By Lauren R. Giannini
Portraits by Isabel J. Kurek
Mavis Spencer grew up horse-crazy near Los Angeles, and her story’s almost straight out of a Hollywood movie, recently trading rub-rags for tri-color ribbons. Mavis grew up surrounded by Tinseltown’s rarefied atmosphere because of her parents’ careers. Her mother is Alfre Woodard, the well-known award-winning actor and her father is writer-producer Roderick Spencer. Mavis credits her work ethic and success to the way they raised her.
“Growing up, my parents always made sure my younger brother, Duncan, and I were well grounded and appreciative of what we had,” said Mavis. “I always took care of my own horses. They weren’t spending hundreds of thousands on them. When my junior years ended and I told my parents that I wanted to make horses my career, they said, ‘Okay, but you have to go out there and make it on your own.’ That’s the sort of mentality they both have — if you want something, you’ll appreciate it more if you work for it. My dad always told me the harder you work, the luckier you get — that’s my motto.”
After a successful junior career, Mavis spent four years working as a groom for top jumper riders and lucked into the opportunity of a lifetime — in the saddle. Now 25, she’s an up-and-coming grand prix jumper rider, living her dream. It’s no wonder that US Equestrian chose Mavis to be an “ambassador” in the campaign to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible. With her strong Instagram presence, an ambassadorial prerequisite, followers of @mavispence hit 27,300 by mid-March and continue to rise.
Mavis is funny, smart, articulate, model-gorgeous, tall, supremely stylish on and off a horse and down-to-earth. She tells it like it is — hard work and dedication are key factors to success.
Mavis’ riding career began at age 2 when she was led around on the retired Selle Français jumper stallion, Galoubet. Three years later, she began taking lessons. “My parents always joke that when I was in kindergarten and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said a horseback rider,” recalled Mavis. “I don’t really remember saying that, but I can’t ever imagine a time when I wanted to do anything else.”
Her first pony, barn name Norton, tested her passion for riding. “He was the meanest, most evil creature. He was the devil,” said Mavis. “I spent more time in the hospital in Santa Monica because of him. On the weekends, they would have a room ready for me. It was an absolute disaster, all the time. I shared a year’s lease on him with another girl at the barn. She fell one day, breaking her back, and my parents said ‘maybe we need to get Mavis a different pony.’ Thankfully, otherwise, I think my riding career would have been very short-lived and my hospital bills very large.”
Her next pony, a sweetheart of a Paint named Seashell, was meant to be a horse but stopped growing. “I still own her. She’s about 25, leased out to a little girl,” said Mavis. “The first time I fell off, Seashell stopped and was nudging me to get up and get back on. I did her in short stirrup and she was the best thing that ever happened to me. She made up for the evil first pony.”
Mavis, who stands 5’11”, grew very tall very young, but her large pony had a huge stride and she competed him in pony hunters, children’s jumpers, and equitation. She got her first horse before she turned 11. “His name was Toy Story, and we got him from the Spielbergs,” said Mavis. “His name was Patch Adams when he started and he was as famous as he was infamous in all respects. He was overly capable and he knew it. We were walking up to the water jump in a field and he didn’t stop — he just walked right into it. He had a sense of humor and lots of personality, and he did embarrassing things, but he didn’t have a mean bone in his body — not intentionally.”
Mavis credits Dick Carvin, Susie Schroer and Dick’s wife, Francie Steinwedell, with giving her a solid foundation in horsemanship. She started riding with them at Meadow Grove Farm in 2000 and did extremely well under their coaching. Her junior career culminated with major accolades and international experiences. In summer 2008, she spent nearly two months in Belgium as an intern, riding young jumper prospects for a renowned jumper dealer who let her take them to small shows. That October, Mavis earned individual silver and team silver medals in the 2008 Adequan/USEF National Junior Jumper Championship and was awarded the William C. Steinkraus Style of Riding Award at the Pennsylvania National Horse Show. She went to Australia in early 2009 with the U.S. team for the Youth Olympic Festival, where they finished fourth on borrowed horses.
One special horse, a Belgium Warmblood mare named Winia Van’t Vennhoff, made the last few years of Mavis’ junior career very exciting. “Winia had just turned 6 when my parents bought her for me in Europe, and I moved up the ranks with her,” said Mavis. “For her first show, we shipped her up to Spruce Meadows, and she jumped around a 1.20-meter course. She’d never shown before and no one knew what she’d end up being — she was scrappy and super careful. I ended up doing my first couple of grand prix with Winia and we did Prix de States, things like that. I had her for 3 ½ years — that was the horse I really grew up with and we grew together. She taught me as many bad habits as good. She was great.”
From the Ground Up
After that fateful equestrian career conversation with her parents and on the heels of a successful junior career, Mavis, 18, got a job. She spent three years working for jumper rider Kent Farrington, first as a working student and rider, then for the last six months as groom, even going to Europe with him and his horses. In 2012, she returned to Florida to work as head groom for Darragh Kenny while he launched his new training facility, Oakland Ventures. During those early years, she did everything — barn chores, hands-on care of the horses, mucking stalls, grooming — and counted it as valuable education.
“There’s never been one moment that I’ve ever regretted the path I’ve taken,” said Mavis. “What motivated me was to make sure I made my parents proud because they had given me a foundation to go out and do it on my own. The fact that I have been able to do as well as I have is a testament to how well my parents raised me.”
The turning point and Mavis’ return to riding took place in 2014. She went to work as groom for Lorenzo de Luca, who rode for Neil Jones Equestrian LLC, the international horse dealer with whom she had interned in 2008. Mavis went to the World Equestrian Games in France with Lorenzo, who was a member of the Italian show jumping team. When an injury sidelined Lorenzo, opportunity knocked for Mavis: Neil asked Mavis to ride his horses, which would launch her re-entry into the show ring.
“While I groomed for Kent, I was still riding a bit and then, working for Darragh, I kept his horses going if he took a bit of a break, but I was mostly hacking them out, keeping their fitness up,” said Mavis. “It wasn’t until after I groomed for Lorenzo at WEG 2014 that I started jumping again. In 2014 I jumped a few two-star grand prix in England and also got to train with Nick Skelton and Laura Kraut. It was last summer that I started consistently jumping in the bigger classes.”
Saturday Night Debut
Going from groom to competing in the grand prix ring sounds like a whirlwind, but Neil was careful not to rush her. In fact, the horses entrusted to Mavis dictated the pace. She also credited her years as a groom when she stood ring-side, watching many of the world’s best riders and jumpers.
“Riding for Neil just kept progressing,” she said. “I had some 8-year-olds that needed to start jumping bigger. I figured at the time when they were ready, that they would get handed off to someone else, but it turned into Neil saying, ‘You know them, just jump this class, just jump this World Cup, now we’re going to do this four-star [Concourse de Sault International],’ and I was, like, ‘Oooookay…’”
There’s an old saying that it takes many horses to make a rider, but it takes one rider to make a horse. When Mavis worked for Lorenzo, she had been preparing Cornetiero, aka Mighty Mouse, for him. “He was a very difficult, opinionated horse – and very special and talented, and I found you have to let him do things his way, but to be honest, he was a scary ride. We’d start off together, he would take over and I felt I would never get it right. I sold the horse I was using for 1.45-meter and under-25 classes and I didn’t have anything else for a team event. Mouse had already jumped a bunch of big classes as an 8-year-old. He jumped double clear and I thought, ‘Oh, I’m starting to figure him out,’ but every day something new cropped up. We were in England the summer of 2015 and I jumped him in two-star classes. He was brave and scopey, very good for my confidence.”
When Neil brought a bunch of horses over to Florida for Mavis to show, Mouse stayed in Europe to be developed to a higher level, but several different riders couldn’t figure him out. “Last June, my owners called and said, ‘You’re the only one who liked him and sort of got along with him, do you want him back?’ I said ‘Yeah, of course, send him.’ I spent about a month just working with him, trying to figure him out better. I jumped him one week in Kentucky. He was fine but not great. Then I jumped him in a class the second week and something just clicked. That Saturday night I rode him in the $50,000 Grand Prix and he jumped one of only four clear rounds and ended up second.”
It’s an unusual equestrian version of the Cinderella story for both Mavis and Cornetiero, whose results have been really good, considering that 90-plus entries might start in the big Palm Beach classes. “For all of his weird quirks and how he likes to do things, Mouse and I have a really good relationship and I trust him with my life,” said Mavis. “Neil said that if I got called up to the Olympics tomorrow, I would only do it if I could ride him.”
A major milestone took place in early February when Mouse had the week off and Mavis piloted Dubai, owned by Sarah E. Ryan, in the 1.60m Longines FEI World Cup™ Qualifier. The duo jumped clear with one time fault and made the 40-horse field for that Sunday’s $216,000 Longines FEI World Cup, presented by Sovaro, where they had one rail down and a time fault. But before Mavis jumped around her third World Cup class, the big bravas took place when she was presented the M. Michael Meller Style Award for being the international equestrian demonstrating the best style of riding and sportsmanlike composure.
Ambassador & Role Model
“You know, I had the big dreams when I was younger, but you start to become — oh, not so much more realistic about things, but I was really quite happy doing what I was doing,” continued Mavis. “The owners I have and Neil, I know they wouldn’t have me do something I was going to fail and there’s comfort in that. I’m willing to give anything a shot as long as I’m not going to mess it up too badly. I’m more concerned for the horses than for myself. And I still consult Neil about everything.”
US Equestrian did well to choose a rising star like Mavis as an Ambassador of horse sports. She’s a special role model, blessed with passion, old-fashioned horse sense and dedication to her horses’ well-being. Growing up close to the bright lights of Hollywood contributed to her poise. For 1½ years, she commuted between her grooming job and studying English and comparative literature at Columbia University, but the horses won. She loves to read. She suffers from nerves before every class, but stated that Neil thinks that to continue going in the ring is the best cure for “looking as white as her breeches.” She’s down-to-earth, humble, and funny.
In addition to Gallop Apace, LLC, her training and sales business, Mavis shows for Neil Jones Equestrian LLC and several owners. When asked about the big move from groom to top rider, Mavis said: “It doesn’t change if you’re first or fourth string, because the jobs have to get done the same if you want the horses to go well and be fit and happy. Having a good team around me is very important, because I groomed for so long. I’m lucky to have a team of like-minded people who have the same mentality and drive. When one of my staff is off on Sunday, I come in, because I’d rather work seven days when they do so much all the rest of the week, but also it’s my day off when I get to groom, check legs, turn out and be close to the horses.”