Most students hit the ground running when they study abroad. Others, like Stefanie Saperstein, hit the ground galloping.
Saperstein, a professional equestrian who won her first Grand Prix at the age of 18, brought her horses with her when she took part in IES Abroad’s Madrid year-long program in 2010-11. Then a junior at Scripps College, her career was progressing steadily, and it was vital to keep up the momentum. As it turned out, where there was a will, there was a way: Saperstein found a place to board her horses and spent two semesters studying and competing...with plenty of cultural exploration along the way.
“It was the best year of my life,” says Saperstein. “I had spent time in Germany and France and had met Spanish people while competing. I loved their way of life and wanted to be part of the culture. It turned out that Madrid was such a good location for me and the horses. My teachers were very supportive and supported my life goals.”
Those goals were established at an early age. At only 14 years old, Saperstein won the junior amateur final at the Valkanswaard International show in Holland. Four years later, she was consistent in the results of the World Cup qualifiers, taking home fourth place at the LA National WC and the Purina Mills WC in Thermal, California, in 2010 and 2012, respectively. In 2010, she achieved status as the highest ranked young rider in the U.S. While studying abroad, she placed in CSI Grand Prix events in Germany, Portugal, and Spain, competing against the highest ranked riders in the world.
“I worked to do what I loved,” says Saperstein of her time overseas. “Being abroad taught me that I had to figure things out for myself. I had to take care of my horses and organize my training schedule while going to school. It gave me confidence and a sense of purpose—a belief that I can do it, and that I belong.”
In Madrid—a city that struck Saperstein as “authentically Spanish”—the young equestrian made a point to get fully immersed in the culture. She got her own apartment and kept a journal of everything she did, from taking long walks to enjoying Spanish dinners to buckling down for study breaks.
“Every single day, I thought, I am living this moment,” she says. “I would take photos in my mind, capturing experiences in which everything felt right. I would often pinch myself to tell myself it was actually happening.”
Today, one would think Saperstein is still living a dream. Along with riding, she started a training and event management operation out of her family’s 140-acre ranch in Santa Susana, California. Called Hummingbird Nest Ranch, it’s an equestrian training facility and is also rented out for elite events, from corporate retreats to celebrity weddings. Saperstein’s business skills are also applied to building and growing her own brand. Right now, that means getting sponsors that will allow her to continue competing and move her to the top level, with a shot at the Olympics.
“I’ve laid out goals and getting there in 2020 is the most feasible,” she says. “Equestrian show jumping is a wisdom sport and requires maturity. Most athletes average in their 30s and 40s.”
While Saperstein forges on with enthusiasm and razor-sharp focus, she harbors memories of Madrid close to her heart. “You think you have everything figured out, then you go abroad, see new things, and realize there’s always room for growth.”