Vani Khosla: Showjumper and Innovator Applies Her Silicon Valley Skills to All Things Equestrian

Vani Khosla

At 26 years old, Vani Khosla is raking in the ribbons and making a name for herself in the jumper ring. She makes her home in Woodside, California where she has close ties to her family, one of the most innovative amongst Silicon Valley scions. Vani carries on this tradition and applies it to the equestrian world with her exceptional insight and intelligence, in addition to talent as a showjumper.

WH: What was your childhood in the Bay Area like and how were you introduced to riding?

VK: My childhood in the Bay Area was very school-centric. Starting at age seven we were all required to do this 10-mile hike down in Big Sur once a year, to read at least one non-fiction book a month and to work a lot in our math workbooks. I was fortunate that I got to travel a lot, and my parents were encouraging of us always trying new things. I got introduced to riding at a young age – I believe it was around four years old – but actually dropped it after a short time. The summer I was nine, my parents bought a ranch up in Calaveras County, more of a tree farm than a working ranch, but it had horses on it. They made it a requirement that we learned how to ride if we wanted to ride the ranch horses, so I actually ended up taking up barrel racing. I still have my first horse, Jazbo – he turned 28 last February. I decided one day I wanted to try jumping, so Jazbo ended up learning how to jump with me. But mostly we played around on the trails, barrel racing and taking the occasional jump at home. I got introduced to show jumping when I was 12 when I went out one day to watch my sister’s best friend; she had a lesson at Portola Valley Training Center and I fell in love right on the spot. I never looked back.

WH: How did you come to have a passion for the sport? Through your parents or trainers?

VK: My passion for the sport was really my own. It definitely was love at first sight for me, but my passion developed from really spending all my time with horses. I remember the friends I made at my first barn. There were four of us that decided to go out and save this horse for $1 from a rescue. We paid for that horse ourselves by taking turns cleaning stalls every day and taking care of other boarders’ horses while they were on vacation. We had so much fun trail riding that we used to race up and down the hills, which in hindsight was maybe not the safest thing, but we really had sweet horses that we all enjoyed being with every day. I think in the beginning, part of what made me love it was that it was different every single day, something I still find to be true, and I was also a little scared of riding so it always felt like a good challenge for me. Plus I dearly loved all the horses.

WH: Even though you didn’t do much equitation, do you have any thoughts on the equitation as a foundation for show jumping?

VK: I wish every day I had been able to do more equitation. The foundation riders get is so important and plays such an important part in the rest of their careers. I always felt behind in a lot of ways because I didn’t get to do too much, but what little I got to do was very important for my riding. Since I started at a later age than most people and didn’t spend enough time in the hunter and equitation rings, I fast-tracked through some of the basics, and it’s something I’m still working on making up today.

WH: Was California an advantage or disadvantage for your junior show career?

VK: For me, personally, California was exactly right. I was never ready to take on more than that, and I felt I had a lot of tough years as a junior, but I was able to still grow and feel progress. I also grew up with some great riders right around the same age group, so I really felt there was a good group of juniors to follow and compete against.

WH: I understand that you have built a barn for yourself in Woodside. Please describe it and some of the design decisions that you feel were most successful.

VK: I’m very proud of the barn I built. It’s mostly done but there’s a little bit of construction left to do. My dad and I actually designed most of it ourselves, and we wanted to go for a light and modern look with lots of natural lighting. We were also really specific that we wanted a working barn, but slightly higher end. I think the only thing we really left to the architect we originally hired was the roof — I specifically remember asking them to draw us some interesting roof designs and we would pick one we’d like. I started with the decisions I knew were important to me like the size of the stalls and allowing the horses to stick their heads out and see each other, but not be able to bite someone walking down the aisle. I spent a lot of time doing some research too, which included visiting a lot of other barns to see how their grooms were able to wash the barns easily, speaking to vets and farriers to understand what kind of space they would like, and I even spoke to a few drivers to see what was ideal for loading and unloading trucks. Not everything got done the way I ideally wanted it because of space limitations and time constraints, but mostly I’m really happy with how everything turned out.

WH: You must have a very supportive family – please tell us about them. Do they travel with you?

VK: My family does not travel with me often to the shows, but my parents do make an effort to try and come twice a year. Usually they try to do a day trip to Thermal and then they usually spend a weekend up at Spruce Meadows watching. They are very supportive though, and always have been. While none of my siblings ride, they have also always been very supportive of my riding and never held any resentment towards it. I think everyone in my family could see how much it meant to me from very early on, and since then they’ve always been supportive. We’re a pretty close family, so while it’s fun to have my own thing, it’s also really great that they’ve always been understanding of my passion.

WH: What did you do between high school and college?

VK: I actually went straight from high school to college. I worked in between school years a bit, so I was always juggling riding, school and a bit of work. It was very important to my family that I balanced it all, so I always found a way to make it work. I played around with working for non-profits and software engineering jobs, and I even got to work game day statistics for my favorite hockey team. Ultimately my work ended up being in the tech world.

WH: If you took a break from riding was it helpful or not?

VK: I never really took a huge break from riding, but I did at one point in my college career take the fall quarter off. Mostly it ended up that my horses were hurt and recovering, and I was juggling both the Computer Science core and my Structural Engineering final classes, which were both tough on me, so it felt natural to let riding take a little bit of a step back during that time. I was still riding every day, but limiting the travel was important for me during that quarter. It was helpful mostly in the sense that I got to focus and finish some of the tougher classes I needed to at school, and it made me very excited to get back to the shows the next quarter and allowed me to spend a lot of time on the ground with my horses, which can be a nice reminder of the joy that comes out of the sport.

WH: You have a degree in computer engineering – is that helpful in the management of your horses? Does it impact your view of the sport or the training plan and path you chose for you and your horses?

VK: I am a very analytical person, and I think the skills I picked up in school from both my Computer Science and Engineering degrees help with that. I am always trying to find the logical reasoning in this sport, which sometimes I do think can be a disadvantage. Ultimately I think the way of thinking and approaching problems from the computer science standpoint is a useful skill to have, and I see myself applying it to the way I analyze courses, both before and after riding them. I do think that I really learned what hard work meant getting through both those degrees, and I’ve found it helps me apply myself more in riding.

Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico, Spruce Meadows 2017. Photo: Anwar Esquivel
Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico, Spruce Meadows 2017. Photo: Anwar Esquivel

WH: How do you manage the peripatetic lifestyle of an equestrian and the stress of traveling to horse shows?

VK: Honestly it’s never really been an issue for me. The way we were raised included a lot of traveling. My dad was the type to have us picked up straight from school to travel, and we’d return at the last possible minute before Monday. One of the things I always remember him saying to me was to be time efficient. So I learned to always be on the move and pack everything as efficiently in my schedule as I can. I learned to finish school assignments in whatever time I had available, including car and plane rides, and to sleep when I could. In college I got used to going straight from the airport in my whites to the basement of the computer science building, and normally getting home around 2 or 3 a.m. I was always used to it, and it was part of how I got to do the sport at the level I’m at, so it really just became part of my prep for getting in the ring. I am a bit of a homebody when I’m home, probably as a result of always being on the move, but I really enjoy the fast pace and efficiency of packing my days.

WH: What are your thoughts on the current state of showjumping in the USA and the rest of the world?

VK: I think there are a lot of good and bad things going on in showjumping right now. As an amateur that wants to reach a higher level, I try to push myself to be responsible for working hard and putting in what it takes to get there. I think there are a lot of different kinds of riders in this sport, which can be a really amazing thing about it and, while I see and understand some of the frustrations that are cropping up at this time, ultimately I think more rounds and more people wanting to be at the shows and competing is a good thing for the sport. There are not many sports that allow for so many different types of success, and we should try to celebrate that. I really believe there are people that are constantly trying to improve the sport, and as riders and owners it’s important we focus on supporting those people.

WH: What is your favorite piece of equestrian equipment for horse? For rider?

VK: For the horses it’s definitely the bit. I don’t always love to change up my bit, but I am fascinated by all the bits out there and I am constantly trying to learn about them. I love going to a tack shop and looking at the wall of bits and trying to guess what I think some of the more unique ones will help with. For the rider I’ve really learned that one of the most important pieces of tack is the saddle. My saddle has to be right, and the fit and the position it puts you in can really make a big difference in the ring.

WH: What advice do you have for ambitious young riders?

VK: Don’t be afraid of the ups and downs of the sport. This is something I still struggle with today, but I feel can make the biggest difference in your career. I had so many bad years followed by a huge upswing in my riding, and both of those presented different challenges. The bad years taught me how much I really loved the sport, because there was never a question of giving up. The good years speak for themselves a bit, but they can make bad rounds or shows that come later tough to deal with. Everyone goes up and down at every level, and I think if you can find a way to be okay with that and accept it while getting the most learning out of each experience, you’d be ahead of the game. Also I would combine that with not cutting corners. Do your homework inside and outside of the ring to give yourself the best shot.

WH: What is your day like? Please describe for the readers your training program.

VK: My home program is a bit different than the road so I’ll describe both. I usually start off my day by hitting the gym – my favorite workout right now is OrangeTheory. I usually go straight to the barn after, and I try to ride all my horses every day. I typically have a long work day after riding, so sometimes I don’t get to ride all of them, but I try to always ride at least three. I switch it up at home by having my dressage trainer come out, spending some days on my own, and having someone from Meadow Grove fly up to teach me. I think it’s important to get a mix of all three really. We don’t jump the horses very much at home, mostly just to keep them fit and ready before the shows, but we do a lot of cavaletti and pole work. I also have the luxury of allowing my horses to do things like go on the walker almost every day, and right now they all have walk-outs from their stalls, and spend at least five days in the turn out. I think all those things can be important for both their mental and physical fitness. I’ve also been lucky to start incorporating some great trail rides with hills since I now have access to them. Depending on the horse there are some things that will vary. I have one horse that really likes the Pessoa longeing system at least once a week. I have another horse at home that doesn’t compete anymore, but I use him for things like jumping courses without stirrups or practicing more flat work. We do end up spending a lot of weeks on the road though, so my older horses don’t tend to jump as much at home, but we will do things like flat lessons and pole work at the show before jumping.

Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico, Spruce Meadows 2017. Photo: Cansport Photo Ltd.
Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico, Spruce Meadows 2017. Photo: Cansport Photo Ltd.

WH: You have outstanding horses. Please tell us a little about each one and what qualities you favor in a show jumper. What were the high points of the past year?

VK: Billy Mexico is my 13-year-old stallion, and he’s very well known. He and I placed third in the $86,000 1.45m Speed Challenge at Spruce Meadows last year, and that was a really special result for us. He’s an amazing jumper and I love that he’s so quick across the ground because often times I don’t have to do leave-outs in the jump off since he’s just as quick on an add. We have a lot of trust in each other in the ring and it makes for a really special and fun ride.

Vani Khosla and Dynamo. Photo: Anwar Esquivel
Vani Khosla and Dynamo. Photo: Anwar Esquivel

Dynamo is 14 years old and I’ve had him the longest. He has a very dear place in my heart because he was my first Grand Prix horse and I love riding him. He’s definitely my favorite horse to flat as he really knows what to do and keeps himself so lovely about it. He’s funny though, he’s rehabbed so many times in his life that he knows exactly how long four minutes is and will immediately stop trotting after the four-minute mark if he’s doing trot sets. He also appears very grumpy in the barn, but he’s actually such a sweet horse. He’s got a really great uphill balance that I find incredibly helpful for my own balance.

Vani Khosla and Amerigo. Photo: ESI Photography
Vani Khosla and Amerigo. Photo: ESI Photography

Amerigo is new to me, as I just got him last year, and he’s a bit quirky and spooky, but really he’s a sweet horse and he loves his people. He does not like strangers at all. Learning to ride his spook and get him to trust me a bit more was difficult, so I was really proud of where we ended up at the end of the year.

Vani Khosla and Billy Chatter, HITS Thermal 2017. Photo: ESI Photography
Vani Khosla and Billy Chatter, HITS Thermal 2017. Photo: ESI Photography

Billy Chatter is my young horse, he’s nine years old this year, but we’ve been a little green together. He is such a workhorse, and I love that about him. The growth we’ve gone through together has been tremendous— last year we had to stop competing in Classics because we were struggling to get through some of the greener parts of each other, and now he’s one of my most consistent rides, so I’m super proud of how we’ve developed together. He’s very quick too so Billy Mexico will have to watch out as Chatter makes his way up!

Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico, HITS Thermal 2018. Photo: ESI Photography
Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico, HITS Thermal 2018. Photo: ESI Photography

WH: How did you transition to the jumper division and what do you love about it?

VK: I didn’t spend a lot of time in the other divisions, so it felt pretty natural to me. I was a little afraid of speed in the beginning, so it took me a while to get faster, but I learned a lot by watching other riders and learned how to become fast by counting their strides, including the rollback turns. I love how precise it can be. When you watch the top level, the difference between first and second is really about being super precise with your track and disciplined about knowing your horse’s and your own strengths and weaknesses and how to play into that in each course.

WH: How do the trainers at Meadow Grove (Susie Schroer, Dick Carvin, Francie Steinwedell, and Zazou Hoffman) prepare you and your horses? How does their coaching differ from the program you were in before? What do they have you practice?

VK: I think one of the things they do so well is to constantly push me. They are always asking me to be better in all aspects of the sport. We talk about the mental and physical parts all the time, and they are very detail oriented. I think that, combined with being super disciplined, has really helped me get better every day.

WH: You must have a routine to prepare yourself mentally before you go in the ring. What is it?

VK: I am really working on my mental game right now. I’m trying to find what makes my mental state the right combination, and I’ve turned to a lot of resources to help with that. I’ve been listening to a lot of books on tapes and taking notes, giving myself some tools and tips to try. Mostly though I’ve found that what matters the most to me is what happens when I actually come out of the ring as that has the biggest impact on where my mental state is for the next time I go in the ring. I really have found that taking the time to process what happened and give yourself time to work through emotions about the round helps me get to a more stable place for both the good and the tough rounds. But in addition to that, I’ve really found tools like Headspace to be super useful for me. I do it every night and it’s helping me find that mental calm place that I can try to get to in the warm-up ring. What really helps with that for me is focusing on executing, it’s something I’ve been telling myself every day on the way to the first jump.

WH: What do you look for in a jumper prospect?

VK: I like a horse that’s quick-footed and has an uphill balance. I think it’s important for me right now to feel like I can trust my horse and feel comfortable on them.

WH: Please describe your favorite place to visit and ride on the West Coast or another part of the world.

VK: My favorite place to ride is either Spruce Meadows or Thunderbird. I think both shows have done an amazing job of raising the level of the sport.

WH: Who is your favorite amateur jumper rider and your favorite international rider and why?

VK: My favorite international rider right now is Kent Farrington. He is one of the most disciplined and hardest working riders out there. I don’t think he’s afraid to put in the work it requires, and I really admire that about him. I also have always really liked Beezie Madden for the same reason, and I find her to be so deliberate when she’s on the horse — every step is controlled and she’s constantly practicing what she needs in the ring. Right now I have a lot of respect for Karrie Rufer — I think she does an amazing job of balancing by trying to do a lot of it herself, but also getting help when the time is right. I’m very proud of her for going to Florida this year and having some great results. It’s really nice to see a West Coast rider who developed themselves be able to go out there and be competitive. I think she’s doing a great job at reading her horses and knowing when to push and when to back off, but she’s also been smart about surrounding herself with help when she needs it.

WH: What is your favorite international horse and why?

VK: I’m really enjoying watching Karen Polle’s horse Sari right now. She looks like a great mare and a lot of fun.

Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico. Photo: ESI Photography
Vani Khosla and Billy Mexico. Photo: ESI Photography

WH: Do you or your family breed prospects for show jumping? If so, which bloodlines do you favor?

VK: I have not done any breeding yet, but we’ve been talking about it since I’ve got such a good stallion right now. But if I must pick one stud group, I do love my Billy’s!

WH: Your parents were born in India and Indian culture has a passion for polo and racing. Why are there no showjumping superstars?

VK: Honestly I don’t know, I think probably because most of the horses and riders in India are from more of an army background that the sport hasn’t really grown as much there. But there are a few Indian riders floating around!

WH: What are your plans for the future?

VK: I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing right now. I’ve got some long-term goals in riding that I’m trying to be patient about, which may take two to five years to reach, but I’m okay with being slow about it. I’ve also really got to balance my work life as well, so I know it may not come as fast, but it will come.

Winter HoffmanAbout the Author: With a background in filmmaking, fashion and contemporary art, Winter Hoffman brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. A lifelong horsewoman, she helped her daughter, Zazou Hoffman, navigate her way to a successful Junior career culminating in 1st place in the 2009 ASPCA Maclay Equitation Championship at the National Horse Show and 2nd place in the USEF Hunter Seat Medal Final with East Coast trainers Missy Clark and John Brennan.

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