Art advisor Nilani Trent spends her days sourcing contemporary artwork for top galleries, artists, and private collectors. But she’s also perfected the art of balancing her professional life in New York City with her lifelong equestrian passion. This winter, Nilani has decamped to Wellington where she shows her eight-year-old adult jumper, Casablanca 108, and her 10-year-old amateur-owner hunter, Autumn Rhythm, who also competes with Nilani’s trainer, Molly Ashe-Cawley.
We caught up with Nilani to see what equestrian sport has taught her about life, maintaining balance, and why you should never rule out pawning your engagement ring for the right horse…
NF: Okay, so tell us about your horses…
Nilani Trent: Casablanca 108 or “Blanca” is absolutely the sweetest horse in the barn. She nuzzles everyone, even dogs. She has signature pink lips and no matter what, she always gets me to the other side of the jump. Then there’s Autumn Rhythm, or “Gert,” who I get to show when he’s not competing in the High-Performance Hunters or International Derbies with Molly. He’s absolutely the best trail horse, and he’s really ticklish, so he bites his tongue when he’s being brushed. I named Gert “Autumn Rhythm” after my favorite painting by Jackson Pollock that hangs at the MET.
What is your typical show schedule during the year?
I compete at the Winter Equestrian Festival and Palm Beach Masters, then head up north to Old Salem, Lake Placid, Kentucky and the Hampton Classic. This year, I really want to add Gold Cup and maybe a week in Tryon to the list. I started training with Norfield Stables five months ago. Molly Ashe, Chris Cawley, and Timmy Kees are my trainers, and Hannah Murrin manages my entire equestrian life.
What are the most important lessons they’ve taught you so far?
So far, I’ve experienced the importance of having the highest level of oversight when it comes to my horse’s care. Between Molly, Chris, Timmy and Hannah, nothing is overlooked. As well, we use the top veterinarian, Dr. Rick Mitchell, and the top farrier, Dean Pearson. Because I never have to worry about my horses being prepared or fit, I can really focus on my own training.
When I got divorced, I pawned my engagement ring to buy Autumn Rhythm. It was a very therapeutic life decision.
How did you get started in the sport?
I was lucky enough to grow up riding and competing with Cindy and Bob McCullough in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. They let me show their large pony, Pony Express, in both the Large Pony Hunters and the Children’s/Adult Jumpers. I was this little kid competing on the grass fields at places like Hartwood Acres, Rolling Rock, and Chagrin Falls. We didn’t have grooms, so I took care of my pony and somehow still managed to get to the ring somewhat on time. I was completely responsible for his happiness and care and I learned that no matter what, I must always advocate on behalf of my horse.
How has riding changed for you throughout the years?
As I get older, I get a little more timid to the jumps, so my biggest light-bulb moment has been that I can’t learn anything from circling or pulling up. If I miss my distance, at least I can learn how to fix it. That said, I really enjoy competing and being challenged by a new jumper course. Even when I make a mistake, I always leave the ring with a big smile on my face, because I know how hard my horse tried for me. These days, I also really enjoy just relaxing with the horses around the barn. I like knowing all sides of their personalities.
What is your least favorite part about riding?
I really do not enjoy wearing my shadbelly in the hunters.
What does a typical “barn day” look like for you?
In Wellington, I arrive at the barn a little before 9 a.m. We have a really fun routine at Norfield where we all walk around the ring together for 10 to 15 minutes, just chatting before we really start working. The horses relax and I get all the good gossip. If it’s a show day, I check the board and try to watch all of my barn mates compete.
Have you ever taken time off from the sport?
After college, I took 10 years off of riding to move to NYC, complete graduate school, start a business, and get married. When I got divorced, I pawned my engagement ring to buy Autumn Rhythm. It was a very therapeutic life decision.
“Gert” was a very naughty pre-green horse and I had no business being on a six-year-old, not having sat on a horse in a decade. I really had to dig deep to make the decision to not give up on him and commit to putting him in a long-term professional program. That decision has really paid off because Gert has not just become my “Steady Eddie” in the ring, but when I ride well, I can win!
What is the most difficult part about balancing riding with your personal and professional life?
I have reached a stage in my career where I can take a couple days a week and ride, but I have learned that there are certain horse shows that don’t suit my work schedule. I used to compete at Upperville, but had trouble focusing because I fly straight from there to Art Basel in Switzerland. I know that if I go to Upperville again, it will be as an owner and not as a competitor.
As an art advisor, I find myself working exhaustively thanks to having an iPhone in my hand at most times. I always put my clients first. When I ride, I leave my phone in my tackbox and focus on something that is purely pleasure.
What have horses taught you?
I have learned so much about myself personally from riding, particularly in my adult life. I know that even though I am bold in my professional life, I can be conservative in my personal life, and the same thing holds true for me when I’m on a horse.
The size of the jump never bothers me, but a tight turn after can make me hesitate. Sometimes in life, you have to take a risk to move forward, the same way you have to make the inside turn if you want to win in the jump-off.
-All photos courtesy of Nilani Trent.