Many riders on the South African showjumping circuit will have heard of the great adventures that our top riders have been on in Europe, but one rider in particular started her European campaign in 2015 with Hilmar Meyer Sporthorses and has not looked back. With a slew of incredible experiences under her belt including Nations Cups and qualifying for the World Equestrian Games, the European circuit has only offered a small taste to our glory girl so far. We decided to reach out to Alexa Stais and delve deeper into her equestrian journey thus far and find out what she hopes to achieve in the future.
The JumpOff: How did you come to find your passion for horses and how old were you when you began riding?
Alexa Stais: Growing up in Kyalami, I was exposed to horses from a very young age already. My parents had a few horses at home so I guess my love for them was clear from a very young age. I started riding at the age of 3, and then I started going to Riba Stables for lessons when I was 4.
TJO: Did you compete actively as a Pony Rider? Who was the most influential pony you had and what lessons did you learn?
Stais: I competed in all the disciplines, often using the same pony. I had a few (really naughty) ponies! Bronwydd Bannut Foxglove was king of the show arena but I would say Windrush Larkrise probably taught me the most. He didn’t really like (read: he really didn’t like!) to jump water, so I think he taught me how to exercise patience. Although he was talented, he was very quirky (like any good athlete). Together we won the SA leg of the FEI Jumping Challenge in 2009, which allowed me to go and compete in Abu Dhabi! Even today I compete against the friends I made there.
TJO: When did you realise that you wanted to pursue a full-time career in horses? And is that when you decided that Europe was your next move?
Stais: I often travelled to Europe for vaulting when I was younger and I always particularly loved Germany. Germany is such a horse-crazy country and they really do have many of the best riders in the world. I think I kind of had the idea already at the age of 13, but I didn’t think I’d ever come this far. But by the age of 15, I was certain that I wanted to move to Germany as soon as I finished school! Fortunately, my parents were very supportive of my plans.
TJO: How did you come to find Hilmar and how did your journey with him begin?
Stais: I was training for the European vaulting championships in Celle in 2012, which is about an hour away from Hilmar’s yard. Barry Taylor had spoken to him saying that we might be interested in buying a horse. So my mom and I drove through to have a look at some horses. I still remember Hilmar saying to me that if I ever wanted a job, I should give him a call! I told him to be careful of what he says because that’s exactly what I’ll do! I spoke to him many times when he was on business trips in South Africa and we decided that I would go ride at his yard in 2015.
TJO: What has been the most pivotal moment of your riding career thus far?
Stais: Participating in the Youth Olympics in China was obviously very special but I would say jumping double clear in the nations cup of Drammen, Norway for South Africa with Quintano was a very special moment for me, my family, and my team.
TJO: What are your short term goals? The next 2 years?
Stais: Staying healthy, improving my world rankings and competing in Aachen, which has been a childhood dream.
TJO: What are your long term goals? And what is your plan to achieve it?
Stais: Continuing to compete successfully at the highest level including World Champs and the Olympics through hard work, dedication and building up a successful string of horses.
TJO: What is life like in Europe with an enormous string of horses to train and compete?
Stais: Being able to ride so many different horses is really amazing. I am able to test and improve my skills on a daily basis. It’s also a big advantage because I can rest a group of horses over a weekend while taking another group to the next show.
TJO: How is your time divided between home life and show life?
Stais: The last year has actually been quite enjoyable. Although it’s been very frustrating without shows, I also loved having breakfast at home on a Sunday morning, going to see or cook for friends on the weekends, and just doing things that I normally wouldn’t do because of always being away at shows. Don’t get me wrong, I love show life. Although it’s tough being at home for only 3 days a week, I really love packing the truck and driving off to our next show!
TJO: Do you find time to separate yourself from your horses and enjoy a day off?
Stais: I find it very difficult to not be in the yard, even on a day off. If I’m at home on a Sunday, I will always go over to the yard to help feed or take my horses out and check up on them.
TJO: What does an average day at home look like for you?
Stais: We start feeding at 7 am. We all eat breakfast together from 7.30 until 8 am. And from 8 am until 1 pm I’m on horseback. We all take a quick lunch break from 1 pm and carry on riding from about 1:30/2 pm until 4 pm. We will feed hay at 4 and the hard food at 5. Other chores such as cleaning tack and raking the indoor or outdoor are done between 4 and 5 pm. I often present horses for clients in the evenings too.
TJO: What does an average day at a show look like for you?
Stais: If it’s just a national day show, they can be quite busy as I’d have between 6 and 8 horses on the truck. I’d normally have 3 horses in each class. Depending on the time of the first class, we would have to feed before 7 am, and we would get home quite late too. International shows are a bit different as the horses are stabled at the showgrounds. Most of the time I would have about 4 horses, depending on the show. I always ride my Grand Prix horse before their classes and the others will be hand walked.
TJO: You travel a lot for shows across Europe that last several weeks; what does a journey like that entail? From passports/visas to the travelling aspect, to the time you spend away? Do you stay away from home for those days/weeks or do you fly home to tend to the horses at home?
Stais: When we travel to Spain for example, I would usually have a group of 8 horses with me for 3 weeks. My sports visa enables me to travel freely within all Schengen states. I am super lucky to have a great team that cares for the other horses back at home. As it’s the beginning of the year, there aren’t many shows back in Germany anyways, and then younger ones can get fit before their season starts in March/April. I would therefore stay in Spain for all of those 3 weeks. With 8 horses, I have enough to keep me busy every day!
At just 25 years old, the future is bright and still holds lots of exciting opportunities for Alexa Stais and, with her growing reputation, natural talents in the saddle, and a fantastic group of horses available to her, her journey seems to only be heading in one direction – towards great success. We look forward to watching your future endeavours and hope to see you successful at the highest levels and top competitions in the world.