Until the selection trials for this year’s Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games (WEG), dressage Olympian Lisa Wilcox had been keeping a low profile. For years, she was an extremely prominent rider who made a name for herself in Germany before riding the Oldenberg stallion Relevant to a team silver medal for the U.S. at the 2002 WEG and a team bronze at the 2004 Olympics. She had lived in Europe for more than a decade, getting German certification as a rider and trainer and working with well-known stallions such as Relevant’s sire, Rohdiamant (a Rubenstein son whose name appears often in the lineage of the horses she rides now). But when she returned to the U.S. in 2004, this talented rider lacked the volume and kind of horseflesh with which she was involved abroad. That didn’t stop Wilcox, now 47, from pursuing her next project in the sport she knows so well. “You keep busy, you keep looking at that next new project, like ‘Oh, this could be something,’’’ she says.
Today, Wilcox, who is ranked 104th in the world as of the June 30 FEI standings, is based at Marsh Pond in Wellington, Florida, where she trains Jacqueline Shear’s Galant, an 8-year-old Belgian gelding. She and Shear take turns riding the Small Tour horse, who Wilcox began working with four years ago.
While Wilcox hasn’t recently been in the limelight, she has seen some success since her return to the U.S., including a victory in the 2012 USEF Developing Horse Grand Prix Championship with Horses Unlimited’s Pikko del Cerro HU. By Pik L out of, appropriately, a Rohdiamant mare, the stallion got hurt and had time off until recently. Now Wilcox is riding him again and is looking forward to 2015 and thinking about the Rio Olympics in 2016. Anita Fialco’s Sandro Hit mare, Katrina, is another of Wilcox’s developing mounts. “She is, for me, down the road,” she says. “She has plenty of time to come into her own.”
Now, however, Wilcox is back in the Grand Prix ranks with Denzello, an 11-year-old Hanoverian by De Niro out of a Rohdiamant mare. The pair made the cut for a trip to Europe this summer with the U.S. team after finishing eighth at the selection trials during June’s USEF Dressage Festival of Champions in Gladstone, New Jersey. Denzello is still a work in progress, but he earned more than 70 percent for the Grand Prix and Grand Prix Special at the festival and he performed the same at the special in the CDI 4-star at Fritzens, Austria, in July.
Canadian Betty Wells owns Denzello and is supporting Wilcox’s ventures with him through the 2014 WEG. After that, their agreement calls for the horse to be sold. If Denzello sells, it will be back to the drawing board again for Wilcox. However, she and Denzello are listed on experiencedressage.com, which aims to get sponsorship for elite and promising dressage riders who need to team up with a horse that can make them a contender to represent the U.S. in international competition. If a sponsorship opportunity arises, the pair might be able to continue in their work together.
Robert Dover, the U.S. dressage technical adviser/chef d’équipe, called Wilcox, “one of our flagship riders from America. She has been ranked second in the world, she has been a proven contender again and again and is as elegant now as when she was living in Germany,” he says. According to Dover, Wilcox needs a fleet of great horses to regain her momentum. “I’m always hopeful that someone will see that and come to her with the thought of wanting her to have those horses and be on an adventure with her.”
An eventer who competed up to the Preliminary level, Wilcox changed her focus in the 1990s after meeting Jan Ebeling, who went on to be a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic dressage team. She immersed herself in the discipline that became the focus of her life. “I found it completely challenging, much more challenging than eventing,” says Wilcox. “It motivates me when I realize how a horse ticks.”
Wilcox married Ebeling and went to Germany in 1993 to work with the late Herbert Rehbein. After returning to the U.S., she decided her future lay in Europe. She returned for a 10-year stay, starting out in Denmark, and eventually worked for one of Germany’s premier breeding establishments, Gestüt Vorwerk. Wilcox and Ebeling later divorced, and she put everything she had into her career. Among the trainers with whom she worked were Jo Hinnemann and former U.S. Coach Klaus Balkenhol. But her main coach was, and still is, Ernst Hoyos, who worked at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.
She recalls her time in Germany, saying that for her, riding there was the only way she could have made the progress she enjoyed. “It’s definitely not for everybody, but I got the most amazing education,” she says. “That had a lot to do with luck; I always landed with the right people. Becoming what they call a ‘stallion rider,’ I was headhunted after awhile. People wanted me to ride their stallions because there aren’t many people who really know how to ride stallions. It’s pretty serious business; it gets dangerous when it’s taken too lightly. You have to understand a stallion.”
Wilcox enjoyed a special understanding with Relevant. “I was very lucky to have had the ride on Relevant. He was a pleasure to bring through the ranks,” Wilcox recalls. “Relevant was timid, so he relied on me. We developed a partnership of trust, which is what made it look beautiful and harmonious. My relationship with Denzello reminds me a lot of the one I had with Relevant.”
Wilcox stays in touch with the woman who bought Relevant and she wears a bracelet made from his tail. Wilcox saw him only once since she stopped riding him. It was in Aachen, in 2006, by accident. She turned around after getting a glimpse of the brilliant chestnut, then quickly walked away and cried for 20 minutes. “It rips your heart out,” she says, but has no thoughts of buying a mount she can keep. “I don’t seem to have luck with my own horses. I have more luck with other people’s horses,” she confides.
Wilcox believes that dressage is being taken more seriously in the U.S. than it was a decade ago while she was still abroad, citing facilities such as the Global Dressage Festival venue in Wellington, Florida, with its top-notch arenas, footing and stabling. Wilcox also mentions the talent pool is deeper than it was early in the 21st century. “It’s nice to see the young people coming up,” she says, noting the importance of educational programs and the efforts of Dover, Developing Coach Debbie McDonald and Young Horse Coach Scott Hassler in working with the pipeline of the up-and-coming. However, she says, “We have a lot of work to do to get back up on those [medal] podiums. We haven’t been on a podium in a bit. And I think in the end, that’s what people respect. We have a good length of road to pave yet.”
Wilcox never thinks of stepping back from the sport. “I love what I do. I love developing the horses. There’s such a satisfaction in it; I’m never bored. When I don’t have a Grand Prix horse for the Olympics, I’m making one. That keeps me plenty busy, to the point where I’m going, ‘Wow, was that 10 years ago?’” she says of the 2004 Athens Games. “I’m very grateful for the people who are in my life right now, the horses I have to ride, the owners I work with and Ernst continuing to polish me.”
During years of hard work, toiling in the cold European winters, and through long separation from family and friends, Lisa Wilcox put work into making sure she fit that elegant image that has served her so well. And she continues to do so today. Whenever and whatever she rides, Wilcox always makes a striking picture. Slim, straight in the saddle, with flawless make-up, she is perfectly turned out, no matter what the weather.
Part of this picture-perfect look comes from her ability to find a balance between life with horses and without. Currently, Wilcox spends her free time with her boyfriend outside the horse world, Cass Riese, who has developed a software program and is involved in coffee sales (a portion of which go to save manatees). He’s a surfer, and the two go diving together.
“I’ve learned so much about the ocean. I call it the surf-and-turf life,” she says with a smile. “It’s what I always wanted. When I left Germany, I swore I was going to have balance in my life. It wasn’t just going to be horses.” There was a time, she explains, that after riding, “All I did was go home, take a bath, eat and go to bed. That was my day.”
Wilcox finds time to take care of herself, and revealed some of her beauty secrets during our interview. Rather than buy a lot of fancy clothing, she focuses on skin care (always a concern for riders who spend hours daily in the sun, wind and dust).
Wilcox also works out with a trainer three days a week and runs five miles on her day off from riding. “I have to work at it now,” she says with a smile, noting she also does a lot of core strengthening to support her back.
It’s a long way from her days growing up as one of seven children in Colorado, where she rode bareback, worked cattle and got an early grounding in eventing from Pony Club. Her parents bought her a $300 2-year-old gelding she had to train herself, consulting a book whenever she was stumped. Yet she never neglected her studies, majoring in equine science at Colorado State University, while continuing to event.
Several years before Wilcox made the team for the 2002 WEG, the Florida-based director of the Oldenburg Horse Breeders’ Society, Holly Simensen, knew the athlete as an achiever and had insight into what made her that way. “She has the most extraordinary will to succeed,” said Simensen, whose late husband, Marty, was a veterinarian for the U.S. Equestrian Team. “She wanted to make it. She had this dream that she could be good.”