By Doris Degner Foster
Ashlee Bond Clarke is having a great year. During the HITS Thermal Grand Prix classes this winter, she qualified for the AIG Million Dollar Prix in Thermal, California. She won it riding Little Valley Farm’s Chela LS, which then qualified her for the 2014 World Cup in Lyon, France, in April.
Ashlee’s career has followed an interesting path, and it seems appropriate that it began in Hollywood.
Many people would think it was exciting to live in a gated community with celebrities as neighbors, but it was just a normal thing for Ashlee. She was more impressed with horses. “My parents are not Hollywood partying-type people,” Ashlee said. “They’re in the industry, but they don’t act like they’re in the industry. I was raised very much in the horse world.”
Because both of Ashlee’s parents had a background with horses, she began her career in the ring early. Her dad is a former soap opera star who currently trains young horses at the family’s Little Valley Farm, and her mom is a movie producer who has ridden western pleasure. Ashlee first sat on a horse as a baby and by age 3 she’d discovered her love for jumping. She often trotted her pony over crossrails even before she started lessons at 6 years of age with the Karrizzissis family at their Fair West Farm. Ashlee continued to take lessons and her hard work paid off in the show ring. “I won five National Pony Hunter Championships by the time I was 11 and a few Medal Finals before I progressed to the jumper ring when I was 12,” Ashlee said. “I won my first Grand Prix and was Rookie of the Year when I was 16.”
Ashlee remembers her dad’s advice about being nervous before a class. “He always told me to call it adrenalin because it was kind of a bad connotation to call it nerves,” she said. “It’s cool to have a dad who can understand about the pressures of performing, so we have that in common.”
Even with great support, the fatigue of showing caught up with her when she was 18. She’d hurt her back trying some young horses in Mexico, and Ashlee says she used it as an excuse to step away from riding. She felt burnt out from competing and didn’t think she’d ride again. The happiness she enjoyed as a child with her ponies had gotten lost over the years of competitions and pressure. Ashlee explained, “I think when you start that early, it can happen. I got so much into the competition side that I lost the passion for the horses.”
As a teenager, Ashlee had focused so much of herself on riding that she had a bit of an identity crisis after giving it up. “When I was 16, I was always the young one, the up-and- coming rider,” she said. “I’d always been riding horses and when I wasn’t doing that any more I went from being a very happy person to a very depressed person for a while. I needed to find my way without the horses.”
Ashlee briefly considered a singing career. She wrote a few songs and even recorded a song with singer and songwriter Richard Marx, but reconsidered the choice. “I don’t do well performing in front of people and I get total stage fright,” Ashlee said. “I shake and everything; it’s really not pretty.”
After she decided a singing career wasn’t for her, Ashlee went to work with her mother’s film production company. She became Executive Assistant to her mom’s partner, the legendary Frank Yablans, former head of MGM and Paramount studios. He was instrumental in the making of such famous movies as the Godfather series and Mommie Dearest, just to name a few.
“The biggest thing I got out of working there was that I established more of a work ethic, working for someone other than my family,” Ashlee said. “I think also that working under someone with that kind of experience and success, and learning a different trade was invaluable. It really taught me how to grow up very quickly as I interacted with big executives.”
As exciting as that job sounds, for Ashlee, it was only a matter of time before she came back to riding. She explained a major turning point. “I went with my mom and her production company when they were making a movie in New Zealand. I was bored and decided to go riding one of the days Mom was working. I went on a three-hour trail ride with this New Zealand kid as a guide. He was my age, and we just went galloping around the countryside. I fell back in love with riding and remembered why I loved it as a kid.”
She says of her time away from the show ring, “That was probably one of the best things that could’ve happened because I found out who I was through all of that, and I wasn’t identified by the horses. I mean, riding was something that I do and I love, but it wasn’t just all that I was.”
Ashlee returned to riding and showing, determined to maintain her love for the sport. She regularly takes her show horses on relaxing trail rides. “I try to keep it fun for the horses and do other things instead of just riding in the ring every day,” she said. “If I’m bored, they must be really, really bored. My parents’ facility, Little Valley Farm, backs up to the Santa Monica Mountains and there are hundreds of acres of trails we can go riding on in there.”
A major point in her comeback was when she won first and second place in the $25,000 Classic Grand Prix at Blenheim Equisports in 2007. It was especially exciting because she rode two of her family’s homebred horses, Southern Girl and Tommy Gun. The win gave her confidence a major boost. It was also a real accomplishment for her family’s horses and breeding program.
The following summer, Ashlee began the partnership with her “horse of a lifetime,” the Holsteiner gelding Cadett 7. She had been impressed with the gelding when she’d seen him at a clinic, and when she found out that he was available just before leaving for Spruce Meadows, she tried him and felt like he was a perfect fit, so she took him along. It turned out to be a wise choice. Ashlee said, “I hold Spruce Meadows very dear to my heart. It’s where Cadett and I started and won our first Grand Prix together, the $75,000 Sun Life Financial in 2008. I’ve also been Canadian Champion at Spruce Meadows two times, which has been another highlight for me.
“Spruce Meadows is also where George spotted us and asked the ‘three questions,’ and then gave me a wild card spot to jump on my first Nations Cup team in Buenos Aires,” she added. U.S. team Chef d’Equipe George Morris had sought her out as she left the ring. He said he had three things to ask her. First, where did she want to go in the sport? (To the top!) Second, can she put her hair up under her helmet? (Yes, she could do that), and finally, could she braid her horse? (She would learn!) With those eager answers, George gave her a place on the Nations Cup team where they won the team gold medal.
The following winter, Ashlee and Cadett won four Grand Prix classes on the HITS circuit and Ashlee won the Catena Leading Lady Grand Prix Rider award. With each competition, Ashlee marveled at the growing partnership between herself and Cadett. They were achieving more than she could’ve imagined, but later there were some setbacks, including a suspensory injury. “Starting from 2008, I was on fire and everything was going well, but I didn’t have a string beneath me,” Ashlee said. “Without a string to support my top horse, once Cadet got hurt, I was kind of out of it.” The setbacks with Cadett were invaluable because she learned perseverance and appreciation when she did work her way back to the top of the sport.
Ashlee is aware of the dangers of letting success go to her head. “I look to Richard Spooner on that,” she said, “because he’s one of the most humble guys you can meet with one of the best careers, and I look to him [as the example] to keep myself humble.”
Ashlee’s ability to deal with setbacks was again put to the test when she was sidelined with a concussion following a crashing fall at the Los Angeles National last November. Within a few weeks, however, she won the $25,000 SmartPak Grand Prix at HITS Thermal aboard Chela LS, a mare she bought last July. Ashlee said that although the mare has some big shoes to fill when compared with Cadett 7, she has developed a similar partnership and is again headed to Europe and the World Cup in Lyon, France. After that, maybe the 2014 World Equestrian Games, or perhaps the Olympic Games? Ashlee has a relaxed, wait-and-see attitude. She wants to remain flexible and not overdo things with Chela, who’s a younger, less experienced mare.
Ashlee has a bright future ahead, which includes her new husband Sage Clarke, a professional horse shoer and sixth generation horseman. The couple married last October. “Yeah, I’m an old married lady now,” Ashlee joked. “It’s kind of a weird thing, getting older. It takes some time to get used to that.”
At 28, Ashlee hardly seems old, but she has acquired as many life lessons as someone much older. Among those are: 1. Nerves are just adrenalin, 2. She’s more than just a rider, and 3. It’s best to put her hair up.
George would approve.