This month’s Rider Spotlight feature goes to American rider, Hannah Selleck, who is making quite the name for herself in the show jumping world. We caught up with Hannah while competing at Spruce Meadows, which also happens to be where she was exposed to show jumping years ago. As a young girl, Hannah spent a summer in Alberta, Canada, while her father, Tom Sellek, filmed Crossfire Trail. During that time, her family was invited to attend an equestrian event at Spruce Meadows, and the rest is history. After a successful junior career, Hannah worked for top professionals before she suffered a serious riding injury in 2018, however, she never lost her love for the sport and was determined to return to the show ring stronger than ever.
In the full article, hear Hannah reflect on her time at Spruce Meadows where she finished with a top-twelve placing in the ATCO Queen Elizabeth II Cup, discuss how her serious injuries made her a stronger rider, her passion for horses, and so much more.
How was Spruce Meadows?
Spruce Meadows (SM) was fantastic. We got to jump the $1M Queen’s Cup for the first time yesterday, so that was a dream! It does not quite seem real, successfully jumping all these 5* classes and ending with a top 12 finish in this prestigious class. It was my second 1.60m 5* grand prix (GP); I did my first one the week before during the SM Pan American tournament.
Cloud and I started the summer series in the 2* classes. During the first week at the SM Continental, we got unlucky with the poor air quality from the smoke and scratched the 2* GP.
The following week at the SM National, we moved into the 5* division. Cloud was excellent in our first class in the International Ring, jumping clear to place 4th in the 1.50m Qualifier. Cloud and I continued to jump well in the 5* 1.50m classes throughout the week. A horrible rain and thunderstorm came in on Sunday of the SM National. We decided to jump the class still, and I am so grateful for this because my confidence in my horse grew jumping in those conditions. He remained so brave and scopey.
After the off week, we continued in the 5* at the SM Pan American. Cloud started the week, returning to the newly opened Meadows On The Green arena, jumping clear again to finish 6th. My coach, and Cloud’s previous owner/rider, Mario Deslauriers, encouraged us to jump the 1.55m Qualifier next, and Cloud rose to the occasion with a 4-fault round over a technical track. Mario and I thought, let’s go for it and give the 1.60m GP a go. Cloud was incredible!
During the final week at the SM North American, we decided to test our progress and walk straight into the $80k 1.55m 5* Qualifier. We had the round of my life! Cloud was incredible, jumping double clear to finish 5th. Our goal was a good score in this class to help with consideration for Nations Cup Teams later this year. We achieved that, so again, Mario encouraged us to enter the GP; this time, it was the $1M ATCO Queen Elizabeth II Cup. Jumping this class was a dream, and finishing top 12 (11th place) was incredible for the first time in it.
The jumping is real at SM; I think Beezie Madden said this before. SM is one of the few shows that uses more natural obstacles like ditches, double liverpools, and the open water. I enjoy this about the venue.
How did you get into riding and what initially drew you to horses?
I started riding when I was four years old. I grew up on a ranch and was lucky to have some lovely ranch horses. My dad knew how to ride; he had learned to ride for Western movies. He is a good horseman.
My parents encouraged me to take lessons at the local stable, Foxfield Riding School, as well as other sports/activities (like ballet, skating, soccer, and piano), and riding was just another one of those. When I was about 13, I was serious about ballet and riding, but I realized I needed to choose if I wanted to specialize in one to be good at it, so I decided on riding. When I was about 15, I made the tough decision to move from Foxfield to train with Mark Bone so I could start showing more. As things became more serious and I was doing the big equitation and junior jumpers, I moved to Karen Healey. Nicki Simpson mentored me throughout my junior years, helping me move to Mark and Karen when the time was right. She also helped me get some great horses in my junior years, like Banditio, El Campeon’s Hazel, El Campeon’s Invitation, El Campeon’s Jojo, and Cirka Z.
Seeing the shows as I moved up the junior ranks was different from my upbringing at Foxfield, where we took care of our own horses, didn’t have grooms, and did more local shows.
How has your background in horsemanship shaped your career?
It has been invaluable. I learned to ride at Foxfield Riding School, and they were all about teaching us you know how to be true horsewomen. Foxfield had a summer program when you were about 10 years old called the "little sister big sister program," where an older girl who had come through the program, mentored a younger girl over the summer. There were lectures on braiding, clipping, bandaging, conformation, feed/medication, first aid, colic versus tying up, course building, lateral work, etc. At the end of the summer, there was a written test and a show to evaluate the "little sisters." At the show, the "little sisters" are assigned a school horse to clip, braid, and completely turn out for a show. The school horse assigned to each "little sister" is new to her; she had never ridden it. This was a great test in horsemanship, to get on an unknown horse and do a flat and jumping class. Each "little sister" is evaluated/scored on the written test, horse turnout, and riding/show classes, and a winner is awarded in each category and overall. It was an invaluable program for me. I would love to see more kids learn like this (similar to pony club) because it teaches young riders to develop a genuine love for the horse, not just the sport–becoming an expert in the craft.
What’s your favorite memory from your junior years?
Winning the USEF Talent Search Finals West and winning double gold at the North American Young Riders Championship (NAYRC). NAYRC gold was a goal I had set early in my junior career, probably when I got my incredible horse, Bauer. I had gone to NAYRC on the junior team in 2006 when I first got Bauer. I remember watching the Young Rider division and wanting to come back on that team. I had setbacks along the way–qualifying for the team and then being unable to go to the championship because my horse got hurt. Which, of course, made accomplishing our double gold goal all the sweeter.
I like that feeling of reward after fighting through, and finally, when it comes together, there is much gratification in the process. I love this part of the sport. And having this somewhat unknown with an animal as your teammate makes it all the more exciting. The win gave me the confidence that I could do this sport at a higher level and professionally if I chose to.
I like performing under pressure. It is a privilege. Like coming in for work off when you're on top, and you have more to lose, or getting called back in last and coming from behind where you give it all you've got and don't think about playing it safe. I did love the equitation for this reason. I learned that preparation was key to success through the big equitation. And this stuck with me through the junior jumpers and stays with me today. It’s that grit to train a bit harder. Maybe that’s flatting without stirrups a bit or training your horse in a triple combination where you want to encourage them to stretch for the C element and always fight for you to jump out.
After graduating high school, you became a full-time college student and continued to compete on the circuit. How did you juggle all of that?
My last junior year was my freshman year of college. I decided not to defer as some of my peers did to focus on their last junior year at medal finals–I actually don’t think my dad would have allowed it since I turned down scholarships for NCAA equestrian programs, so he was paying my college tuition AND supporting my horses (which I am forever grateful for all my parents’ support in this sport).
I attended Loyola Marymount University (LMU) in Los Angeles, which was about an hour and a half commute from the farm so I could keep training with my coach Karen Healey. After the medal finals, I had my sights set on NAYRC, and it was great for my riding career to stay under Karen’s tutelage, which had been so successful for me.
At LMU, I studied communications. I thought I wanted a career in Public Relations (PR). Entertainment PR was familiar to me growing up around my dad being an actor. I got an internship in Beverly Hills. I was very good at it but missed being away from the horses. It was the first time in my life I was only riding on weekends. I realized how much I missed not only riding but all aspects of the horses and being around them every day. So I decided to pursue riding full-time. My parents supported my decision and agreed to support the horses I had kept from my junior years, but my dad said I must turn professional and work for someone if they were going to support the horses I had. This was all right around when I graduated, so I became an assistant to Karen and her assistant trainer, Tasha Visokay. That was a great experience being on the other side of it after all those years of being the client. After about a year, Karen arranged for me to be a working student in Florida during the Winter Equestrian Festival with a top professional. I had never been to WEF for the season, and what an opportunity this step afforded me.
What was your biggest takeaway from these experiences?
Transitioning to a professional, I realized how much of a team it takes to do this sport–from the grooms, vets, farriers, etc. The constant effort of your trainers setting up the horse and giving you lessons. Hours of blood, sweat, and tears from that entire team go into those 2 minutes the individual rider is in the show ring. I realized this entire team wants you to succeed. Until I transitioned into this role, I did not fully realize how the scope of a team behind a successful rider (especially in the big equitation and young riders years).
Another takeaway was seeing holes in horse management–what’s behind the scenes, how the stable is run, horse care, vet work, etc. I was lucky to have a good education in horsemanship from my upbringing at Foxfield. Going into some top professionals’ stables was eye-opening; thinking I would see top management because it was a top-caliber rider… but I learned that correlation is not a given. Through work experience, you learn how to build a toolbox, the systems you adopt yourself and incorporate into your program.
In 2018 you had a major fall that resulted in a shattered tibia and fibula. What was the recovery for you like not only physically but mentally? What did you learn about yourself during that process?
I had several falls, injuries, and broken bones before, but this was the first time I got hurt and realized it is one thing if I am not able to ride again but another if I am not able to live my day-to-day life as I had always imagined and taken for granted. For example, running being taken away.
Recovery from the injury was long and tough. It took about 7 months until I was back on a horse. Rehab took a lot of grit and determination. I was back showing my own horses, still not comfortable jumping ones I didn’t know, and decided to remove all the hardware in my leg due to some lack of mobility in the stirrup with downtime in 2020. Immediately after the hardware removal surgery, I knew something was not right. I was in unbearable pain and was not able to touch my foot; it felt as if you were burning it with a hot iron. I couldn’t put weight on the leg and sleep was impossible. I was diagnosed with CRPS, a rare nerve disease. There is no cure and my active life let alone riding became very bleak. I was depressed and very scared I would struggle to walk the rest of my life. I was able to get the CRPS into remission with Relief injections from Dr. Abhinav Gautam. It saved me.
I was back riding but struggling with trauma responses mentally as I pushed myself back to get back in FEI classes. Everything emotionally from the injury caught up to me. I’ve always been good under pressure but now I couldn’t handle it well. Mindfulness practices through meditation and yoga helped me immensely work through the PTSD along with treatments through Field Trip Health.
It has been a long road but all I can say is encourage anyone struggling to fight through it and stay the course. Sometimes this is less of a fight per day and more diligence because a lot is about sitting and being present to deal with how things come up. Progress is not always linear but things will start to shift.
My horse Billy started to give me real confidence. I had a moment at WEF 2022 on the derby field where I had a trauma flash and tried to pull out of the line at the last minute. Billy miraculously still jumped the fence and we were unharmed. In these PTSD flashes the psychologist told me to “lean in” to the flash but that is very hard in a sport like riding when this happens on course, making split second reactions. The more I fought it the more it happened. I worked a lot on surrender. The following week we won the 2* GP at LGCT Miami.
Cloud has given me the opportunity to fully trust again. In trusting in him, trust in myself returned. He is difficult but so brave and scopey. As our partnership grew the fear finally faded and amazing things I never dreamed of started to come together. I know it takes ongoing work but I am so grateful for where I am right now.
What are your plans for the rest of the year and WEF 2024?
My immediate goals are to return to Spruce Meadows and continue our successful results there for the Masters. I would also love to get on a Nation’s Cup Team this year. This has been a goal of mine since Young Riders in 2008. I was named the alternate aboard Tosca for the team in Buenos Aires the following year after successful results at the 2009 SM Masters. I have not had a horse at this level consistently again until now; having opportunities with the wonderful Cloud.
For WEF 2024, I would love to build up my string to have a few more horses for the FEI classes, a podium finish in some five-star classes, and jump the Saturday Night 5* GPs.