aspiring dressage athlete

Aachen, we are coming for you!

I was absolutely ecstatic to hear that I had been accepted as one of the lucky FOUR young riders to attend the 2019 CHIO Aachen as a courtesy of the Dressage Foundation’s Young Rider International Dream Program!

This program is not for every Young Rider. Those selected must be at a highly advanced level of experience and commitment with their riding. For those who are, this introductory excursion into European dressage means everything, and the riders come home more seriously committed than ever, knowing what they now need to work on to advance and excel in the sport.

Throughout our week in Germany, I will be keeping a journal and writing updates on this page. Check back here and on Facebook and Instagram every day from July 15-23 for updates!

Check out my Instagram page for even more updates on my “Aachen” story!

Journal Entries

Day One

We hit the ground running on our first day in Aachen! As the dressage competition had not yet begun, Bill, Reese, Raissa, Emma, Bridgid and I spend the afternoon exploring the area’s rich, historic culture. 

After leaving our things in the charming Hotel Lousberg and snagging our tickets from the CHIO Aachen booth, we began with a quick bus ride into the heart of the city. As we glimpsed into the windows of various street shops, we saw many things from colorful clothes and bags, to children’s toys, to pastries decorated for the CHIO! The city of Aachen truly embraces it’s equestrian culture no other city I’ve heard of. 

As we turned a corner around the block, we were stunned to find the magnificent Cathedral and Dom of Aachen, and the Rathaus. We were able to tour the inside of the Dom and it was absolutely breathtaking! This has been an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime trip already!

I am so glad that we were able to explore the old town of Aachen before the competition tomorrow. We ended the night with a lovely dinner and Gelato! Thank you, Dressage Foundation!

Day Two

What a day!
We began with a delicious breakfast at the Hotel Lousberg before heading to the show grounds to meet Debbie McDonald.

Debbie talked about the importance of mindset for the riders in a major competition such as this. There is an enormous amount of pressure for the riders to represent their country and their sport well, especially with the growth of social media. It is important for riders to ride how they always ride, to put in their best effort to produce the results needed. Riders who ride on eggshells rarely perform at their best. 

After watching the 5* riders jog we caught Betsy Juliano and Christie Baxter to talk about one’s reputation, important qualities in horses and riders, and many other topics. We had to hurry to the driven dressage arena to meet with Mary Phelps. She was unfortunately called to other duties at that time, but watching the driven dressage tests helped me come up with dozens of new questions to ask Mary once we meet her! 

As we walked back to the dressage venue we caught up with FEI judge (and judge at C for today’s 5*) Janet Foy. Janet was quick to admit to us, judges get nervous, too! She shared with us a few of her favorite judging moments and explained to us why she loves judging–getting to travel the world and watch some of the best riders in the world.

On to the Prix St George, where we sat all afternoon and discussed each test. We loved being able to watch each movement’s score as the ride went on; it was fascinating to see what the judges rewarded and what they punished. 

After the Prix St Georges we ran down to watch the 4* Grand Prix riders warm up. I absolutely love watching the warm up, getting to watch top riders work through problems and seeing how their warm up affects their performance in the ring. I cannot wait to compare the 4* combinations to the 5*s tomorrow! My journal is quickly filling with notes!

Thank you TDF!

Day Three

We started our day taking a selfie with the legendary George Morris!

Then headed to the showgrounds to meet with Bo Jenå, Swedish Chef d’equipe, and talk about the Swedish system. In Sweden, the dressage Federation keeps an eye on the scores that riders around the county are achieving at each level, and keep an eye on those who do well and who are consistent in their scores. Each level has a tier (A, B, and C) that is decided by a range of scores that a combination is achieving. He mentioned that, in Sweden, they are working to improve the conversation between industry professionals, particularly between trainers, riders, and breeders. When asked what he looks for in a potential young horse, Bo listed three things: gaits and conformation, rideability, willingness to work. One of the most important qualities of a horse is its eagerness to work every day; a rider cannot make their horse work. 

After talking with Bo we met with US Team rider Katherine Bateson-Chandler, who brought along her brilliant coach and British team Carl Hester! 

A tip that Katherine brought up right away was to instill confidence in your horse. Always ride your horses as if they are geniuses, tell them that they are the smartest horses in the world. If you really believe that they are, she said, they can come to believe it, too.

Carl elaborated on riding the horse you have. When he was a young rider, he only had £1500, so he bought a horse for £1500. When what horse was more advanced a few years later, he sold it for £40,000 and bought his next horse, and so on. It’s not the price tag on a horse that is important, it’s the basic gaits. 

Katherine and Carl also talked about working hard to earn opportunities. Both started their careers working as grooms, and have climbed their way up the industry. Don’t assume that people at the top have had it easy, that they paid large sums for their horses. Everyone in the equine industry has faced their own set of struggles.

To help our industry grow, Katherine said she would like to see more of a story told for each horse and rider. You get to know all about athletes in other disciplines, sharing the unique stories that riders have could help bring equestrian sports more into the public eye in the U.S.

Later, we met with Christoph Hess to talk about our trip so far. Like everyone else we have spoken to, Christoph was quick to admit how much he admires the Aachen show (and it isn’t just because he is German, he says!) The atmosphere, the professionalism, the knowledgeable spectators, the top quality of horses, and the history of horses in Aachen are just a few of the many factors that make this event so special. 

Our time at Aachen has been truly incredible. We have met dozens of the top riders, trainers, and industry professionals in our sport. We have watched hours upon hours of top quality riding, sitting between a knowledgeable trainer and judge, in a crowd of thousands of true dressage fans, from every age and all walks of life. It has been a week that none of us will ever forget, and we will be forever grateful to the Dressage Foundation and it’s donors for sending us on this journey. Thank you!

Day Five

Saturday was, sadly, our last full day at Aachen. We woke up early with our usual breakfast in the Hotel Lousberg (our host greeted us, asking “three cappuccinos and one tea, ja?”) Then we were off to the show to meet Mary Phelps, equine industry extraordinaire. 

Mary wears many hats, as an FEI combined driving competitor, equine insurance agent, and photographer and journalist for her websites and Mary told us about working hard and finding opportunities, and taking them! Mary also introduced us to Astrid Appels, founder and CEO of EuroDressage. I loved hearing Astrid talk about how she made her businesses and how she makes money while still doing what she loves. (Thank you, Astrid, for taking this photo!)

After Mary we ran to the vendors to meet Heiko Koch, the bit designer for Herm Springer. I could have talked to Heiko for hours; his knowledge of bits from the material to angles, widths, and lengths seemed endless. For example, I learned that all single-jointed bits have one side longer than the other. Heiko recommended putting the longer side of the bit on the horse’s stronger side, as well as rotating the bit every 2-4 weeks. We also learned that every Herm Springer bit is hand-made by artisans in Germany.

We had to practice our “extended walks” to get back to the Deutsche Bank Stadium to watch some 5* Specials before meeting with Steffan Peters. 

The night before, published an article about Steffen titled “Steffen Peters Discloses Struggle to Overcome Depression So Severe He Feared Giving Up Competition.” It was an interesting and inspirational read about the struggles Steffen faced during 2018, and how he has found hypnotherapy and meditation to be his way to overcoming his anxiety and depression. 

From the article: 

I personally think this can be one of the most frustrating sports in the world where everything works perfectly fine for two or three days when one and one is two but on the fourth day one and is not two because you’re dealing with another creature. What I understand now is I look at the subconscious mind as 90% of your brain. Your conscious mind is about 5%. For your subconscious mind if you built a computer it would be the size of a city block and need a nuclear reactor to run it. Your conscious mind at 5% probably has the capability of an old Motorola flip phone. You try to influence this giant computer of the subconscious with 5% of your mind. It explains when that gets out of hand how extremely difficult it is to come back from that.

Talking with Steffen, it was extremely uplifting to hear that even the best of our country can struggle with the ups and downs of this sport. It can be so easy to get into a negative rut, and that negativity can be a very slippery slope. Steffen really stressed the importance of developing a positive mindset at the beginning of each day, and aiming to keep that mindset throughout the day. Climbing out of the rut takes a whole lot of dedication and persistence. 

Right after talking Steffen we turned around and met Maria Colliander, a CDI judge who was on the panel this week. Maria was so much fun to talk to; we mainly discussed attributes we admire in top riders. The most important quality is harmony! A horse and rider pair who fit each other and seem to move as one will always be the pair who stands out to the crowd. 

Immediately after talking with Maria we met another fabulous judge, Axel Steiner, and his wife, an incredibly talented photographer, Terri. 

First, Axel asked us what is the most important quality a rider possesses: her seat! You will see no riders at Aachen bouncing out of the saddle; a strong and supple seat is the key to successful riding. Young riders (about ages 16-24) are at the prime time to perfect their seats; this should be their focus in training. Axel also stressed the importance of using every meter of the arena to your advantage. Use the corners for halt halts, the short sides to show off your gaits and position, the centerline to show your straightness. Getting a poor score on your first centerline will not only give a bad first impression, but it will make it much harder for you to climb to the top of your class; as he said, “it’s simple math.” 

After watching the remainder of the 5* Special, we caught up with Anna Stovall and Karo Müller, two up-and-coming riders who are working towards their bereiter recognition. It was very interesting and practical to talk to two people who had recently been in the same position as we; young riders looking for their “in” to the professional equine world. I look forward to watching their journeys and meeting them again one day! 

After finishing our meetings we ran out for a quick dinner, coming back in time to watch the Intermediate 1 and 4* Grand Prix Freestyles. We stocked up on coffee and candy for the classes, ending at 11pm. Now, it is 2am and we are sitting together in our apartment’s living room, eating chocolate and discussing our day, writing endless notes and pouring over the pictures we have taken. What a better way to spend a Saturday night! 

We want to endlessly thank The Dressage Foundation, its sponsors, and Reese and Bill for making this Dream Program come true!

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