Like many professional riders, Erin Sylvester can tell you that it takes one special horse to launch your career, and she’s found just that with No Boundaries. The pair finished 13th at their first four-star at Rolex Kentucky this spring and went on to complete the Land Rover Burghley CCI**** this fall, but it’s been a long road for Sylvester, full of trial and error, heartbreak and determination.
Sylvester, 27, grew up in Hingham, Mass., a suburb of Boston. From an early age, she was horse crazy. Her parents put her on a horse at age 2, and by 4 she was in riding lessons. Her family lived just a few miles away from eventer Elizabeth Iorio, and the then-15-year-old agreed to teach Sylvester. “I can’t imagine how she did it and how she kept my focus. I must have been like a little bouncing ball,” Sylvester said. From there, she joined the North River Pony Club, eventually earning her C-2 rating.
After 11 years of lessons and moving up the levels, Sylvester bought her first serious event horse, Wily Wizard, who had been Iorio’s three-star horse. She took him through the intermediate level before he was retired to the lower levels in 2003. “He tried his heart out. He knew the sport so well that if I made a mistake, he’d run out or stop. Otherwise, he was a very honest horse and really allowed me to learn what I needed to do at bigger fences and combinations,” she said. While the gelding incurred some injuries over their three years together, he proved to be a valuable partner. “In retrospect, I wish I knew a little bit more when I had him. I was a bit green about dealing with conditioning and soundness. That kind of thing comes with experience I think. Soundness with horses is sort of trial and error,” Sylvester said.
Location, Location, Location
When it came time to choose a college her senior year of high school, Sylvester’s only criteria was that it was near a top trainer. While she’d never worked with him, Phillip Dutton was first on her list, so she applied and got in early to the University of Delaware, which was within commuting distance to Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa. While she was positive she wanted to ride throughout college and become a professional, she was a bit shocked when she got to Dutton’s and realized her skills were lacking.
“I guess I was taking a chance because I didn’t know if I would get on with him as a student, and I think at times I drove him pretty crazy because at that point in his career, and still now, he spends most of his time teaching intermediate and advanced riders that have their own programs,” she said. “He sees talent and potential in them to be really great riders, and I was, for lack of a better word, a bit of a hooligan. I didn’t have any concept of counting strides in between fences or seeing a distance. I knew how to sit up and kick and hold on and get stuff done. I was lucky to be on catty horses until I got there. It was definitely a work in progress for him when he first started working with me, just having the patience to [teach me] some really basic things that I should have known before I got there and that I’d kind of gotten away with not understanding.”
Sylvester brought a new horse with her to Dutton’s, Landsear, a Thoroughbred gelding she bought in 2003 after he'd done his first prelim. At the same time, she spent her freshman year of college making friends, traveling to Europe and “living the experience. Once I did that, I was ready to get down to business and work on my riding more,” she said. Sylvester majored in international relations and specialized in Latin American studies.
“I’m embarrassed to say I have not used much of my degree at all,” she joked, although she admits she’s still fluent in Spanish.
Landsear proved to be another good learning horse, taking Sylvester to her first CIC and CCI**’s. They completed one advanced horse trial together in 2007 right after Sylvester graduated, but the gelding was struck by lightning and killed. “It was a very tragic thing, and it was devastating. That’s the lowest that I’ve ever felt, because when you have a horse like that, it’s so hard. He was my first top level horse, and he taught me so much. He had a lot of heart,” she said.
Along the way, Sylvester had found Armani IV (Darn That Alarm—Chanson de Roland), a “very big, very green, pretty rambunctious” Thoroughbred gelding. She’d also started to work more with Boyd Martin, who had just moved to the area from Australia and was working for Dutton. “They’re both trainers and mentors to me, and I’m very lucky to have them in my life. They have an incredible amount of knowledge, and they’re very willing to help riders that are coming along,” she said.
Armani settled as he matured, and he and Sylvester had a string of successful years together, including a sixth-placed finish at the Bromont CCI** (Quebec) in 2009. “He’s a very special jumper. He seemed very bold and game for the cross-country,” she said. “He was the first horse that put me on the map as an advanced-level event rider. He was the first horse that I brought on from no experience. A lot of what I did with him was trial and error. He’s such a scopey jumper that you can make a mistake here and there, and he’s always going to take care of you, though he might buck on the landing to let you know that you shouldn’t do that again."
A New Leaf
After graduating from college in 2007, Sylvester came across a teaching position at Fox Brook Farm in Unionville, Pa., where she stayed for four years.
Around the same time, Sylvester was bringing along another project horse, No Boundaries. Originally bought by Christine Price as a dressage prospect but bred to be an eventer, “Bucky” decided that life inside a white rectangle was not for him, so Sylvester took the Thoroughbred on as a resale project. “He seemed to move well enough and jump well enough a fair amount of the time. Honestly, I really didn’t believe in him that much until he went to a two-star,” Sylvester admitted.
Bucky, whose nickname is just a coincidence even though he did buck a lot as a young horse, proved to be a challenge for his rider. “He was wild as a young horse. He had rails down all the time and would vacillate on cross-country between running really well and just being bonkers,” she said.
Sylvester started to see a change in Bucky at the Fair Hill CCI** (Md.) in 2010, where he finished in 10th place. “He was so easy to ride around, it was unreal. It’s a taxing course with the terrain, and I just thought, ‘I can’t imagine that this horse couldn’t go advanced,’ ” she said.
By 2011, he’d matured enough to move up to advanced. “He took a deep breath and settled down. Something clicked in his brain on cross-country, and he figured out how to gallop and how to look for fences and not be wild. It was kind of smooth sailing since then,” said Sylvester. “He’s a good horse on the flat and wants to try hard, but sometimes his nerves get the best of him. He has all the heart in the world for cross-country.”
By the end of 2011, Sylvester felt that a four-star could be a feasible target. She headed down to Aiken, S.C, with the “cautious goal of doing it.” A strong season, including an eighth-placed finish at The Fork CIC*** (N.C.), solidified her decision to send in her entry to Rolex Kentucky. “This spring season was the best season that he had. He just went out every course feeling a little bit better and little bit more confident,” she said.
Despite working on her dressage with Silva Martin, Sylvester was discouraged with her test at Kentucky. “He always puts in a competitive test, but I think the crowd and the atmosphere got the best of him about halfway through his test,” she said.
She was able to put that behind her on cross-country day, even though there was a lot of trouble on course early on. “The two riders that went before me fell off, and I’m hearing this on the announcements right as I’m going into the start box,” she said. “When you hear that happening, you kind of have to turn it off and have your plan for how your ride’s going to go, and I did just that.”
One of seven double-clear cross-country rounds and one rail down put them in 13th place by Sunday afternoon. “If you had told me that No Boundaries was my first Rolex horse when I bought him, I would have told you that you were crazy,” she said. “The idea to go to Burghley came the Sunday afternoon of Rolex,” she said with a laugh.
A Whirlwind Year
Over the summer, Sylvester and fellow Chester County rider Kate Hicks held fundraisers to help them get to the Land Rover Burghley CCI**** (England). Getting participation was easy; Sylvester has a built-in support crew of students at Ferideh Farm in Cochranville, Pa., where she runs Lilybridge Eventing, plus the active eventing community in Chester County.
Between a jumper derby at Plantation Field (Pa.), a silent auction and two jumper shows at Sylvester’s farm, the two were able to raise close to $50,000, which nearly paid for the entire trip. “We put our best effort forward, and it was pretty inspiring to see the amount of effort in the community to help us get there. It wasn’t one big check that someone wrote to help us get there, it was participation,” said Sylvester.
Sylvester and Bucky ended their weekend at Burghley in 52nd with a run-out on cross-country and four rails down, but the experience was invaluable to the young professional. “My weekend didn’t go quite as smoothly as Rolex did, and it was huge learning curve,” she said. “Putting [the run-out] aside, I was so happy to be able to complete. I had a really tired horse on Sunday for show jumping, but I was really glad I was able to push through that.
“It’s a very humbling experience being over in that world of competition because the quality of riders is really impressive. I just tried to soak in as much as could, watching people ride and watching what they do with their warm-ups,” she continued.
Sylvester is surprised and humbled at how far she’s come before she’s 30. “This has been a whirlwind year, and I can’t believe I’ve completed two four-stars. It’s very inspiring and makes me want to do more and makes me push harder with all of my other horses. I didn’t expect to be this far along in my career at this age,” she said.
“A few years ago, I was a little bit lost, and I didn’t have as much going on after Landsear died. I feel very lucky to be where I am now and to have the horses I have now. Everybody knows that it takes the luck of one really good horse to put you on the map. You absolutely have to put the work and the time into getting there, but you have to hope and pray that that horse comes along, and I’m really lucky to have that in Bucky,” she said.