Teenagers aren’t known for being the most grateful human beings. But Nina Ligon, who's lucky enough to have five upper-level horses and a real shot at making the 2012 London Olympic Games at the tender age of 19, isn’t most teenagers.
“I’ve gotten where I am because I’ve been really fortunate in having good horses,” she said. “They teach me to be a better rider, and I'm really grateful for them.”
Ligon’s made headlines this year with some very grownup results. She won the Fair Hill CIC*** (Md.) in April and placed second at the Jersey Fresh CCI*** (N.J.) in May with Fernhill Fearless. Then, on July 29-31, she won the Pardubice CIC*** in the Czech Republic with Jazz King and placed sixth in the CCI*** with Tipperary Liadhnan.
Her impressive results mean she’s met the minimum eligibility requirement for the 2012 Olympic Games, where she hopes to represent Thailand as an individual with Fernhill Fearless, an 11-year-old Irish Sport Horse by Mark Twain. After graduating from the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., in 2010, she deferred her early acceptance at Stanford University (Calif.) for two years to concentrate on trying to qualify for the Olympics.
“I picked Thailand [over the United States] because I was born there, my mom’s Thai, and it’s a chance not only to be in touch with the culture but also to represent them in a sport that’s growing but hasn’t taken hold,” said Ligon, who chose Thailand as her nationality upon turning 18. She also said that due to the fact that Thailand does not have an equestrian Olympic team, the country appreciates her support and is enthusiastic about sending her to London.
She admitted it’s a bit of a rush to try to go to the Olympics next year. “Right now I have a great group of horses and a really good support team, so we’ll just push for this, and if it doesn’t happen, know that we really tried,” she said, emphasizing that a normal college experience is something she really wants, so horses may have to go on hold.
The Life Of An Olympic Hopeful
On an average day, Ligon can be found at her 1,390-acre farm in Esmont, Va., working her five horses: Fernhill Fearless, Chai Thai, Tipperary Liadhnan, Jazz King and He’s A Star.
“I like to get [all the horses worked] in the morning when it’s cool; they pretty much stay on the same schedule. That way everyone gets the same days off,” said Ligon. She also spends time mucking, cleaning tack and doing general horse chores.
For nearly three years, Ligon has trained with Kim Severson, an Olympic individual silver medalist and three-time winner of the Rolex Kentucky CCI****. Though she occasionally takes dressage lessons from Gerd Zuther, Charlottesville, Va., and jumping lessons from Katie Prudent, Middleburg, Va., Ligon said she struggles when she receives too much input from too many different directions and appreciates the relationship she has with Severson, who was on hand when Ligon won team silver at the 2010 Asian Games (China).
“Nina is one of the sweetest girls you’ll ever know,” said Severson, Troy, Va. “She’s a very quiet person, but I think this is why the horses like her—she’s quiet and effective.”
Ligon discovered riding when her mother, Pan Ligon, signed her up for lessons at age 5. After showing in the hunters, she joined the Deep Run Hunt Pony Club (Manakin-Sabot, Va.) where she found her passion for eventing. Ligon graduated with a B rating and was competing at the preliminary level by the time she was 13.
“I think it’s the cross-country that drew me to eventing—I liked the rush,” Nina said, admitting that it still occasionally terrifies her. That's surprising, given that she was named the 2010 U.S. Eventing Association Young Rider of the Year.
When she can take an occasional weekend off, she drives into Richmond to see her friends and re-charge away from the horses. “Most of my friends aren’t horse people at all. They think my sport is really neat—I know they don’t quite grasp it all the way—but they think it’s neat that I might go to the Olympics,” she said.
On many weekends Nina’s competitive schedule causes her and Pan to miss family functions and trips. She explained that her father, Austin Ligon, older brother, Aaron, and older sister Nisha, stand behind her and are fully understanding.
Pan and Nina spend more time together than your average mother and 19-year-old daughter. Nina called her mother a “good motivator” and gave Pan credit for helping her get to where she is today. “It’s like 30 percent me riding, 70 percent my mom organizing. She helps sort out all of the logistics—she says it’s good use for her MBA,” Nina said with a laugh.
For a mother-daughter pair who spend virtually all of their time together, Pan said activities aside from horses include: “NOTHING! We sleep, we each go to our corner, and then she watches video on her computer, and I watch it on mine.”
Nina added that occasionally they’ll go to the movies, but it’s rare.
“Nina, we have no social life,” said Pan, and they both laughed.
“We get along great,” said Pan. “I’m very aggressive, very quick—impatient, and Nina is slow, methodical—patient. But it’s a good complement. Plus Nina’s very obedient!”
With Nina’s Olympic goal in mind, Severson advised her student to spend even more time in the saddle, recommending that another “schoolmaster” would help conserve Fernhill Fearless, or “Sparky,” since it was the rider who needed the practice—not the horse.
They didn’t have to look far as Severson’s Irish Sport Horse Tipperary Liadhnan (Fast Silver—Gypsy Star), a seasoned four-star horse, was for sale.