U.S. Even­ter’s Quest to the Top

From hum­ble be­gin­nings, even­ter Matt Brown has been me­thod­i­cally fight­ing to achieve his dream: climb­ing to the up­per ech­e­lon of the sport.

Practical Horseman - - Special Eventing Issue - By Jenni Autry

Af­ter years spent scrap­ing to­gether pen­nies to pur­sue his pas­sion for event­ing, Matt Brown had given up on his dream. He found him­self work­ing in a ma­chine shop in his home­town of Pe­taluma, Cal­i­for­nia, 20 years old and broke. He was des­per­ately try­ing to find ful­fill­ment in “do­ing the nor­mal job thing.” “I was dis­il­lu­sioned with the sport,” Matt said. “I knew I didn’t have the money to buy a nice horse and keep my­self com­pet­ing.”

His days spent work­ing in the ma­chine shop were a far cry from his teenage years, when Matt’s par­ents sold their home to fund his dream of one day rep­re­sent­ing his coun­try at the Olympic Games.

As days turned into weeks and months, his dream started tug­ging on his sleeve once more. “Af­ter a year away from horses, I started work­ing nights at a restau­rant and rid­ing dur­ing the day— ran­dom horses, young horses, any­thing I could find. I started get­ting back into it.”

Qui­etly, per­sis­tently and me­thod­i­cally, Matt, now 41 years old, worked his way back into event­ing and is now rep­re­sent­ing the U.S. at the high­est level of the sport. Ev­ery day he is grate­ful he made the de­ci­sion to give his dream one more shot.

It All Started with a Free Horse

Af­ter a friend of Matt’s mother gave him a lead line les­son, the 6-year-old’s en­tire world be­gan to re­volve around rid­ing. He ac­quired a free 30-year-old horse named Bul­let with a bro­ken jaw who liked to bolt. “I broke my arm falling off of her, but I loved ev­ery minute of it,” he said.

Matt started tak­ing lessons with An­drea Pfeif­fer out of Choco­late Horse Farm in Pe­taluma and in­stantly fell in love with event­ing. When he turned 11, Matt’s par­ents, Paul, a land sur­veyor, and Jackie, a teacher, pulled to­gether $3,000 to buy an Ap­paloosa geld­ing named Max­i­mum Speed, or Max.

“Max was on a cat­tle ranch when we found him, but he loved to jump. He wouldn’t can­ter on the right lead—he would just do ex­tended trot in­stead. At some point it clicked for him and clicked for me.”

Max took then 17-year-old Matt all the way to the 1993 North Amer­i­can Young Rider Cham­pi­onships in Wadsworth, Illi­nois, and ul­ti­mately to his first Ad­vanced horse tri­als at Ram Tap in Fresno, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1994.

“There’s no way Max should have taken me to the Ad­vanced level, but he had more heart than just about any horse I’ve ever rid­den,” Matt said.

Matt made the dif­fi­cult de­ci­sion to sell Max to fund the next stage of his rid­ing ca­reer. He trav­eled east to work at Denny Emer­son’s Ta­ma­rack Hill Farm in Straf­ford, Ver­mont, for a sum­mer when he was 19 and re­turned home to Cal­i­for­nia horse­less and dis­cour­aged about his prospects for con­tin­u­ing to pur­sue a com­pet­i­tive ca­reer with horses.

“We had bought Max for a few thou­sand dol­lars and my dad went into debt so I could com­pete and go to Young Riders,” Matt said. “I had a lit­tle bit of money left from sell­ing Max, but I knew it wasn’t enough.”

So Matt de­cided to quit all of it—rid­ing, train­ing, teach­ing and his dream of one day reach­ing the Olympic podium.

Af­ter a year spent work­ing in the ma­chine shop and des­per­ate to get out, Matt started brain­storm­ing—per­haps it could be pos­si­ble to build a sus­tain­able train­ing busi­ness and keep horses in his life.

Matt took the plunge and found that he loved restart­ing prob­lem horses and find­ing ways to con­nect with them. He took up nat­u­ral horse­man­ship and sought out other meth­ods of train­ing, even trav­el­ing to Mon­tana to rope and ride the range with rancher Ge­orge Kahrl. “The train­ing side of it was ful­fill­ing, but there was a part of me that kept go­ing back to that dream,” Matt said. “Ever since I was a lit­tle kid, I wanted to go to the Olympics. There was a big part of me that thought, ‘I don’t have the money to do that. I don’t have the re­sources to do that.’ I had re­ally sort of given up on the dream.”

Boy Meets Girl

By 2003 Matt had built a grow­ing busi­ness as a trainer at Choco­late Horse Farm. Ce­cily Clark came to him for a les­son with her horse, “an 18-hand mon­ster of a horse that was quite dif­fi­cult,” Matt re­calls. He re­mem­bers click­ing with Ce­cily from the very start.

“He helped me a lot with my horse,” Ce­cily said, “but be­yond that we pretty quickly fig­ured out we were go­ing to be to­gether. He was try­ing to ask me out, and he told me he would go salsa danc­ing in the city with a group of clients and in­vited me to go, so I wasn’t sure if it was ac­tu­ally a date.”

It turned out to be a date, and Matt and Ce­cily have hardly spent a day apart since then. Matt had been con­sid­er­ing

start­ing his own teach­ing and train­ing busi­ness at a separate fa­cil­ity, and meet­ing Ce­cily gave him the push to fi­nally go out on his own.

“From the mo­ment I saw him work with horses and saw him ride, it was very clear to me that he was re­ally spe­cial in terms of his rid­ing,” Ce­cily said. “But more than that, he was re­ally spe­cial with the way he com­mu­ni­cates with horses and can cre­ate a part­ner­ship re­ally quickly.”

Ce­cily, who has a back­ground in hunters and eq­ui­tation, pur­sued fur­ther train­ing in dres­sage and be­came Matt’s eyes on the ground, coach­ing him at home and at shows. They tied the knot in 2007, and by then Ce­cily was con­vinced there was more in store for Matt than a ca­reer as a trainer.

“It wasn’t un­til Ce­cily and I had been to­gether for a while that she saw I wasn’t re­ally push­ing my­self with my own rid­ing,” Matt said. “Train­ing-wise I was do­ing ev­ery­thing I could to be­come a bet­ter trainer, but to be­come a bet­ter rider and com­peti­tor, I think she saw a lot more than me.”

A Horse Named Flaxen

Five more years went by, with Matt and Ce­cily con­tin­u­ing to build their busi­ness, called East-West Train­ing Sta­bles. Matt fur­thered his own ed­u­ca­tion by train­ing with U.S. Dres­sage Fed­er­a­tion medal­ist Volker Brom­mann and event­ing power cou­ple Derek and Bea di Grazia.

“I was teach­ing a woman named Va­lerie Fish at the time. This was dur­ing the 2012 Lon­don Olympics, and at the end of the les­son we were talk­ing about the Games,” Matt said. “I hap­pened to say that it had al­ways been a dream of mine to com­pete at the Olympics. I’d never be­fore been able to say out loud that I thought I could be good enough to ac­tu­ally do it.”

Va­lerie asked Matt what it would take to get to the Olympics and he ex­plained the process of buying a horse with up­per-level po­ten­tial and then pro­duc­ing it to the high­est level of the sport.

Her re­ply shocked Matt so much that his jaw dropped: “Well, why don’t we do that?”

Va­lerie and her hus­band, Bob, own Blos­som Creek Farm in Cal­is­toga, Cal­i­for­nia, and also run the Blos­som Creek Foun­da­tion, which ex­ists to pro­vide world-class train­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties and fund­ing to emerg­ing riders.

The Blos­som Creek Foun­da­tion’s core mis­sion aligned per­fectly with sup­port­ing Matt, who was off the radar as a po­ten­tial top rider at the time. Bob and Va­lerie de­cided to sup­port Matt in his Olympic dream and within a month they were all trav­el­ing to Ire­land to shop for up­per-level prospects.

Derek and Bea ac­com­pa­nied them on the trip to Ire­land, which was the first time Matt and Ce­cily had ever gone shop­ping for horses abroad.

“We were in love with ev­ery horse,” Matt said. “I picked out three I re­ally liked and Derek said no to ev­ery horse. By the end of the sec­ond day, I didn’t even know what I was look­ing for any­more.”

But Derek did. When they ar­rived at Carol Gee’s Fern­hill Sport Horse Cen­tre in County Clare, Ire­land, Derek zoned in on a 6-year-old unas­sum­ing chest­nut geld­ing named Fern­hill Flaxen,

Matt and Su­per Socks BCF had the best per­for­mance of their part­ner­ship to date at the 2017 Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event. They were one of only five pairs to make the op­ti­mum time on cross coun­try and moved from 19th to fourth go­ing into show jump­ing, where they had one rail and 5 time penal­ties to fin­ish sixth.

an Ir­ish Sport Horse by Cas­tle Quest.

“I said to Ce­cily, ‘I hope we’re not look­ing at that horse,’” Matt said. “He had no neck. He was stand­ing in the cross-ties like he was dead as a door­nail, like he was asleep. I didn’t get a pres­ence from him.

“He was creaky and felt stiff to ride, and ev­ery time land­ing off a fence he would grunt. He wasn’t on my radar, but Derek re­ally liked him. The next day we went back and jumped him and kept putting the jumps up and up and up. You wouldn’t have watched him and said he was an in­cred­i­ble jumper, but he never put a foot wrong.”

Derek and Bea told Matt that Fern­hill Flaxen was the horse that every­one should buy but passed on be­cause he’s not im­pres­sive to look at. Matt trusted their ad­vice, and the Blos­som Creek Foun­da­tion im­ported the horse to the U.S. When they dis­cov­ered his orig­i­nal name had been Lis­ma­keera Su­per Socks, they rechris­tened him Su­per Socks BCF, now known in the barn as Flaxen.

Matt and Ce­cily trav­eled on to Eng­land to meet 2004 Olympic gold medal­ist Les­lie Law, who helped them find 6-year-old BCF Beli­coso, or Holden, also an Ir­ish Sport Horse. With two top prospects in his barn, Matt felt one giant leap closer to achiev­ing his dream.

Burst­ing Onto the Scene

Matt’s first im­pres­sion of Su­per Socks BCF changed dur­ing the horse’s first ride in the States af­ter be­ing im­ported, when he promptly bucked off Matt. “What he showed me is there was a spark there.”

Their part­ner­ship blos­somed, and Su­per Socks BCF placed third in his first CCI* at Twin Rivers in Paso Rob­les, Cal­i­for­nia, in 2013, and fol­lowed by win­ning his first In­ter­me­di­ate at Wood­side. He con­cluded his first sea­son in the U.S. by fin­ish­ing third in his first CCI** at Gal­way Downs be­hind sta­ble­mate BCF Beli­coso, who won to give Matt the first CCI** vic­tory of his ca­reer.

The fol­low­ing spring in 2014, both Su­per Socks BCF and BCF Beli­coso moved up to Ad­vanced, two decades af­ter Matt had com­peted in his one and only at­tempt at the level with Max­i­mum Speed. Matt won his CIC*** de­but at Twin Rivers with BCF Beli­coso and placed fourth with Su­per Socks BCF.

Mak­ing a Move

With Matt of­fi­cially on the na­tional radar and Su­per Socks BCF ready to com­pete in his first CCI***, he and Ce­cily hosted a fundraiser to pull to­gether enough money to send the horse to the 2014 USEF Na­tional CCI*** Cham­pi­onships at Fair Hill In­ter­na­tional in Elk­ton, Mary­land.

They stopped in Texas along the way to com­pete in the Ad­e­quan USEA Gold Cup Ad­vanced Fi­nal at the Amer­i­can Event­ing Cham­pi­onships and placed third. Then it was on to Fair Hill, where Su­per Socks BCF added only cross-coun­try and show-jump­ing time penal­ties to his dres­sage score to fin­ish 21st in his CCI*** de­but.

That per­for­mance landed Matt on the 2015 USEF High Per­for­mance Event­ing Na­tional Train­ing List. With 2015 be­ing a Pan Amer­i­can Games year, Matt had a chance to make the U.S. team. He and Ce­cily de­cided once again to shoul­der the fi­nan­cial bur­den and head east with both Su­per Socks BCF and BCF Beli­coso to com­pete in the Pan Am team se­lec­tion tri­als at Jersey Fresh in Al­len­town, New Jersey.

“It was a huge push for us to come to the East Coast again to com­pete at Jersey Fresh. Then while we were on the East Coast for that trip, we ended up los­ing the lease on our prop­erty in Cal­i­for­nia where we had our busi­ness,” Matt said.

“I knew if Jersey Fresh went well we would have to be back east for longer ahead of the Pan Amer­i­can Games. At that point I had two choices: I could fly home to move my busi­ness at the same time I was try­ing to make the team or stay east be­cause I had a huge op­por­tu­nity and my ca­reer was fi­nally start­ing to go in the right di­rec­tion.”

Matt and Ce­cily de­cided to leave be­hind their home and busi­ness, mov­ing east per­ma­nently and set­ting up a new base in the event­ing mecca of Cochranville, Penn­syl­va­nia.

“For the next year we ba­si­cally had no busi­ness,” Matt said. “We were sur­viv­ing on loans and the gen­eros­ity of oth­ers while we started a busi­ness again from scratch.”

Fol­low­ing the se­lec­tion tri­als, Matt ul­ti­mately did not make the Pan Amer­i­can Games team, in­stead named as an al­ter­nate with BCF Beli­coso.

“It is a big ac­com­plish­ment to be named an al­ter­nate, but the day of the last train­ing ses­sion, when the team went north to Toronto and I went home—that was tough,” Matt said. “I had left ev­ery­thing at that point to try to make that team. I started ques­tion­ing my­self. I had no busi­ness. Did I do the right thing?”

Re­demp­tion at Boekelo

His luck turned one month later, when Matt re­ceived two com­pe­ti­tion grants to make his over­seas com­pe­ti­tion de­but with Su­per Socks BCF at Blen­heim Palace CCI*** in Eng­land and BCF Beli­coso for the Na­tions Cup Fi­nal at Boekelo CCI*** in the Nether­lands.

But those plans soon un­rav­eled. BCF Beli­coso in­jured a ten­don to pre­ma­turely end his sea­son and Su­per Socks BCF suf­fered a bout of colic.

Thanks to treat­ment from the team at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia’s New Bolton Cen­ter, Su­per Socks BCF sur­vived the colic scare without need­ing surgery. While he was not able to re­cover in time to com­pete at Blen­heim, he was able to go to Boekelo in place of in­jured BCF Beli­coso.

“Hav­ing ev­ery­thing fall apart be­fore Boekelo made it eas­ier to go and fo­cus on hav­ing it be a new ex­pe­ri­ence,” Ce­cily said.

Su­per Socks BCF de­liv­ered a strong dres­sage test at Boekelo, a clear cross-coun­try trip with 5.2 time penal­ties and a clear show-jump­ing round with one time penalty to fin­ish in sixth place on 52.6 as the high­est-placed U.S. horse. Matt’s per­for­mance helped boost the U.S. Na­tions Cup team to fin­ish in sec­ond place.

“I had a mo­ment as I was rid­ing into the show-jump­ing ring with every­one watch­ing,” Matt said. “It was the most at­mos­phere I had rid­den in at that point. I felt like, ‘This is where I be­long and this is where I want to be.’”

The re­sult qual­i­fied Su­per Socks BCF for the Rolex Ken­tucky Three-Day Event in 2016, Matt’s CCI**** de­but and a se­lec­tion trial for the U.S. team ahead of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Two out of three phases at Ken­tucky went their way. Su­per Socks BCF put in a com­pet­i­tive dres­sage test for 46.5 and jumped around cross coun­try with a clear round and 10 time penal­ties to sit in 13th place go­ing into show jump­ing. But the fi­nal day did not go to plan, with four rails down and four time penal­ties added, re­sult­ing in a 21st-place fin­ish.

Still a strong per­for­mance in their CCI**** de­but—and the best re­sult from a first-time com­bi­na­tion at Ken­tucky that year— the out­come ul­ti­mately saw Matt and Su­per Socks BCF named an al­ter­nate com­bi­na­tion for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

Not the End of the Jour­ney

With 2017 be­ing a year with no ma­jor cham­pi­onships, Matt and Su­per Socks BCF re­turned to Ken­tucky with one goal in mind— to bet­ter the dis­ap­point­ing re­sult from 2016. Both horse and rider rose to the oc­ca­sion, with Su­per Socks BCF jump­ing clear and in­side the time on cross coun­try de­spite pulling both of his front shoes. As one of only five pairs to make the op­ti­mum time, Matt and Su­per Socks BCF moved from 19th to fourth place go­ing into show jump­ing.

One rail down and 5 show-jump­ing time penal­ties added saw Matt and Su­per Socks BCF fin­ish in sixth place at Ken­tucky, the best per­for­mance of their part­ner­ship to date and a long way from the day the horse bucked him off in Cal­i­for­nia. Matt was sub­se­quently named to the USEF Event­ing High Per­for­mance Elite Train­ing List and on the radar for the 2018 World Eques­trian Games.

With so many pieces of the puz­zle seem­ingly falling into place for Matt and his team, he has un­for­tu­nately faced an­other set­back this year. Su­per Socks BCF, hav­ing badly bruised both front feet due to pulling his shoes in his ef­forts on cross coun­try at Ken­tucky, will be side­lined for the 2018 sea­son, tak­ing Matt out of con­tention for the U.S. WEG team. BCF Beli­coso is also cur­rently side­lined with an in­jury.

“It’s go­ing to be very dif­fi­cult for me not to be com­pet­ing at Ken­tucky this year and it’s very dif­fi­cult to know I was so close to al­most get­ting on a team. I have strug­gled with that,” Matt said. “I am try­ing to have the mind­set of ev­ery­thing that hap­pens is in my best in­ter­est be­cause it’s an op­por­tu­nity to learn and grow.

“There are a lot of re­ally good riders in this coun­try, but a lot of them feel ex­actly like I did—‘I don’t have the money. I don’t have the re­sources. I’m not good enough.’ Those peo­ple need good coaches to push them and say, ‘If you re­ally want this, then go for it. It’s pos­si­ble. It’s not easy, but it is pos­si­ble if you are will­ing to put your­self out there.’

“That’s what I have to keep telling my­self. I’m not at the end of this jour­ney. I quit on this dream once be­cause I chose to lis­ten to the naysay­ers and to my own neg­a­tiv­ity. That is a mis­take I will not re­peat. It’s some­thing I will have to keep striv­ing for and push­ing for and be­liev­ing in. The one time I gave up on this was be­cause I gave up on my be­lief, and at the end of the day it’s peo­ple who lose their be­lief that quit.”

At their over­seas com­pe­ti­tion de­but in 2015, Matt Brown and Su­per Socks BCF fin­ished sixth and were the high­est-placed U.S. pair at the Na­tions Cup Fi­nals at Boekelo CCI*** in the Nether­lands.

Ce­cily Clark and Matt (pic­tured with Talk­ing Point BCF) first met in 2003 when she came to him for help with her horse. They im­me­di­ately clicked, were mar­ried in 2007 and built their busi­ness, East-West Train­ing Sta­bles, to­gether.

ABOVE: Max­i­mum Speed was found on a cat­tle ranch, but ul­ti­mately took Matt to the 1993 North Amer­i­can Young Rider Cham­pi­onships and his first Ad­vanced horse tri­als at Ram Tap in Cal­i­for­nia in 1994.

LEFT: In 2015, Matt com­peted both Su­per Socks BCF and BCF Beli­coso (pic­tured) at Jersey Fresh in New Jersey in hope of mak­ing the Pan Amer­i­can Games team, but was in­stead named as an al­ter­nate with BCF Beli­coso.

Pic­tured with Hap­pen­stance, Ce­cily is Matt’s eyes on the ground, coach­ing him at home and at com­pe­ti­tions.

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