Sometimes, a talented horse can open doors you never expected. For Jeffersonton, Virginia-based eventer Chris Talley, 23, that fact is a reality, and the horse is the 8-year-old OTTB gelding, Unmarked Bills.

As a young rider, Talley was introduced to eventing in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he also competed in hunters and jumpers. After high school, he started his own business, retraining and selling former Thoroughbred racehorses, and beginning in 2011, Talley expanded his education as a working student for Australian four-star rider Ryan Wood for more than two years.

In 2015, after setting off again on his own, a fateful call informed Talley of a newly retired 6-year-old OTTB—a horse that had plenty of talent and was looking to begin his second career. That horse—Unmarked Bills, or “Billy”—would eventually take Talley from Preliminary up to the two-star and eventually, the three-star level, where this year, the pair completed the Fair Hill International Horse Trials CIC3* in April and the Bromont CCI3* in June. Next up: a run this weekend in the 2017 Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI3*.

In a recent Facebook post, Chris describes just how much his talented partner has meant to him:

“I never knew that Billy would become a partner I’ve never had but always wanted. A horse who showed me what it was like to reach my dreams. A horse who showed me that even the things I didn’t believe were possible, were. A horse with a desire and a fire in his eye to gallop around some of the biggest tracks in North America. A horse with a heart larger than life itself.”

With all eyes on the up-and-coming pair this weekend in Elkton, Maryland, we caught up with Talley to give him our Twenty Questions quiz.

1. At what exact moment did you fall in love with horses?

I had started riding at the age of four. Before that, my parents had always said I trotted everywhere I went before I really walked anywhere. I remember seeing my first pony come down the lane at seven years old, at which point, I think I truly fell in love with horses.

2. For riding, do you prefer black boots or brown boots?

Personally, I ride in black boots, but I think brown boots really add a beautiful look to a rider’s outfit.

3. If you could do any other equestrian discipline, what would it be and why?

If I chose any other discipline to compete in outside of eventing, I would compete in show jumping. I love the feeling of jumping a horse, and the bigger the fence, the greater the thrill!

4.  What is the most embarrassing thing to have ever happened to you while riding? 

While I wasn’t riding, I was at a show, holding a horse, when the wind sent a tent flying. The horse I was holding proceeded to both. My first reaction was to not let go, so I continued to do just that. After a few hundred yards, a group of people were able to stop the horse, that I was still, in fact, holding on to—or rather, being dragged behind. Luckily for me, it ended with just some serious grass and dirt stains on my show clothes and a good laugh.

5. What is the most inspiring thing to have ever happened to you while riding?

The most inspiring moment while riding would have to be the moment that it all comes together. From starting a young horse, when you see that they understand what you’re asking of them; to a brilliant jump school; to working through movements on the flat; to that moment when you feel it all come together.

6. What is your favorite #TwoHearts Moment of recent seasons?

My favorite #TwoHearts moment was finishing Fair Hill International CCI2*. The feeling of finishing arguably one of America’s toughest two-stars—double clear on a horse I’ve had the privilege of being able to produce since he came off the track a year and a half prior—was undoubtedly the most special moment in my riding career to date.

7. What was the hardest lesson you have had to learn in your riding?

The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn in my riding career is patience. It’s easy to get caught up in wanting it all right now, and as a young rider, it was hard to not want to be out there competing at Young Riders or riding the fanciest horses around. I had always felt like, because I didn’t have the horse that won the dressage, or show jumped clean, that I would be looked over. When in reality, the patience, hard work, and dedication can amount to some pretty incredible opportunities if you just sit back and wait.

8. Who is your mentor and why?

My mentors would have to be the Salazar’s, who own the farm [Zaragoza Acres] that I’m lucky enough to be able to be based out of. They have been unbelievably supportive in both my personal life, as well as my career. The opportunities they have given me are truly incredible; they’re amazing friends who are truly family to me.

9. If you could ride a horse from the past, who would it be?

If I could ride a horse from the past, I would love to ride Theodore O’Connor around a cross country course. He always looked like a cross country machine who loved the sport, and since my first Intermediate horse who was 14.2, I’ve had a lot of respect for “Teddy”, who made a four-star course look easy.

10. If you could ride a horse right now that is not your own, who would it be?

If I could pick any horse right now to ride, I would have to pick Michael Jung’s La Biosthetique Sam. I feel like by riding him, I would get a very valuable lesson out of it. Michael is an incredible rider, which I’m sure Sam would be reflective of. Maybe I would come off Sam being a bit more of the rider that Michael Jung is.

11. How do horses keep you grounded in the industry that you live/work in?

For me, riding horses as a profession, I think horses keep you incredibly grounded. With an equine partner, the risk of injury is huge, the responsibilities that come with horses are huge, as well as the cost. Not every ride will go the way you had hoped, not every show will end with you coming home with the results you had hoped. Sometimes, the highs are incredible and the lows are heartbreaking. But in its entirety, horses bring people together; friends, family, and those who are just there to support you along the way.  Horses, as well as showing, require you to work hard, day in and day out. However, in the end, the hard work, the highs and lows, and the hearts of the horses are a pretty incredible way to stay grounded.

12. What is your favorite guilty pleasure?

My favorite guilty pleasure is Starbucks. I visit Starbucks all too often, to the point they know me by name and my order is already placed walking to the counter.

13. When were you most happy on a horse?

Horses bring an immense amount of happiness to my life, so it would be extremely hard to pick one time when I was my happiest. I find myself to be incredibly happy on my horses, whether that’s competing, hacking, having a jump school, or just watching them in the stall or field.

14. If your horse were a famous person, who would they be?

If I had to compare my horse, Unmarked Bills, to a famous person, I would compare him to Viggo Mortensen. He is one of those horses who can pull off being incredibly sweet and a badass simultaneously. Like they say about Viggo, he bows for no one.

15. What is one piece of riding clothing or equipment you could never do without?

I have a very sentimental Saint Christopher necklace that I always wear when I event; it was given to me by my grandmother when I was a kid. It helps remind me when I wear it that while she’s no longer here with me, she’s with me for every ride, helping me safely through the finish flags. I don’t leave the start box without it, and I thank her for watching over me before every cross country ride.

16. What is your helmet of choice and why?

I ride in Charles Owen helmets. I think the safety and technology behind their helmets are second to none, which, as a rider, is incredibly important. The Leather Look [model] is also an incredibly stylish helmet for any ring I ride in.

17. Which famous clothing brand do you wish would come out with an equestrian line?

I would love to see Ralph Lauren come out with an equestrian line. I think they would be able to have a very marketable line of equestrian clothes that are both stylish and functional.

18. What is your biggest splurge to date when it comes to your riding and/or horse(s)?

I want my horses to be comfortable and happy doing what they do, so I splurge whenever I feel they need something to make them compete at their best. I’m pretty grateful to have amazing sponsors who have helped outfit my horses with the best possible gear!

19. What is the best piece of riding advice you have ever received?

I was at a three-day this fall, walking my course with a fellow competitor and good friend, Jennie Brannigan. Toward the end of the course walk, she said to me “This is just the beginning, one of many in your future, so just do the best you can do.” I wanted to do well that weekend, but she was right. That show, along with the rest, are just stepping stones. For myself, the beauty with horses is the development, not the placing, or the prize. I hope to develop each of my horses to the best of their ability, and if that ability is to win a medal or four-star than great. If not, then that’s fine too.

20. What is your life motto?

“You can’t plan the future, you create it”

-Photos courtesy of Chris Talley.