There's no doubt in Erin Bland's mind that the life of a professional rider and trainer is the life for her. Currently competing as an amateur, the 20-year-old logged a major milestone this past August with her win of the Consolation round in the USHJA's $100,000 International Hunter Derby Finals. The win validates her career aspirations, puts her name on the sport's national radar
screen and it was also a blast, says the ebullient young rider.
The win came aboard her hunter partner of the last three years, the handsome gray Warmblood Weatherly, and Erin describes it as her biggest equestrian accomplishment so far.
The Consolation round is new to the four-year-old Hunter Derby Finals. In the past, a qualifying round at the Kentucky Horse Park competition narrowed the field for the "Classic" round of the competition. This year, all 81 participants contested the Classic round. The top 30 returned the next day for a Handy round and those who finished 31-60 returned for the Consolation class. Trekking all the way from California, Erin was especially grateful for the second chance and she and Weatherly made the most of it.
West Coast competitors are in the minority at the Derby Finals, in part because it's a long haul and in part because there are relatively few opportunities to qualify here. Erin and Weatherly earned their place early in the season, and Erin's home trainer Liza Applebaum of Full Circle Farms encouraged her strongly to target Kentucky. "She had a lot of faith in me and I've been very excited about going."
Most would have needed more than their trainer's faith to face the Derby because the setting can be intimidating. The route was created by jumper course designer Steve Stephens in the 350' by 400' Sheila C. Johnson Arena at the Horse Park. The course was beautiful and big, with 3'6" fences constructed of natural materials and including several options ranging up to 4'3" in height, several of which Erin chose. Erin loved it all and felt reasonably well prepared thanks to previous mileage on the East Coast circuit. She and Weatherly already had the Devecoux Hunter Prix Finals at the Grand Prix field at HITS Saugerites, NY, under the belt and the atmosphere was similar, the rider reports. And her local accomplishments are many, highlighted by earning the Grand Circuit Amateur Owner Hunter champion honors at Thermal early this year.
The Derby's electric atmosphere was a plus. "It makes you a bit nervous and that actually helps me as a rider," she explains. After a first round that was "not our best," Erin entered the Consolation round with that sense of having nothing to lose
and it paid off big time with top prize in the $15,000 class.
An Exciting Summer
The Derby wasn't Erin's only highly competitive adventure this summer. In June, she and her jumper Revolution travelled to the famed international venue, Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Canada, to contest Prix des Nations competition. Erin's first taste of international competition was enhanced by the chance to watch the final observation event for the U.S. show jumping Olympic team. "We then competed on the same field the next day," she relays. "Being surrounded by top trainers, competitors and horses was a great learning experience and I'm proud of how my horse and I performed in that environment."
Returning to her Carlsbad home after the mid-August Derby Finals, Erin was preparing for the next phase of her life: moving north to Sonoma, where she plans to continue her college education at Sonoma State. Although she's set on a professional equestrian career, she views college as valuable (as do her parents!) and a degree as a good safety net. She is studying for a criminal justice degree and hopes there won't be any cause to call on that knowledge as a trainer. "I just happen to be interested in that subject!"
After high school, Erin opted to attend Mira Costa Junior College so she could continue riding with Liza, with whom she's been in training since she was a kindergartner. In recent years, Liza has often sent Erin to the far-flung shows with Hope and Ned Glynn of Sonoma Valley Stables and that's where Erin will base her riding as she finishes
She's grateful to Liza and the Glynns and sees a lot of similarities in their programs, most notably an emphasis on doing whatever is best for the horse. "They have pretty similar coaching styles and they both emphasize good sportsmanship and the fact that the horses always come first." In their work ethic, professionalism and positive attitude, both programs are terrific role models for Erin as an aspiring trainer.
So far, Erin has been able to juggle college studies with maintaining an active show schedule and she hopes to continue that next year. After graduation, the plan is to work for a show barn for a while then step out on her own. Having a college degree will be nice, but it's likely the lessons she's learned as a junior and amateur rider will be the most applicable.
"I think this sport has taught me, more than any other could, how to handle a high level of responsibility, what can come of hard work and how to juggle different important things in your life," she reflects. "It's huge to be able to learn what to let go of in a sport. With horses, there are things you can't control. Things don't always go as planned, yet you need to go out there the next time and do your best again.
"I am really grateful to my mom (Anne) and my trainers, who have always been there for me," Erin continues. "I have grown a lot as a person during these years and I realize that being able to have a life with horses is a very special opportunity."