By Jennifer M. Keeler

Patricia riding Aureo at Lamplight

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.Back by popular demand, USDF’s exclusive series titled “Road to the Finals” will once again share competitors’ stories as they try to earn a ticket to the Kentucky Horse Park on November 9-12, 2017. Each month, a different rider from across the country will allow readers behind-the-scenes access as they pursue their dreams of competing with the best of the best at the Finals. This month, you’ll meet Patricia McVary of Illinois.

Patricia MacVary & Aureo, Springfield, Illinois (Region 4)

Patricia riding Aureo at last year’s Finals

“I am an older rider – let’s just say I qualify for Vintage Cup awards,” said Patricia McVary with a laugh. But age is just a number when it comes to the US Dressage Finals, and McVary wasn’t going to let that stand in the way of her dreams. Last November she traveled to Kentucky for the first time, placing 10th in the Adult Amateur Third Level Freestyle aboard her 14-year-old PRE gelding, Aureo.

McVary will never forget the feeling of riding in the Alltech Arena. “At the beginning of the 2016 show season, if I had been asked if I planned on going to the Finals, I would have chuckled at the thought,” she explained. “How amazing it was to be there! Despite a terrible case of show nerves, when we trotted around waiting for the judge’s bell I took a moment to appreciate the opportunity to ride there. My horse Rio is not intimidated by large venues and he loves his music, so we had so much fun.  As we waited to re-enter the arena for our victory lap with our baby blue ribbon, I felt so proud and leaned over to give Rio a hug and whisper a thank you to him for being my partner in this thrilling adventure.”

That unforgettable ride hooked McVary on the Finals experience, and now she can’t wait to go back. This year, she and Rio have worked every day with one goal in mind: to perfect their Spanish music-themed freestyle, attend the Great American/USDF Region 4 Championships, and earn a ticket back to Lexington with even more confidence.

Despite a life-long love affair with horses, it’s only recently that McVary has had the opportunity to come such a long way in a short amount of time in dressage. “As a child, my parents couldn’t really afford lessons for me so I rode whenever the opportunity arose,” McVary remembered. “I started around age seven in a summer program, and then when I was around nine or ten I rode at a barn that introduced me to dressage. The trainers at the barn were the Pawlenkos, and it wasn’t until recently that I realized that judges Natalie Lamping and Fatima Kranz are the Pawlenko daughters who I admired so much as a teenager. With them I was exposed to many facets of riding: jumping, dressage, vaulting and Pony Club, and we would spend our entire Saturdays at the barn riding, and doing chores, and cleaning tack. I loved it and it was a wonderful, albeit short-lived experience because their family moved to a new barn further away and my lessons came to an end.”

But even as she grew up and began a career in neonatal and pediatric intensive care, horses were never far from McVary’s mind. “I would ride whenever I was able to afford a lesson or two, and when I started working as a nurse, I started riding weekly. But then marriage and my son Peter came along…”

After her daughter Meghan was born McVary found her passion for riding was still simmering, so she did something about it. “I never forgot my introduction to dressage, so I started riding again in earnest,” she said. “I took lessons for a bit and gradually became more and more involved at the barn. I worked for a while as a groom (when the kids were in school) to pay for lessons. I took a hiatus when Meghan started riding hunters, and returned to riding when she left for college. But I didn’t progress very much and did very limited showing until we moved to Springfield and I started with Kate Fleming-Kuhn and Martin Kuhn at StarWest.”

With the help of the Kuhns, McVary’s hard work began to pay off in the arena: she earned her USDF Bronze Medal, and is now working towards her Silver. “When I started with them I was barely Training Level, and Kate would tactfully tell me I had ‘gaps in my education’ – a polite way of saying I didn’t even know what I didn’t know!” she laughed. “They are patient and very knowledgeable, and train every student as if they will be at Grand Prix one day.”

Perhaps just as importantly, Fleming-Kuhn found the perfect partner for McVary in Aureo. “I had owned a couple of horses before him and they were not suitable for me at all. There definitely is truth to the saying that an amateur should never buy a horse without a trainer,” McVary noted. “So in the fall of 2014, I gave all my trust to Kate to help me and she found the perfect horse in Rio. He is the ultimate schoolmaster with a stellar temperament. But for me the learning curve was steep, and I think of the torture he must have gone through while I was learning to ride better and the worst he has done is flip his tail and maybe hop a little bit. He’s a saint and also a barn favorite with everyone.”

Even with the right horse, as an older rider McVary faces some hurdles as she works to keep up a rigorous program of riding five times a week, taking lessons, and competing regularly. “For instance, as I’ve gotten older I have noticed that the heat affects me more, and I take Pilates weekly to help with core strength and flexibility,” said McVary. “But I am not as quick with my aids as a younger rider would be, and that is a problem when you need to catch something right away. I notice I take a bit longer to process something before reacting. I am fortunate that I am able-bodied, but for the first time ever I hurt my back during a clinic a few months ago, and had to take time off from riding to give it a break. I’ve also noticed that as I move up the levels, it seems to take a physical toll.”

StarWest trainer Martin Kuhn with his son Malcolm

Despite the challenges, McVary is determined to qualify for Regionals and the Finals in the Adult Amateur divisions at Third Level, Third Level Freestyle, and Fourth Level, and she’s got a strategy in place to make it happen. “My personal philosophy is that for best results you need to ride in the ring at an actual show, because at home there is a false sense of security that goes right out the window at a competition,” she explained. “So this year I know I have to just keep going in the ring and doing the best I can. As last year proved for me, it gets better the more times you do it. Of course there is some strategy and planning involved depending on your goals, along with juggling family obligations, but I try to go to as many shows as possible. This year I’ve concentrated mainly on challenging myself and getting a better ride, and even if my scores suffer a little in the short term, I believe moving forward in the big picture.”

McVary and Rio hope to continue to “move forward”, right back to the in-gate at the US Dressage Finals in November where she plans to relish the experience even more than before. “When I qualified for the Finals last year I could not believe it,” she noted. “I went because who knows what the future will bring, but honestly I was terrified and overwhelmed at the prospect. But as I said, the more times you do something the less scary it becomes, so if we make it this year I hope to go with more confidence and do even better, but most importantly, savor those special moments so much more.”

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