Aboard Skyhawk, she’s preparing for the biggest event of her young professional career.
Flying back to Seattle from her honeymoon in Paris in December of 2012, Alexis Taylor Silvernale received her favorite wedding present—although she didn’t know it at the time. Her husband, Joe Silvernale, feeling the glow of a glass of wine, suggested to his new wife that she should think about riding again. He’d previously seen a room in her parents’ house full of trophies from her junior career and asked about them.
So, somewhere over the Atlantic, he posed the idea of getting back in to horses: “Maybe hack and go on some trail rides on the weekends?” he suggested.
“I blinked my eyes twice, and we had two horses,” he recalled. “And she was riding with [champion hunter rider and trainer] Hunt Tosh.”
He barely had time to blink again, and Alexis was a professional with her own business.
“It was the best gift anyone could have given me,” Alexis said of her return to the horse world.
Now she’s making her first trip to the USHJA International Hunter Derby Championship (Ky.) aboard a horse named Skyhawk.
Before and after attending law school, Joe served as a Naval flight officer, and Skyhawk’s monikers reflect his former occupation: The 7-year-old Czech Warmblood is named after the A-4 Skyhawk, a light attack aircraft, and is known around Aleron Training Stables as “Buff,” a nickname for the B-52 bomber, “because he is a big, big guy,” said Alexis.
After first riding the bay gelding of unrecorded breeding for 10 minutes, Alexis knew he was her derby horse and immediately told her husband to schedule a vetting.
“It’s the feel in the air and the power he has,” Alexis said. The blaze-faced bay is “scopey, and you can feel how slow and brilliant he is in the air over a big jump.” It’s a feeling unlike other horses she’s had the opportunity to ride, she said.
At the HITS Thermal Desert Circuit (Calif.) this winter, Alexis was on the hunt for a high performance hunter. Judge and trainer Bobbie Reber told her she needed to go look at this horse that had been imported from the Czech Republic.
She bought Skyhawk in February, and the pair emerged as Thermal’s second half circuit champion and circuit reserve champion in the high performance hunter division.
Fast Flight To The Derby
“I always watched derby finals on the USEF live feed,” said Alexis, 34, “but never competed there myself. This will be my first time.”
At Thermal, she entered Skyhawk in the $100,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby in March. “I was really, really excited,” she said. She had no idea what to expect taking him into the big grand prix ring, but they cruised to fourth in the first round out of 38 horses.
“I was completely blown away,” she said.
It was dark for the handy round, and they were showing under the lights and the California stars. Then, Alexis said, “My greenness showed.” She made a mistake at the last jump and pulled out. The pair still finished 12th.
“It was amazing to get a ribbon,” Alexis said.
She then resolved to “keep my head on straight and not make the same mistake again.”
Traveling to Canada’s Thunderbird Show Park in May, they finished second in the $25,000 7up Stables USHJA International Derby. A month later, the Aleron crew traveled to San Juan Capistrano, Calif., for the Blenheim June Classic show series, and Skyhawk won the $10,000 USHJA International Hunter Derby there, taking all four high options in both rounds. Alexis also took the eighth-placed ribbon on client Leia Klingel’s Vesper.
Clinching the win in California meant that not only is Skyhawk qualified for derby finals in Kentucky in 2016—he qualified at Thermal—but he’s also qualified for the 2017 championship since the qualifying period runs June to June. “So we checked that box for next year,” Alexis said.
As of Aug. 4, Skyhawk stood in second place for money won in the USHJA International Hunter Derby West Region and 19th overall.
The Flight Back
After a competitive junior career, including riding in the grand prix jumpers and two wins in the ASPCA Maclay Regionals Northwest, Alexis stepped away from horses.
She graduated from New York University with a degree in finance and accounting and became a derivatives trader and portfolio manager on Wall Street and a chartered financial analyst.
“I had to walk away completely when my junior career was over,” Alexis said. “I reinvented myself in New York City and couldn’t talk about the riding. I missed it so much, but I couldn’t do it half-assed.”
In the end though, Alexis wanted to “relocate, settle down and build a longer-term life in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. She returned to Washington state to do some general management for her family’s gourmet food business and began training for an Ironman competition, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bicycle ride and a 26.22-mile marathon.
“I had to do an Ironman to fill the void horses left,” she said.
The Ironman competition, which Alexis says for her was “one and done,” is where Alexis met Joe. She started Aleron Training Stables in January 2014.
In her first year as a pro, Alexis qualified her pre-green horse Campari for the USHJA Pre-Green Incentive Championship in Kentucky, taking him from a hunter that didn’t know lead changes that winter to the top of his game.
In November 2014, the Silvernales purchased KGF Equestrian Performance Training Center in Kirkland, creating a home base for Aleron and its clients. In 2015, only a year into turning professional, Alexis won the WCHR Developing Pro National Championship and the WCHR Developing Pro Challenge at the Capital Challenge Horse Show (Md.) on Camille LeBlond’s Citation, a 9-year-old Wurttemberger gelding.
“How incredible,” Alexis said of those wins. “I never expected it to happen.”
And now, she’s on the road to the sport’s biggest stage in Kentucky.
Alexis says her parents were always supportive but asked her to keep up her end of the bargain with a high GPA at Lakeside School in Seattle.
“I’m a type-A perfectionist,” she said. “I always wanted to go all-out in whatever it is I’m doing and not let a detail slide. Sometimes I drive myself crazy.”
Now her support comes from Joe, who says he’s having fun watching her business and professional career grow. “It’s really rewarding to watch her build that team,” he said. After retiring from a career in corporate law and sending his daughters, Casey and Carly, to college, as of January 2016 Joe too is officially part of the team at Aleron.
Alexis doesn’t have children, apart from step-parenting Joe’s daughters. Instead she has “all of my girls I coach and my horses.”
Despite a decade away from the show ring, she’d always had a dream of coaching and training. “It’s becoming a reality much faster than I really could have expected,” she said. “I always wanted to coach riding, and I’m so grateful I can do it.”
Throughout her junior career—where she finished in the top 10 in the Washington International Equitation Finals at the Washington International Horse Show (D.C.)—riding and competing was “character building.”
“I share that with kids I get to work with now, not just the ribbons and classes, but the type of person the sport is creating—especially young women,” she said. “You walk out on a stage, just yourself and an animal; you have to be a strong person to do that.”
She continued, “There’s an underbelly to every industry, but there are a lot of really good people who do this and really good animals. If you are a hard worker, and you really love the animals, and you always put the animals first, you will have good things coming. It’s about the relationship with the animal.”
Work With The Horse
Alexis is always open to getting help and asking for it. “I was very fortunate to be taught by really good professionals and have really good friends that help,” she says of her junior and amateur career when she rode with Jack Towell, Missy Clark and Timmy Kees as well as her later work with Hunt Tosh. “I learned correctly that feel to put a horse at ease.”
“Working with Alexis as an amateur rider, we saw her talent from miles away,” said Tosh. “She has a natural feel for the horses that is truly a gift.”
“I was glad to see she came back as a professional,” said Towell, who added that as a junior rider, Silvernale was “meticulous,” and “you knew she was always on top of everything.”
Alexis said, “In terms of myself as a rider, and as a trainer I suppose, my method is you need to work with the horse. They are not mean-spirited animals; they want to do right by you. Every horse is different and has a different way of going and way it goes the best. It’s our job is to recognize that.”
Given her history competing in the grand prix ring while still a junior, why focus on the hunters and not the jumpers? Alexis still rides in the jumper ring and said, “I do like jumping the bigger jumps, but I really enjoy the hunters because of the level of perfection you try to achieve with every round.”
And the hunter derby makes it “that much more fun” with a difficult track, excitement and “showing a gallop and a different level of brilliance than in a typical hunter.”
She also sits on the USHJA Sport Growth Task Force and USHJA Championship Show Committee.
“I love every aspect of the sport,” she said. “I like breaking this down and analyzing. I’m a student of the sport and the industry.”
Did You Know?
Keeping with Alexis and Joe Silvernale’s high-flying theme, the word Aleron in their barn name is related to the word aileron, a part of the wing on a plane. Alexis also has a jumper named A-6, as Joe flew the A-6 Intruder attack aircraft, and they have a horse named Tomcat, after the F-14 Tomcat, the legendary Naval fighter.
“Including myself, we have a number of private pilots in our barn, so airplane names tend to be at the top of the list when a new horse arrives,” said Joe.
By Camilla Mortensen
August 15 & 22, 2016 issue