From the mountainous province of Isernia, Grand Prix showjumper Sara Battista reached the highest level of competition before her dreams fell apart. Now she is competing again for Vardags Equestrian in her native Italy. She spoke to me to share her story.
Sara Battista lights up when she speaks about riding.
“Every time it’s like flying.”
A long career in the saddle hasn’t dulled the thrill for the former Grand Prix showjumper. Having left her home town at eighteen to embark on an illustrious career, it seems she couldn’t be happier to have found herself back home where she began, now riding for Vardags Equestrian.
Competing as a professional showjumper, raising a family, and teaching her students in the sun-drenched Scuderia del Sole in her beloved native region of Isernia, Sara’s life seems charmed.
She’s warm, kind. There is a poetic cadence to her speech. It’s difficult to detect on first speaking with her the grit that must have brought her through a career scarred with injury and struggle.
She was determined from the start. Not from a family of riders, nor a region where it was even particularly accessible, Sara was always “fascinated by horses and began riding at the age of eight. “In reality no one else encouraged me to start,” she admits.
Riding wasn’t a simple thing to get into. As with a lot of the continent, regulations in Italy are tighter and you need to pass exams to compete at all. It is very different from the big equestrian scene in the English countryside where amateur and casual riders can trailer their horse to a show and compete in show jumping, eventing and dressage. In much of rural Italy Sara explains, and certainly her own mountainous province in the South, “there is no structure for eventing”. But notwithstanding a dearth in the equestrian disciplines, Sara was passionate, with supportive parents cheering her on from her first training sessions.
Riding led Sara to the world of showjumping, and at the age of ten, her first competition. The rules are simple: the horse and rider have to jump over a series of fences, normally around 12- 14 jumps, within an allotted time. If they knock a pole down or have a run out they gain 4 penalties’. Within that, there is a world of tireless training, travel and desperate attempts to keep horses as healthy and injury-free as possible.
At eighteen Sara left home to focus on her riding. She hoped to reach the very highest level and eventually to return home to bring riding and show-jumping back to Molise, Isernia. “Molise is my land”, she explains, “my family have lived there forever, and it may not offer the possibilities of big cities but ...there is nowhere like home”. She did return, but it was through ill fortune that meant that instead, after touching the top, she would find herself retiring from competition for years.
Trained by Duccio Bartalucci, the selector of the Italian Olympic team, Sara’s riding went from strength to strength.
Showjumping took her far and wide through Italy to Rome, Naples, the rolling hills of the Arezzo equestrian centre in Tuscany, the Horses Riviera resort in Milan. She took the two-degree licence, finally allowing her to reach the highest level of competition – Grand Prix showjumping.
Grand Prix showjumping has riders clearing jumps between 1.40m and 1.60m. Training was intense. But between hours on horseback, and scrupulously-planned jumps to train the horses, with a mix of higher obstacles a few times a week, Sara took great pains to schedule in time outside in paddocks and hacking. “For horses, even if they are athletes, it is important to relax and reconnect with their true nature”.
The bucolic picture she paints make it easy to forget the hard physical training, and dangers, that the sport engenders. “Did you ever get injured falling off a horse”, I ask brightly, expecting sprains, bruises, broken fingers. “The worst was the hip fracture” she replies. “I was forced to stay in bed for six months.” That she would want to get back on the horse after that seemed to me bewildering. “The desire to get back in the saddle gave me the strength to resist the pain” she explains solemnly. She couldn’t have known then, that worse was to come.
At the height of her career, Sara rode not one but two grand prix horses: D'Artagnon and Warusus. The first, an Irish giant: “a little scary but with a force and generosity out of the ordinary”. It was with him that Sara participated in her first Grand Prix. “He was really a good teacher” she smiles. “Now he is over 20 years old and enjoying retirement in the paddocks of the Scuderia del Sole. I love him so much ...He is my gentle giant”.
Warusus was the other. He had beautiful confirmation but was very sensitive.
She furrows her brow, “It took a while to find the right feeling to participate in important competitions but it gave me a lot of satisfaction when we did. He hadn’t had consistent results with his previous owners so it was a great honour for me to win with him.”
With all her hopes pinned on the much younger horse, they finally qualified to compete in 1.40m classes. The Grand Prix heights beckoned with the promise of a partnership that would have offered Sara a long career in high level competition.
But it wasn’t to be. One week later Warusus was dead.
“He died in front of my eyes after a whole night spent at his side trying to cure him.”
Warusus had died of a colic. The loss, in Sara’s words, destroyed her.
His death could hardly have been more traumatic for the young rider. The emotional damage was severe but the loss was also financially crippling, with his death taking away her hopes for competing in the future.
In the difficult months that followed, Sara struggled to keep going. She knew her current situation was untenable. Even though she still had D'Artagnon to ride with her, very soon his competitive career would have ended because of his advanced age.
But sorrows come not single spies and D'Artagnon soon suffered an injury, bringing competition to a premature end. For Sara it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. “I decided not to do it anymore. I no longer had the desire and the strength to compete. All my professional dreams had vanished.”
“I retired from competitions for several years.”
Sara went back to Molise, heartbroken.
She had a quiet few years in the region, training students at the Scuderia del Sole, her energies going towards her young riders’ performance and not without success. Students of Sara’s have found success in a number of Italian Championships.
“When I started this job here in Isernia, it was not easy. There was not a lot in the way of equestrian culture and it was hard to get good results...the fact that we come from such a small place makes me all the more proud.”
Things didn’t change until March last year.
“I’d had the joy of competing in Grand Prix but I was not ready to start again with even the easiest competitions until the beautiful Corino arrived.”
A chance meeting with Ayesha Vardag saw her entrusted with Vardag’s newly acquired Corino de Vardag. He was brought to the Scuderia del Sole to train and with Sara participate in competitions under the banner of Ayesha’s team Vardags Equestrian, and with that, as she describes it “I found the strength to start competing again”.
To date, Vardags Equestrian has 20 horses, eventers and showjumpers, plus a Falabella filly, in West Sussex, Southern Italy and Dubai. In Italy, Ayesha owns three horses, gentle Corino de Vardag, Belle Etoile de Vardag and Ersina de Vardag. Sara also rides her own horses Black Honey, and the baby of the group, Don Cascarito, under the Vardags Equestrian banner.
They are young horses, but Sara’s training is beginning to show real results. In February, Sara and Don Cascarito took home first prize at the National 5*, winning at Associazione Ippica Atina again a month later. Corino got his first taste of victory at the regional championships in Teaterno last month, keeping calm through a 1.15m speed class, and Black Honey was placed third in the 2* internationals at Cattolica in the 130 class this weekend.
Sara insists she doesn’t have favourites, “each of them have qualities that make them unique”. It’s clear how devoted she is to her horses. “I see Corino and Ersina every day, and I love them very much. Corino and I have been competing together for over a year; he’s a very sweet horse but also really nervous, perhaps because of his past experiences. But we have a nice bond and have developed a special relationship. Ersina and I have known each other for eight months. What she lacks in experience, she makes up for in generosity of spirit.”
What I’m struck with is the generosity of her own. While her career suggested to me that to succeed in the sport you needed physical bravery, and perhaps, sheer bloody-mindedness, her own advice was somewhat different. “Kindness” was her advice to aspiring riders, “to both the horses and other people”, and humility “because in sport—as in life—there’s always something to learn”.
These days Sara does the school run before getting to her equestrian centre in the morning to begin training first Corino and Ersina and then her own horses. She might have students’ horses to ride and two or three hours of lessons in the afternoon, “It’s a busy day but very rewarding”.
How does she balance being a mother, “to a beautiful six year old boy”, and her riding commitments? I ask her.
“At the beginning it was not easy,” she confesses. “Children demand and deserve the right attention and being a mother is a wonderful experience. But with a bit of effort, a little more sleepy and more tired, I managed to carry on doing everything I did before.” Now, she says, it's easier. “He grew up and is a very independent child”.
Will she teach her son to ride, I wonder. She would, she says, but at the moment he is more interested in cross bikes. “If one day he’d like to I will certainly want to ride with him, but for the moment it is right that he finds his own passion. Until then I will limit myself to teaching him respect and love for animals and to become passionate about something, be that horses or motorcycles.”
Her plans for the future? It seems she has her hands full at the Scuderia del Sole:
“At this moment all my horses are young and quite inexperienced. So this year is about preparing, growing and improving, and bringing prestige to the Vardags team here in Italy. Helena, Ayesha’s daughter, and a promising young eventer, has been competing in showjumping on Corino and Belle Etoile here in Italy with me (she just won the nationals at Chieti) and next year we will move her onto Ersina, whom I will compete in the meantime, aimed at the internationals. We also hope to have a foal from Ersina via IVF and surrogacy in the Spring, so she can keep competing, with top 10 world showjumping stallion Kannan as the sire. I really enjoy working with foals and young horses and Ayesha and I plan that this will be the start of an active breeding programme of world class quality show jumpers and eventers.”
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