Earlier in the 2017 year, 20-year-old Lillie Keenan made a well-publicized addition to her string of top horses: the talented, 12-year-old Swedish Warmblood gelding Fibonacci 17, previously campaigned by Germany’s Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. For Lillie, choosing the right mount at this juncture in her career is critical for allowing her to transcend the ranks while balancing her schedule as a full-time college student at Harvard University.

Keenan’s busy lifestyle means she doesn’t necessarily share the same level of flexibility allotted to many competing at the five-star level when it comes to selecting a new horse. A potential partner must have the kind of talent and maturity that allows him or her to compete on the sport’s grandest stages and to maintain confidence in that ability during periods when Lillie is away at school.

We caught up with the young talent to talk about the key to trying horses successfully and why a horse’s ability to learn from his mistakes can make all the difference in a successful future partnership.

What “type” do you look for when you’re trying horses?

When I’m looking for a horse, something I look for that is critical—that you might not be able to see right away—is heart. Heart and the right brain. Those two things you can’t teach a horse, and I would say that they’re definitely very important.

In a perfect world, the horse would [also] be very dimensional and built correctly. Most of my horses are quite small and then I have one who is over 17 hands, so to me, size doesn’t make a difference if they can jump. Of course, you’d like a horse to be built in a way that allows them to put up with the work of a top-level show jumper, but there are always outliers who can prove any vet wrong. I think when you’re buying a young horse, it’s hard to take risks like that, but some of the best riders in the world [have].

 What are six important factors that each horse you buy must have?

  • Heart
  • Balance
  • Carefulness
  • Ability
  • Trainability
  • Soundness

 Who is your top horse and what was your first impression when you tried him or her?

I’m very lucky to say that’s a tough question. That doesn’t mean that [this horse] is more or less talented than the others, but at the moment, the one that I probably have the strongest relationship with is Super Sox. I’ve had him now for three years and when I first tried him, it wasn’t an obvious buy. There were various question marks, but the one thing that was so clear to me is he just gave me a feeling that I couldn’t verbalize. I felt like he was really trying for me, and I felt like he had the heart. When I purchased him, I didn’t dream that he’d be jumping the level that he’s proven [he can] win at, so I was very lucky with the way that it worked out.

 Do you think that you can truly understand a horse in only an hour or so of meeting them in a trial?

Absolutely not. I think that doing research ahead of time and trying not to get too caught up in the moment is crucial. When you’re trying a horse and you only have an hour to be on it, make sure you know all of its results and make sure you study as many videos as you can. If you know the people who own it or who have seen the horse since it was young that, of course, makes a difference. You really want to know the story behind the horse in order to get a full picture, because any horse can have a good and bad day. They can really impress and they can really disappoint in an hour, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the final word of whether or not they’re a good or a bad horse.

If you do the homework before you ever sit on the horse, you’re going to have a much clearer picture of what your question marks are and what you might want to test. For example, if you’re unsure of the scope, when you’re trying the horse, you could jump a combination. Little things like that that you can just have in your mind. Or, if you’re questioning the horse’s rideability or its trainability, maybe you set up a line and you jump it a few times, and then you slightly challenge yourself with the distances and the changes to see how willing the horse is to learn from its mistakes.

When trying a horse, if it has a rail, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad horse and it doesn’t mean that it won’t work out. I had rails when I tried Super Sox and it was one of the best buys I’ve ever made. He always improved under saddle and he improved as I worked him, and I think that’s a critical component of a special horse. They have to be willing to learn and they have to be intelligent enough to learn. If that means that in the transitions, they have to improve, or maybe they make a jumping mistake but they come back around and right themselves, that’s something that is critical. They have to be willing to learn.

 When it comes to looking for a horse, what is a deal-breaker for you?

A horse that quits. Not a horse that refuses or stops—I’ve bought horses that stopped when I tried them, and it could’ve been my error or it could’ve been because they’re careful— but a horse that looks to give up. Right now [with my schedule], I don’t get to ride every day. On occasion, I have to travel to a CSI5* show after not having sat on a horse for a week, and that’s not ideal—I’ve put high expectations and pressure on myself to be able to do that, and it’s very demanding. But I have to be realistic and I need to work with horses that suit me. Having a horse that would make me question myself could be detrimental to my own riding and my own confidence on a horse. A horse that tries for you can really change [your] career, and if you have a horse that doesn’t believe in itself, there’s no chance that it’s going to believe in you.

 Are there any lessons you’ve learned or tips you would pass on to fellow horse-shoppers?

Trust your gut and your instinct. If someone tells you that it’s the best horse in the world but it doesn’t give you that special feeling, it might be the best in the world for Marcus Ehning or Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the best horse in the world for you. It has to be a match.