When the American Gold Cup makes its run Sept. 11 through 15 at Old Salem Farm in North Salem, Adrienne Sternlicht will once again be there.
She has competed in the event — which features an international cast of amateur and professional riders of all ages in all classes — since it was first held at the farm in 2011.
“It’s definitely one of the more prestigious competitions in America,” Sternlicht says. “I’ve had some nice finishes there, nothing super-memorable to date,” although she remembers the first time she jumped there was on her young gelding, Quidam Mb. Mostly, she remembers the casual, countrified atmosphere, with its white-tented retail and dining boutiques.
“I love jumping at home as I often have friends and family watching me.”
“Home” is actually just across the Connecticut border in back country Greenwich, where she has a 15-acre spread called Starlight Farms.
“We were lucky to purchase the property next to the house I grew up in and where my mom still lives,” says Sternlicht, who also has an apartment in New York City. “You see it in a new way. And it’s fun to see your property from the family home.”
The farm is also home to about 10 equines, including the mini pony Taco, whom Sternlicht rescued — “he’s super-cute,” she says — and the retired horse Shannon. Sternlicht’s stable is a mix of mares and geldings, though she does have a young stallion, Shadowfax.
“You have to be more mindful with stallions,” Sternlicht says. “He definitely gets excited when he sees the mares.”
Nevertheless, Shadowfax remains a gentleman. “He’s very well behaved,” Sternlicht says.
At home, Sternlicht works with the horses six days a week, with a minimum of one day of jumping. In competition — which involves clearing an obstacle course as fast and as cleanly as possible — it’s another story.
“We don’t jump courses in practice. What we do is simple, preparatory jumps a bit bigger to improve (the horses’) technique and stamina.”
In this, Sternlicht is guided by two-time Olympic gold medalist McLain Ward, with whom she has trained since 2016. A former number one in the Longines FEI world rankings and a perennial favorite at the Gold Cup and Old Salem Farm’s Spring Horse Shows, Ward resides at Castle Hill Farm in Brewster, where he stresses the relationship of horse and rider.
“We owe them our lives,” he says on his website. “They give us so much and they ask for only basic kindness in return.”
“McLain has played an instrumental role in my career,” Sternlicht says. “I believe in his philosophy of horsemanship. He’s also disciplined in everything he does. As a young professional individual, that gives you confidence.”
Discipline is not something that Sternlicht lacks. She runs several times a week — a day on, a day off — but also does cardio, yoga and barre.
“Because I am small in stature, it’s important that I’m really strong….I also don’t really have great balance on one leg. Yoga helps with that.”
It also helps her with the mental aspect of competition.
“I get anxious before jumping, and I’ve come to recognize that it’s because you wait around a long time to get on the horse….So I’ve established a routine, meditating for three to five minutes and having a sports performance drink. It’s a ritual that is comforting and familiar.”
Though she’s been riding since she was 9, Sternlicht and her family have always been interested in her having a well-balanced life. She skied and played squash and attended Brown University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy. Still, the pull of horses was strong. In 2016, the year she graduated and Ward began coaching her, Sternlicht also made another valuable connection, with the Bavarian Warmblood mare Cristalline, considered one of the top show jumping horses on the grand prix circuit.
It was aboard Cristalline that Sternlicht made her Nations Cup debut the following year at the FEI Nations Cup CSIO4* Coapexpan in Mexico, where they helped the U.S. team win the silver medal. Since then, she has been on several Nations Cup teams and posted many individual top placings. But her most prized accomplishment, she says, is a top-12 finish aboard Cristalline at the 2018 World Equestrian Games in Mill Spring, North Carolina, where she, Ward, Laura Kraut and Devin Ryan won team jumping gold for the U.S., a first for the nation in this event after a 36-year drought.
Win or lose, it’s her relationship with Cristalline and company that matters.
“Just the camaraderie with the animal,” she says. “The more you give, the more they give back.”