Harrison County

New to the pros, Amanda Forte has confidence in new horse

Amanda Forte was frustrated.

It was Sunday, March 8, the second-to-last Grand Prix of the Gulf Coast Winter Classic and the one with the highest purse at $77,000.

She'd given her 9-year-old Irish Sporthorse, HHS Louis, or Louie, a weekend off to rest for the event but now she was sidelined with broken ribs.

"I'm so disappointed," she said. "The hardest thing is being here and not being able to compete. I've been injured before in a hospital bed but this is almost worse because there's this disconnect. I'm here and feel like I can go."

Not that Forte was sitting around all day.

She squeezed in a call with a walk-in clinic to see if they had an X-ray before coaching a student through a warm-up and two jumper rounds. Then she hopped on her golf cart to go watch another student compete at the other end of the fairgrounds

Then it was back to the barn for a very quick lunch before riding three of the barn's horses -- she and another trainer had 13 horses at the show and "taking it easy" is apparently a relative term.

In a normal week at the show, she would ride more than a dozen competition rounds, often more than 20, on her own horses and clients' mounts.

If this was a regular Grand Prix day for her, this would be the point when Forte would change gears. She would go from teacher and coach to professional competitor -- put her students and client horses out of her mind and focus solely on Louie.

Around 12:30 p.m. she would change her clothes, listen to music in the car and "do whatever you have to do to get your head on, get your competition face."

At 1 p.m., Forte would walk the course with the other riders, gauging the distance between jumps, figuring out when to take off, how sharply she could make the turns, how to approach each massive obstacle.

When a jump is taller than the horse there is little room for error.

She would get on and warm up. She would visualize the course, the number of strides between each jump and the approach to each fence. She would cease to think of anything except the course and the horse underneath her.

Then she would go. It would become a game of feel and instinct. A game of how well she could get to each jump and how well she could recover if something went wrong.

Then Forte would come out of the ring, give Louie a pat and a treat and head back to the barn, with maybe a pause to watch and learn from other competitors.Louie is new to Forte but she's confident in him.

"He has the heart, he has the talent, so now we're just working on understanding each other and the communication you have to have with the horse," she said.

Forte smiles when she recalls the cold, rainy night in Ireland when she first saw Louie -- a big, lumbering chestnut.

"And when I sat on him, he was just incredible," she said. "The feeling he gives over the jump in the air is amazing."

Louie is big and powerful. He has a massive jump, one with a kick that knocks Forte slightly off balance over the fence. At this show, she was working on the parts in between the fences -- how to control his big stride to make perfect each approach.

Forte is new to the professional game. She's been riding most of her life and competing at high levels. But it was just last year that she left a corporate job in Manhattan to return to Pennsylvania and go pro.

Now she's on the circuit most of the year, accompanied by the barn's other riders, clients, another trainer, groom, stable manager, her mother, and two dogs -- Wayne and Olin.

Forte and Louie are among a rare variety of athletes -- ones willing to race toward a structure so tall they can barely see over it, and trust their partner to get them safely to the other side.