By Amber Heintzberger
The CHIO Aachen World Equestrian Festival in Germany is a horse show like no other, and opportunities to learn about the horse industry while taking in the atmosphere in Aachen are boundless. The TDF Young Rider International Dream Program, started in 2000, offers four top young US dressage riders the opportunity to spend a week in Europe, learning about dressage. The program is open to USDF Young Riders, 16-21 years of age, and 22-year-old riders who participated in Young Riders at age 21, and who are riding at Fourth Level or above. This year’s chaperones Reese Koffler-Stanfield (Lexington,KY) and Bill McMullin (Wellington, FL) accompanied four young ladies to the CHIO Aachen: Sophia Chavonelle (ME), Raissa Chunko (CO), Emma Sevriens (GA), and Bridgid Brown (NJ).
The CHIO Aachen is a destination for riders, trainers, vendors, and all variety of people from the equine industry. The group met with a selection of equine professionals and had the opportunity to watch top equestrians in not only dressage, but eventing, show jumping, and driving. They met with industry giants including Carl Hester, George Morris, Axel Steiner, and US Dressage Team members Steffen Peters and Adrienne Lyle. With barely enough time to overcome their jet lag, the group packed as much into the trip as humanly possible: they also toured the city of Aachen, enjoyed shopping in the trade fair at the CHIO, and sampled the local cuisine.
The selection for the program was stringent. Sophia Chavonelle commented, “We all had to go through an application process. I found the grant online, and for the application I had to submit three letters of recommendation, a list of scores I’d achieved through Fourth Level, a video of my riding, and a number of short answer and a few essay questions. It was a big part of the application to prove our dedication to dressage: we have to prove that we’ve really worked hard in our riding, worked hard in our education, and that we are dedicated to continue that education whether as professionals or amateurs.”
Chavonelle said, “I’ve really enjoyed meeting all of the people. It’s been really special, especially Carl and Steffen. I’ve also enjoyed the variety of people we’ve met: not just rider but the bit designer for Herm Sprenger and numerous judges. We knew more than half the judges on the panel last night (at the CDI4* Grand Prix Freestyle), which I thought was pretty cool. We’ve met people from all around the industry: young people, older people, a real variety.”
All four of the participants plan to become professional riders and trainers, though the program is open to anyone dedicated to the sport.
Emma Sevriens said that she was impressed with being able to see all the top professionals of the sport in one place. “Watching the riders warm up and being able to meet with everybody has been really amazing,” she said. Her father is Dutch, and she’s been to Europe a couple of times to visit family, has gone to a few horse shows, and even visited Anky Van Grunsven’s stables in Holland, but she said nothing compares to the Aachen experience.
“Everything we’ve learned, from so many different people with so many different perspectives, has been really helpful. I’ve learned a lot about the business that goes into it: what goes into traveling internationally with horses, behind the scenes.”
For anyone interested in the program, she suggested, “Work hard and find people who will write good letters of recommendation for you. If you’ve proved to those people that you are dedicated and willing to work hard, it will pay off.”
Brigid Brown said that she has always been fascinated with Europe and the quality of horses, riders, and trainers there. “I love how it’s very structured and there are a lot of different programs you can go to and get an education from start to finish, or even start at an older age and get really quality training. That’s the norm here,” she said. “Some of my impressions from this trip have been that the riders have talked to us about their struggles, what they’ve been through in the past, and how they made it here. It just goes to show you they’re just like the rest of us, face the same problems, and overcome them in the same way, through hard work and dedication. Also, something I’ve tried to do is put myself out there; all of the trainers we’ve talked to here have said, don’t be afraid to go talk to someone you can learn from, or try a new program, or see what opportunities are available through your connections.”
She was also impressed with the willingness of professionals to speak with the group and offer their mentorship. “It’s really amazing. There are a lot of people in the horse world, and communication is difficult. We know everyone is busy, everyone has horses to ride and clients to take care of. So, being able to be here and speak with so many people at the top of the sport, from all over the world, is fantastic. The fact that they’re willing to take time out of their day means a lot – truly, everyone we’ve spoken with has given us their one hundred percent time apart, and really just dove into the meat of what’s important and how to go about this.”
Raissa Chunko agreed, “There are just so many people, it is absolutely amazing, and I cannot believe how knowledgeable the crowd is! They have an app for spectators to score the movements and you can see the scores on the board. The scores tend to be in line with what the judges are thinking which is incredible! [Bill joked that when a horse makes a mistake ten thousand people gasp].
“Carl was fabulous, he was very, very kind, real, and willing to talk to us. Also, Steffen Peters was very open and touched on how he’s been dealing with his issues (a story was released on dressage-news.com during the CHIO about Peters’ ongoing battle with depression) and that was incredible to hear about and know that he had those struggles, came through it, and he’s still here.”
She said that the quality of the horses at the CHIO Aachen made a big impression on her. “You just see one after another, with eight gaits and with all the legs, but at the same time you see them in the warm-up and they look fairly normal before they go in the ring – I am in awe of how these riders are able to get every last point and every last little bit of expression out of their horses.”
Both chaperones were also visiting Aachen for the first time. Though they both have decades of experience and are well established in the equine industry, they both said that they also learned a great deal from the trip.
Koffler-Stanfield also accompanied a large group of International Equine Business students from the University of Kentucky to Germany for two weeks, in May, and said, “I will be honest, this group was significantly easier. It’s smaller and we have a different mission, and these ladies have been absolutely fabulous and really fun to get to know,” she said. “We’ve been a fun team together.”
While she did a scouting trip prior to the trip, visiting the town and show grounds, she said that she had no concept of what the CHIO experience would be like. “This is really a showcase of the German Sport Horse business,” she said. “Carl Hester talked about how there’s nothing like this in the world. Being from Lexington we do “Rolex” (the Kentucky Three-Day Event) and we’re used to big events, but there’s nothing like this: it’s amazing, the quality of everything, the way that horses are integrated into the whole week. There’s nothing you can compare it with.”
They watched driving, show jumping, and some of the eventing (the five-star dressage conflicted with cross-country, but they heard the cheers, across the show grounds, when winner Ingrid Klimke (GER) crossed the finish line).
“TDF’s International Dream Program is fantastic. It was fun to see Adrienne Lyle because she did the program in 2005, and for the girls to really talk to someone who was literally in their shoes is pretty cool. I think it shows the quality and what we need to aspire to as riders. It also shows that it is all attainable; all of the people we have talked to have been very open about how they found sponsors and owners – some of them have funds and some of them don’t – and they talked about how they deal with that. I think that’s been a really cool thing for all of us to hear. I have to be honest, I think we’ve all benefitted from it – as chaperones as well.”
Bill McMullen is a rider, trainer, and judge and said, “One of the things I hope we all go home with is an impression of the quality that we’ve been seeing here, not just in the horse,s but the riding. We sat in the same place all week, at the end of the ring opposite K, and we really got to see transitions from the judge’s point of view. You have this standard in your mind now that will be forever etched in you, to see the difference in a 7, 8, 9, and even 10 is just something that will never leave you now. For me as a judge, and a trainer too, we got to see so many half-halts and transitions at that corner, really close, and to see the different ways these top riders rode them.”
“I think this is really important. I didn’t have a chance to do this until now, at a later stage in life, and to get to do this at a young age is so important for these girls. They got to see different aspects of the horse industry and talk to different people, from photographers and journalists to the bit-maker, to riders, and trainers. It’s fantastic for me, as a judge, too. I was very excited to come here. I’m in the ‘S’ training program and have spent a lot of time with Axel [Steiner] and Janet [Foy] in these last few months, with my exam coming in January, so this has been really helpful for that, too. We’re getting to practice judging piaffe/passage transitions especially, and there are things that are in Grand Prix that aren’t in the other levels that we’ve been judging. For me personally, it’s actually been a huge boost to be here. Also, getting to know these four young ladies that I hope we will have contact with and see grow in the future is really exciting.”