ALICE TARJAN’S CLIMB TO GRAND PRIX
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 (h2r.eu). 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.