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Life Lessons from a Tough Pony

Tarjan isn’t full-time with her horses. She’s a lawyer who works with her hus­band, Den­nis Sar­genti, in their truck­ing and rig­ging busi­ness as well as in real estate. The two met while fox­hunt­ing and he’s sup­port­ive of her dres­sage ef­forts, al­ways cheer­ing her on.

While Tarjan has proved you don’t have to be a pro­fes­sional trainer to bring a horse to Grand Prix, it’s not easy to get where she’s been and where she’s go­ing. It’s a good thing that she was ex­posed to the dif­fi­cult side of the horse busi­ness at age 11, when she got an ed­u­ca­tional dose of re­al­ity with Li­corice, a black pony with four white socks. When asked what kind of pony he was, she replied good-na­turedly, “An evil one.”

Luck­ily, Tarjan isn’t the type who knuck­les un­der to dis­cour­age­ment. “He was ter­ri­ble un­til I fig­ured out how to ride him,” re­called Tarjan, 38, who grew up in New Jer­sey’s Hun­ter­don County horse coun­try, in an area near the head­quar­ters of the U.S. Eques­trian Team (USET) in neigh­bor­ing Som­er­set County.

“In the be­gin­ning, the pony lived across the street at a neigh­bor’s place,” re­called Tarjan, who rode him on a clay ten­nis court there. Even­tu­ally, the six­th­grader set up a lit­tle stall for him in an old barn on her fam­ily’s prop­erty. “I’d go feed him every morn­ing and night. Rain, snow, it didn’t mat­ter. There was no run­ning water; I had to carry the heavy buck­ets from the house.”

And how did Li­corice re­pay her for this lov­ing care?

“He was a brat,” Tarjan re­sponded. She couldn’t ride him three-quar­ters of a mile to where the lo­cal Pony Club met be­cause he’d turn around and run home—she had to lead him to her des­ti­na­tion. Once they ar­rived, other Pony Club kids du­ti­fully trot­ted around the arena in a les­son while Li­corice would see his open­ing and head to­ward home, scat­ter­ing peo­ple sit­ting on the side­lines who were watch­ing their young­sters.

The day the Pony Club­bers first switched horses was an eye-opener. Tarjan re­called Doug Payne (now a top-level even­ter) get­ting on her pony while she got on his. “Oh my God,” she re­al­ized af­ter rid­ing Doug’s pony, “he doesn’t run out of the ring!” Mean­while, Payne was able to get Tarjan’s pony around the arena with­out dis­turb­ing spec­ta­tors—or their chairs—and she came to an im­por­tant re­al­iza­tion about Li­corice: “I fig­ured I had to ride him a lot bet­ter and make him do what I wanted.”

That epiphany would stand her in good stead as she moved along with her rid­ing. By the time she was in eighth grade, she had out­grown Li­corice, yet through the years his in­flu­ence has re­mained: Re­cently, in a pas­ture at her home were two young horses, both black with white socks.

A Change of Course

Li­corice was just the be­gin­ning of the equine chal­lenges Tarjan would face. “We went through a lot of horses who were dif­fi­cult,” she said. “I think you get ripped off if you don’t know what you’re look­ing at. You see par­ents with kids in

Pony Club get­ting sold in­ap­pro­pri­ate horses be­cause maybe they don’t have a bud­get or they just don’t know. You get a lot of deal­ers who pay $500 for a horse and sell it for $1,200 and say it’s a packer. You can see why horse deal­ers get a bad rep­u­ta­tion.”

Tarjan had to learn about horses and their care from the ground up, find­ing out what to look for. “It’s an ed­u­ca­tion a lot of peo­ple don’t get if they’re in show barns. If you live with the horses, it’s more about the horse­man­ship than the rid­ing,” she pointed out.

Com­pet­ing in three-day event­ing, Tarjan’s goal all through high school was to ride in the Mars Es­sex Horse Tri­als, which were held at the USET head­quar­ters. “By the time we were good enough to do Es­sex, Es­sex wasn’t there any­more,” sighed Tarjan. Es­sex ran at the USET head­quar­ters for the last time in 1998. It was re­vived this sum­mer at Moor­land Farm in nearby Far Hills, but it’s been years since Tarjan has evented. When she was in­volved in the dis­ci­pline, how­ever, she com­pleted two-star com­pe­ti­tion at Rad­nor in Penn­syl­va­nia and Que­bec’s Bromont, wind­ing up on the U.S. Event­ing Team long list. “In those days, if you fin­ished a two-star, you were long-listed,” she pointed out with a lit­tle smile.

Af­ter Tarjan grad­u­ated from Drew Univer­sity in Madi­son, New Jer­sey, her horse was ready to move up to an ad­vanced-level event, but she didn’t want to do that. She al­ready had a good ba­sis in dres­sage, pol­ished while she was in high school dur­ing a stint as a work­ing stu­dent for dres­sage trainer Christina Gray, who had worked with Olympian Michael Poulin. While at­tend­ing Se­ton Hall Univer­sity Law School, Tarjan rode out a lot with the Es­sex Fox Hounds, a pres­ti­gious hunt in her area, as she con­sid­ered her next eques­trian move.

Then tragedy struck and her life changed. A month af­ter tak­ing the bar exam, she was di­ag­nosed with cancer at age 27. While un­der­go­ing chemo­ther­apy for five months, she made the most of her time, read­ing about warm­bloods on the In­ter­net, par­tic­u­larly fa­vor­ing the Dan­ish site Horse 2 Rider ( It was il­lu­mi­nat­ing, giv­ing her in­sight as well as an im­pres­sive knowl­edge of blood­lines, and she rethought her eques­trian am­bi­tion. “Cancer changes your per­spec-

ABOVE: Tarjan at home on her farm in New Jer­sey. TOP RIGHT: Tarjan heads out to feed her wean­lings. She be­lieves in es­tab­lish­ing a bond early with all her young horses.

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