The inspiring journey of the oldest USDF gold medalist
BY FRAN SEVERN-LEVY
Reprinted from the March 2017 USDF Connection magazine
Rita Dunn, of Knoxville, TN, made history when she accepted her gold medal at the 2016 USDF convention in St. Louis in December. At 73, she’s the oldest recipient of the Federation’s highest rider achievement award.
The gold medal was the culmination of a 12-year quest for Dunn and her Welsh Cob/German Riding Pony gelding, D Grande Finale. Along the way, she’s survived breast cancer and underwent knee surgery. “Finale” fractured a splint bone and was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease. On top of that, Dunn hates showing and fights show nerves at every competition.
With all of that, many riders would have hung up their tack and retreated to the sidelines. But Dunn says the lure of dressage inspired her and kept her going. “It’s fascinating, learning the movements and feeling something done really well. To feel a perfect pirouette or changes—it’s just cool,” she says.
The Army Way
Like many little girls, Dunn was horse-crazy, although horses were not part of her life. She begged for riding lessons, but her mother did not like that idea. She took piano lessons instead. When she was five years old, she wrote “I want to be a horse trainer when I grow up” in her baby book, although she had never touched a horse. “Aside from some pony rides, I didn’t sit on a horse until I was in college. I was eighteen or nineteen before I cantered.”
After college, Dunn married C. Hilton Dunn, a career Army officer. The couple’s first assignment was to Germany. She hadn’t discovered dressage yet, and with two young children and the demands of a military wife overseas, she didn’t ride. Dunn sighs when she thinks about the opportunities for German dressage training that she missed.
Returning stateside to Fort Ord, CA, Dunn bought a good-natured Appaloosa. “He had poor conformation, but it got my foot in the door of riding,” she says. A transfer to
Fort Leavenworth, KS, in 1975 meant a new mount and access
to good instruction.
“There was a riding program where people donated their time to give lessons,” Dunn recalls of her time at Ft. Leavenworth. “One of them was a ladies’ dressage class taught by Sharon Wass de Czege,” the wife of Brigadier General Huba Wass de Czege, himself a noted horseman. “I was riding a Quarter Horse with a lot of Thoroughbred in him. I was using him for foxhunting, but he had a real ‘try anything’ attitude. I took the [dressage] class and found it fascinating: How do I do this? How can I learn it? I didn’t think about competition then; it was just for fun.”
Dunn’s dressage progress halted again when her husband got assigned to the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. The remote location meant “no one was willing to drive an hour over the mountains to give a one-hour lesson.”
Fortunately, the family’s next move, to Fairfax, VA, made up for that. “It’s God’s gift to horses. Everything is there,” Dunn says, including access to high-quality dressage training. For the next 15 years, she trailered her horse to the Charlottesville, VA, area to every week to ride with Elizabeth Lewis. For the first time, she rode an FEI-level horse, one of Lewis’ schoolmasters, as well as her own horses.
The Grand Finale
The Dunns’ final move, in 2001, was to the Knoxville, TN, area. Shortly thereafter, Dunn began looking for a mount with the potential to carry her to the upper levels of dressage. At a 2004 visit to sport-horse breeder Klaus Biesenthal’s Bell
Oaks Farm in Illinois, she noticed a green three-year-old.
“I liked his presence. He had a good behind and lots of try,” says Dunn, who ultimately passed over the unstarted youngster for another horse. When Dunn and the other horse didn’t click as partners, she took a chance and had Biesenthal ship the three-year-old to Tennessee. That was Finale.
“By that point,” Dunn says, “I had gathered enough knowledge to do my own training. He was only a threeyear- old, and I decided to wait until he was four to start working on Intro and Training. He had two trots. I called them the ‘pony trot’ and the ‘big boy’ trot. Initially, it was a problem, but it worked out.”
Dunn began working with trainers Gigi Nutter and James Koford. At a clinic in 2005, Nutter asked Dunn about her goals: “She said she wanted her gold medal. I knew she could do it, and told her I’d do whatever I could to help her.”
Koford traveled monthly from his then home base in Lexington, KY, to work with Dunn. “I worked three days a month with her,” he says. “She puts the time in and does not cut corners. I’d come back and she’d done her homework. She knew where they were [in their training] and where to go next.”
Operation Gold Medal seemed to be progressing according to plan until later in 2005, when Dunn was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her treatment—surgery and radiation, but no chemotherapy—her new horse, and the prospect of riding again, kept her motivated.
“Having a horse you are excited about is huge. It was probably six weeks or two months before I could get on at all. And the training was light. Radiation zaps your energy. It was a full year before my energy returned. That was tough because he was a young horse and I was excited to ride and continue.”
In 2010, Dunn found herself out of the saddle again for knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. “That was more painful than the breast surgery and treatment,” she recalls of the procedure, whose rehab kept her grounded for several more months.
Around the same time, Finale began showing signs of lameness. Initially, veterinarians thought he had injured a hind suspensory ligament, although MRIs were clean. The correct diagnosis finally came in 2012: Cushing’s disease, an endocrine disorder. While it’s an unhappy development, Dunn says, compared to suspensory injuries or some other problems, “It’s kind of a relief. It means constant blood work
and expensive medications, but it is manageable.”
The last setback on the road to gold occurred when Finale fractured his right front splint bone in April 2015. “I watched it happen,” Dunn says ruefully. “He was playing in the pasture. He spun around and whacked himself, a huge spin and kick. That set us back five months.”
Throughout the setbacks, Dunn and Finale compete when they could and moved up through the levels. That achievement in itself is remarkable considering the fact that Dunn suffers from severe show nerves.
The jitters would get so bad that Dunn tended to forget her tests in the ring. “She appears calm, cool, and collected, but I had to call every test for her from First to Fourth Level,” says friend and fellow rider Susan Hill. “After that, [competitors] must ride the test from memory. Even with me reading, she would sometimes be so concentrated on the move and what she was doing that she would zone out
and not hear me and go off course.”
Finale, fortunately, doesn’t feel the pressure, says Dunn: “He says, ‘Come on, let’s do it.’ He’s a very consistent horse. He’s the same at the shows and at home. He doesn’t get rattled.”
In 2015 and 2016, Dunn doubled down on her training for Grand Prix. She spent several weeks in intensive training with Lewis. Nutter helped her to polish Finale’s piaffe and passage.
“Rita is very exacting. She was not going to compete until they had it down perfectly,” Nutter says.
It took only two shows and two rides for Dunn to earn the Grand Prix scores she needed for her gold medal. The first one came in June 2016 at a show in Franklin, TN. The second show was a month later in River Glen, TN, not far from Dunn’s home. She earned the final needed score on the first day of the show, but friends and family were coming on the second day, so she rode again.
“On the one hand, it was really cool that all of my friends and family were there. But the bad thing was that I knew who was watching,” Dunn says.
During that ride with everyone watching, for the first time ever in their career, Finale disobeyed. As Hill tells it, “At the extended canter, he got to the end of the arena and he bucked. He’d never done that in the show ring. Right after that is the zigzag, which is a move Rita struggles with, so we were all holding our breath. But it was the best zigzag she’d ever done. It was perfect. She actually got a better score for the test on the second day, even with the buck. She just went for broke and really rode it.”
With a Little Help from Her Friends
Hill, Nutter, and other supporters helped to raise funds so that Dunn could make the trip to St. Louis, MO, to receive her gold medal in person at the 2016 USDF Salute Gala and Annual Awards Banquet. One might think that this shownerves sufferer would have gladly put her competition days behind her after that, but in fact she’s already set a new show goal.
“I’m working on my freestyle,” Dunn says. “I already have the music. It’s a Southern gospel song by Ivan Parker called ‘Miracle River.’ It has lyrics, and I want an instrumental version. It fits [Finale’s] rhythm perfectly.”
The decision does not surprise those who know Dunn. “I’m impressed by her enthusiasm and eagerness to take on challenges,” says Nutter. “She is always searching for knowledge.”
Koford concurs. “She’s an example that tenacity and hard work can achieve goals. They work together on the complexity that dressage requires. It’s fun to watch them. It is really so gratifying to help her achieve her goals.”
Fran Severn-Levy is a freelance writer who focuses on travel and horses. She lives in Maryland with her husband, three dogs, and her Holsteiner gelding, Chance Encounter, who is teaching her First Level dressage.