This week’s Spotlight lands on Amateur rider Alisa Berry of Jason Berry Stables in Staunton, Virginia. Mother, wife and life-long lover of horses, Alisa has followed her passion for riding from a very young age. Though she has turned Professional twice to teach College riding teams, Alisa always finds herself drawn back to the saddle, and is now devoting her time to the two things she loves most: being a Mom and riding horses!
How did you get into riding horses?
I started when I was seven. My Mom had ponies when she was growing up, but never showed or had serious riding lessons. When I was seven she said, “Let’s try it out.” I started riding at Sally and Olin Armstrong’s farm. They were only three miles down the road from my house. We didn’t know that Olin was famous. They have a modest barn and there are no bells and whistles, so you wouldn’t know just showing up there. I was just a beginner. Of course, as new horse people, we got all of these magazines, and he came out on the cover of Practical Horseman. That’s when we realized that he was famous. I rode there my whole life. A lot of people start with somebody then move on, but why would you leave Olin Armstrong? Sally does a great job with equitation, too.
Tell us about the horses you had when you were young.
My family had property, but no farm. We were lucky enough to have land. My first pony was actually a lesson pony that was at Sally and Olin’s, but it had heaves (a chronic, non-infectious airway condition) and it wasn’t doing very well there, and we just had grass. So I got it as a free-lease pony because it was more comfortable at our farm. My dad grew up on a dairy farm, so he was really handy, and we built this little barn. We had two cows and this pony that had heaves. We didn’t have a lot of money, but my parents were always super supportive of making it work. I fed before school. We did it all ourselves. We never had more than five horses at our house, so it was manageable, but we did everything. Once it’s in your blood, it just is. I never looked back. I never played any sports or anything, I was just the barn rat.
Even though we didn’t have a lot of money, Sally and Olin never let us compromise on quality horses. So I always got really hard animals that happened to be really a great jumper or mover, but maybe they had an issue and needed some work. I always was mounted on, maybe not the most suitable horse for me, but on a quality horse. I rode the same horse for years and figured it out and it went from basically bucking me off to winning. So we always just put in the time and effort and it was never a question of getting something else. Giving up was never an option and getting something else was never an option. Looking back, it was just really good horsemanship. Sally and Olin always had a plan, and if it took two years it took two years. We were first generation horse people, so we didn’t know that that wasn’t just the way it was done. I never questioned it when I wasn’t winning. We did it at such a local level that that was just the way it was, and you just learned to ride.
I bought a three year old when I was fifteen, and who does that? But by the time I was eighteen, it was winning. Then we sold it to a professional in Virginia, and it went to Ocala, Florida that year and was Circuit Champion in the Working Hunters. I remember seeing that in a magazine and being like, “I did that!” Everything I ever had was for sale once it was time for it to be sold. We didn’t collect horses. It was kind of like a business in that once I had met all of my goals, it was time for me and the horse to move on.
Did you show?
I only showed locally, I never did A rated shows. I did do clinics and Pony Club and I rode by myself at home a lot. Once we kind of had our own little barn, my Mom learned to drive the truck and trailer, so we would trailer to lessons twice a week. My dad trailered to horse shows. I got to do some A shows as I got a little bit older, but never anything like I do now. We only lived about 45 minutes away from the Virginia Horse Center, so if there was an A show there we sometimes went. We never traveled. I went to a public high school, I lived a very normal life.
Did you ride in college?
I went to Sweet Briar College to ride. I taught there, I cleaned tack there and I worked my whole way through. I did the team. I did the Jumpers and the Hunters. It was the first time that I got well-schooled, made-up horses that I could do the A shows on. I was Champion at the Middleberg Classic, and I had never competed at that level. It was a huge deal to me to be able to compete at that level. We went to horse shows that I had never done before. It was a really great experience. I was hired when I graduated in a fellowship position, so I had to go Pro. I was teaching. I stayed on for two more years there. I had my own green horse there, but I was teaching full time.
What made you return to being an Amateur?
Jason, my husband, and I actually started dating in high school and did the long distance relationship thing all through college. He was working for Professional riders on the road. We got married after I graduated from college. By the end of my two year contract at Sweet Briar, I was really ready to put my foot back in the stirrup. So I got my Amateur card back and got a really nice horse from the farm Jason was working at that took about a year to get going. His name was Wallstreet Week.
Tell us about Wallstreet Week.
He’s probably the best horse I’ll ever sit on. We just connected. It was the first time I felt like one was on my team, and that was the first time I knew what a partnership was like. He had a tragic accident in the stall one day, and luckily we found him and my Dad saved him. He was in intensive care for a while. I knew the year was blown, and I was honestly just going to be happy if he lived. I was 28 at the time, and I thought, if I’m going to have a baby, this is the time. So I had my son, Carter. We brought Wallstreet Week back and we showed him and he was Champion. It ended up being a story in the Chronicle of the Horse.
Have you stayed an Amateur since then?
I actually gave up my Amateur card for the second time shortly after that. The James Madison University Equestrian Team was leaving their facility and ended up coming to our barn. A few years after they moved to our barn, I ended up giving up my Amateur card again to go Pro and to teach for the team. I did that for two and a half years, but the bug kept coming back. I have this passion and this drive and I just wanted to ride. Jason was traveling a lot and I was working crazy hours. I thought, if we’re going to have another kid, it needs to happen before I’m 40. So I gave up teaching again to become an Amateur and a new Mom again. Now Jason and I are doing the same thing on the same schedule with riding, and I’m doing the Mom thing too. I love doing both. My kids, Carter and Sydney, get to see different aspects of what work is and what fun is and what it means to follow your heart, which I think is important. We get to do these cool things and show the kids the down-to-earth side of it.
What do you see in the future for your riding?
My dream is to have the partnership I had on Wallstreet Week and go to Indoors. I’d love to find that level with a horse that you’ve ridden and you trust and there’s some miles there. I’d also love to go to Devon again. I’ve been once, and that’s enough to get your appetite going. So that’s my dream riding goal at this point.
We would also like to say a HUGE congratulations to Alisa for her first-ever Derby win this week in the $2,500 USHJA National Hunter Derby aboard Michael Cline’s Fate (Cosmos x Dolce Vita). The pair also placed second in the $2,500 USHJA National Hunter Derby just two weeks ago. Alisa has been showing Fate at the World Equestrian Center Winter Series of the Midwest for the past three weeks, and has won almost every class she has stepped into. We are thrilled to see Alisa pursuing her passion, and taking home some stunning blue ribbons to show for it!
Photos courtesy of Andrew Ryback Photography.