early 1960s with my aunt. But once Willy and I began to compete successfully in eventing, I never looked back. In 1967, we won the DeBroke National Championship and earned Horse of the Year. Shortly thereafter, I sold one of our show horses to pay our way to the U.K.

There, I began training with Olympic coach Lars Sederholm. One of Lars’s favorite sayings was, “Don’t forget to change your hat.”

Of all the lessons I’ve learned, horse sport, that one has resonated with me the most. If you have a strong foundation in the basics, it doesn’t matter what phase you’re riding in, or whether you’re show jumping, riding a dressage test, or going cross-country. At the end of the day, if your basics are sound, the training required to successfully navigate the challenges you’ll face are the same; you just have to adjust your “hat,” as needed, according to the discipline.

In those days, of course, that meant a top hat for dressage, a crash helmet for cross country, and a velvet cap for jumping. Times are different now, but I needed all three when Evening Mail and I competed at Burghley in the fall of ‘67. We finished in the top 10 and were the only pair, other than Captain Mark Phillips, to ‘max’ the course that year—jump clear with no time penalties on cross country.

I ran into Mark recently, and even so many years later, we still laugh about it.  

Mark said he only made the time because he had no control over his horse. I told him I only made it because I didn’t know what I was doing, and just let my horse go at the speed he wanted to go.

It wasn’t all highlights and dreams come true, of course. That following spring, I learned a hard lesson when Willy and I competed at Badminton.

Having grown up with racehorses all my life, I didn’t know that a horse could actually be overtrained. I learned later from Dr. Matthew Mackay-Smith—one of the best veterinarians I’ve ever known—that an overtrained horse tires more quickly than you would expect. I believe that’s what happened at Badminton during cross country. I pulled up because we had no more gas in the tank.

But it didn’t set us back for long.

In 1968, Willy and I were chosen as the non-traveling alternate in eventing for the Mexico City Olympic Games. Although we didn’t get to compete, I was the only woman named to the team at a time when women’s liberation was at the forefront of the national consciousness. One year earlier, Kathy Switzer had become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, where an official famously tried to forcibly remove her mid-race. But back home at the U.S. Team Training Center in Gladstone, N.J., riding alongside five other male athletes, none of it really touched me.

For me, it’s always been a given that women would compete alongside their male peers as equals. I was treated the same way as the men were by my coaches, officials, and colleagues in the industry, and speaking for myself, it is the same now as it was so long ago—there is no gender bias in equestrian sport.

Even still, horse sport, as riders go, I was one of the lucky ones, having the incredible horse that I did for as long as I did. Evening Mail made my career in the late 1960s, and by the early 1970s, he was still going strong. (To be more accurate, he would continue to be a sound horse for his entire career, competing across multiple disciplines at the highest level. But I didn’t know that back then.)

When I moved from home to be closer to Gladstone, I worked for Jill Slater Fanning as Secretary of the Essex Fox Hounds, and timber racing became another focus. I lived over Jill’s garage, and Willy was stabled there, and so I thought, Why not?

Once again, he took to his new career and rose to the challenge; in 1972 and 1973, we were the Ladies Point-to-Point Champions at Delaware Valley. He was so good that I thought he deserved a chance at the Maryland Hunt Cup, the four-mile timber race where the fences are stiff and very, very big. I wanted the best rider to the jumps and asked my friend Frank Chapot if he would consider taking Willy. Frank hadn’t ridden in a race in a long time, but he accepted, and together they finished third.

Sally Ike and Evening Mail at Brandywine in 1975. Photo courtesy of Sally Ike

The thing is, when I think back on all that Evening Mail did for me, I still can’t believe that he was only one horse. Willy was hot and strong and generally fearless, although he hated horses coming at him in the warmup. Above all, he loved to work. Which is why, in some ways, it was no less tragic but not really a surprise when Willy broke an ankle behind in the field, just a short time after he’d been retired.

I remember it was Valentine’s Day, and I had to make the difficult decision to put him down.  Of all the days you’ve given me, horse sport, I still think that was the hardest.

But, looking back, I try to think of it as a blessing in disguise. Willy would have hated a long, dull retirement, and I would have hated to have to watch him grow old. As a rider, I am so thankful to have had the time and experiences with him that I did.

And yet, that time with Evening Mail was just the first chapter of our story, horse sport. I didn’t know it at the time, but there were many more ahead.

Like in 1989, when I was hired by the USET to administer Jumping and Eventing. At the suggestion of one of the directors, the job was split after the 1992 Olympic Games, and I chose to continue with Jumping because I felt I could give back more to Eventing as a judge and technical delegate (a role that wouldn’t be possible if I was an employee). I got my Technical Delegate (TD) license the next year, and my judge’s license in 1996.

Sally Ike course designing at Fairhill Horse Trials in Maryland. Photo by Nancy Jaffer

In those roles, horse sport, you provided me with so, so many opportunities: five Olympic Games, World Championships, and Pan American Games; and 20+ Jumping World Cup Finals as the Team Leader, plus officiating at the national level throughout the U.S. 

I suspect that my past experience as a rider, administrator, and official drew me to helping to found USHJA’s Emerging Athlete Program in 2008. This program is dear to my heart because of the importance it places on learning and understanding the basics for both horsemanship and riding, and passing these key values—your key values—down to the next generation of equestrians.

I am most proud, horse sport, of the strides that we’ve made in this direction, and also in our efforts to embrace technology and continue to make you more accessible, not just to more riders, but to larger audiences around the world. I feel lucky to have been involved with you for as long as I have—and don’t get me wrong, I’m not close to done yet! But today, when I look around, I can honestly say, horse sport, you’re in good hands.

Yours with gratitude,

Sally Ike

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