Ann Garnett–Wheeler doesn't remember the first time she got on a horse.
"I was maybe 2 or 3?" she guesses. "Really little."
She does remember the first horse she rode—a little chestnut Shetland pony named Sherry. And she knows she was never afraid.
"I grew up around horses, so I was always used to them," she said.
Her mother, Lish Garnett, was an equestrian and the one who first taught her to ride. Garnett–Wheeler, 37, went from being a toddler riding around on Sherry to taking top prizes in hunter–jumper competitions at prestigious shows such as the Washington International Horse Show, Pennsylvania National Horse Show, Devon Horse Show and the National Horse Show.
In 2007, she and her horse, Armani, were grand champions in the amateur–owner category of the United States Equestrian Foundation year-end awards. She and Armani were also the first place team that year in the age 18–35 category—and she and her other horse, What'd I Say, were second place in that category.
Garnett–Wheeler attended college at the University of Georgia and spent some years in Athens, Ga., after graduation. But eight years ago, she returned to Rose Mount Farm in Spotsylvania to take over the equestrian facility there from her mother.
"I always knew this is what I wanted to do," she said. "It made sense to come home and do it here."
Rose Mount has been in her mother's family since before the Civil War, Garnett–Wheeler said. It's where she grew up and where her mother grew up. Her mother and father, John Garnett III—the former Spotsylvania School Board member and owner of Garnett Heating and Air—live in the old house and Ann and her husband, Robert Wheeler, live in a new house at the back of the property.
Today, Rose Mount's rolling green paddocks and 13-stall barn are home to 26 warmblood and thoroughbred horses—"too many," Garnett–Wheeler says—that she and her riding students show in top-level hunter-jumper competitions throughout the country.
Garnett–Wheeler competes in shows at least twice a month, she said. She just returned from five weeks in Ocala, Fla., where she competed in the HITS Winter Circuit.
"It's really an all year sport," she said. "There's not a month off at this level."
Hunter–jumper competitions are based on the tradition of English fox hunting. In jumping competitions, horses are judged on how quickly they can complete a course of about 13 jumps with fewest errors. Garnett–Wheeler said the jump heights can range from 2 feet, 18 inches for novice riders to 3 feet, 9 inches for more experienced equestrians.
In hunting competitions, horses are judged on their manners, movement and jumping form.
"People think it's easy," Garnett–Wheeler said. "They think the horse does all the work. That's so not true! It should look that way but there's much more to it. It's hard. It's not just sitting there doing nothing."
She takes boxing boot camp classes to stay in shape for her competitions.
"You have to do a lot of cardio for sure," she said.
It's the rider's ability to communicate with the horse that makes the sport look easy. This can be developed by spending lots of time with the animal, but only "to a point," Garnett–Wheeler said.
"There is some level of natural talent, too," she said.
She said that different riders bond with different types of horses.
"The right fit is important," she said. "I tend to gravitate towards [horses] with bigger personalities, the ones that are a handful at home but in the show ring they know their job."
"I have one that would rather I not pet him," she continued. "He's all 'leave me alone and don't bother me,' but in the competitions we work well together. Some people want to be able to pet and cuddle their horses—I don't have time for that!"
Garnett–Wheeler and her assistant trainer, Alyssa Berfield, teach 10 to 15 students ages 4 and up and are always accepting more.
"One of my student's moms just started taking lessons because she wanted to learn what her daughter was doing," Garnett–Wheeler said.
Rose Mount also now offers monthly clinics with a guest instructor who will teach the basics of dressage.
The farm's students often go on to ride at the college level on Intercollegiate Horse Show Association or National Collegiate Equestrian Association teams.
Rose Mount also hosts its own USEF premier-rated horse show, held over five days in April.
"We have 200 to 300 horses here," she said. "It's like a circus."
Garnett–Wheeler said her husband, who she met through her brother and who also grew up in the area, doesn't ride and neither does her father.
"They both just got thrown into this," she said with a laugh. "They married into it. Sometimes they go to car shows together to get away."
She's fallen off horses "too many times to count" and even broke her arm after a horse kicked her, but she plans to keep riding and competing until her body tells her she's too old.
"I can't put into words what I love about it," she said.