By Lauren R. Giannini
When event rider Britt Sabbah teamed up with Saint Louie, a 14.1½-hand Welsh cross Paint gelding, she just wanted to have fun. And she did, because there’s nothing like riding and competing an athletic, scopey, cute pony whose buckskin coloring makes him even more noticeable. Adding to their story is the fact that Britt’s an adult amateur who, after a hiatus of about eight years, returned to horses more enthusiastic than ever in 2013, thanks to Louie.
From the moment she met the pony, Britt chronicled everything — schooling, hanging out, competing — with photos on Instagram where her followers, so far, number more than 30,000 plus. In the US Eventing Association’s 2016 year-end standings, they finished third in Training Amateur and earned the Area VI Training Amateur championship and Training Adult Rider reserve championship. Great results, but it was actually the strong Instagram presence that made Britt an ideal choice to be a US Equestrian Ambassador for the Joy of Horse Sports campaign.
Britt certainly is living her dream in the hills northwest of Los Angeles, California, with her husband of five years, Sam Sabbah, her super-pony and two miniature horses, Lilly and Diva. In February, Britt and Louie made their successful debut at Preliminary where the maximum height for cross-country and show jumping is 1.10m (3’7”). She totally embraces the Joy of Horse Sports, and she still just wants Louie and herself to have fun.
“I love being an Ambassador for US Equestrian and the opportunity to connect with so many great people through social media,” said Britt. “It’s so fun to have support from other riders all over the country. I’m especially excited that US Equestrian started the #JointheJoy campaign because I truly relate to it. I do compete quite often, and it’s very easy to get swept up in the competition side of horse sports, but what’s most important to me is my relationship with my horse. Louie is truly my best friend and heart horse. I hope that connection comes across to our Instagram followers.”
No doubt about their connection: Saint Louie must figure in the dreams of many followers. He’s totally adorable. He also earned his place as Britt’s outstanding schoolmaster. “I’ve always preferred to ride a hotter horse, so from a young age, I learned to stay as relaxed as possible and in tune with my horse,” she said. “My first horse definitely had a ‘go’ button and taught me how to sit a good buck, but Louie has taught me the most. He’s by far the most sensitive horse I have every known, and he taught me patience above all else. He’s very smart and careful, which can turn quickly into spookiness.”
After Britt bought Louie, they encountered some issues and setbacks, which had to be worked through. Yet, she never lost faith in his potential and felt it was well worth every effort to earn Louie’s trust and build their partnership. “I could see his athleticism and, above all, his heart, so I figured we would have fun and see where things take us,” said Britt.
They spent two full years at Training Level, winning and placing well at most of their events. One highlight was finishing on their dressage score in the Training Level Long Format Three-Day at Rebecca Farm last July, placing fourth overall (first Amateur). They also earned nearly quadruple the minimum requirements necessary to move up to Preliminary. All told, it took a bit over three years to make their debut at Preliminary in February at Galway Downs, California.
“When everyone else seemed to be moving up around us, I had to learn to stay patient and do my best to produce my horse to his full confidence and ability,” said Britt. “It definitely paid off when we finished third in our first Prelim after jumping two clear rounds on the cross-country and in show jumping. I could go on forever about how great that was.”
Britt was about 6 when she started riding in St. Louis, Missouri, where she grew up. Back then, her family kept a couple Arabians at their farm in Marthasville, but today four miniatures keep horses in their lives.
“I have always been an adrenaline junkie and I dreamed of eventing,” said Britt. “I always wanted to do Pony Club, but unfortunately there wasn’t one near me and not much eventing in St. Louis so I never competed in actual horse trials until I bought Louie. I leased a pony, then a horse, and eventually bought my own horse when I was in middle school. No one else in my family is as horsey as I am, in terms of riding competitively.”
Britt competed primarily in the hunters, but the barn where she boarded was across the street from Queeny Park. “We were able to go and jump some cross-country fences and participate in the occasional hunter pace,” she recalled. “The biggest height I showed at as a junior was 3’3”–3’6”. However, my horse at the time, a 15.2-hand Appendix Quarter Horse, was previously a 1.35m–1.40m jumper so we got to pop over the occasional big fence at home.”
Britt’s reply, when asked what were some of her greatest horse/pony-related moments growing up, offered insight into the person she is today. “I couldn’t get enough of horses, growing up,” she said. “I loved cleaning stalls and doing anything I possibly could at the barn just to have more time there. I also worked in the summers at a polo barn, grooming and exercising the polo ponies, which was always a blast. But overall, just hanging out with my horse, who loved to put his head on my shoulder, and jumping as much as possible.”
What Goes Round…
During Britt’s early formative years, her trainers all valued horsemanship over competitive results. The lessons and her passion survived eight horseless years while Britt earned a B.S. in mathematics at University of Missouri at Columbia and her Master’s in secondary education/teaching at University of Southern California. She was 27 in 2013 when her riding career re-launched on the West Coast with the purchase of Saint Louie. He was 5 and had completed several Beginner Novice events. In January 2014, Britt began training with four-star event rider Jennifer Wooten.
“Jen has truly shaped me as a competitor and also as a horsewoman,” said Britt. “Louie can be a difficult little thing to deal with, but she always stayed patient with both of us. She took us from stopping at cross rails to clear cross-country and stadium jumping rounds at Preliminary without ever putting us in a position to lose our confidence. Jen always puts the horse first and has always been clear with me when we need to take a step back to help Louie re-gain or keep his confidence, and I appreciate that more than anything.”
For both horse and rider, it’s still about fun, even considering the more serious demands of Preliminary. “The more we ask him, the better he gets,” said Britt. “Louie seems to be really finding his stride and enjoying it, even though it’s a big ask for him. At this point, I’m not sure how far I want to go. I never imagined I would be running around Prelims with him, so I’m still just focusing on each competition, one at a time. I think eventually I would like to contest a one-star, but we need to complete a few more Prelims with the same ease and confidence as his first before I even start to consider working towards an FEI competition with him. He has a permanent home with me, so when his eventing days are done, he will retire to being my full-time trail horse and beach-galloping buddy.”
“Champion” of Horse Sports
One synonym for “ambassador of sport” is champion, which is also the coveted goal of every competing equestrian. How Britt feels about Saint Louie and his important role in their partnership and the need for him to enjoy competing sends out a positive message to every horse sports enthusiast.
“It’s easy for riders to feel discouraged when they see others competing more often or at a higher level, but it’s always essential to remember that the priority is having fun with your horse,” said Britt. “That’s what I love about the new US Equestrian campaign — it’s fantastic to shift the focus of the organization away from being solely on competitive results to the actual joy of horse sports. US Equestrian is also doing an incredible job of creating resources for riders, such as the new Learning Center, and I couldn’t be happier to share them with my followers by highlighting them through my social media and holding meet-and-greets with my followers, including at Rolex!”