It’s one thing if you’re a little girl who falls off her bicycle and climbs right back on. But if you’re a Grand Prix rider and you fall face-first off your horse, only to race a month later, it says you’re for real.
In September 2010, Callan Solem shattered the orbital bone in the left side of her face, suffered a concussion and was flown to St. Luke’s Hospital in Bethlehem for surgery before her brain began to swell.
She was at a schooling show in New Jersey following a Grand Prix in Saugerties, N.Y., where she’d done well. Solem admits now that she entered over-confident, in a class that should’ve been easy for her horse, Bianca. “It will forever be a reminder to keep in the present,” says Solem.
She spent a week in the hospital, suffered from amnesia for 10 days, and was forced to sleep when all she was dreaming of was competing at the Pennsylvania National in Harrisburg. Subject to the state’s return-to-play law and cognitive testing, Solem was told that no one passes the first time. She did.
Two weeks after a doctor’s clearance, Solem was competing again. “It’s definitely made my resolve stronger,” she says. “I really want to be good at this. I know what’s made many riders great, and now I’m trying to implement it all.”
Solem views her ugly fall as part of “the journey”—just like her move earlier that year to the 90-acre Upland Farm in Chester Springs, where she opened Callan Solem Stables with the support of Upland’s Nia and Collin McNeil. “This isn’t a sport with an age limit,” says the 33-year-old rider. “Some of our best compete into their 50s. To take this away from me would be more than just the riding—it would be my life. Being a rider defines me. Without that, I’m not myself.”
Before her move to Chester Springs, Solem spent the first 14 years of her career riding for New Jersey’s Quiet Winter Farm on a Rhinelander mare named Allison. Together, the two of them won multiple Grand Prix events. They also represented the United States in Nations Cups in Rotterdam, Lummen and Falsterbo, and were members of the winning Super League Team in 2005.
Allison came up inexplicably lame in 2009 and spent almost two months in intensive care. She made a surprising return, however, winning three Grand Prix events in Florida in the spring of 2010. That March, Solem won the Catena Leading Grand Prix Rider award.
Solem and the McNeils met through mutual friends, found they shared common goals and reveled in their love of equine pursuits. Collin recently became joint master of Malvern’s Radnor Hunt. Two of the McNeils’ three children still ride. Their parents do, as well.
“The McNeils like being owners of horses and supporting riders who can compete at the top level,” Solem says. “Obviously, the same has always been a goal of mine. For me, it’s just so important to have this chance.”
It seems “so Disney,” says Solem.
Then, just as quickly, she insists that it’s nothing of the sort.
Before Callan Solem solidified her career path, she entertained a number of academic and riding scholarship offers out of Woodward Academy in her native Atlanta. She chose Drew University in New Jersey. Solem deferred for one semester, then another, then for an entire school year. It prompted an unforgettable sitdown with her mom, Kay Hooper.
“All I was ever supposed to do in the world was go off to college,” Solem says. “Ultimately, I told her that if I [ride full time] and make a mistake, then I’ll fix it. But if she didn’t let me do this, and it’s a mistake, then it’s her fault—and I didn’t want it to be that way.”
Hooper offers her version: “In the end, she said, ‘Mother, this is my life.’ We never had a disagreement. I only required her to have a plan.”
In the past 14 years, Solem has sacrificed plenty, but she remains committed to earning an Olympic team berth like other locals before her—most notably, three-time Olympic equestrian-turned-trainer Michael Matz. Her mother has always been one of her biggest fans. In fact, she moved to Chester County from her 80-acre family farm outside Atlanta, where Solem grew up in tune with her studies and her animals.
Back in the 1970s, Solem’s Norwegian father was a professional soccer player with three teams in the old North American Soccer League. Hooper had a son die shortly after a birth—a delivery that nearly cost the young mother her life. She also endured a difficult pregnancy with Callan, who later contracted spinal meningitis. Here father left when she was just eight months old.
“She knows the model of independent women, and is stronger for it,” Hooper says. “I always told her, ‘I love you and you love me, and we’ll tackle what comes our way. We’ll have each other’s back for life.’”
Hooper played both mother and nurse (her profession) after Solem’s fall—her second in 2010. Before arriving at Upland, she caught a fence board and bent a pinky finger into a 90-degree angle. She rode with a cast. “She was never frightened,” her mother says. “She never fought demons; she said she had work to do and shows to go to. She made it her job to prove that she was just fine.”
If Solem had a second mother, it was undoubtedly Allison. In many ways, the mare raised her. The mare isn’t retired, and Solem even tried to buy her when she left. At a show last summer, the two reunited in the stables under the cover of night. “I miss her,” Solem says. “I was a kid when I started with her, and we found our way together.”
When they reconnected, Allison was proudly standoffish, “as if she knew she got me the credentials to get this job,” says Solem. “She raised me, then sent me on my way, saying, ‘I can’t do for you what you need me to do.’ She took me as far as she could.”
Hooper sees this closure as the medicine her daughter needed. “Allison gave her permission to go on without her—without guilt—and secure her career,” she says. “Callan had worried that she’d abandoned her.”
The search continues for another consistent Grand Prix horse. Solem has always done well on young horses, or those that had to be reclaimed first. “She’s never had the silver spoon,” Hooper says. “She’s never been presented an already-ready horse.”
McNeil praises Solem as a horse whisperer with problem animals. She’s already worked her magic on Magic Cruise, a Belgian-bred mare with a bruised psyche who hadn’t previously performed well for the McNeils.
“Callan, slowly and carefully over five to seven months, had her jumping in Grand Prix events,” he says. “We didn’t think she’d ever do that.”
The best future hopes rest with VDL Wizard, a horse the McNeils bought since Solem arrived. Another, VDL Torlando, a stallion from Holland, is partly owned by Solem. Most Grand Prix horses come from Europe. “What’s holding her back isn’t the technical skills or the mindset,” Hooper adds. “She needs a horse that can do it—and do it now.”
The Grand Prix circuit is year-round. In winter, it’s Florida-based. By April 1, it moves up the coast to Culpepper and Upperville in Virginia, the Devon Horse Show, and events in New Jersey and New York. Fall indoor season follows—including the Pennsylvania National. Solem also must qualify for the coinciding European Tour. There, riding is the second most popular spectator sport to soccer.
“Devon is definitely one of my favorites,” says Solem. “This is a unique area. There are so many different disciplines involving horses. When the stands at Devon are packed, those there know exactly what they’re watching. It’s fun to perform for a knowledgeable crowd.”
Solem is in the top 30 in the computer rankings, but needs to top out at about 19 or 20 (like she did earlier in her career) to get invites back to Europe for more precious international experience. That quest competes with running her business, which also includes 15 stalls at Ann and Mike Strawbridge’s Heatherbridge Farm. That’s a marked difference from professional European riders, who focus only on their sport. But how do you teach an unselfish person to be selfish? “You’ve hit the nail on the head,” her mother says.
To help limit the inherent stress of balancing it all, the McNeils have hired assistant and associate trainers. “What she loves most is to ride,” says McNeil.
Solem puts it this way: “You don’t go for big thrills only to expect little disappointments. Big thrills carry big disappointments, and most like thrills better than disappointments.”
No, it’s not Disney, but if Solem makes an Olympic team before she’s through, it’ll be better than Disney. At eight years old, Wizard is “on his way up,” McNeil says. For the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, he’ll be 13—the perfect age for a Grand Prix horse.
As for the rider, McNeil suggests, “It may be the only sport where 19-year-olds compete with 60-year-olds. Callan’s iron will is there.”