The inaugural USDF Regional Adult Amateur Equitation champions were crowned in 2018. These riders’ stories may surprise and inspire you.
By Brynne Boian
Reprinted from the March 2019 issue of USDF Connection magazine
Correct position in the saddle is not just about looks. Good equitation means that the rider can use the aids independently and effectively to influence the horse. Not easy!
Recognizing that equitation is a fundamental part of any dressage rider’s journey through the levels, in 2018 the USDF launched the Regional Adult Amateur Equitation program. By earning qualifying scores in dressage-seat equitation classes or by qualifying to compete in Great American/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, adult-amateur riders became eligible to participate in the first-ever AA Equitation Regional Finals, which were held in conjunction with the nine Regional Championships competitions. (For complete program rules and qualifying details, visit usdf.org.)
USDF Connection asked the nine inaugural AA Equitation regional champions to share their stories and to tell us about the competitions. We hope that they’ll inspire you to strive to take part in this year’s championships—and by doing so, to improve your own equitation and your skills as a dressage rider.
On the Right Path
Region 1 champion Melissa Palmer, 49, of Purcellville, Virginia, calls her mare Reagan 10 “a very special young horse.” As such, most of Palmer’s competitive focus with the six-year-old Oldenburg (Belissimo M – Relaunch, San Amour I) has been on the FEI Young Horse classes.
Anyone who rides a lot of young horses knows that keeping up one’s equitation can be a challenge aboard gawky youngsters. So when a friend suggested that Palmer enter the AA Equitation Regional Finals class, the rider welcomed the opportunity “to show that my position and effectiveness has not deteriorated while training several young horses over the past few years.”
Palmer credits some of her equitation success to her focus on rider biomechanics, adding that she “got some great help on my position from [FEI 5* dressage judge] Linda Zang this past year.”
Like many adult amateurs, Palmer juggles work and riding, and she also runs her own farm. “I have a very busy business career,” says the software-company sales executive, “so I really have to manage my riding schedule around work and business travel, which is a challenge at times, but I make it all happen.”
In dressage, Palmer says, “you never stop learning, which keeps me interested and focused. I’m really looking forward to the journey with Reagan and what 2019 and beyond will bring.”
Function Follows Form
Equitation begins with learning to stay on, as 2018 Region 2 AA equitation champion Kelli Diener, 35, of Millington, Michigan, learned at an early age.
Growing up, Diener showed Arabian horses in 4-H and on a local Arabian circuit. “Some of those Arabs were quite naughty,” she says, “but they taught me how to stick like glue and ride with their spinning, spooking, and bucking antics.”
She credits those early equestrian experiences with giving her a “great awareness” of the importance of equitation. Riding Western and hunter seat, she spent “countless hours…on body position and only moving what you needed to move.”
Introduced to FEI-level rider and trainer Sandra “Sandy” Tull, Diener, then a teen, “instantly swooned” at dressage and soon began taking lessons at Tull’s Southview Farm in Mount Morris, Michigan. Diener learned the basics with her Arabian and went on to a crash course of sorts aboard Tull’s Hanoverian stallion, Sanwalt. The pair was hoping to qualify for the FEI North American Youth Championships when surgery to remove a painful bone tumor from Diener’s hip socket derailed that plan.
College and “adulting,” as Diener puts it, kept her out of the saddle for more than 15 years—a period in which she endured “the dark, life-draining shadow of being horseless.” The time never seemed right to take the leap and get back into riding, but then her mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness and Diener decided that “there’s no better time than now.” She’d finally returned to Michigan after many work-related moves, and Tull helped her find a dressage horse (and her Region 2 AA Equitation championship partner), the now 12-year-old Oldenburg gelding Daughtry FS (De Laurentis – Delightfull, Dederick).
The horse hiatus, combined with “way too many years of being hunched over studying and desk work,” had taken their toll on Diener’s riding position. Sitting the trot was impossible—like “a bouncy sack of potations and legs everywhere like propellers.” Even today, many lessons later, her “tendency to want to curl into a fetal posture and bring my knees up to my ears is still not completely gone.”
Equitation, Diener says, has been her ticket to better riding. “When you have the correct position and ride properly, it is very rewarding, as you can feel the horse is able to move better and you can help the horse improve. We must improve ourselves first to help improve the horse. The feedback and sense check in the dressage-equitation class are invaluable.”
Horse of a Lifetime
That’s how Atlanta-based Wisti Nelson, 52, describes her 15-year-old homebred Oldenburg gelding, Let’s Play.
“I had always wanted to breed and raise a horse,” says the former event rider, “so when I decided to take some time off from eventing to have my second son, I bred my off-the-track Thoroughbred mare, Celestine, to the Oldenburg stallion Laitin.” During the pregnancy, Nelson says, she had a dream that her mare was carrying a bay colt with four white socks. To her astonishment, when “Player” was born in 2003, he fit that image nearly to a T, the only difference being that he sported three socks instead of four.
With a trainer’s guidance, Nelson brought Player along herself. The pair evented successfully for four years, and in 2012 Nelson decided to focus on dressage. She earned her USDF bronze medal aboard Player in 2014, and last year he helped her earn her silver.
“Player is a pleasure to ride; he just wants to please everyone,” Nelson says, calling the decision to take part in the Region 3 AA Equitation championship “a no-brainer.”
Even though Player was tired from having already competed in the Fourth Level and Prix St. Georges AA championship classes, “true to his personality, he did his best to please me. He was Mr. Steady Eddie so that I could put in a solid equitation dressage ride for the class.”
“I am always looking for fun opportunities, and the dressage equitation class was one I’m glad I tried,” Nelson says. Next up: She hopes to ride a freestyle in 2019 aboard the mount she calls her dream horse.
Eating to Win
Casey Eiten, 23, enjoys combining her love of horses with her career. An equine nutritionist for Hueber Feed, she says that “there is nothing better than visiting horse farms every day and helping horses reach their potential through nutrition.”
A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Eiten recently relocated with her husband to Ladd, Illinois, where she trains with USDF-certified instructors and FEI-level competitors Martin Kuhn and Kathryn Fleming-Kuhn at StarWest in New Berlin, Illinois. Eiten’s equine partner is her 10-year-old KWPN gelding, Eschaton (Sir Sinclair – Melisande, Carpaccio).
“I purchased Eschaton when he was a yearling,” Eiten says, “and have loved every minute of watching him develop into the amazing horse he is today.” She calls the experience of competing in the 2018 Region 4 AA Equitation championship “a blast” and says she’s looking forward to the 2019 edition.
An Amateur’s Amateur
“If you were to look up the definition of amateur in the dictionary,” quips Lynn McKinney, “you might see my picture smiling out at you.”
McKinney, 53, of Mesa, Arizona, is a full-time dental hygienist who “fits my riding into my schedule as best I can.” With a self-described “very modest (by dressage standards)” budget, she bought a previous dressage horse as a three-year-old and trained it to the FEI levels, earning her USDF silver medal along the way. She got her current horse, Diego, “after he flunked out of the jumper world.” (Her 2018 Region 5 AA Equitation championship partner was the now 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare Bojenia, owned by Leesa Lane.)
The importance of good equitation was firmly instilled in McKinney during her childhood lessons with “an old-school British woman who firmly believed that you develop a good seat only through countless lunge lessons without stirrups or reins. If you had the misfortune of making an unplanned dismount, you were expected to bring a cake to the barn; and if you cried about your tumble, you were briskly informed that you would not be considered a real rider until you had fallen off over 100 times. (I think I hit that mark before I was 20.)”
Even with that foundation, McKinney says she cringed at videos of herself in the saddle: “My right elbow would flutter like a chicken wing, and my left side would collapse when my horse tracked left.” She asked her instructor for some tough love and enlisted fellow riders to critique her position in the trainer’s absence. The result: “No one will ever mistake me for Charlotte Dujardin, but the overall picture has become much better, and competing in the equitation class was a wonderful experience. I hope more adult amateurs will give these classes a try.”
Equitation Proves Life-Changing
“My quest to improve my riding actually caused a career change in my life,” says Region 6 AA Equitation champion Trinjia Dell’Aglio.
The fitness-oriented Dell’Aglio, 50, of Boise, Idaho, was so impressed at how much Pilates classes helped her riding that she decided to become certified as a Pilates instructor. She continues to do Pilates several times a week (including teaching classes to fellow equestrians at their barn), along with riding four to five days a week and taking daily three-mile walks with her dogs on nearby hiking trails.
“The tools I have learned from the Pilates method have been tremendously helpful in establishing my position and balance in the saddle,” Dell’Aglio says.
“I appreciate USDF opening up a competition class for equitation to adult amateurs,” says Dell’Aglio, who won the Region 6 title aboard her 10-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Dumbledore (Dancier – Rosalie, Rotspon). “As adult amateurs, we have busy lives away from the barn, so it is extremely difficult to train our bodies to comply with the demands of riding. Yet as we all know, the rider’s seat is such an important aspect for our success and communication with the horse. I think it is very important that we, as riders, continue to try to improve our balance, coordination, and fitness. The horses are so generous to allow us to ride them. The least we can do is try to ride them the best we possibly can!”
Besting Able-Bodied Competitors
Laurel Kerner, 23, of San Marcos, California, was honing the Grand Prix movements aboard her 19-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding, Saturnes (Kelvin – Golinde, Beltrum), and dreaming of their GP debut when in May 2017 she suddenly began to lose feeling in her legs.
Hospitalized, Kerner was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, “a rare autoimmune disorder that rapidly attacks the nerves of the body, starting in the toes and working its way upward,” she explains. “It can be deadly when not caught in time to treat before the diaphragm muscles are affected.”
Luckily for Kerner, the disease had not yet progressed to that point, but she had suffered serious effects nonetheless. When she was finally released from the hospital, she was wheelchair-bound, nearly paralyzed below the hips.
Six long weeks later, Kerner finally was reunited with her beloved “Soren.” Determined to ride again, she enlisted the help of her dressage trainer, Donna Richardson; her parents; and grooms at the barn.
“Every day I worked on balance and retraining Soren to not rely on the cues from my legs, as they were just dead weight now,” Kerner recounts. She made remarkable progress: “Fast-forward a few months and I was back competing in the FEI ring.”
In 2018, Richardson worked to help Kerner gain strength to improve her equitation. Kerner and Soren were competing at the Grand Prix level at last—even though the rider hadn’t regained full leg function.
“I relied on my wheelchair for long-distance transportation, but when I was riding I was starting to look like every other rider again,” Kerner says.
At the 2018 Great American/USDF Region 7 championships, Kerner decided to enter the AA Equitation class, “to see how I would stack up against fully able-bodied riders in regards to my equitation.”
In the class, “as they called the three work-off numbers, I was heartbroken that mine was not called,” Kerner says. But after the judges had pinned all but the winner, “I was the only one left standing without a ribbon around my horse’s neck. After all the challenges I had overcome the last 18 months, winning an equitation title seemed impossible, but I had done it!”
Rescued Horse Pays It Back
Kevin Hadfield describes his Region 8 AA Equitation partner, Preston, as “not what usually comes down the center line at dressage shows.”
The 17.2-hand, 10-year-old gelding is “a draft cross I rescued from a field in Canada three years ago,” says Hadfield, 29, of Mendon, Massachusetts. “His feet were three inches too long, and he wouldn’t let anyone pick them up or put a halter on him, let alone sit on his back.”
The process of gaining Preston’s trust and training him in dressage has been “a long road,” Hadfield says, “but last season I was able to successfully compete him Third Level, earning the scores for my bronze medal, and I am hoping that we can continue our journey up the levels together.”
Hadfield says he found dressage-seat equitation competition appealing in part because “it didn’t matter that I didn’t have the fanciest, most naturally athletic horse. It was all based on the one thing I can control: my position and effective use of the aids.” He also likes the fact that, at the conclusion of the class, “you have a quick moment with the judge to quickly discuss issues that you may be having. This was important to me because over the year I was able to correct problem areas and address them to better my horse and our training”—improvements that were soon reflected in higher scores, he says.
Equitation competition produced another unexpected benefit, Hadfield says.
“These classes also helped me with my horse-showing anxiety. Dressage tests are a lot of pressure, and many times I found myself holding my breath from salute to salute. The ring time afforded in the equitation classes allows you and your horse to calm your nerves and acclimate to the show arena without having to remember what movement comes next.”
The Equitation Veteran
Of all the 2018 AA Equitation champions, Region 9’s Terri Sue Wensinger has arguably the deepest equitation résumé.
As a teen riding Arabian horses, Wensinger, 58, of Dallas, Texas, was a multi-discipline equitation competitor: hunter seat, saddle seat, and stock seat. In 1978, she won both the US Stock Seat Equitation National Championship and the Canadian Saddle Seat Equitation Championship, she says.
Everything changed during Wensinger’s college years: “My parents divorced, horses were sold, and figuring out how to grow up became my priority.” Then came law school, marriage, motherhood, and business ownership. “I didn’t think of horses until 2009, when I began riding dressage.”
Enter the now 19-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding Asterios (Akinos – Urwetta, May Sherif), whom Wensinger purchased in 2017 as a schoolmaster. With many Grand Prix-level classes under his girth, Wensinger thought that equitation “would be fun for me and something different for him.”
At the Region 9 championships, Wensinger was surprised at the large size of the AA Equitation championship class, with “at least 20” riders entered.
“Asti’ was super fired up,” she recalls. “Neither of us could wipe the smile from our faces. The field was reduced to six for the pattern work, and Asti carried me to the win. Looking forward to equitation 2019!” s
Brynne Boian is a USDF senior competition coordinator.