The US event rider learnt her equestrian trade in Britain – and her mental strength in a racing car. She talks to Pippa Roome
IF Liz Halliday-Sharp makes the US team for the Tokyo Olympics, it’ll be her first major championship. But it certainly won’t be the first time the 42-year-old has performed under pressure. Because Liz is not just an elite athlete in equestrianism. At the same time as she was climbing the grades in eventing through her twenties, she was also a professional racing car driver.
“It was crazy – for a lot of years I raced and rode together,” she explains. “It was pretty cool when I was young – I was on a plane or in a car or on a horse. I just bombed around the world doing crazy stuff. It was a really fun part of my life and I’ll never regret it, even though I’m sure I would have achieved better things with horses earlier in my life if I hadn’t been racing.”
Having done some media work during her years in the cockpit, Liz was a commentator and live pit reporter for Eurosport at the Le Mans 24-hour race for 10 years after she stopped driving there.
“I absolutely love live TV,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to be in front of the camera, knowing you can’t get it wrong.
“I’ve always been someone who enjoys pressure – of course we all get nervous, but it’s definitely where I thrive, in that real adrenaline situation. Maybe it’s because I have such a busy brain, it’s the only way I can make it focus. I think every time we’re under a huge amount of pressure – when you go into the arena in the lead – it makes you more educated and better.”
Ability under pressure is just one of the attributes Liz hopes will stand her in good stead for championships. Looking to Tokyo, she already knows about performing in “extreme heat”.
“In some of these cars, you’ll be racing at 50°C in the cockpit for two hours at a time. It was a real challenge mentally as much as physically,” she says.
She is also accustomed to being part of a team, such as at Le Mans where three drivers take turns.
She explains: “I did Le Mans three times and it was just outstanding. Nothing quite compares to driving at Le Mans in the middle of the night, flying around in a purpose-built race car with an open cockpit. I love 24-hour racing for the physical challenge, the team challenge and the strategy, and just the pure grit that it takes to finish one of those things – not just for the drivers but the mechanics, too.
“I really feel like I’ve had that fight before and had to dig deep within a team environment and I hope I can bring that with me,” she adds.
A passion of a lifetime for Liz Haliday-Sharp
Last year was Liz’s first in 20 years being based full-time in the US as a rider, and she finished the year the leading US eventer on points. She also scored more international wins than any other event rider worldwide during 2020, with her nine victories including three at four-star short.
Her passion for horses dates back to her childhood in southern California, although her parents, Debby and Don, are not horsey.
“It was all I wanted to do – I was riding the tree in the back yard with a jump [skipping] rope as reins,” she says. “I started riding when I was about eight at a little barn down the road.
“My family didn’t have loads of money and made me really work for it, which I respect – some kids get everything bought for them. I had to show I was dedicated before I got breeches and boots. I had to go to the barn and do all the work. We leased random horses.”
Liz’s father Don raced cars and was an instructor as a hobby; she started at 16 and the pair shared “this funky historic car”, competing chiefly in sprint races. Don’s death in 2012 after a long illness was a factor in Liz’s decision to retire from racing, alongside waning sponsorship in a worsening economy and making the eventing high performance list for the first time.
“I had a moment and thought, ‘This is the switch,’” she says. “I gave it up cold turkey.”
Liz’s proper break into eventing came when she took a year out of studying marine biology at university and based herself with William Fox-Pitt – it “became a lot of years… I sort of never went back”.
Liz stayed in Britain for about 15 years and in 2007 met her British husband Al, an ex-policeman she describes as “my rock”. Over the winter of 2014/2015, the couple spent time in Ocala, Florida, which led to about five years of splitting their lives between the two countries.
“It was fun, but you can’t do that your entire life,” she says. “It’s insane going between the two and it’s not financial reality. We had to make a decision one way or the other. From a business perspective – giving clinics, teaching and turning over sale horses – and to get me in front of the selectors to help my team aspirations, it made sense to be in the US.”
Three-star winner Flash Cooley, who is owned by a Brit who missed him too much when he was in the US, has now gone to Gemma Tattersall, but most of Liz’s owners are US-based.
“They were awesome about it and want me still to compete in Europe, but it’s nicer for them to see the horses more often,” she says, agreeing that it’s “not cheap” to fly a string of horses across the Atlantic.
“But crazily enough, it’s not that much of a difference in cost. The cost to compete in America is just enormous, and you’re travelling – hotels and all that. Of course it is a bit cheaper [to stay in one country], but not vastly.”
Liz now has British citizenship and Al has a green card, so the couple have the flexibility to “cruise around”. They will spend the winters in Ocala, and summers at their farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Their property in Ocala was bought through Ocala Horse Properties, the owners of which are now her “best owners and dear friends”.
How Liz Halliday-Sharp learnt the British way
Liz’s horsemanship is firmly rooted in the British system.
“I was pretty inexperienced when I came over, so how I get the horses fit and train has all been based in England,” she says. “Now that we’ve put in a hill gallop on a surface in Kentucky, I feel like I have all the pieces in place and can keep things going the way I did in England. That makes me feel better.
“Every year we’re trying to find new ways to make the horses better, but I can hold on to that underlying system that I know worked.”
Liz took her cue from riders around the world when Covid hit.
“Some people in the US backed off a huge amount and I didn’t feel that was the right thing to do,” she says. “I watched what other great riders in the world were doing – the Prices were out and running, as were Michael Jung, Ingrid Klimke, Oliver Townend.
“The horses had a break, but then I thought, ‘I’m just going to go and prove to the selectors they can’t forget me.’ I think that was productive. It put me on the high performance elite list for the first time and my horses finished the season in great form.”
Has Liz done anything particular to up her game over the past year?
“During the first lockdown, I focused on areas where the horses were weak. I’m a very goal-oriented person and I’m sure I’m not the only eventer who panicked when we went from full force trying to go to the Olympics to nothing,” she says. “After the horses had some time off, I said, ‘Deniro Z needs to get better at flying changes,’ and I just did them and did them for weeks, not in a high-pressure way but just tried to get better.”
Work on cross-country speed has also paid dividends.
“It’s just finding the more efficient line, learning to be a little bit quicker in my adjustments,” she says. “When you start to be able to make the time, you start to believe you can and that’s been my big step.”
Liz’s spring plan is to take Deniro Z to Kentucky, an event at which she has “unfinished business” – she has only completed once, out of the placings. Eighth at Luhmühlen 2018 and 15th at Burghley 2019 are her best positions at the top level, both with Deniro Z.
“Niro”, who is now 13 and was bought as a seven-year-old sale horse from Francis Whittington, is her chief contender for Tokyo, but the 10-year-old Cooley Quicksilver has an outside chance.
“His nickname is the Monster – that’s how his syndicate of owners, The Monster Partnership, got its name,” she says. “He’s very, very flexible, which makes him wonderful and also annoying all at once.
“He’s just a goof, he is such a quirky animal, but I do love him to bits. He fights like hell on the cross-country and he loves his job. I feel like every year I get to know him better and I find a better way to train him, because it’s always been a challenge getting into his brain.”
Liz has an enviable string coming up behind this pair, including Cooley Moonshine, Cooley Be Cool, Cooley Stormwater, Cooley HHS Calmaria and Maryville Sir Henry.
“The Olympics is pretty much everything we’re working towards every day right now,” she says. “I’ve been on a lot of Nations Cup teams and was reserve for the Pan American Games.
“I feel like I’ve had a taste of it and I’m ready to be a real part of that. I’ve tried to set myself up to have horses in place all the way up through 2028, so I’m hoping they can’t leave me behind from this year onwards.”
This feature is also published in H&H magazine, 25 February 2021
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