There have been many iconic partnerships in the world of showjumping, but one pair that has quickly forged their way into the top of the sport, and our hearts, is Adrienne Sternlicht and her 12-year-old mare, Cristalline. It is hard to imagine one without the other, but following a dynamic performance at the 2018 World Equestrian Games (WEG), Sternlicht was forced to continue on without her partner-in-crime for a little over a year as “Stella” recovered from an injury. Much to the delight of adoring fans, Sternlicht and Stella are back in action, having made their return to the Grand Prix ring in early March at Live Oak International. Phelps Sports sat down with Sternlicht to talk about this amazing mare and bringing her back to work, plus what the future holds for them with so many of their plans on pause because of COVID-19.
At just 26 years old, Sternlicht has made quite the name for herself in the showjumping community, no doubt thanks to her stunning partner of four years, Cristalline. Upon teaming up with the mare in 2016, Sternlicht transitioned to training with Olympic Gold Medalist McLain Ward, a move that would prove fruitful for the duo as they made their first Nations Cup team together in 2017. After a string of successes, Sternlicht and Stella earned a spot on the 2018 NetJets U.S. Show Jumping Team for the 2018 World Equestrian Games, where they helped bring home Team Gold for the first time in 36 years. But then, Cristalline seemed to disappear off of our radar. What had happened to the superstar mare after the Games?
“She suffered an injury following the WEG in 2018,” Sternlicht shared. “It took us a minute to figure out exactly what it was. We took a conservative approach to bringing her back. With McLain gone for the summer and no major goals for her career-wise in 2019, we took our time. She didn’t start working again until last April, and I finally started jumping her at the end of the summer in 2019.
“She is an incredibly powerful horse, and also quite stoutly built, like a tank,” said Sternlicht with a laugh. “I wanted to make sure she was even stronger than before and ready to return to work because she is definitely not easy on herself in the way that she goes.”
While downtime was the best option for Stella, the mare didn’t seem to agree. When it was finally time to ease her back into work, Sternlicht quietly entered the mare in some schooling classes last December, only for Stella to quickly tell her that the small classes were for the birds.
“She was definitely rearing to go full capacity,” Sternlicht joked. “I created this idea of how everything was going to be because I had felt like I had improved a lot during the 2019 year that I wasn’t competing with her. She is my other half in so many ways, so I thought that everything would just feel like it melded perfectly in the beginning, but she was still a little rogue. The smaller jumps definitely didn’t back her up! She was wild!”
After moving their way up from the 1.30m bit by bit, Sternlicht and Ward agreed to gear Stella towards the World Cup qualifying class at Live Oak International in March. From there, Sternlicht admitted the pressure was on to have her beloved partner back in full force.
“I think being with her, riding her, it’s all unlike the way I feel about any other horse or thing in my life,” she said. “When she was coming back, I wanted so badly for it to all be perfect right away. I wanted her to jump the 1.30m like an equitation horse, and she didn’t! She was wild and running away with me. Once we got to Live Oak, myself and my head Groom Emma Chapman, who has been with me for two and a half years, were just so excited. I feel such an overwhelming gratitude to be back in the ring with her. I have the ultimate confidence and respect in her.”
Anytime Sternlicht speaks about Stella, you can feel the love she has for her radiating from her words, and it is apparent that the mare shares the same sentiment. Even after nearly two years out of the Grand Prix ring, the two trotted into the in-gate at Live Oak and came out third out of 35 competitors.
With their qualification for World Cup Finals sealed and their sights set on the Olympics, Sternlicht was eager to move forward with the 2020 season and check another box off of her dream list with Cristalline. Unfortunately, their plans came to a screeching halt when competitions across the globe were canceled due to COVID-19.
Sternlicht admits that when the travel ban was first announced, she went through a wave of emotions. “When it became clear that World Cup Finals weren’t happening this year, I was mostly frustrated for Stella because we were so ready for the grind! I was so relieved to qualify for the World Cup Finals, mainly because everything that I was doing this year was for her and setting her up to the best of my ability for the Olympics, which is a pipe dream for me. I firmly believe that the two of us could be an asset to the U.S. Olympic team. I look back at making the team for the WEG as such an experience of pushing through my own mental barriers. It was a bit of struggle personally to get to the place that I wanted to ride from. I wanted to spend this winter setting myself up for that same journey with the Olympics in mind, knowing that it wouldn’t be easy. In that sense, I was really bummed.”
It didn’t take long for Sternlicht to realign her thoughts and realize the hidden blessings within the break from competition, however. “Now that I have taken a step back, I see the huge opportunity in this time to get to spend more time with the horses without pressure. I can work on the things at home that aren’t at the forefront of our minds during the circuit. I had to get over my own narrative of how my year would be. That certainly took me a bit to get over, but now I feel quite settled with the Olympics not happening this year. It works well for my horse. I am trying to view it as an opportunity to be better than I am now.”
And with a new beautiful facility at her childhood residence in Connecticut to return home to at the end of the month, Sternlicht can cherish these precious moments of downtime even more. “Now I can return to my own little slice of heaven and have my horses just 30 seconds from me in my backyard. I love having my own space with the horses. I now have time to enjoy some of those experiences that many riders who grew up with horses got to have. You can bet that I ride my 20-year-old retired horse bareback around the farm and right up to the pool. To spend that sort of time with the horses is invaluable. To have my own place and to have this bit of a break to take advantage of that is such a treat.”
While it wasn’t exactly the plan that Sternlicht and Ward had laid out at the beginning of the year, the young rider is taking each day in stride and learning to adapt along the way. Their plans continue to morph with each day that passes as they await for horse shows to resume around the country. She hopes to show locally on the National circuit in the tristate area some in the fall and then maybe do a fall tour in Europe or the American indoors. For now, Sternlicht is enjoying the chance to allow her horses the opportunity to breathe, to focus on the basics and to delight in the joy that horses bring her.
“What we can appreciate most as horse people now is that our work every day is not interfered with by prepping for and competing at shows,” she commented. “We are very privileged to be in a safe place and to spend so much time outside when so many people are confined indoors in smaller spaces. I was just thinking this morning how I am so grateful for the physical space that our sport allows us and the fresh air and peace that I think horses bring to everyone.”