Cindy Olson and Pikko del Rio
By Jennifer Keeler
After what she described as “the amazing fortune” of representing Region 4 at the US Dressage Finals in both 2013 and 2014, 55-year-old adult amateur and former Western rider Cindy Olson moved herself and her horse halfway across the country to further pursue her dreams. Now, she’s working towards another chance to come to Lexington.
“I got started riding late in life because my younger years were devoted to practicing pediatrics and raising my own children,” Olson explained. “My journey in dressage has only taken place over the past six or seven years. I began riding western on an unruly paint horse when I was 45, and shortly after that I had the opportunity to attend the Alltech/FEI World Equestrian Games and watch Edward Gal ride Totilas to victory. My life hasn’t been the same since.”
Her 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding Pikko del Rio, bred in New Mexico by Horses Unlimited, is a full brother to Olympian Lisa Wilcox’s latest Grand Prix star, Pikko del Cerro. Olson described Rio as a horse that is not only incredibly talented, but also has quite the sense of humor. “Every morning when I arrive at the barn, he pokes his head out of his stall and literally stares me down until I bring him his morning apple, and after we finish riding he gets a handful of frosted oatmeal cookies,” she noted. “If I don’t remember, he patiently reminds me by nudging me, or if that doesn’t work, by pulling the bottom of my shirt out from my pant waist before I realize what is happening. He likes to pick up my whip when it is propped against the fence, hold it in his teeth and taunt me with it. You may not think these are the traits of a champion, but that remains to be seen.”
Together Olson and Rio competed at the inaugural 2013 US Dressage Finals at Training Level, and then returned a year later at Second. “Participating is the US Dressage Finals has been the best competition experience I have ever had. The venue is horse and rider friendly, the facility is beautiful, and the heated barn was a wonderful haven. I remember every time I saw another competing pair, I would say, ‘that’s a beautiful horse,’ and after I said it so many times, I had to laugh because all the horses were beautiful,” said Olson. “For me, a highlight was to enter the arena with my name and the name of my horse lit up on the scoreboard, which made me feel very proud. But I think Rio would say that the highlight for him was the time he managed to get away from me when I took him out to graze on the cross country course. I watched as he took off running and wasn’t sure I’d ever see him again. He had a nice buck and gallop, but fortunately the green grass was too tempting and he stopped after a short distance to sample it.”
After years of enjoying rural horse ranch life in Nebraska, in 2015 Olson decided to take on a cross-country move to Wellington, FL. What prompted her to make this life-changing decision? “I had the opportunity to haul Rio to Wellington for a couple of weeks for two consecutive winters with my trainer from Nebraska, Jami Kment. After the first trip, I was looking for a winter condo, and after the second, I was hooked and ready to relocate year round,” Olson explained. “Rio’s breeder, Anne Sparks, suggested I work with Mikala Gundersen who had originally trained him, and fortunately she agreed. Luckily there is a big demand for pediatricians, so I was able to find a job without difficulty and I have been able to work out a flexible schedule so I can ride five mornings a week and then work from noon until 8:00 pm. That’s the only way to beat the blazing summer heat.”
Despite the inevitable disruption and exhaustion of making permanent relocation and settling into a new job and training schedule, Olson and Rio have blossomed in their new environment. “Wellington is horse heaven, and I am still amazed by the world-class equestrian events we are able to attend for no or very little cost; and during the high season, there is a different show we can participate in or attend every single week,” she said. “This is just the latest chapter in our story which has certainly had some twists and turns along the way, including my hospitalization when Rio got excited to play with the other horses and bucked me sky high just a few weeks after I bought him in the summer 2012. But as scary as that was, I didn’t let that stop me, and now we’ve come so far together. We’ve already qualified for the Region 3 Championships in Atlanta at Third Level, so this year I am ready to try for the Finals again. I can’t wait.”
Every year when riders and horses from across the country gather in Lexington, KY, for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, they not only bring top performances to the Alltech Arena – they also bring amazing stories. From overcoming tough odds, facing life’s daily challenges, healing from medical and veterinary conditions, or simply being the unlikely underdog, the tales which unfold at the Finals are nothing short of inspiring.
Through the good, the bad, and the ugly that entails life with horses and competing in the sport of dressage, these three riders will allow readers behind-the-scenes access as they try to qualify at the 2016 Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Championship, to pursue their dreams of competing with the best of the best at the Finals.