Schulz Ambassador Adrienne Sternlicht
For show jumper Adrienne Sternlicht, it’s all about staying present.
Asceticism is a word most commonly used to describe the intense adherence to a set of restrictive religious practices. While often associated with the severely constrained lifestyles of early Christians, the term has more generally been applied to anyone who favors abstinence from temporal and bodily impulses for more spiritual goals. What is not so commonly known is that the expression has its origins in athletics.
From the Greek askēsis, meaning “training”, the term referred to the rigorous practices of athletes readying their bodies for physical competition. For the Greeks the height of this rigor culminated in what would become the basis for the modern Olympic Games. Held every four years at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, the ancient festival had both athletic and religious significance. It is perhaps no surprise then that accomplished rider and World Equestrian Games team gold medalist Adrienne Sternlicht lives a lifestyle abundant in both physical and spiritual discipline. A big fan of yoga who spurns superstition as a form of fear, says Sternlicht “if I’m psychoanalyzing what gloves are going to make me lucky, then I am not focused on what I’m doing, on what is important.”
Much has been made of Sternlicht’s intense rituals, which, to be fair, are probably more common among athletes at her level than the general population, but even so hers are impressive to say the least. From cold morning showers that balance metabolism and cortisol levels to pre-competition meditation sessions (that she admits she’s let up on a little bit in an effort to be easier on herself) Sternlicht has a sense of discipline that comes across even in the way she holds herself, in the tempo and intonations of her speech.
What also comes across in Sternlicht’s conversation is her deep love and devotion to whom she describes as her long-time best friend, her horse Cristalline, a Bavarian warmblood mare she describes as “different” than her other horses, all of whom have a place in her heart and stable. Says Sternlicht “she feels like my other half… she made me believe that I could do it,” referring to her impressive list of competitive accomplishments. Cristalline is the horse that took Sternlicht to the World Championships in 2018 and shot her onto the world stage, but that is secondary to what the mare has come to mean to her rider. “She is the smartest, most intelligent animal I have ever been around,” Sternlicht states. “Not just horses either,” she says with a sly hint towards the oft-wayward nature of humanity.
Ever since those World Championships, about four years ago, Cristalline has been off and on from injury which gives their relationship another twist — it is now void of the desire for accomplishment or outcome for Sternlicht. With all her other horses there is a reason for their training, a particular achievement that is at stake, but with Cristalline all Sternlicht feels is a desire to be present with her as they ride. Getting emotional during our conversation, Sternlicht’s feeling for Cristalline cannot be overstated. She says emphatically “she [Cristalline] has such an intuitive sense for who I am… I love nothing in my life the way I love her.”
Not only did Cristalline give Sternlicht her start in the sport, having acquired the horse right as she was graduating from Brown University with a degree in Public Policy and making the decision to transition into riding full-time, Cristalline also provided her with her first real moment of reckoning in the sport. “Surprisingly my proudest moment in the sport was last year at a selection event for the Olympics where Cristalline got hurt. I jumped the first round of the grand prix and I got on for the jump-off and she was clearly injured,” says Sternlicht, “I was completely heartbroken.” While this heartbreak was palpable, it was this moment that tested Sternlicht — she had to decide whether or not she was willing to push forward without Cristalline.
Sternlicht had spent the last three years bringing Cristalline back from the aforementioned injuries obtained after the 2018 World Equestrian Games, where it was this special mare who solidified Sternlicht’s place in the international spotlight with a team gold medal. In addition to this event, Sternlicht has won a multitude of other titles, such as a team silver medal in her 2017 Nations Cup debut in Coapexpan, Mexico, and first-place rankings in events like the Las Vegas World Cup Qualifier in 2019 and the Nations Cup at the Winter Equestrian Festival in 2020. While it was not Cristalline that brought her all these awards, it was still the idea of bringing Cristalline back into the game that kept Sternlicht going.
“She was the lens through which I saw everything in my life,” says Sternlicht. “Everything I did was for her, to be good enough for her, and in that moment none of that mattered — she still got hurt.” Staying in reality rather than slipping into morbid regret or self-pity, no doubt something her meditation practice has helped her with, Sternlicht goes on to say that that is simply part of the game, something that can happen especially when a horse has been injured before and is therefore more prone to being injured again. Nevertheless, she had to consider what Cristalline’s injury meant for her future in the sport.
“I had a moment of reckoning,” Sternlicht acquiesces, “I had done everything with this one singular dream of going to the Olympics with her.” Given Cristalline’s injury, Sternlicht was asked to jump the Nations Cup with a different horse and Sternlicht had a moment where she had to consider whether or not she even wanted to continue without Cristalline. Sternlicht ultimately pressed on, deciding that it meant more to carry all that strength she had gotten from and given to Cristalline with her, rather than let it go to waste over an injury.
Says Sternlicht, “that was the moment where I realized I can push through the pain. The beauty in this sport is how much it teaches us about ourselves and to dig deep and find our power. It was such an emotional few days for me and still choosing to be there is probably the thing I’m most proud of so far.”
This special bond between rider and horse, symbolized so well in the relationship between Sternlicht and Cristalline, emphasizes one of the distinguishing characteristics of being an equestrian — that it is, in a sense, a team sport. In riding, your horse is your partner, your teammate, and possibly, as is the case with Sternlicht and Cristalline, your best friend. There are many team sports, but they are most often all made up of members of the same species. In the equestrian field, the rider and the horse are so completely reliant on the other, so bound up in the same goal, and all of it is happening without the use of language. “It’s really special and, like in any kind of relationship, certain partnerships are just more impactful than others and for me she has changed the trajectory of my life,” shares Sternlicht. “Not just winning a world championship but also in my own personal growth and journey.”
When it comes to the most challenging aspects of the sport for Sternlicht, she reflects for a moment, ultimately saying she finds “not getting bogged down in the day-to-day and latching onto a narrative of how things are going for you in a competition” the hardest. For Sternlicht, whose interests include psychology and mindset, staying present is always the key, whether it be before, during or after an event. “I have to stay focused on the now so I don’t get wrapped up in over-thinking or worrying about my aspirations, what I want to happen,” she says, “in the end we only have about ninety seconds in the ring — I have to stay there, in that moment.”
Like her love of Cristalline, meditation has proven crucial to her practice. And also like her love for her horses, it has evolved — becoming something she has had to be less rigid about, more open. “I used to be really strict about meditating every time before a class, I’m less now because I found that I was getting so mad at myself when I wouldn’t completely follow my pre-show routine that it became a problem,” Sternlicht says. Instead, she has a more flexible mindset, and while she sometimes still meditates, she might also workout, listen to a playlist, or journal depending on what she wants at the time. This allows her to stay checked into her body and gives her the freedom to have different needs on different days.
She does have some practical tips for staying present, such as not drinking too much caffeine. Instead, Sternlicht prefers an electrolyte powder mixed with water or a mushroom powder she particularly likes that contains lion’s mane and chaga. In this way, Sternlicht makes a concerted effort to take care of her mental state and body. “I’m really into all this stuff,” she says with a laugh.
One thing she does not get into, however, is superstition. While some riders may keep wearing the same set of “winning” breaches or have particular pre-event rituals such as putting on their left boot or right glove first, Sternlicht avidly avoids this, going so far as to do its reverse. “Anytime I find that I start to get superstitious I do the opposite. If I have a bad class in a jacket I will deliberately wear the jacket again to try to almost get revenge on it,” she states. “I think it’s great to have routines because that gives me comfort in uncomfortable situations” she says, but Sternlicht stops short of ascribing magical thinking to her rituals, which she sees as a form of fear. “It’s not that I don’t have those thoughts; it’s more that I unconsciously do and then I consciously act against them.”
When asked what keeps her humble in the sport, Sternlicht laughs and says “Everything! All of it!” She goes on to repeat the old cliché — “when it comes to working with horses, the only thing you can be certain of is uncertainty.
“Some horses you think you know inside and out and they’ll still throw you a curve ball,” Sternlicht goes on, “not to mention the precarity of their health.” Like her meditation practice and her eschewal of superstitions, Sternlicht maintains that in this sport you have to let go of the illusion of control. She says her newfound venture of working with younger horses continues to teach her because their personalities are still being revealed and formed. “I have found that my frustration does not serve me,” she laughs.
Sternlicht makes a point not to ride her horses too hard in their training — “it’s important that they don’t feel like they have to work every time I ride them.” She does not take big jumps at home, and everything she does is extremely tailored to the individual needs of the horse, taking care to work on their suppleness or balance, but not every day. “I don’t like to grind on them at home,” she says, “I try to ride them two or three times in the ring a week, max.”
Like the athletes of ancient Greece, in her practice Sternlicht walks a line between discipline and letting go. At the end of the day, a horse is an animal (so is a human being) and she cannot predict the multitude of variables that will occur once in the game. While her competition record seems to imply that she has everything under control, Sternlicht understands that anything can happen over the course of a day. In the end she says it is gratitude that has taught her to stay calm amongst the storm that is competitive riding — gratitude for her horses, her ability to ride them, and of course for her Cristalline.
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