I can remember moving to Lexington, KY a decade ago and thinking: 

“Now. Now is when I finally learn to ride.”

I had grown up in a small town in Pennsylvania and had dabbled in a variety of disciplines and industries. From 4-H to Pony Club, Western Pleasure to Pleasure Driving, and Morgan Horses to Quarter Horses, we did it all.

With my childhood trainer, later in life at the 2010 WEG.


My trainer was an amazing woman.

 With a depth of knowledge in a variety of things, she was never short sighted or slight in her knowledge, and at the end of the day, horsemanship was her primary goal.

Whether we were in a jump saddle or western, our horses understood our aids. Whether we were jumping an oxer or running a barrel pattern, our horses were supple. And whether we were aiming for a western pleasure championship or our A in Pony Club, our equine care was the same.

Her name was Rose Watt, and in retrospect, she was amazing.

But at the age of 22, the black 4 plank of the Bluegrass was calling. I thought that if I moved to The Mecca, that simply by osmosis I would become one of the greats. 

A young Carleigh. Thinking my training wasn’t good enough.


These trainers were all highly successful–with accolades adorning their websites and sponsors lining their trailers. And I arrived and thought “Now is my time. I will finally learn to ride.”

I thought that the big names and the fancy barns meant better lessons. That the dollars spent equated the knowledge gained in a linear fashion.

And I was wrong.
I quickly realized in lesson after lesson with these big names just how amazing Rose was as a trainer, and just how little the last name of your trainer meant.

No one in Lexington may have heard her name, but they were impressed with my base of riding. And I quickly, and justly, switched routes. I found one or two trainers that reminded me of Rose, that were more concerned with the quality of riding than the ribbons, and I carried on.

Fast forward a decade, and this weekend I drive away from a clinic thinking this exact principle.

A few months ago, my friend Courtney returned from a week in Aiken and asked for a girls night. She ordered a drink, sat down next to me and raved about her trip. Her horse had been fabulous, the weather had been perfect, and she had ridden with a new trainer who had, quite simply, “got her.”

Her name was Lillian Heard, and Courtney was hooked.

Courtney and Lillian this weekend. Photo by JJ Sillman


Lillian was a 4* rider with numerous horses running at that level, but without the cult following that we see some have. I knew little about her, but knew I could trust Courtney. 

Courtney knew that I had a ((difficult)) horse similar to hers. She demanded that I take a lesson with Lillian in the future, because she knew that Lillian would “get me” and knew that I would obtain vast knowledge and homework from just a few lessons in a weekend long clinic.

I agreed, and Courtney quickly began to roll the wheels.

Within weeks, she had a clinic set up on a shoestring budget. 

Friends offered their farms; Courtney offered her house; and the bells and whistles of a fancy clinic were replaced with smiles and helping hands.

A variety of riders signed up, and a variety of riders attended. From starter to preliminary, with every single age and sex represented.

But what united us all was the smile on our faces at the end.

Photo by JJ Sillman

Lexington is unique in that it attracts big names to come do clinics simply by the sheer amount of eventers per capita. Most are riders that are standing on the podiums at the Olympics, and because of that, the organizers, and the fancy farms that host them, they cost more than what most of us make in a week…or a month.
And while it might be on your bucket list to ride with that person, or maybe you simply thought that the $500 spent was worth the selfie you were able to take, I have personally backed away from those clinics because my childhood taught me that the money spent doesn’t always equate the knowledge gained.

Lillian was an amazing clinician, and worth a hundred times the moderate amount that I spent on the weekend for two horses. 

Just like my childhood instructor, I gained more this weekend than I bargained for. 

The Elephant loved learning from Lillian. Photo by Nicole Patenaude.

She had my training level horse in a frame he had never found. She had my beginner novice baby jumping lines he had never seen. And all of these things were taught with careful consideration, a lot of praise, and a big smile. Even the auditors (aka friends and family who grabbed a folding chair and a bottle of water) were enthralled.

Signing autographs for the next generation. Photo by JJ Sillman.

It was an amazing clinic. With an amazing rider, but more importantly, an amazing instructor. 

One who I see adorning the podiums in the near future and gaining that cult following. 

But for now, with this group of us in Lexington, we are just so happy that Courtney figured a way to get Lillian here to us. For keeping it affordable. For keeping it fun. 


Cost doesn’t equate return. Olympic medals don’t equate high level instructorship. And a fancy farm is a fancy farm, but your horse will still learn to jump whether the standards cost $200 or were made of old bourbon barrels. 

I am so happy that I rode in this clinic this weekend, and am looking forward to the future dates that Courtney is attempting to set. The knowledge gained vastly outweighed the price paid, and that is exactly the math I like to see while computing my budget for things like this.

Lillian sharing her lunch break with Mak. Photo by JJ Sillman.

Because if I have learned anything in life, at least in regards to my life with horses, is that high price doesn’t always equal high talent. 

And a good instructor is worth their weight in gold-not dollars. 

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2 Comments on “Worth her weight in gold: A clinic weekend with Lillian Heard

  1. Remember these times, before she gets super famous. I hope she doesn’t move into the groove so many others have and is then only available to the wealthy.

  2. I’ve been obsessed with her for the last few years! I’d love to lesson/clinic with her! Thanks for the recap!

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