Amanda Forte, a Cognitive Science graduate from Brown University, a world class equestrian champion, and the director of user experience at one of America's largest digital agencies. We follow her rollercoaster story to leave her pursuing her dream of breeding world-class horses and continuing her horseback riding passion.
How did you get to where you are today?
It’s been a windy road. I went to school at Brown University and studied Cognitive Science. Then right after school I moved back to Philadelphia and did research in brain sciences. But since I was a little girl I’ve always ridden horses. I moved up the various levels, from ponies, equitation, hunters, and jumpers, and then by the time I was 18 I was travelling internationally and riding for the USA. Riding has always been a part of my life. It’s been a struggle balancing that passion with school, work-life, and relationships. I’ve been trying to figure out that balance for my whole life.
I went to grad school at NYU to study Educational Communication and Technology, and focused on Instructional Design... how to enhance learning through multimedia. I was trying to marry my love for science, how people think, and technology.
Shortly after grad school I found myself working at Huge when it was just a small agency. I think I was the 28th person hired there, that was back in 2006.
How has your role at Huge changed since you started?
In general, Huge has changed and grown so much in the years I've been there. When I first started, we had a handful of clients and everybody worked on everything. I mean, you had your role, but the team pitched in with whatever needed to be done to produce the best possible product. I remember some nights before presentations being in the office at 2am and frantically printing presentations and trying to bind them in time for the meeting... it was wild! I loved that scrappy, collaborative environment.
Then things started to change and departments evolved and I tried to find my little niche in User Experience. I’ve been there forever in agency terms - it's coming up on 8 years now. I started as an Interaction Designer, then grew to Senior Interaction Designer, Associate Experience Lead, Associate Director and now Director. It’s been really fun growing up there. Huge really feels like a family to me.
In terms of what you were studying, do you feel like that’s still incorporated in what you do today?
I think so. It formed the foundation of how I think and approach problems. I really try to understand the questions that people have, what they might be bringing to a situation or the environment or context that they’re in. Understanding how people perceive things from a scientific point of view, then applying methodologies of the theories of learning to design problems can bring a unique point of view to UX problems. Everything has really shaped who I am.
Even some of the techniques of working and developing young horses could be applied to what I do at work. This may sound weird, but it's helped me learn to handle sensitive client relationships with patience and empathy.
Do you feel like working with animals teaches you to be more patient?
It’s funny, I feel like I have more patience for animals. Actually, I know I have more patience for animals than for people (laughs). They can't tell you what's wrong or what they're thinking so you have to learn to feel or sense it. You may not get it right the first time, but no matter what you have to stay calm, collected, and focused with them or else you lose their trust. A lot of competitive success hinges the relationship you're able to form with the animal.
Were your family into horses?
That’s how I initally go into it. When I was really young my brother (who is 10 years older than me) and my mom started taking riding lessons together as a sort of mother/son bonding thing. Since I was only four, I was dragged along and that’s how I got my first foray into the world of horses.
Are they still involved in horses?
My mom is still involved. We have a farm in Pennsylvania - that’s where our horses are stabled. She splits her time between there and the city, but she manages the farm and is really at the heart of driving that business forward.
You were saying before the interview that your next step is to go back into horses full time …
Yes, I've made a big life decision to go full time with horses and become a professional equestrian. It’s terrifying and thrilling at the same time. It's a new challenge that will definitely take me outside of my comfort zone, but in a way that aligns with my lifelong passion. I ride, I train and I compete horses - that’s my thing. At the highest level of competition it takes a lot of support, financially as well. Horses at the Olympic level are millions of dollars. Obviously that’s not what I have right now (laughs), so my plan is to find my niche with the young horses, to train them and start competing them. I'd like to develop them, bring them up the levels of competition, and then sell them when they're ready to be competitive and go out there and win with their next owner.
Ultimately, the goal will be to get to the top level of competition and to find and train a horse that can get there, but that takes a lot of time and luck. That’s the dream, but I’ll start small and see how that goes.
Do you see yourself eventually more as a trainer, rather than someone who is competing?
I love the idea of training people and horse, but I see it akin to growing your career as a designer; as your career advances your role changes and you take on new responsibilities and more complex problems and inevitably you get further from hands-on design, but in your heart you want to always be close to the design process. I’ll always want to be riding horses. Obviously the window for that is not forever. Luckily though, people compete at the highest levels well into their 60s. It really just depends on how things go, how I’m feeling, and how the horses are doing. I’m open to everything.
That’s exciting! Was that a massive decision to make?
Yes and no. It’s something I’ve always been thinking about. It’s my passion, it’s what I love, but it’s hard on the flip side when you have a job that you love as well, with a steady paycheck and benefits and continuous opportunities to grow and learn. It’s always been a struggle to find a way to keep horses and competition in my life in a balanced and healthy way. I've been doing it on the side as my "secret life" and have been surprisingly successful, so I'm excited to commit 100% to it, give it the time and focus that I haven't been able to devote previously, and see how far I can go.
How many horses do you own now?
I have four that I’m competing now, but since we have this farm we’ve collected horses all along. We have some ponies that I had when I was little, young ones that we've bred and are bringing along, and older ones that are retired.
You mentioned you had one in Ireland?
Yes. There’s a great market of horses over in Europe - Germany, Holland - they’re all really well known for their horses. Ireland has always been a really big player in the breeding industry. I found a great connection with one of the best riders and horseman I’ve come across. His name is Greg and he and his family operates a breeding facility. They breed about 20-30 horses a year, just great quality horses and the horsemanship skills to back it up. I go over there a couple of times a year and I’ve bought a few horses from him. Since he’s such a great rider it’s wonderful for the horses to spend time with him and for him to train them.
What’s your horse’s name?
His name is Rincoola Black Adder. The goal is to go over there in November, compete him, get a little bit of training with Greg and then bring him back over here to his new home.
How do they get these crazy long show names? Why aren’t their names Craig or David?
Well, I do have one horse whose name is Falcon. That’s a bit more normal. Rincoola is the name of the breeding facility he came from. There are a few well-known Rincoola horses. Then Black Adder his distinguishing name. I think it's a funny one, because Black Adder is a type of snake (the only venomous snake in the UK), but also a British sitcom starring Rowan Atkinson. Anyway, horses usually have a show name and then a barn name that's shorter and less formal, like, I don't know, Billy.
What specifically do you compete in?
Show jumping. It's where you jump a course of fences and try to be the fastest one with the least amount of faults. When I first started I was riding dressage, which was my foundation. I’ve done a lot of different disciplines, but show jumping is really the sweet spot for me.
Have you ever had any horrific accidents?
Of course! My worst physical accident was actually at a competition. I was in the warm up arena, I wasn’t even jumping. I was starting to pick up the canter and my horse tripped. It had rained the day before and it was in the middle of summer so there were all these big ruts in the ground. The horse tripped and because it was a little bit muddy she was wearing cleats (the same as soccer cleats) on her shoes. One of those cleats from her back leg got caught on the boot of her front leg, and basically her legs got tied up, and she flipped over and rolled right on top of me. She was a big girl, almost 2000 pounds. So at one point all four legs were up in the air and I was underneath. I broke a few ribs, broke my pelvis in 2 places, my legs, my nose. I was out for quite some time.
Was the horse OK?
She was stunned but she wasn’t hurt, which was lucky.
Does that affect you mentally?
That was such a freak accident that it’s didn’t affect me mentally. I’ve had a few smaller accidents, where you make a mistake and the horse trusts you and it goes wrong. That does shake me a bit, but you have to just keep going and move on. That’s the only thing you can do.
Going back to your family, what’s your background?
My mom is originally from China, she came over when she was young and was raised here. I’m an only child between my mom and my dad, but they were both married before and they both had two kids from their earlier marriages. So I grew up in a house in Long Island with 3 brothers and a sister, all about 10 years older than me. It was kind of like living in the Brady Bunch series. My dad coached the high school football and wrestling teams, so we often had team dinners at our house before the big games. It was a very big, wild, bustling household. When I was about 13 years old my parents separated, and we moved to Pennsylvania from New York and bought the farm. That’s when I really got serious about riding.
Do you have any connection to China at all?
I have some living relatives there. My grandmother is here now; she’s in her late 90s. One of my dreams is to go back there.
Do you speak Mandarin?
Very badly. I can understand it better than I can speak it. I can talk about food and that’s about it!
How do you like living in NYC?
I love it. But it’s a love/hate relationship. It beats you up and it puts you down, but it’s the greatest place and the greatest experience you'll ever have. It’s been wonderful. Being able to spend time with the horses out in the country balances out the city for me. I think that’s why I’ve been able to do it for so long. I’ve never been anywhere else where you have so much going on, it’s just an energy that's palpable.
Could you see yourself living anywhere else?
I always want to have one foot in the city and one foot elsewhere. It’s funny though, I visit places and always end up thinking ‘Oh I could live here.’ I could almost see myself anywhere.
Tell us about your dog Wayne …
Wayne is a shelter pup, I've had him for 6 years now. He loves the farm and being a farm dog. He frolics in the fields, and he bosses the horses around when they misbehave - we call him the Sheriff. He gets depressed whenever he has to come back to the apartment in Brooklyn.
Was he an internet purchase?
Yes. An impulse buy. [Laughs]
What about that balance of having a dog and living in the city? Do you find that difficult?
Oh yeah! It requires a little extra planning, but it's so worth it. Wayne brings so much fun and love to my life. Little known secret, I was married. I was married in my twenties, but have since divorced. It was a lot easier to manage a dog in the city when the responsibilities were split, but I'm sort of a single dog-mom now (laughs).
How did you guys meet?
We met in grad school. He was the cute mysterious man across the room that kept staring at me. I thought he was the love of my life. He was such a charismatic person - when he walked into a room it lit up and all eyes went to him, and he loved being in the spotlight. We dated for a year and a half and before we got engaged.
Things slowly started to decline… he actually had a mental break and was diagnosed bi-polar schizophrenic. This happened when I was in my biggest growth phase at work. I got through it by compartmentalizing my life - however healthy that may or may not have been - I really focused on things outside of my relationship that were stable and constant. When I was at work I was all in, head down, really driven and strong, but on the flip side there was this tumultuous thing that was erupting and devolving behind the scenes.
It got to the point where I looked him in the eye and I didn’t recognize him. He wasn’t the same person that I fell in love with. It was very amicable, we were officially, on-the-books divorced last year, but we had been separated for a long time prior. The legal paperwork took forever, over 18 months in the court system. I see him now around the neighborhood and we’re on good terms, but at this point we both want to move on.
Wow, you’ve been through a few things …
Yeah, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? But seriously, it made the a much stronger person and I learned a lot about myself going through those tough times.
Ok, changing the topic! Tell us all about your triathlons … how did you get into that? Well, Huge had this running club called ‘Huge Legs’, which was a small group that would run the bridges after work about three times a week. I used to hate running. I was barely able to run a mile and the whole time I was miserable. Then I started doing it regularly with the group, and all of a sudden, one mile starts to become kind of fun. Then you’re like ‘Wow, I just ran 3 miles’. As soon as you start to see that you’re getting better, making progress, it slowly becomes less painful and it's actually pretty addictive.
I signed up for my first 10K with 'Huge Legs' and that was miserable, but I survived. It was a sense of, ‘Oh my god that was so bad, I need to try it again to see if I can do better’. Now I’ve done 5 or 6 half marathons and with Huge we went to the Bermuda half marathon. We’ve travelled all over.
It’s been really fun. One of the things we've done a few times was the Ragnar relay race. It's a 12 person relay-style run where you have two vans of 6 people and you run for 36 hours straight. It's over 200 miles and runners switch and leap-frog each other. People in the van could be sleeping and resting, or if there is a hard part of a leg, the van will go up ahead and scream and cheer on the runner as they go by.
So you relay, all day and through the night. It’s this weird combination that feels like a bit of Burning Man, a bit outdoor music festival, a bit hard core camping, but with no drugs or alcohol and instead you’re just cracked out with a lack sleep. But it’s one of the more fun experiences I’ve had.
Obviously horse riding is really physically demanding as well …
Yeah, you don’t really think of it. People make fun of you, saying the horse does all the work, but when you’re jumping over 5 ft jumps, it takes a bit of athleticism and strength.
I feel very lazy.
No, you should see me on the weekends. I sometimes don’t leave this couch.
So aside from all these good things you do. Do you have any guilty pleasures? You know, to make us feel better.
Drinking, does that count?
Ummm, the tv show The Voice. I really like it.
And do you have a soundtrack that you listen to when you’re training?
Yes, oh my god, it’s so embarrassing. The last mix I made was for the Brooklyn Half Marathon and I’ve been cruising on that. Oh, it’s the worst, Miley Cyrus and Katy Perry … it’s terrible. When I play it on Spotify I play it in ‘Private Session’. I've also started listening to podcasts on long runs, which sounds much more sophisticated.
What do you think of when you think of New York?
I think opportunities, diversity, energy… doors opening. Although, I think New York makes you have your guard up a bit and can harden you. I've found that I'm a bit more defensive and protective of myself and I've been trying to work on that.
Does it make you happy?
Photography by Stephanie Geddes ©