Like many riders around the country gearing up for the winter season, Alison Robitaille is experiencing a bit of a “calm before the storm” moment. At home in Middleburg, Virginia, we caught up with Robitaille in the middle of a morning schooling session while trying to outride some inclement weather.

“We’re still in Virginia, enjoying a mild first week in December, thankfully,” she says. “I think the rain is coming here this afternoon, though, so I’m sneaking in a few rides before it starts!”

Robitaille, who currently sits first in the standings for the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping North American Eastern Sub-League, is busy planning ahead to her 2018 season. Her horses will ship down to Florida this weekend, after which time she’ll be back and forth between Wellington and Virginia, where her children are still in school. Another top priority: managing the schedule of her most experienced mount, the 12-year-old KWPN gelding, Ace, who’s been instrumental in helping Robitaille climb the Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping leaderboard.

It really just gives me the amount of control that I need to place him where I want to place him without upsetting him.

“Really, my big goal [this year] was to get to the World Cup Finals, and we’re looking pretty good in the standings right now. So I’m really just planning out Florida and hopefully having [Ace] peak at the right time next year,” she says, adding that the grey gelding has been enjoying some time off this December.

This will be the second winter together for Robitaille and Ace, who earned multiple top-10 grand prix finishes during the 2016/2017 season and competed on two Nations Cup teams this year in Coapexpan, Mexico and Falsterbo, Sweden. In late October at the Washington International Horse Show, the pair finished second in the $35,000 1.50m Welcome Stake and fourth in the $130,000 Longines FEI World Cup™ Jumping Washington qualifier. Yet though there’s little doubt their partnership has hit its stride, Robitaille says that finding the correct bit for Ace has actually been a process.

“When I first got him, I started in a rubber pelham, and felt like it wasn’t quite the right fit. So I switched over to a hackamore-bit combo, and that worked well for a little while,” Alison explains. During the 2016/2017 winter circuit, however, Robitaille found she needed more leverage and, fortunately, Lauren Hough was nearby to lend a hand—and some hardware!

“Lauren was actually kind enough to lend me her hackamore and bit combo. She saw me go into a class in Florida and said, ‘He looks really strong—do you want to try mine?’

“I was like, ‘Yes, please!'”

Hough’s slightly stronger hackabit was an improvement, but as the pair continued to progress throughout the spring, Robitaille found that Ace wasn’t always listening to her as well as he could be. “He’s absolutely [a horse who gets stronger throughout the course]. In general, he wants to do the right thing, and sometimes, he gets a little eager and wants to take over more than I need him to,” she says, adding that it was during Nations Cup competition at Falsterbo when the issue became more apparent.

“In that big field, it felt like just at the end of the course, I was having rails because I was running out of breaks a little bit,” Robitaille explains. The solution? Adding a black plastic noseband to the bridle’s hackamore portion—a piece of equipment some may recognize from another well-known rider who’s partial to them.

“I spoke to Alex Warner, who works for Kent Farrington, and she suggested using this plastic piece as the hackamore [portion],” Robitaille explains. “I did that as a combination with this bit, which was really helpful, and that has been working great.”

Alison plans to keep Ace in the same setup when he returns to work in Florida, though she’s careful to keep his show bit for the ring in order to maintain its effectiveness. “I actually use the rubber pelham that I used to show him in [for schooling at home], just because now that I have that bit combo that works so well in the ring, I like to save it,” she says.

“It really just gives me the amount of control that I need to place him where I want to place him without upsetting him and having him fall behind the bridle.”

-Photos by Tori Repole.