At an age when most people her age are enjoying the beach or hanging out with their friends, 23-year-old Robyn Hanover of West Tisbury can usually be found in a horse barn. And while she spends much of that time doing what she loves — riding her horse and training for equestrian competitions with a hopeful eye toward Olympic competition — there is plenty of time spent doing less glamorous chores.
Things like brushing and cleaning the horses. Moving and dispersing bales of hay. Shoveling manure.
Unlike other athletes who can go to a basketball court for a pickup game or practice their throwing and hitting at the local park, equestrians cannot practice in such an informal setting. Ms. Hanover’s situation is further complicated by the fact that her horse Festive Way is stabled off-Island.
A typical day for Ms. Hanover starts with a full shift at Linda Jean’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs, where her father is the owner, after which she catches an afternoon ferry and drives to a farm and training center in Rehoboth where Festive Way lives. Only then does she finally get to ride.
“It’s something you have to love to do, because it’s a lot of work. If someone gets into this sport just because they think it’s fun to ride a horse, they’re not going to last long. It’s like a full-time job,” she said.
Ms. Hanover competes exclusively in what is known as the equestrian triathlon, or simply eventing, which is made up of three events: dressage, cross country and show jumping.
Dressage is the most nuanced of the three — a sort of horse ballet in which the horse must respond to a rider’s minimal commands while remaining relaxed and appearing effortless. Show jumping requires rider and horse to negotiate a course of obstacles with no penalties within an allotted time. Cross country tests the speed, endurance and jumping ability of the horse while demonstrating the rider’s knowledge of pace and direction.
Ms. Hanover said the key to success is the bond between the rider and horse. In cross country, for example, the horse is not allowed to see or walk the course before the event, but the rider is. Ms. Hanover said Festive Way is an energetic 14-year old who thrives under pressure, even on days when she is feeling her nerves.
“I always get really nervous before a big event, and he can sense it. So he sort of picks me up. He has a really big heart,” she said.
She started riding horses as a young girl at Arrowhead Farm and later at Red Pony Farm. She said she never really considered taking her riding to the next level until she met Tom Davis when she was about 14. Mr. Davis, a certified Level II instructor for the United States Eventing Association, spotted something in the young girl and offered to train her.
“I think he sensed that I was frustrated and wanted to be competitive and advance toward the Olympic level,” she said.
Her goal is to compete in the Olympic Games, but she admits she has a lot of work to do to reach that goal. Marking success in eventing is a complicated process, as both riders and horses must earn a certain number of points to reach certain levels established by groups like the U.S. Eventing Association and the U.S. Equestrian Federation.
Earlier this year, Ms. Hanover completed in her first One Star event, considered to be the first level of international competition. Although the levels go all the way up to Four Star events — in which only the most elite riders in the world compete — a One Star event is still open to only the upper tier of riders.
Although she placed 32nd overall, she said the experience was invaluable.
“I learned so much in such a short time. Just to be around that level of competition and people who love the sport. It gave me a real lift,” she said.
She said there are times when she asks herself if it is all worth it. The long days of training, the traveling to various events around the country, the challenge of scheduling the rest of her life around training and eventing often wears on her. Not to mention the cost.
Ms. Hanover estimates that last year alone she and her family spent approximately $65,000 combined for boarding fees, insurance, leasing a horse trailer and veterinarian fees.
“Eventing is definitely not cheap . . . The bills just keep adding up,” she said.
But she got a boost this past winter when she received an invitation from Darren M. Chiacchia, a member of the U.S. Olympic Equestrian team, to train and learn at his farm in Florida.
Mr. Chiacchia is one of a handful of people in the country who makes a decent living from eventing and equestrian competitions. From humble beginnings as a stable boy in Buffalo, N.Y. , he is now a gold medal champion in the Pan American Games, owns his own farm and is able to buy and sell some of the better horses in the sport.
Reached by telephone last week, Mr. Chiacchia said he spotted some intangible quality in Ms. Hanover, much the way Mr. Davis did several years ago.
“I could just sense her passion; I could tell she was in it for the long haul. This is not a sport for the weak-minded, because you’ll go long stretches of hard work with little reward. You have to dedicate a large portion of your life to this and I saw that dedication in Robyn,” Mr. Chiacchia said.
Mr. Chiacchia’s work ethic is unwavering. His days typically run from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and he estimates that he competes in events about 40 weekends out of the year. “People think riding horses or competing in [equestrian events] is romantic, but believe me, it’s not. It’s a lot of hard work,” he said.
At least one of his students has taken that lesson to heart.
“It takes almost all my time and most of my money, but to be honest I couldn’t imagine what I would do if I couldn’t go to the barn every day. It’s just such a part of my day and such a part of my life,” Ms. Hanover said.
Anyone wishing to make a donation to Ms. Hanover can get in touch with Jim Young at 508-693-9748 or visit the American Horse Trials Foundation Web site at ahtf3day.org.