Getting Back on the Horse

by Sandra Benavides Weichel Jan 2015 Also on Digital Edition

The reigning president of the Equestrian Aid Foundation, Stephanie Riggio Bulger shares how she became the innovative leader she is today.

When asked what her first experience on a horse was like as a little girl, Stephanie Riggio Bulger has a difficult time remembering.

She can distinctly recall how she felt around horses. She remembers wanting to be near them, and to groom, feed and pet them. She remembers being upset about having to leave them behind at her family’s farm in East Long Island to return back to her home in New York City. And she remembers that if anyone asked her what she could spend the rest of her life doing, she would answer, “Riding.” But what Bulger does not remember, at least not clearly, is that first moment.

“It’s like remembering to walk for the first time,” Bulger says in a lighthearted cadence. “It’s something I’ve always remembered doing.”

Fair enough.

Having been riding since she was 5 years old, Bulger is the hallmark of a true equestrian. She speaks of her intangible connection to these animals as someone uncovering a wonderful secret to the rest of the world.

She has been competing since she was 15 years old in an equestrian discipline known as hunter/jumper. And since she turned 16, she has competed every single year in the world’s largest and longest running equestrian competition, the Winter Equestrian Festival.

So it comes as no surprise that this 31-year-old horse enthusiast grew up to be the president of the Equestrian Aid Foundation.

A non-profit organization based out of Wellington, the Equestrian Aid Foundation, formerly known as the Equestrian AIDS Foundation, was established in 1996 to originally help equestrians living with AIDS. Since its inception, it has broadened its scope to provide all horsemen, horsewomen and equine-related professionals that have suffered severe illnesses or catastrophic accidents with certain essentials such as financial support, medical needs, food and housing.

During her time at Columbia University, where Bulger received her bachelor’s degree in art history, and at The New School in New York City, where she received her master’s in fine arts in creative writing, she was actively volunteering with the foundation. But it wasn’t until 2009 that she joined the board. In March 2014, she took over the reins from her predecessor, R. Scot Evans, who had been the foundation’s president for 17 years.

A seemingly daunting role, Bugler accepted the position with some mild trepidation. But as the daughter of Leonard Riggio, the founder and executive chairman of Barnes & Noble Inc., she set aside her apprehension, tapped into her business-savvy bloodline and looked toward the future.

“My goal has been to learn more about the different disciplines and equine athletes in the industry, tell them about what we do, show them that we help people in their community and ask them to play a part in our cause,” she says.

Among other things, Bulger is focused on trying to share the story of the foundation’s recipients (while maintaining anonymity for those that request it) with donors.

Today Bulger, an English professor at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, splits her time between New York and Florida with her husband, Mike.

She is a determined, brave and innovative leader, which were all characteristics she unknowingly discovered as a young girl riding a horse all those years ago. And while she cannot remember what her first experience was like, she does remember an anecdote that has surmised who she is today:

“I remember falling a lot as a kid, and I remember people saying, ‘Aren’t you scared to get back on?’ But I remember saying, ‘The more I fall off the more I want to get back on,’” Bulger says.