It takes years and a full team effort to develop a horse to the top level of equestrian sport— with riders, owners, grooms, coaches, and many more focusing on giving a horse the best chance at success. This process was true for Mai Baum, known as Lexus, on his road to winning the 2023 Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event presented by MARS Equestrian™ CCI5*-L with Tamie Smith in the irons.
Smith remembered seeing Lexus, a 2006 German Sport Horse gelding owned by Alexandra “Alex” Ahearn and her parents Ellen Ahearn and Eric Markell, for the first time when Alex rode him at Smith’s farm. She was immediately impressed by the horse’s talent.
“[Alex] and her trainer came to our place to do a jump school, and I was like, ‘What is that?’” Smith said of the striking Lexus.
Alex and her parents purchased Lexus as a four-year-old from the South German Horse Auction in Munich, Germany. Alex and Lexus moved up the levels together over the next five years, earning top results at the one-star and two-star levels (now classified the two-star and three-star levels under current FEI eventing levels). Not long after Alex had that memorable jump school at Smith’s farm, she came to be a working student for Smith. While Lexus caught Smith’s eye at first sight, she left the riding and training to Alex.
“I’ve always been really careful about not riding my working students’ horses because I don’t want them to ever feel like I’m pressuring them to give me their horse,” said Smith.
However, Alex had different plans as she thought about the future.
“I will never forget the day [Alex] called me and said, ‘I want to go to college, and you need a great horse.’ She actually said, ‘America needs this great horse.’ And I absolutely can’t believe it,” Smith said after her and Lexus’s LRK3DE win. “I actually tried to talk her out of it several times for a couple months. I was like, ‘No. Why don’t you just pump the brakes? You don’t know what you are saying to me right now.’”
Smith and Lexus began competing together in 2015, and they proved to be a successful pair. They won five FEI events that year, including The Dutta Corp./USEF Three-Star Eventing National Championship (now classified the four-star level under current FEI eventing levels) at The Dutta Corp. Fair Hill International.
Smith hoped that Lexus would earn his chance to shine in the spotlight at the highest level of eventing, though she wasn’t sure if that was a pipe dream. However, the results at Fair Hill gave her confidence in Lexus’s abilities.
“I wasn’t always sure he was a five-star horse, actually. I knew he was a winning four-star horse. But it took us quite a while to get his confidence. He is so careful and kind of quirky,” said Smith. “But I think after I went to Fair Hill and felt how his stamina was because he is 33% [Thoroughbred] blood, and it [shows when he’s] at a five-star to be honest. But I always knew he was a champion. You can’t deny that by looking at him. He is super special.”
Lexus had some setbacks that kept him from regularly competing at the international level again until 2019. But he and Smith returned in fine form, helping the U.S. win team gold at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, that summer.
Smith feels her and Lexus’s continued success is due to their partnership that developed over the years.
“I think with any horse, as time goes on, you hope to develop a very good, trusting partnership,” said Smith. “Actually, always the quality has been very much there, but his confidence and strength for both of us has grown. I feel like the best way to describe it is like a hand in a glove. We think for each other. I think something, he does it. I look somewhere, he goes. He is just so with me. You always hope for that; that’s the end goal.”
Following competition interruptions in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Smith and Lexus aimed for their first five-star event at the 2021 LRK3DE, but 11 penalty points for activating a frangible device in the cross-country phase cost them a higher placing. However, the pair still managed to finish in ninth place. That summer, Smith and Lexus were the traveling reserve combination at the Tokyo Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, and finished 10th individually in the CCIO4*-NC-S at CHIO Aachen in Aachen, Germany.
In 2022, Smith and Lexus were ninth in the Badminton Horse Trials CCI5*-L. They were selected to the Land Rover U.S. Eventing Team for the 2022 FEI Eventing World Championship in Pratoni, Italy, and helped the U.S. earn team silver. It seemed that Smith and Lexus could earn a spot on the individual podium as well, but two uncharacteristic rails in the show jumping phase moved them from third to ninth place against the best eventing combinations in the world.
After Pratoni, Smith was ready to earn the top CCI5*-L result that she believed Lexus was capable of achieving. She focused on getting Lexus stronger in his self-carriage over the winter by working with her dressage instructor, Johann Hinnemann, as well as Sandy Phillips and Robyn Fisher. The training and competing at Desert Dressage V in Thermal, Calif., helped Smith and Lexus prepare for their dressage test at Kentucky.
“I ended up doing the Prix St. Georges over the winter. It was a really good exercise because I felt like that was his best test. He really stayed in front of me,” said Smith. “It is such a huge, collective effort of trying to pull every point possible. I couldn’t have asked for him to be better.”
After the dressage phase, Smith stated that she planned to go double-clear on cross-country with Lexus. The pair did just that to remain on their dressage score.
“I couldn’t have asked for anything more. That horse, he is just such a fighter. He has got a huge heart, and we have had a long partnership. These are a little bit what dreams are made of,” said Smith after her cross-country round with Lexus. “He and I have been able to learn together, so it has been really special. He has been able to take us all over the world. Then, to be able to finish here at age 17 and double-clear, even preparing on my home base on the West Coast in California, is better. It’s really awesome.”
Looking ahead to the show jumping phase, Smith said she was cautiously optimistic.
“I hope he has a lot left in him and he springs over those jumps like I know he can. I’m more nervous going into the show jumping tomorrow than I have been in the past, after my disappointment in Pratoni,” said Smith. “But my horse is healthier and feeling fitter and better, so I just pray that all the people out there just will us over those jumps.”
In addition to practicing dressage over the winter, Smith also honed her and Lexus’s show jumping skills. She worked with her show jumping trainer, Scott Keach, and competed at Del Mar Seaside Tour 6 in Del Mar, Calif., to prepare for redemption in Kentucky.
“We have a lot of really great, super show jumping venues out where I am from,” said Smith. “It was actually spectacular because Ali Nilforushan ran this event in Del Mar in this really trappy, kind of high atmosphere stadium. It was the first year they had done that, so it was great to get [Lexus] in there, especially after the World Championships. He is a spooky, weird horse. It was really great to prep him at that event.”
The hard work paid off as Smith and Lexus went double-clear in the show jumping phase to finish on their dressage score of 24.2 to clinch the LRK3DE win as well as the top U.S. combination for the Land Rover/USEF CCI5*-L Eventing National Championship presented by MARS Equestrian™ title.
“Scott Keach, who I show jump with, has been instrumental in my progression and keeping my cool and understanding how to stay in the moment and to care enough and not care too much,” said Smith. “I think he helped me learn that it was my job to ride [Lexus] the right way, and it was [Lexus’s] job to jump the jumps. I’m just glad he did. I’m glad he felt really healthy and strong and full of it, and I think he knew the crowd was there. I feel like everybody carried me over that whole show jump course.”
Smith was glad that she and Lexus are a determined pair and that Lexus got the recognition that he deserves.
“This sport, as everybody knows, you take a beating, and the resilient ones just keep coming back for more. You hope that one day it pays off, and today it did,” said Smith. “But after I won Fair Hill, I wasn’t certain [winning a five-star] would ever happen, but I just wanted [Lexus] to have his moment in the sun a bit, and today he did. He has missed out a few times, even though he has been very competitive on the world stage. I feel like it eluded him, and I’m just more happy for him because I think he is unbelievable. He is an unbelievable creature.”
In terms of Lexus’s longevity, Smith and her team take the best care of Lexus and are attentive to his needs as a top competition horse.
“I have heard riders throughout my career say that ‘Every year, [horses] just get better,’ and I kind of thought that wasn’t really true, but it is,” said Smith. “Like us riders, as long as you are always improving and trying to be a student of the sport, the horses become better as well, and you just try to keep them healthy.”
Smith acknowledged there is a huge list of individuals who have contributed to Lexus’s success. Lexus stays fit with a water treadmill and swimming, and he gets chiropractic and physio bodywork to keep him feeling healthy. Lexus’s grooms have even done physio on him twice a day for the last five years to keep him feeling his absolute best.
“My husband actually jokes that he wishes I treated him half as well as I treat my horses,” said Smith. “[Lexus] deserves it. I mean, they all do for what they do for us. I think he loves the sport as well. You look at him, and he just sees a camera and he poses. I think if you can keep them healthy, then that’s the ticket. You have to ride them every day and listen to them. There’s been times that I back off and times that I’ve pushed on. I think you have to be a really good horseman and listen to your horse to know.”
Smith hopes that Lexus will continue to compete but will listen to any feedback Lexus has to give about the future.
“He is 17. I’d like to have him for Paris next year. I’ll probably do some show jumping with him this fall,” said Smith. “He’s healthy and he’s strong. He’ll tell me what he wants to do next. He doesn’t really owe me anything after something like this [LRK3DE win], honestly. He’ll tell me when he is ready to throw in the towel, but he definitely doesn’t show any signs of that.”