For many equestrians, horse shows are not just another sporting event, but rather a part of the daily fabric of their lives. Whether preparing to go to a horse show, actively showing, or at home working on the ways to improve upon the last horse show, these events are irreplaceable for many equestrians and could be considered the backbone of the industry. For professional equestrian Margie Engle, the forced time away from competition has offered more positives than negatives and her outlook on the current pandemic is refreshingly upbeat.
Margie Engle is the quintessential American equestrian and her long career is not only the stuff of legend, but also a constant source of awe and encouragement for the next generation of athletes. Some of the characteristics that Engle is most known for is her need for speed, bravery, tenacity, strength – both mental and physical – and seemingly endless positivity. As a female athlete in equestrian sport, she has accumulated numerous prestigious grand prix wins all over the world and has been named Rider of the Year a record number of 10 times, beginning with her first award in 1989. Currently, she has a strong string of some of the most competitive horses of her career and she is showing no signs of slowing down, having qualified for the Longines FEI World Cup Finals that were scheduled to be held in Las Vegas, and eyeing a potential bid for the Olympics that will now be held in 2021.
If not having the ability to horse show would affect anyone, Engle would be one of the prime candidates. She has been riding competitively since she was a child and currently shows almost all year long, whether in North America or Europe. However, with the onslaught of the pandemic and no horse shows in sight, Engle has taken on a bright outlook on all of her newfound ‘downtime.’
“I have to say that I am enjoying it and it has been kind of a nice break,” said Engle. “We are always trying to get ready for the next horse show and I have young horses that I end up moving along faster than I like to, so now I have been able to back down and work on the basics.”
For years, Engle has benefitted from the knowledge of dressage professional and Olympian, Lisa Wilcox, to help her improve her horses’ rideability and fitness. The COVID-19 pandemic has given the two women time to work together even more closely to make sure that the horses are not only staying fit, but also developing that fitness properly.
“Lisa Wilcox comes to my farm at 7 a.m. and rides for a few hours while it is cool. I think it’s good for the horses to get out and do something different and the young horses are finally benefitting from a good foundation that we are able to put on them with this extra time. I have several 8-year-olds that I am really excited about, so it is nice to give them the attention they deserve,” noted Engle. “Lisa’s communication and input is crucial to me and it’s been beneficial for the whole team to have time to watch her ride the horses and really communicate with everyone about what she feels.”
The theme of personal attention has also carried over into her personal life. Engle and her husband, veterinarian Dr. Steve Engle, have been able to spend more time together, not only focusing on the horse care but also taking trail rides and working on their home and their farm.
“It has been nice to have quality time together and not be pressured to run from one place to another. We have been riding together for the first time in 20 years and have talked more on our recent trail rides than we have in years!” remarked Engle. “Also, it has been great to have Steve work on my horses more regularly than normal. Right now the vets are slowing down to only essential work and emergencies, so he is doing only the extreme cases and my horses. He has been able to not just work with my horses in the stall but he can finally watch them be ridden by Lisa and myself and put his eyes on what we describe feeling while we are riding. Honestly, I am really enjoying my team with Steve. We are good friends and enjoy being together. I don’t get tired of him and I hope he isn’t getting tired of me!”
The personal time that the pandemic has afforded Engle extends beyond the time that she is able to spend with her husband and her team. Calls between Engle and her extended family have been more frequent and she has been able to share jokes with her horse show family via WhatsApp.
“I am not great with all that virtual stuff, but I have been able to talk to my friends and family on the phone and I think they are really happy because I have more time to talk to them and see their kids,” said Engle. “My family is very family-oriented and none of them ride so this has put us on a level playing field for once. I am really grateful for that. After talking to my family, I am on WhatsApp constantly! Shane Sweetnam has been teasing me that I will be a professional ‘WhatsApper’ by the time this is all over. Luckily, I am very easily entertained and happy to send jokes to all my friends and laugh with them that way.”
For all of the positive things that the pandemic has afforded Engle, the negatives and disappointments are not lost on her. For many, the disappointment that goes along with not being able to compete at the Longines FEI World Cup Finals and having to postpone dreams of potentially being a part of an Olympic team would be devastating, however, Engle believes that taking everything in stride is paramount. Her attitude is the perfect example of the kind of mental fortitude that is hard-won after a lifetime in a competitive sport.
“I have been in this sport long enough to know that there are a lot of disappointments and you have to roll with the punches. You can’t look at all the negatives and focus on the bad things that are happening. You can’t do anything about the past except to try and learn from your mistakes and try to make something positive out of it. Regardless of the situation, you just have to keep working through it,” reflected Engle. “It is disappointing not to go to the World Cup Finals because I was going to take Dicas and it was going to be his first championship-style event. I finally felt that he was able to compete at that level and he has stepped up beautifully, doing everything I ask him to do. Royce feels better than he has ever felt. I would have loved to be able to give the Olympics a shot with him too, but this is life and we just have to see how it plays out.”
Engle’s no-frills approach to putting one foot in front of the other and making the best of a hard situation was molded from the time that she was catch riding ponies as a junior, later forged with her experiences as a young professional.
“Whenever I had a really nice horse that I rode for other people, I knew in the back of my head that as soon as they started to go well that they could be sold because they were always for sale. I had to realize that it was because I did a good job that they were able to be sold. You can choose to be unhappy or see the positive. My positive in those situations was once people saw that I was able to ride their horses effectively, I got more nice horses. In time, I started doing better. It might have taken me longer than I would have liked to get to the Grand Prix level, but now I am able to compete there consistently with a group of competitive horses,” said Engle. “I was fortunate enough to have those horses because I learned something different from every single horse that I rode and over time that has made me a much better rider, I really believe that even if things aren’t easy, something good will come from them if you continue to put in the work. Now, I am in a much better position and own part of the horses I have in my string. When things are too easy you take it for granted, so I am honestly happy to have had the hard experiences that I have had. I believe this situation will be the same.”
With the timing of the horse show season still unclear, Engle is fine with focusing more on her personal life and her horses. When things do resume, Engle feels that she and her horses will be better for the break and ready to begin competing and winning again.
“I am enjoying doing things in the barn with my staff that I do not normally get to do. My house is low man on the totem pole but, luckily, Steve is really focused on things around our home. Finally, I can catch up on books and articles that I was forced to put to the side because of the hectic travel schedule. Luckily this won’t keep me from learning! This is a sport where you never stop learning so I have a lot to keep me busy!”