By Jennifer M. Keeler
Attending the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® is a dream for any dressage enthusiast – a dream where one is surrounded by incredibly talented and beautiful horses, most of them warmbloods. But each year there is also a strong contingent of dressage mounts representing a wide variety of “non-traditional” breeds, from Quarter Horses to draft crosses to ponies, and even mules. So many, in fact, that last year a record number of 36 breed organizations signed up to present High Score Breed Awards at the Finals (learn more about these awards HERE).
One of those proud breed representatives is the now 17-year-old off-the-track Thoroughbred gelding Hickeys Creek (Afternoon Deelites x Slewadore by Seattle Slew, bred in the U.S. by Wild Ride LLC) with owner/rider Ashley Miller, a family nurse practitioner from Fort Myers, Fla. (Region 3). Although a grandson of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and a graduate of the famous Keeneland September Yearling Sale in 2003, Hickeys Creek didn’t make it as a racehorse but found another calling in the dressage arena. Instead of running for the roses at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, he carried Miller for her own ride of a lifetime by earning Reserve Championship honors in the 2017 Second Level Adult Amateur Freestyle at the US Dressage Finals.
“While Hickey has never had the opportunity to round the track at the Kentucky Derby, I think he was just as proud as a Derby winner while taking our lap around the Alltech Arena,” Miller laughed. “Hickey does not know that he is the minority at dressage events such as the Finals. He knows he loves his job, and because of his big heart, feels he is one of the ‘big boys.’ One thing that is special about riding an off-the-track-Thoroughbred in dressage is their sensitivity, and that connection is like no other horse breed I have ever ridden. I would be lying if I said I haven’t faced some scrutiny riding an OTTB strictly in dressage, especially in our very competitive region, but neither of us felt intimidated at all at the Finals. I felt extremely proud to compete successfully against some very nice horses of all breeds, and being the underdog only makes the victory that much sweeter!”
But in early 2017, the idea of going to the US Dressage Finals was not even on Miller’s radar. A year prior, she and Hickey competed in their very first freestyle at First Level at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 3 Championships, where a costly execution error cost the pair any chance at an invitation for the Finals. While disappointed, Miller realized that perhaps she could aspire for goals she hadn’t even previously considered, and began to strive for more. Moving up to Second Level and just weeks before her first planned USEF/USDF-licensed dressage show of 2017, Miller purchased new freestyle music featuring Madonna and decided, despite a tight timeline to come up with choreography and production, to give it a go. Successfully earning their qualifying scores, Miller and Hickey planned to give the Region 3 Championships another shot.
But in August of 2017, Hurricane Irma had other plans. While Miller made preliminary arrangements to evacuate her horses to north Georgia, ultimately she decided to stay put and ride the storm out. “Irma was a direct hit which preceded an extensive period of time where riding conditions were suspended,” Miller remembered. “These circumstances combined with some shoeing issues Hickey was having meant that I wasn’t able to get back in the saddle until about two weeks prior to the Region 3 Championships in Wellington. It was touch and go for a while and honestly I contemplated not even going to the championships due to all of our setbacks. But I’m so glad we persevered, and low and behold we qualified for the Finals! I had never contemplated actually making the trip to Kentucky, but this once in a lifetime opportunity could not be disregarded.”
With her mom (“My biggest fan!”) and Hickey in tow, Miller made the long journey from south Florida to Kentucky to participate in their first national competition. “Riding in the US Dressage Finals was everything I had hoped for and more,” Miller explained. “Little did we realize that I was going to have the opportunity to ride the most exciting ride of my life while cantering around the Alltech Arena before a crowd of well-wishers. The atmosphere in general was like no other show I had ever experienced. Add the thrill of competition to the mix, and a successful ride, then the experience instantly became one of which fairytales are made. The beautiful horses, elegant riders, and amazing venue are all entities that most dressage competitors only dream of.
‘My favorite interactions and opportunities at the Finals (outside of my rides) were the awesome vendors and shopping, the riders’ dinner while watching the Grand Prix freestyle competition, and basically just being a part of this amazing gathering of fellow dressage enthusiasts,” Miller continued. “But I will admit that my personal challenge was the cold weather. I’m a Florida girl and I had never been exposed to such cold temperatures where water buckets and hoses can freeze. Hickey walked out of his shed row stall and slipped slightly on a patch of ice. I have to say that surprised us both!”
Since their successful Finals experience in 2017, Miller and Hickey haven’t been resting on their laurels. Last spring, the pair earned Miller her USDF Bronze Medal, and are now working towards the USDF Bronze Freestyle Bar and will debut their Third Level Freestyle this fall, with which they hope to qualify for a return to the Region 3 Championships. “I am so proud to be an adult amateur rider with a little OTTB who I purchased as a four-year-old and blossomed under our dressage training from the ground up,” Miller said. “I cannot express how gratifying and satisfying my Finals experience was, and I hope to have the opportunity to attend again in the future. Never overlook the chance to compete alongside other riders from around the US, all of whom are the best in their region. The opportunity to ride in the US Dressage Finals makes all the tireless hours of training worthwhile, and who knows, perhaps you will see me and Hickey in Kentucky again soon!”
The Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 3 Dressage Championships, scheduled for October 11-13 in Conyers, Ga., is one of nine Regional Championships which are now underway! Don’t miss your chance to qualify for the US Dressage Finals – submit your declaration today at www.usdressagefinals.com, and thenremember to submit your nomination (the next step of the qualifying process) immediately following your Regional Championship show!
The US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® is a unique national head-to-head competition which offers a wealth of championship titles and over $100,000 in prize money, all while showcasing adult amateur and open riders from across the country in Training Level to Grand Prix. This year’s event will be held November 7-10 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky. To learn more about the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, download competition information, declare and nominate for the Finals, and sign up to receive news and updates, visit the official event website at www.usdressagefinals.com.