Skyeler Icke Voss on Conquering Your Fears
We caught up with sponsored rider Skyeler Icke Voss to hear about her special experience at the Land Rover Kentucky 3-Day Event with her off-the-track Thoroughbred Argyle. Learn about how they prepared mentally and physically for the big weekend and what they learned riding in the CCI4*.
Can you start with a little bit of background about you and Argyle?
Argyle is a 14-year-old off the track thoroughbred, formally known as “Office Hours,” who raced 21 times with around $35,000 in winnings. A very close friend of mine, Valerie Ashker, called me and said, “Do you trust me? I have your next advanced horse.” Sight unseen, I bought Argyle while I was on a family vacation in Hawaii. Valerie drove 12 hours to the California racetrack, found his trainer, and claimed him. She drove him to her home in northern CA and put him on a truck across the country to Virginia.
I brought Argyle along slowly, methodically, and some would say very conservatively. He was untrusting of people, and it took me months to get him to walk over poles on the ground. He was stubborn and had a very serious temper which led to a lot of rearing in his younger years. I worked with a local cowboy and fellow event rider, Dustin Craig, from the very beginning. He helped me understand and strategize how to handle his moods. We taught him to trust and believe in himself with rope work, groundwork, and desensitization exercises.
When Argyle started to understand his job and trust me as his person, we never looked back. He won his first FEI 2*’s, was top prelim horse in the USA, had multiple top 3 placings at the 3* level, and twice was Rood and Riddle Thoroughbred Sport Horse of the year. Last year I moved him up to Advanced and tackled his first 4*S where he finished 5th.
He took a long time to embrace his new life, but I am not sure I have ever ridden a horse who loves his job more.
What was the process like to qualify and train for the Land Rover Kentucky 3-Day Event?
I am incredibly grateful that Land Rover decided to add the FEI 4*S division to the April line up. This gave riders like me the opportunity to introduce less experienced horses to the biggest Eventing atmosphere in our country. Argyle had already competed at the 4*S level last year, so was eligible to do Kentucky at the 4* level. He had never been in front of sold-out crowds with such electric surroundings and is by far the spookiest animal I have ever known in my entire riding career. He is afraid of everything around him yet has the heart of a lion when jumping solid objects bigger than he. It has always baffled me that he is so brave to jump but cannot handle noise or any innocuous visual stimulants. I had no idea if I was going to be able to get him down the centerline of the Kentucky stadium for dressage or show jumping, and I was terrified he would not jump XC in a sea of spectators.
Walk us through the week leading up to the event. Were there any challenges you faced, for yourself or Argyle, and how did you overcome them? How did you manage the mental part of the preparation?
I could not have managed the immense amount of pressure and stress without the incredible team that was back at home running Morningside, but also the support and coaching crew that traveled to Kentucky with me. My long-time coach of almost 20 years and fellow BioStar rider, Sallie Spenard, made the trip with me to help get me down the centerline in dressage. Argyle is notoriously naughty in dressage and in front of sold-out crowds. I was not sure I could get him to cooperate in the test. Sallie has always believed in us and with her voice in my ear in that warm up, we confidently tackled the biggest task of our career thus far.
My amazing friend and groom, Cali Johnson, has been with me since Argyle’s first beginner novices. She has an amazingly calming influence on both Gyles and myself. She quite literally and figuratively held my hand through every phase of competition. Above all, having my husband there meant the world. I have learned how much family means to my mental stability and overall success. Eighteen years ago, my dad was supposed to go with me to Kentucky, but he passed away before he could see me gallop across the bluegrass. However, to have Clayton, my husband there, my mom stalking the live feed, and my cheering team of checkers back at Morningside, I knew I could mentally handle this challenge.
How did you approach each of the three days and keep Argyle feeling good throughout the whole weekend? Any equine nutrition advice?
Argyle has been on BioStar’s Thera Calm EQ since the moment the product was introduced. He is a poster boy for this product with his nerves and stress affecting his GI tract and gut health, thus creating past performance issues and anxiety. Thera Calm EQ has helped to balance his gut and mind, and his stellar performance in all three phases at Kentucky shows just how well managed we finally have his diet and show routine. We also use Zen X the morning before a performance, as Argyle would very obviously externalize his stress and opinions about dressage and large atmospheres.
What was the most memorable part of the experience? The most challenging? Are there any lessons you learned that you’ll take into future events or pass on to your students?
The most memorable part for me was just driving into the Kentucky Horse Park. I had qualified for the 5* back in 2004 on my young rider horse Dillinger. In our last competition leading up to our departure, I had the worst accident of my career two jumps from home at Southern Pines. My horse flipped on top of me, and I broke my pelvis, ribs, back, lacerated my liver and collapsed my lungs. I watched Kentucky that year from a wheelchair and I never quite got past it. I always wanted to go back but it took me 18 years to find the horse capable of getting me through those gates again. The best advice I can give my students is that patience and perseverance will prevail in this sport. Don’t give up on your dreams, trust the process, and find a horse that loves you as much as they love the sport.
What’s next for you and Argyle?
I cannot wait to go back to Kentucky for the 5*. Argyle will enjoy a summer vacation and we will work towards our qualification for a 2023 5* at Kentucky or Fair Hill. Long term, I would love the opportunity to compete overseas with this special horse. I think he is just getting into his prime, both mentally and physically, and I want to experience all I can looking between those grey ears.