No one would have guessed that American show jumper Ashlee Bond had recently given birth just a few short months ago when she rode her own Chela LS, a 13-year-old SLS mare, to victory in the $100,000 Longines FEI World Cup Qualifier during Week IV of the HITS Coachella Desert Circuit in Thermal, California. Bouncing back into competition shape four months after her daughter was born, Bond proves that passion and a bit of planning`are the key to a successful return to the show ring.
Ashlee and her husband, Belgian professional soccer player Roy Meeus, welcomed their daughter Scottie Eva Meeus Bond on October 10th, 2016. Pressing pause on a riding career might have been a stressful choice for some female athletes, but the fact that show jumping is a lifelong sport took some pressure off Bond. “For me, we have such longevity in this sport. I’m 31 years old and can keep going for a long time.” Still, although she was just settling into her new role as a mother, Ashlee says she jumped at the opportunity to start riding again. “I just had to get back on! I got on at two weeks postpartum, which I wasn’t supposed to, but I could not wait any longer.”
For those that know her, this single-mindedness comes as no surprise. Ashlee’s successful representation of Team USA as a member of Nations Cup teams in Argentina and Spain and her major win at the 2014 AIG $1 Million Grand Prix in HITS Coachella are the manifestations of a strong work ethic and a no-holds-barred attitude. After time spent competing in Europe while building a string of world class horses, Ashlee returned to her Southern California roots. But when she learned that her star horse, Chela LS, had developed an injury and required a lengthy recovery, she found a way to look at the time off in a positive way. “I thought, hey, I’m not trying for anything right now and this is good timing to have a baby. Luckily, we got pregnant really fast. Chela and I came back at the same time! It was perfect.”
Show jumping has long been renowned as one of the few sports that allows men and women to compete on equal terms. As a new mom to a little girl who she one day hopes might take up the mantle, that’s a fact that’s not lost on Ashlee. “This sport builds such strong self-confidence in girls to go out there and hold your own against men and show them we can do anything as good, if not better! I’m a competitor at the top of the sport and I’ve never felt like I couldn’t do something as good because I am a woman. I think I have proven I can hold my own against whomever.”
Whether or not Scottie decides to one day ride at the same level as her mother, Bond hopes it will be a passion they can pursue together. “If at the end of the day, all she has is love for the horse, there is nothing more rewarding,” she says. The benefit of having an elite rider as your mother, though, is of course, the free advice. When asked what wisdom she would impart to her daughter, Ashlee is pragmatic. “It’s not always going to go your way and most times it doesn’t in this sport,” she says, adding that the most important piece of advice she would give her daughter is, to “keep fighting”.
One thing worth fighting for? A better way to make a living in the sport in North America. “I hope that by the time Scottie is my age that you can actually make money as a professional rider. In Europe, you can actually make a living. Out here, as a rider, that’s nearly impossible unless you have a great sponsor who is paying you and getting you horses.” For her part, Ashlee would like to see show jumping change to a more sustainable model, where athletes are paid to go win and are able to make enough on prize money to earn their way. The challenge, she acknowledges, is building an audience to support that model.
“Most people love horses, so I think the sport just needs to be more exciting for those that don’t know about it,” explains Ashlee, noting that show jumping is increasingly being picked up for broadcast by major networks. Commentators, she says, are the key to making the sport palatable to a wider audience. “Commentators should break it down into layman’s terms and make it more exciting for people. In other sports, there are professional commentators who are knowledgeable and interesting and funny.”
Social media is another factor that Ashlee thinks can help bring new viewers into the fold, and she notes that the strides made in the last two decades have been impressive, thanks in large part to improvements in technology. “Fifteen years ago, we would never have thought we could live stream and watch our rounds on our phones across the world,” she says.
Worrying about the growth of the sport is a big question, however, and these days, Ashlee has enough on her plate. Learning the ropes of new motherhood is one thing, but Bond is also proving that the time-off required by it will not be an obstacle to her success in the saddle. If her recent success is any indication, she plans to compete with a renewed ferocity. And the message is clear: Ashlee Bond is back, and she’s here to win.
-Photo credit: Kristin Lee/FEI