The Olympic dreams of an equestrian: Hunter Holloway is riding all the way to the top

07/08/2014 5:53 PM

07/10/2014 9:57 AM

Hunter Holloway fell off of a horse the day before she was born.

“That’s what’s wrong with me,” Holloway jokes about her mother’s fall the day before she gave birth. “I just know I’ve been on a horse every day since I can remember. There has not been a day where I have not been on a horse.”

At 16, she is ranked 107th among all equestrians in the country by the U.S. Equestrian Federation and is internationally ranked. Five years ago, she became the youngest rider in history to win a national standard Grand Prix competition.

She stands 6 feet tall, but her dreams tower even taller. Holloway wants to be an Olympian, the highest level an equestrian can achieve.

From her first competition when she was 18 months old — that’s not a typo — to being selected last month as one of five riders 25 and younger to represent Team USA for the U.S. Equestrian Federation developing rider team in Germany — Hunter’s life has been hurtling toward her Olympic dream.

“She’s groundbreaking,” said her mother, Brandie Holloway.

For Hunter, who lives in Topeka when she’s not spending time at her father’s Overland Park home or traveling internationally half the year for competitions, life is a whirlwind of training, schooling and competing. She spends 12 hours a day with horses.

All for a dream and a love.

“Horses helped me become the person I am today,” she said. “They molded me in a way, not like anything else could.”

A gravel road leads from 29th Street in Topeka into Equi-Venture Farm’s complex, a training facility where riders come for lessons, boarding and training of horses and horse sales. A house with office space and a wrap-around porch for gathering sits in the middle of the complex. Barns and stables surround it, filled with 50 horses.

Hunter’s grandparents used to live in the house and continue to own the farm, and her mother runs it as a professional trainer.

This is where you can find Hunter Holloway most days when she’s not at a competition. On average, she rides 10 of the farm’s horses a day. She rides to train for competitions. She rides to exercise the horses boarded at the farm. She rides to break in a new horse.

She rides because there’s no place she’d rather be.

On this afternoon, she takes a break to sit inside the office in a barn at Equi-Venture Farm. Holloway returned from Germany around midnight the night before, but she was there at 8:30 this morning to ride.

Wrapped around Hunter’s left wrist are two beaded bracelets. One declares YOLO, for “you only live once.” That’s the name of her favorite horse, an all-white grey gelding. She fidgets with her bracelet as she speaks and never takes off her helmet. A horse waits outside the barn’s office, huffing impatiently for someone to ride him as three dogs scamper between his legs.

Holloway and her mother are known for their training and eventual selling of horses to the Grand Prix level.

The Holloways live about five minutes away from the farm in Topeka, with Hunter’s two younger brothers and her stepfather. Colt is 6 and Boston is 10 months old. Colt’s first love is football, though he is beginning to take interest in learning to ride horses.

Brandie never pressured her children into a passion for horses. She just got lucky with Hunter.

“I just thank my lucky stars every day that she does enjoy (horses) so much,” said Brandie Holloway, who has only missed one of Hunter’s competitions, when she was giving birth to Boston. She watched intently on the Internet from the hospital.

Brandie Holloway is where Hunter’s love of horses started.

As a young girl growing up in Topeka, Brandie never dreamt of becoming an Olympian or competing internationally. But her world revolved around horses much the same way Hunter’s does.

Brandie’s parents had western horses, which allowed her to get into riding at a young age. She, like Hunter, learned to ride before she could walk. She did not have the same luxuries that Hunter enjoys in her young career, such as the resources at Equi-Venture Farm.

Instead, Brandie acquired her horses less conventionally. She sold a saddle or other accessories in order to buy a horse.

When Brandie was 14, she won her first American Quarter Horse Association World Championship Show in the 1980s, held in Oklahoma City. She rode a horse that cost $750, which she found from an ad in the newspaper. Brandie competed as often as she could, having to miss some competitions or other opportunities that could advance her career because of school.

In college at Kansas State University, Brandie met Tim Schuknecht, whom she introduced to the horse world as she launched a career as a trainer.

They married, and in March 1997 they discovered Brandie was expecting their first child. For Brandie, riding horses during her pregnancy was just as much protocol as doctor appointments. Brandie was beginning her career as a professional trainer, and she couldn’t afford to stop riding for fear of losing customers.

On Dec. 17, 1997, Brandie’s horse tripped over a jump and fell onto its knees, causing Brandie to tumble off. Hunter was born the next day, healthy and happy and destined to get on a horse before she learned to walk.

Brandie set baby Hunter in front of her on the saddle. Up and down they’d ride into the dusk, the rhythm of a horse’s trot acting as a lullaby until she fell asleep.

Hunter was 18 months old when she entered her first competition. Leadline is a horse show generally intended for riders 7 years old or younger. Hunter sat atop the horse while an adult or older child led the horse around the ring. At 2, Hunter had advanced to walk and trot competitions, which is the most basic division.

Brandie and Tim divorced when Hunter was 3. Tim moved to Overland Park and is remarried with a 6-year old son, Tyler.

Brandie remains in Topeka, where she coaches her daughter. Hunter went to competitions as often as she could as she grew up, missing major chunks of school as a result. She felt awkward asking her teachers for her work in advance, but it was a necessity to keep competing and attend school as any other student.

Competing intensified for Hunter Holloway four years ago in Tyler, Texas. She won the Dallas Harvest $25,000 Grand Prix in 2010 when she was 12, riding a horse named Argentina, making her the youngest rider in history to win a national standard Grand Prix. The oldest person competing in the class that day had 40 years on her.

It’s not uncommon for her to outperform those older than she is, even when she’s not riding a horse. Her other hobbies include hunting, bow-hunting, motocross and dirt bikes. As a little girl, she bow-hunted her first deer before her father.

“She shoots a gun better than just about anybody I’ve met,” Schuknecht said. “She rides motocross. There isn’t a whole lot she hasn’t been around or done.”

At the end of sixth grade, it became apparent that traditional public school could no longer be part of the equation if Hunter wanted to reach her aspired level of excellence as an equestrian.

Schuknecht resisted. He had conversations with Hunter’s sixth-grade teacher about her options and the prospect of online schooling. He feared that Hunter’s education would set up residence on the back burner. He knew Hunter’s love of horses seemed immune to anything, and he believed in her wholeheartedly, but he couldn’t help but harbor a worry that she would burn out.

By the end of her sixth-grade year, Schuknecht agreed to enroll Hunter in online school to start seventh grade. The transition to online school proved challenging in her first year. Her grades faltered.

But this past school year, Hunter finished with As and one B.

It is midnight, and Hunter is still awake. She spends 12 hours a day with horses minimum. Brandie is exhausted after a day at the barn and struggles to comprehend where her daughter’s reservoir of energy comes from.

“To tell that kid, ‘OK, you’ve gotta go home and do a full day’s worth of schoolwork’ is tough,” Brandie said.

Sometimes, Hunter will do three hours worth of homework after a day at the barn. Mostly, her schedule with horses doesn’t allow time for school every day, which leads to entire days spent getting caught up on school.

She travels more than half the year, laptop in tow with school inside of it. She’s aware that her childhood was not and is not conventional.

“I think I missed out on high school drama,” she says. “So I don’t mind that at all.”

On competition days, Holloway is awake and on a horse by 5 a.m. She won’t finish until 8 p.m., and then she might have time for schoolwork. She teaches herself much of the curriculum, using self-motivation and the constant reminder that good grades are the means to a continued career with horses as catalysts.

Next year, she will be a junior at Kansas Connections Academy, an accredited online public school. Jay Nicholson was her biology and homeroom teacher her sophomore year. They have a student-teacher conference every other week over the phone or online to discuss her progress in her classes.

“There’s no way Hunter could do what she’s doing in a regular school environment,” Nicholson said. “That flexibility for her is just amazing.”

Nicholson has learned as much from Holloway as she has from him. She tells him about her life as an upcoming equestrian and shares videos with him of her competitions. They have only met in person once, when Nicholson serendipitously found himself in the same city as one of her competitions in Texas.

Holloway was off inspecting the ring and jumps for her next event at the competition. A man stood in her horses’ stable, talking with Holloway’s stable manager.

When Holloway came back to the stable, she recognized his voice.

“As soon as they hear you, there’s a connection,” Nicholson said.

As soon as Holloway turns 18, her opportunities in the equestrian world expand significantly.

Eighteen-year-old riders qualify for international classes and more prestigious classes in general. And 18 is the qualifying age for the U.S. Olympic team.

But that forces a big decision: To go to college or not?

Holloway is debating the possibilities. She could go to college and compete on a university’s riding team, continue with online schooling through college or forgo college altogether.

“It’s hard, because at the highlight of your career they’re asking you to go to college,” she said. “It’s hard to balance that out.”

Hunter Holloway competes in three types of divisions. Equitation evaluates the skill and style of the rider only. A hunter competition is judged subjectively solely on the horse’s performance and appearance. Jumper competitions are judged objectively, whether the horse jumped obstacles, cleared them and finished the course in the allotted time.

Internationally, she has competed throughout Europe and South America. June marked her first time in Germany. Holloway and four other riders were selected for the U.S. Equestrian Federation developing rider team comprised of those 25 years old and younger. Overall, 130 riders gathered to represent 26 different countries. The U.S. finished seventh.

Holloway took Yolo with her to Germany for individual competitions. One day, she placed fourth out of more than 100 competitors.

“You have all of your top riders 25 years old or under in one horse show,” Holloway said. “It’s a tough competition. There’s nobody you see there and think, ‘Oh, they don’t belong.’ Everyone belongs. You’re looking at the top riders that we have to offer.

“I was the youngest to ever make the team, so it was really exciting. It’s kind of an overwhelming feeling. You’re like, ‘Oh, my God. I’m making it.’”

Cathy Strobel is a columnist for Horseback magazine with 30 years of experience in the equestrian world. She offers perspective on how difficult it is to reach the level of equestrian success Holloway aspires to.

“If you can imagine how many swimmers want to be on the Olympic swim team, it’s an elite class for any athlete,” Strobel said. “In this sport it’s much more difficult than other sports because not only do you have to be at that caliber, you have to provide a horse at that caliber. It’s a lot of care and effort.”

The horses that Holloway rides are worth six figures by the time she is done training them. A far cry from the horses of her mom’s youth, traded for a saddle.

“It’s a whole different league,” Brandie Holloway said. “But me growing up and working my way to the top, it’s made me learn what I did wrong, learn from my mistakes and not let her make the same mistakes.”

Brandie teeters roles between Hunter’s coach and Hunter’s mom. She wants Hunter to have all of what she didn’t because she is a second-generation rider.

“I’m probably harder on her than a normal coach would be, and I expect a lot more from her,” Brandie Holloway said. “I’m her mother, so I can.

“And it’s made her grow up, too. She’s grown up made of steel. She knows that if she falls off to get back on. Nobody is going to come pick her up and put her back on her horse.”

Hunter is tough. She has had one frightening fall. In spring 2013, she fell off early in the day at a hunters class competition when one of her horse’s legs jumped off the ground while the other stayed on the ground, causing the horse and Holloway to flip over in the air.

“Horses are amazing animals,” she says. “She tried everything she could not to land on me. She twisted, landed on her hand, twisted her body hard to the left as I was going off to the right. I still to this day do not know how she ended up being OK and did not crush me.”

Holloway dove directly into the ground, her left shoulder digging into the dirt before any other part of her. A paramedic scrambled over to help her.

“Get away from me,” she remembers saying, frustrated that she fell off and urgent to get back on her horse to correct her mistake.

She finished the competition, riding and jumping clean at the Grand Prix, unaware that her collarbone was broken, nearly a compound fracture. After the Grand Prix, Holloway couldn’t get her show jacket off without help. Brandie’s friend, a doctor, took one look at Hunter’s collarbone and knew it was broken.

She has six bolts and a plate holding her collarbone together.

She pulls her shirt back to display her collarbone. She thinks her broken collarbone is cool, smiles and lets out a giggle at the notion that this, or any injury, would scare her from getting back on a horse. It comes with the territory.

“People can be rude and have a little bit of an attitude or whatever, but there’s no room for that with horses,” Holloway said. “They don’t allow you do that. You can’t go out there and have an attitude with a horse, because you’re going to end up on the ground. It humbles you. It does.”

Day in and day out, Holloway remains humble. She’s content with riding her horses and learning something new from them every day, but in the back of her mind is a grander goal.

She hopes to continue all the way to the Olympics.

Ideally Holloway will make the Olympic team as soon as she’s old enough to qualify, but she knows that it depends on much more than her own goals and abilities.

“She’s a pretty intense little girl,” Schuknecht said. “She’s not that little. She’s 6-foot. If she has fears, she hasn’t verbalized them. I think she gets very upset when she’s told she can’t do something. So if there were to be a fear, maybe a fear of failure.

“But she certainly does everything she can to prevent it.”

Regardless of the path Holloway ultimately takes, she has no intention of falling off. “When you love something, you just want to do it,” she says.

Another dream coming true

The option of online schooling enables exquisite pursuits. Just as it enables Hunter Holloway to pursue her goal to be an Olympic equestrian, Drew Nelson of Overland Park used it to pursue an international dance career.

Nelson’s professional career began three months ago when he joined the Royal Danish Ballet, based in Copenhagen, Denmark. Prior to that, he studied at Royal Ballet School in London.

He was able to do that while still in high school because he attended Insight School of Kansas, headquartered in Olathe, since his freshman year. Now 19, he graduated from the school last month.

“I think that it can be difficult for kids to follow their passions when there are constraints of having to go to regular school,” Nelson said. “Just because there are so many work environments that don’t require the kind of the dedication that’s needed in a school. The ballet is one, as well as other professional sports careers.”

Nelson took a break from the ballet in June, spending time at home in Overland Park, and will return to the Royal Danish Ballet in late July. He is one of two dancers selected out of 65 who auditioned.

Nelson knew he wanted to be a professional dancer when his mother and grandmother showed him “Born to be Wild,” which featured male dancers. He couldn’t have been older than 6 years old.

“I fell in love with what they were doing with their bodies to express what they were feeling,” he said.

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