The aim of any rider is to be one with the horse.
Riding competitively in equestrian events tests that theory with every single jump.
Despite hours upon hours of practice going over fence after fence, sometimes horse and rider part ways at the most inopportune of times.
It was on March 2, 2014, a warm Sunday in South Florida, in Ring 6 at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington that Ali Sirota and her horse Briljiant separated mid-jump.
“You ride for 25 years,” Sirota says, pausing, “you learn how to fall.”
(At age 19, Sirota took a hard fall at the Vermont Summer Festival Horse Shows in Manchester where she sustained hairline fractures in her hand, wrist and elbow.)
But this fall was going to be different.
“You know when it’s going to be bad in those milliseconds,” Sirota says as she goes on to describe the slow motion freefall as she locked eyes with Briljiant and she knew that her horse knew this was all wrong.
It wasn’t a good landing. All of Sirota’s weight — and there isn’t much on her slender frame — came down on her left foot. Her talus bone — the main connector between foot and leg — was fractured. The good news was she didn’t need surgery. The bad news was she couldn’t put weight on her foot for 12 weeks.
Ultimately, Sirota would use this experience — and many others — to become a top equestrian publicist.
But back then, she says, “I didn’t cry until I was told I couldn’t ride.”
Her first attempt at riding — actually it was her dad’s idea — also resulted in tears. While dad’s intentions were good — “What little girl doesn’t like to ride horses?” — the result was not good at all.
Her dad, Richard Sirota, knew someone who played polo. He found out when he was practicing and asked if he could bring 4-year-old Ali over for a ride on his horse. A time was set and dad and daughter set off for the polo field in the family car.
The man and horse had just played a chukker — 7 minutes of play on the field.
Funny thing about a polo pony after it plays a chukker — with nostrils flaring, hard breathing, eyes wide and veins popping on its muscular-ripped body — it does not look its best. More beast than best.
So Ali did what any 4-year-old would do when asked by dad to come on over to the horse: She locked all the car doors.
“I’m not going on that thing!” she cried. Pleading, cajoling, “My dad is trying his best to negotiate with a 4-year-old.” Needless to say, Ali did not get on that horse that day.
It would be three years later while on a family vacation in St. Maarten that Sirota would ride for the first time. She was in love with horses. Back home in Irvington, she started riding lessons at Fox Hill Farms in Pleasantville — first once a week, then twice, then three times a week. She was also figure skating at Sport-O-Rama in Rockland County. She participated in both at the same time for three years. “My mom scheduled the hell out of me.”
At her dad’s insistence, she was asked to pick one sport to take part in.
The choice was easy: “You can love skating, but it can’t love you back. Horses can love you back.”
And how much did she love horses from that day forward? Well, she rode through her days at Hackley School in Tarrytown and then at Syracuse University she would rise before the morning light to drive for 40 minutes down to Cazenovia to practice at the farm of horse trainer John Madden and his wife, Beezie, who won gold medals at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics.
When it came time for events at Wellington, she would fly from Syracuse down to Palm Beach on Thursday nights, compete and then fly back on Monday morning. To allow herself time to study and compete at the shows, she would “pack” her classes from Tuesday to Thursday, which allowed her the free time for Wellington.
After Syracuse, she was on to grad school at Columbia University. Did she stop riding? Not at all.
Sirota says she wouldn’t be where she is today — president and CEO of Sirota Public Relations LLC in Manhattan and Palm Beach — without riding.
“The lessons I’ve learned from horse riding have translated very well into quote-unquote normal life and the real world,” she says. “It teaches time management and discipline and respect for others. …It teaches respect for animals and for people from all walks of life.”
The values come from hard work — mucking the stall, feeding the horse, cleaning the horse, making sure the tack is clean and in good order, wrapping the horse’s legs and numerous other chores.
It only follows that her business centers on the equestrian world and its participants.
As to getting back in the saddle after her terrible fall, she returned to competition where she had her first bad fall — the Vermont Summer Festival Horse Shows.
“The first day was fine,” Sirota says. “The second day I had PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).” She remembered the fall in full detail and pulled herself out of competition.
But you can’t keep a good rider down. “It’s a form of meditation” sitting up in the saddle, she says. “The thing is with riding, even if I’m exhausted, I feel better than if I hadn’t ridden.”
So she picked up the phone and called Margie Sugarman, a top sports psychologist. After talks with her, and daily self-affirmations, Sirota got herself back in the saddle and found she was riding better.
“I’m safe and secure on my horse and I moved up a division.”
Life is good. So much so, Sirota is getting married in June to Jeremy Kelman at The Breakers Palm Beach — just a short drive to all those horses in Wellington.