Young Rancho Santa Fe equestrian negotiates life’s hurdles on way to championship


By Karen Billing

Rancho Santa Fe equestrian Savanah Stuart overcame more than her share of difficult hurdles on her way to becoming the U.S. Hunter and Jumper Association World Champion Hunter Rider in the 15-17 division at the Capital Challenge Horse Show in Upper Marlboro, Md., on Oct. 5.

In the past seven years, the 18-year-old has had nine horses, but because of unforeseen circumstances, was never able to have one horse last for an entire competition season.

“It was a great end to my junior career, not only reaching that moment but all the things that led up to it that really made it special,” said Stuart.

Stuart has been riding for eight years, starting at age 10 when her family lived in Las Vegas. When they moved to Rancho Santa Fe — “horse country,” as she says — it only fueled her passion that much more. She took lessons, and her parents bought her first horse.

“Jumping was the first thing I tried, and I fell in love with it,” Stuart said. “I tried the other disciplines, but there was always something about jumping that caught my attention.”

A graduate of the Grauer School, Stuart is studying business at UC San Diego and hopes to get into horse sales or be in the horse industry in some way. She is pretty busy with school, but still finds the opportunity to ride about three times a week and works with trainer Ashley Cedillos. Her horses are kept at her home, and she loves being able to visit the barn to care for them and wish them goodnight.

While her two younger sisters had a much easier road to success with their horses, Stuart had to deal with disappointment after disappointment with horse injuries.

“I was just unlucky, I guess,” Stuart said.

One horse was injured in a trailer accident; another developed melanoma in his spine and had to be put down. Not only was she never able to complete a full competition season with one horse, which made it almost impossible to get a year-end title, she was losing animals that she loved, that had become members of her family.

“It’s taught me a lot, because I’ve had to endure that loss and move on emotionally,” Stuart said.

This year, her last as a junior rider, Stuart had two horses, Handsel and Andover. The hunter and jumper championship uses a point system for the best horse in each show. Throughout the season, Handsel was her most reliable ride and Andover was her “project horse” — she bought him when he was 5, and from him she was learning how to bring up a young horse. He was the opposite of what she was looking for in her second horse — but as soon as she saw Andover, she fell in love.

“I took my last year to be different and challenge myself with a horse that wasn’t always going to be consistent,” Stuart said.

Coming into the World Champion Hunter Rider competition, Stuart was leading the nation, but another rider was very close. The championship was only a one-day competition with two jumping rounds and an under-saddle event, based on how well the horse moves.

Stuart chose to ride Andover.

On Andover, she took second in the first round and was able to take a couple of mistakes and fix them for the second round, in which she took first. She also won the under-saddle.

Stuart said she was very proud of her young champion, Andover, because it was a tough venue for horses and they had to travel all the way from California.

“It was absolutely my biggest victory, but I think my bigger accomplishment throughout my junior career as a rider was learning to work with rehabilitating my horses and finding them a new home that was more appropriate,” Stuart said.

She had to make tough decisions to do what was best for the animals and had to have the determination to stick with doing what she loved, despite the setbacks.

“It was a really hard journey that most kids don’t have to go through,” Stuart said. “It taught me a lot about