Four years ago, Mavis Spencer was at the in-gate of the Saturday night grand prix classes of the Winter Equestrian Festival (Fla.), but she had a towel in her back pocket, was holding a lead shank, and was giving a leg up to a rider.
Fast forward a few years, and Spencer was the one getting the leg up. The 25-year-old just jumped in her first Saturday night WEF grand prix on Jan. 22 and ended up placing eighth in the $86,000 Marshall & Sterling Grand Prix aboard Cornetiero with a clean trip in Round 1 and 8 faults in the jump-off. “I came out of the ring, and I was almost in tears,” she said.
Mavis Spencer on Cornetiero in the $86,000 Marshall & Sterling Grand Prix at WEF on Jan. 22. Photo by Sportfot
“I’m totally pinching myself,” she continued. “If you had asked me a few weeks ago what my goals were, I would have said to jump in a Saturday night before the end of Wellington, and to have it be Week 2 and I’ve done it and jumped clear—it’s just amazing. I’m just taking it as it comes and enjoying the ride.”
It’s definitely not where Spencer expected to find herself when she graduated from the junior ranks in 2009. She’d had a successful junior jumper career riding with Dick Carvin and Francie Steinwedell-Carvin in California, but when she told her parents she wanted to make horses her career, they wanted her to support herself. “It wasn’t an ultimatum or negative at all, but they basically were like, ‘If you think horses are going to be your life and your profession, you need to go out and do it in a way that you immerse yourself in it and appreciate it,’ ” she said. “So, I sold my junior jumper, and they were like, ‘OK, good luck! Find a way to do it!’
“For sure when I was young, my dream was to go to the Olympics and represent the United States and all that,” she added. “But at a certain point, you get more realistic about your goals.”
So, Spencer took a job grooming for Kent Farrington and worked for him for three years. She rode a bit but could also be found mucking stalls, loading shavings, holding horses at the ring, and everything else a groom does. In the summer of 2012, she accompanied Farrington to Europe with a few horses and got to experience some top shows over there.
Mavis Spencer’s (left) road to grand prix included years of work as a groom. Photo courtesy of Mavis Spencer
“Even when I was working for Kent, if I had a horse of my own, I had to pay all the bills and take care of it. I was always involved when I was a junior, but I think just turning 18 and having to fully support yourself, it really makes you realize if you really want to do it or not, and obviously I did,” she said.
“For me, even though taking a step back and grooming meant I couldn’t really ride and show anymore, it never seemed to me like a downgrade. I just figured I was getting new experience and education. I got to go to Europe and work at some amazing shows with Kent. Every experience is a good experience is how I look at it.”
In the fall of 2012, Spencer decided to help Darragh Kenny get his Oakland Ventures business up and running and joined him as barn manager, working there for two years. By this time, she was spending all her time on the ground, as a shoulder injury from her junior years was causing problems when she rode.
Mavis Spencer spent years at the grand prix ring holding horses and giving other riders a leg up. Photo courtesy of Mavis Spencer
Then, in 2014, she signed on to groom for top horse dealer Neil Jones and his rider at the time, Lorenzo de Luca. She groomed for de Luca when he jumped for the Italian team at the 2014 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (France). But when de Luca got hurt, Spencer got the chance to get back in the saddle. “Lorenzo said, ‘Oh, you can ride my horses while I’m recovering.’ I remember walking into the barn one day and seeing the list on the board for a training show on a Tuesday. And I had like six grand prix horses under my name,” Spencer said. “I was like, ‘I’m just your groom. I’m not sure I want to take your five-star grand prix horses to a training show.’ ”
But the show went well, and Jones had Spencer step up to ride many of the sales horses even when de Luca was back riding. The plan for the 2015 WEF was to have Spencer show the younger horses while de Luca rode the grand prix horses. But then in December 2014, de Luca took a job riding for Stephex Stables, and his grand prix horses shipped to Florida to be ridden by Spencer. “Suddenly I was thrown into the fire in Florida with like 15 horses to show!” she recalled. “Everyone was making jokes with Neil like, ‘Wow, your groom rides really well!’ ”
That WEF, she mostly stuck to the small classes, jumping in a few 1.45-meter classes. But over the summer of 2015, she got valuable experience jumping in two-star shows in England. By the fall of 2016, she moved up to the 1.50-meter level and jumped in her first World Cup qualifier in Del Mar, Calif., in October aboard Dubai.
“I’m looking forward to keeping going with Dubai,” she said. “He was owned by the Collinses and Neil as well, and a few people were interested in buying him after the World Cup class. I thought he was going to get sold, but Sarah Ryan stepped up to buy him to help keep him for me, so it’ll be nice to have one to keep developing.”
But for Spencer’s WEF Saturday night debut, she tacked up Cornetiero, a horse she had cared for when de Luca rode him. “When I started riding again, he was one I wasn’t sure about, because he was difficult and a little bit hot and opinionated,” she said. She showed Cornetiero in 2015, but then Katharina Offel and Sofia Westborg showed him for a few months in 2016. Spencer got the ride back on the 11-year-old Westphalian gelding in September, and they jumped their first 1.50-meter class together in October.
“When I first started riding him, I kind of said, ‘I think this is a little too much horse for me.’ But we’ve grown together,” she said. “I think having taken care of him made me more able to ride him when I had that chance. He’s the first horse I took in bigger classes. He’s my security blanket, kind of, which is funny because he’s special in so many ways.”
Spencer doesn’t think her riding skills suffered at all in the years she focused on just grooming. “When I started riding again, it felt like because I’d been at the ring and watching all the top riders it actually helped me, because I’d been soaking it all in,” she said. “You may not actually realize it when you’re not riding, but I think it made a big difference in my growth and knowledge.”
Mavis Spencer is pinching herself at joining the ranks of Saturday night grand prix riders at WEF. Photo by Sportfot
And she’s a very hands-on rider after having been the one on the other side of things. “Even now, if my groom takes the day off, I’ll come in and do all my horses myself. I like being hands-on. At the end of the day, you can’t jump in the biggest classes and not be aware of how your horse is feeling or if their leg is a bit bigger from one day to the next. It’s just the complete package,” she said.
And Spencer knows she has the backing of Jones and his whole team of owners and staff. “To be where I am now, I have a lot to thank Neil and my horses’ owners for that,” she said. “It makes all the difference. At the end of the day, even if I’m a little uncomfortable because it’s something that’s not necessarily within my comfort zone, I know Neil is never going to ask me to do something that I’d fail at. So there’s a lot of comfort in knowing that even if it’s not something that I would push myself to do, he’s always there getting me to do a bit more and do it a bit better.”
Mavis Spencer and Neil Jones. Photo by Herve Bonnaud
Spencer noted that when she first got back into the tack, her focus for Jones was very much sales horses. But as she proved she could develop horses to the top level, Jones and his group of owners supported her in that endeavor, too.
“That’s the one aspect of it that still feels surreal to me—the group of people who work for Neil and who own horses for him who have supported me,” she said. “I know they understand that it’s a learning curve for me as well. It’s amazing to have people have that kind of confidence in me. It means the world of difference that I can go into my first Saturday night on a good horse. I never really thought I was going to go clear, but with all the support, when you have that much faith behind you, it definitely helps. It’s incredible.”
And, her biggest cheering section is the group of people with towels and shanks in their hands. “It’s nice because all the friends I groomed with are so happy for me and keep up with the results and text me and cheer for me,” she said. “And so many of the riders have been so supportive. If I’m walking the course, they’ll come over and make sure I’ve got my plan or ask if I need help. If I’m in the warm-up and on my own, they’ll help out. It’s been very nice knowing that I have a bunch of people behind me.”