By Brandon HENSLEY
Several years ago, basketball star Dwayne Wade pitched for Converse in a commercial that showed just how many bumps and bruises he incurs over a game, and a career. The tag line was, “Fall down seven times. Stand up eight.”
In La Cañada, though, Wade has nothing on horse rider Sloan Elmassian. She’s got that line beat by a few falls, to say the least.
The number for her is 87. That is the number of times she fallen hard enough that would turn the average person away from equestrianism for a lifetime. But for Elmassian, crushed hands, and fractured knees and vertebrae, have never deterred her from getting back on the saddle, whether it be on her first horse, a pony named Pablo, or her current ride, an athletic stud named Colin.
“I’ve never been afraid. A lot of people call me an adrenaline junkie,” said Elmassian, a junior at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy whose goal in life is to be the best rider she can possibly be, day in and day out.
That, of course, takes a brave heart when dealing with beautiful, but large, animals. As Elmassian puts it, a baseball player doesn’t have to worry about a ball having a mind of its own. The ball also doesn’t weigh 1,500 pounds.
“To me, it’s all part of the sport,” she said. “It’s how you develop your skills and become a better rider. People call me fearless. I’ve never feared something I’ve loved.”
Elmassian’s trainer Isabelle Ebner certainly knows the dangers Elmassian puts herself in.
“This is a high-risk situation,” Ebner said. “It’s an adrenaline situation and you have to enjoy that and be committed on a level that people who are not on an elite level at their school don’t understand.”
Elmassian has been riding since she was 3, when her mother Robin put her on a pony at the L.A. County Fair. She joked it was the worst decision Robin ever made. Since then, her love of horses and riding has only strengthened. She’s now a regular in competitions, where she rides a horse on a course with hurdles.
Elmassian and Colin, which she’s had for a year, were in the La Cañada Flintridge Autumn Classic Show in September, a four-day event where she competed in a 1.10-meter event (a jump measuring 3’6”). She took first place, third place, and division champion. Then she moved up into the 1.20M (4’0”) and took fourth and fifth place, and a prize of $70. (Most of the time, any prize money she wins goes right back into paying the entry fee.)
Ebner, who has been training Elmassian since she was 9, said it took her about six months to get used to Colin, who is younger than Elmassian’s former horse.
“Once it clicked over, in the last month or so, where she’s had to change her ride, her style a bit … now she’s able to harness that power and they’re jumping an average of four feet on a regular basis,” Ebner said.
In November, Elmassian will compete in a Mini Grand Prix at the L.A. Equestrian Center in Burbank. It’s just another step for her on continuing to be the best rider she can be. When Elmassian speaks of her passion, she lets you know this isn’t something she’ll be quitting any time soon.
Every day after school, she’s usually found at San Pasqual Stables in South Pasadena. She rides three to five horses there every day, and puts in more hours during the weekend. It’s at the stables, for hours on end, where she has found her true passion.
Building a relationship with a horse is one of the most fulfilling things for her. One important factor is being able to take the right approach to discipline. For instance, setting them straight is important, but it’s also key to reward them right after they do something correct to make sure they’re on the same wavelength as the rider. It’s also important, she said, to never carry over any bad feelings throughout the day and transfer them over to the saddle.
“You may not have a great ride. That’s fine. Everyone has their off days, but it should never be a bad experience for the horse, where you get off and he’s upset or scared, or vice-versa,” she said.
A great learning experience came for her several years ago when she traveled to Belgium for a competition. Elmassian couldn’t bring her horse. She was given another one at the competition, the day before. It was challenging, but Elmassian brought home a first-place trophy. She said it taught her to be more professional, and how to better build a relationship with a horse.
“It not only adds to your skill as a rider, but shows the kind of rider you are. Some people will rise to that challenge and some people don’t have the skill level to compete like that,” she said.
It seems Elmassian’s skill level, as well as her tolerance for pain, is high. Ebner has enjoyed watching her develop. She calls her relationship with Elmassian part coach-student, part parent-child and part friendship.
“I’ve watched her change from a child into a young woman, which is really cool,” she said.