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Lillie Keenan: “It is about learning life”

Tuesday, 11 July 2017
Interview

Photo (c) World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen Lillie together with Super Sox, that she has had lots of success with. "I know I should not pick favourites, but he is like my pet,” she says. All photos (c) World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen.

World of Showjumping meets USA’s hugely talented Lillie Keenan, and discovers an exceptionally disciplined 20-year-old who juggles her jumping career with studies at Harvard University. “I believe we all need to find our own path. It is not a race to get to the top, but I want to make sure I give myself the best shot at making it,” Keenan says. “My family makes it possible for me to pursue my endeavors."

Keenan is usually in the spotlight due to her good results, but more recently she stole the headlines for another reason, as the young American rider acquired Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum’s Olympic ride Fibonacci. “If you purchase a famous showjumper, it of course comes with pressure,” Lillie says. “When I first got Fibonacci, I received so many messages from so many people. For me, I have tried to turn all that into motivation. Not only has Fibonacci helped the German team to get an Olympic medal, he has been everywhere in the world and jumped everything – of course it gives you confidence going into the ring. I feel ridiculously lucky to have him!”

“It has been important for me to remember though, that even if I aim to be like Meredith – I will never be Meredith. I am Lillie Keenan, and I hope to be the best Lillie Keenan that I can be,” Lillie smiles. “I have to develop my own relationship with Fibonacci, and hopefully we can realize great things and achieve goals together,” Lillie says. 

In the process of getting to know her new horse, Lillie has found great support in Fibonacci’s former rider Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum. “Meredith has been extremely helpful, and if she is at the show she always comes to watch his rounds. To have that kind of support from someone that I look up to, is a really gratifying experience and I can only hope to make her proud with what the horse will go on and do with me. For sure, the first time I was showing Fibonacci, I was nervous – but I came out of it and improved,” Lillie says.

“I have some other really special horses as well,” Lillie continues. “I am really comfortable with them too, even if they lack the experience that Fibonacci has. My top four horses now are Fibonacci, Super Sox, Skyhorse and Be Gentle. Super Sox is a funny horse, we never dreamed of him turning into the horse he is now. I think he is really the poster child to what a good program, good management and organized planning can do,” Lillie explains. “I showed Super Sox in America in 2015 believing to only make it to 1.50m level, now he is a five-star horse. Together we have learned a lot, and that is such a rewarding experience for me. I know I should not pick favourites, but he is like my pet,” Lillie laughs. “Skyhorse is a bit less experienced, he is a different kind of horse but I think he has all the talent. He has just stepped up to five-star level now, I am still figuring him out. Be Gentle is my focus for speed and 1.50m classes, I call her the Speed Queen – she is such a fun horse to have, she is quite a personality, she really wants to win,” Lillie tells about her string of horses.

Photo (c) World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen Lillie together with her new super star Fibonacci: “I have to develop my own relationship with Fibonacci, and hopefully we can realize great things and achieve goals together,” Lillie says.

Born in New York City, it was Lillie’s mother who put her on a pony and that is where it all began. “Riding is something I discovered in the pictures of my mom – she rode when she was a junior. I saw photos of her and I loved animals, so I wanted to try riding. My mom took me to this very small schooling stable in the middle of New York City. I really fell in love with horses, just being around them – not at all in the competitive aspect. I did not know the sport really even existed! I had never seen showjumping in the Olympics, I did not truly understand it was a career path I could pursue,” Lillie explains. “After about a year, my teachers said to my parents that it was clear I had a lot of ambition – even for a 6-year-old girl – and that they should try to take me to a show stable,” Lillie laughs. “I got my first pony when I was seven, and I trained at Heritage Farm. I stayed with them for 11 years – they taught me how to ride, they taught me how to compete. I think it is unique to stay with a trainer for so long, and I feel very lucky to have found such a great fit for me. I won a lot with them,” Lillie tells about her early mentors Andre and Michael Dignelli and Patricia Griffith.

As Lillie was transitioning out of her extremely successful time at junior level, trying to step into the professional classes – she found herself struggling. “I think there were high expectations and I definitely believed I was better than I really was – I had a lot of confidence,” Lillie reflects. “Jumping the Suncasts and 1.50m classes, I realized I could not produce consistent results. I felt like something was missing. I really wanted to learn how to develop horses, train them to Grand Prix level, and, in doing so, become a professional rider— I am not there yet, it is still a work in progress! I realized I did not know enough in order to get where I wanted to be,” Lillie tells. “That year of transitioning in Wellington was an eye-opening experience for me. I could have stayed in my comfort zone, and stick to the level I was good at – but I felt I wanted to learn more."

It was in Wellington that Lillie met her future trainer, the Irish rider Cian O’Connor. “I had noticed that a bunch of the professionals seemed to really have their own system, and I noticed that Cian and his team always seemed to deliver on the day they had aimed for. I had seen him in the course walks and teaching Nicole Walker. With him, I got an opportunity to transition not only to the European system, but to also being a professional myself,” Lillie tells about the beginning of the partnership with O’Connor.

Lillie now trains full time under Cian’s guidance, and reveals that nothing is left to coincidence. “He is very aware of the fact that I have high expectations for myself,” Lillie says. “Cian and his team at Karlswood manage everything for my horses. We plan months, almost the entire year ahead, so we can work towards different goals. They are very detail orientated, and that really works for my personality and how I like to work. Ross Mulholland and Michael Kelly partner with Cian in developing my riding and my horses, and Karina Macduff takes impeccable care of my horses. I could not ask for a harder-working team behind me.” 

Photo (c) World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen Lillie together with her trainer Cian O'Connor. “Lillie is very talented and very hard working,” O'Connor says of his student.

O’Connor believes that Keenan has what it takes to reach her goals. “Lillie is very talented and very hard working,” O’Connor says about his student. “Of course, she is very fortunate: Her family gives her great support and she has got wonderful horses. So, obviously that makes the job a little easier – when you have a talented rider and nice horses to work with. But, to achieve the goals when the expectations are high – that itself brings pressure”, Cian explains. “The goal is to make the national team, to get to the World Championships and to get to the Olympic Games. So, it is a programme every day, to try and get there. Lillie is in a stage where she is still learning, she is only twenty. Still, she has achieved a lot: She was clear last year in the Nations Cup Final in Barcelona with Super Sox, she had some great Grand Prix successes. So, for her age, she is ahead of where she needs to be –  but we can’t take our foot off the gas. We need to keep working if we want to make the American team, if we want to take part in the championships. There are some great riders on the American team and if she wants to be anywhere near them, she’s going to have to work very hard. Regardless of the good horses or the support behind her or our training program, the next five years are crucial for Lillie in order to become a top professional. Our goal at Karlswood is to help her as hard as we can to make it all the way,” Cian tells.

Lillie also has ambitions outside the ring, and combines her jumping career with studies at the prestigious Harvard University. “It is not a college that is aimed for individuals who have their focus somewhere else,” Lille smiles when talking about combining the academic side of her life with the equestrian. “However, since I was little my family expected me to do well in school. I had to bring home good grades and if I did, I got to ride. I think that discipline really instilled in me, how it is to work towards something – that you can put in the work, and then achieve what you planned for,” Lillie tells. “It is hard to schedule my time though. For the winter when we are based in Wellington, I study Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and then fly to Wellington every Wednesday evening to show for the weekend. It is demanding, but I am ridiculously lucky to be able to do that. During the summer I am not studying, and I can solely focus on my horses and riding. It is my favourite time of the year; I love being in Europe. I love getting to ride every single day, and to spend time with my horses.”

For Lillie it is important to have goals. “I have always been very driven by goals – and I mean that since I was on ponies, I was a fierce competitor,” she laughs. “For this year, one of my big goals is to make the American team in Dublin. But in general, jumping in Nations Cups and trying to be a consistent competitor on a high level are among my main goals. The incredible opportunity to compete in the Global Champions League is an eye-opening experience: You are competing at some of the biggest shows in the world, against the best in the world, week in and week out. It is a big test. Being in the warm-up cantering with the likes of Ludger Beerbaum, Laura Kraut and Kent Farrington, I truly believe it is an invaluable experience,” Lillie tells.

To be given the chance at a young age by her federation and Chef d’Equipes, is something Keenan is grateful for. “I jumped my first Nations Cup when I was 17  – most juniors don’t really get that kind of chances. To be able to have been provided the chance to wear the red coat, and to realize that there is a shot to make it – you kind of cross over this bridge. It is a reality check as well; for me I realized I was not nearly as good as I thought. And thank God I did, because I could also have stayed in my bubble!”

Photo (c) World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen Lillie pictured at the Karlswood-team's German base close to Frankfurt, where she spends the summer. "They are very detail orientated, and that really works for my personality and how I like to work," Keenan says about Cian and his team.

Coming across way more mature than an average 20-year-old, we wonder where Lillie finds her obvious mental strength. “I was given independence to try and stand for myself and speak for myself at a very young age. For sure I at times need to remind myself about it – sometimes I struggle being a normal 20-year-old girl. I think that the age is both a blessing and a curse – it is fantastic to be pushed, but I believe that it is not a race to get to the top. I think it is about a balance – I need to constantly remind myself that I am still learning,” Lillie tells us. “In our sport, you need to be tough – for sure. Not only are you working most of the time alongside men, but the level of the competition in general is very high. I think being so young, it is actually a good thing – I have developed a thicker skin. I think being a young girl in our sport, there are a lot of stereotypes – hopefully I can break through some of them and prove them wrong. More often or not, riding on the US team, it is all female riders and it is an empowering experience,” Lillie says.

Observing Lillie at shows, she always comes across as extremely focused. “It is very important for me,” she says. “All of your emotions and thoughts, the horse can sense them. You have to be very aware of yourself, and the focus is always on the horse. Something I have worked a lot on with Cian, is taking positive criticism. Even if I jumped clear, there are a hundred things I could have done better. It is important to analyse, but then also to move forward. I do beat myself up, I expect excellence from myself. That is not always realistic, when you are trying to learn – you have to be able to make mistakes and learn from them. I think my family really instilled in me the confidence to aim high, and if I don’t make it, it’s ok – it’s about the effort you put in to trying to get there. So, at the shows whether or not it goes well, as long as you feel, that you’ve put in your best effort, that is the most important thing. I get frustrated like everyone else, and controlling emotions is something I have had to work on.”

The days are long and rough, but Lillie loves what she is doing. “My favourite part of the day, I would say is when I get to spend time with my horses – not necessarily even the riding, but to just being with them. That is what I find most gratifying; walking into the barn in the morning and having the horses nicker at you, getting the feeling that maybe they love me a little bit,” Lillie smiles.

Even if combining studying and competing on a high level is demanding, Keenan is sure it is all worth it. “I think I will benefit from it and look back on it as an experience where I learned more than what the book read. It is about learning life.”

 


Text and pictures © World of Showjumping by Nanna Nieminen

(No reproduction without permission)

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