Horses have always been part of the picture for Laine Ashker (everyone calls her "Lainey"). So has the dream of competing at Rolex. Her mother, Valerie Ashker, retrains ex-racehorses for eventing; Laine, after starting at age 3 on a pony rescued from slaughter, quickly moved on to riding her mother's sale prospects. And though the Ashkers lived in California during her early riding years, she knew about the country's top event on the other side of the continent. "When you're a little girl," she says, "everybody wants to go to Rolex."
The Ashkers relocated to Virginia in 1998, when Laine was beginning to compete seriously at Prelim, so she'd be closer to the top level of the sport. The transition to the East Coast eventing world was "intimidating. In California, there might be twenty people in my Prelim division; in the East, there were forty."
Coaching from Stephen Bradley, Jim Wofford, Phillip Dutton, and (currently) Buck Davidson helped to shape Laine's career. Her principal mount was Eight Saint James Place, an American Thoroughbred. At first the match with "Jamie" was difficult—"I always wanted my horse to be my pet as well, and he's very businesslike, doesn't like to be ‘loved on.'" But eventually the two forged a partnership so promising that the family pooled its resources to send them to Britain's Blenheim CCI*** in 2004. Laine remembers, "He was awesome there; we were the only American combination to complete. We came home and did the Fair Hill CCI***, where we came sixth. Buck said, ‘Let's go to Kentucky.'"
As a student carrying a 15-credit load at the University of Virginia, majoring in foreign affairs and Spanish, Laine tried to split her late 2004/early 2005 schedule between school in Virginia and Buck's winter training base in Ocala, Florida. "I have a ten-page paper due on Sunday," she'd laughed on Rolex weekend in 2005. "I'm totally stressing out."
On the 2005 course, Laine got as far as the enormous Footbridge with Jamie, but his huge effort at that fence shook her out of the tack. The fall broke her neck—and put all competition on hold for two-and-a-half months. "I think I fell because I had lost confidence in myself and because I wasn't on a good, planned-out schedule," she reflected later.
As Laine healed, Buck kept her horses in work. She was back in competition for the Young Open Intermediate division (riding Frodo Baggins) at Groton House Farm in late June, just a few days after removing her neck brace. "I didn't have a lot of time to pine about it." She was still trying to regain confidence when, with Frodo, she rode as an individual from Area II at the July 2005 FEI North American Young Riders' Championships—and won the individual silver medal. "That was the biggest step for me," she says. "And I never let myself think about anything other than getting back to Kentucky this year."
By transferring to the University of Florida for the spring 2006 semester and reducing her course load, Laine was able to maintain a daily riding schedule with Buck. Early that year, Jamie came back, feeling better than ever from several months off. Easing into competition with early runs at Prelim and Intermediate, he partnered Laine to a second-place finish in their Advanced division at Red Hills Horse Trials in March.
The 2006 Rolex cross-country course—"the biggest we'd ever seen!"—got Laine's full respect. One question she later felt she'd underestimated was Uncle Frani's Birch, fences 8-9AB, where many riders had problems. "My horse put in one stride and a shuffle before the ditch, which made the two [strides] coming out to the brush really hard. The last water was tough, coming so late in the course—everything was hard! But the galloping stretches were good because you could get your rhythm back." She and Jamie finished with no jumping penalties and only 3.8 time penalties, leaving them just one place outside the top 20 for stadium day. "Stadium jitters" caused them to lower six rails but couldn't dampen Laine's exhilaration at completing the event (they placed 25th with 98.3 points).
By late spring, Laine was already trying to figure out how to raise funds for a trip to Burghley in September. "Jamie is fifteen, and I'd like to get some more experience with him, then use it to help me ride my younger horses better. I did my first Rolex with him, and I'd like to do my first Badminton and my first Burghley, too."
This article first appeared in the August 2006 issue of Practical Horseman. Read more about Laine Ashker in the May 2011 issue.