From volunteering at local shows to working at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, Kathy Grisolia has given a lifetime of service to the sport of dressage
Reprinted from the March/April 2020 issue of the USDF Connection magazine
By Jennifer M. Keeler
With national-championship titles on the line, dressage competitors brave long drives and mercurial November weather to take part in the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®. At the same time, an army of dedicated volunteers endures long days and everything Mother Nature dishes out for no reward other than the satisfaction of giving back to the sport they love. And spearheading the army is Kathryn “Kathy” Grisolia, of Versailles, Kentucky.
“When I first I heard of the Finals, I knew I wanted to be a part of it,” Grisolia says. “Roped in” (as she puts it) to assist Finals event coordinator Debra Reinhardt in 2013, the competition’s inaugural year, Grisolia—already a well-known dressage competition manager with a diverse background in the sport—ascended through the volunteer ranks to become the Finals volunteer coordinator, responsible for recruiting and managing all manner of helpers, from scribes to ring stewards, for the four-day championships at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington.
USDF president Lisa Gorretta calls Grisolia “awesome,” pointing to her prowess at managing the nearly 100 Finals volunteers. FEI-level rider/trainer, FEI dressage judge, and former USEF national dressage technical advisor Anne Gribbons, whose Knoll Farm on New York’s Long Island Grisolia managed for nearly a decade in the 1990s, says that “a more honest, dedicated, and yet fun-to-be-with person is very rare to find.”
A Dream Delayed
Unlike many prominent names in dressage, Grisolia didn’t own a horse or even ride as a child. Growing up in the Long Island town of Levittown, horse books and the occasional pony ride were as close as she got.
“No one in my family had any involvement with horses,” she says, “but I always loved them and my mother couldn’t figure out why. I attribute it to my Irish heritage,” she laughs.
In the late 1970s, when Grisolia was a high-school senior, “my mother was not happy because I didn’t want to go to college,” she says. Undeterred, “I went to my guidance counselor and said in no uncertain terms that I wanted to do something with horses. He did some research and found a co-op program with the International School of Harness Racing at [the now-shuttered Long Island harness track] Roosevelt Raceway. So I went to class in the morning, and every afternoon and on weekends I went to the track.”
The harness-racing program was Grisolia’s entrée to the horse industry. Soon she found herself traveling the country to various tracks and even competing on the prestigious Grand Circuit of US harness races. But the nomadic lifestyle took its toll.
“Winters have always been my nemesis,” Grisolia says, “and I kept getting bad frostbite in my hands, from which I still have problems to this day. Also, there were times you were on the road all the time and you’d end up sleeping in the barns… I just reached a point where I thought maybe it was time for a change in my life, even though I did want to stay involved with horses.”
Seeking a change of pace and the ability to stay closer to home, Grisolia took a job mucking stalls at Knoll Farm, where Gribbons and her husband, David, spent 35 years training horses and riders, hosting shows, and running a busy boarding and breeding operation.
After a while, the Gribbonses “asked me to help teach students who were competing in the Special Olympics,” Grisolia says. “It became my project for a few years, and I really enjoyed teaching. I began riding there too, and of course I got to watch Anne ride all the time, but I wasn’t really focused on dressage. One day a friend wanted to take a semi-private dressage lesson and needed someone to join her. She kept insisting, so finally I relented and tried it. And that was it: I was hooked!”
In pursuit of her newfound passion, Grisolia kept working her way up and improving her dressage skills. She finally purchased her first horse, an imported Polish Trakehner named Automatic Pilot (“which is not at all what he was!” she laughs), and progressed to competition at Third Level. Professionally, she became the main stallion handler for Knoll Farm’s breeding program, then was promoted to overall farm manager.
It was at Knoll Farm where Grisolia was introduced to everything that goes on behind the scenes at a dressage competition.
“We used to hold three-ring, two-day dressage shows at the farm, so I started helping out the secretary,” she says. “She taught me about entry processing, and this was in the days when everything was done by hand. She was just about to teach me how to actually schedule the show when she got sick and ended up in the hospital. So everything was handed to me. Talk about jumping right into the deep end of the pool! Somehow I pulled it off. I don’t know how I did it—plus I still rode in the show myself!”
But once again winter weather became the impetus for change. “One year we had an epic snowstorm, and I said to David [Gribbons] that that winter was going to be my last one spent outside,” Grisolia says. “My husband, Lou, and I moved to Amityville, New York. I got an ‘inside’ job with a pulmonary doctor and spent the next 17 years there.”
Even with her new non-equine career, Grisolia found a way to stay connected to horses, even as her own riding endeavors wound down. Through activities as a member of her local USDF group-member organization (GMO), Grisolia met Connecticut-based show manager (now also USDF Region 8 director) Debra Reinhardt and began volunteering at her show at the Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Connecticut, an effort that she continued when the competition moved to its current home at the HITS-on-the-Hudson grounds in Saugerties, New York.
“I got into the scoring for several large shows,” Grisolia says, “and was still doing secretarial work for smaller ones like Westbrook Hunt Club [Connecticut], taking over as other people left. It was Debra who really encouraged me to push myself a little—to step out of my comfortable little bubble and take on new projects.” To that end, Grisolia began scoring at Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids Youth Dressage Festival in Saugerties, later became co-secretary, and returns every year to help make that event possible.
Now a Level 5 competition manager with US Equestrian, Grisolia has become a familiar face at dressage shows across the country. In 2015, she and Lou left New York to join his family; all now live in central Kentucky on a Thoroughbred horse farm. Naturally, she began volunteering with Kentucky Dressage Association shows and served as co-manager for the Great American/USDF Region 2 Championships at the Kentucky Horse Park. Grisolia also met professional show manager and secretary Sandy Donovan, and soon Donovan was recruiting her to help out with shows in Region 3. Grisolia’s current lineup of gigs includes two shows in Tennessee, two shows in South Carolina, and several shows in Houston.
The dressage community is a tight-knit one, and Grisolia’s name got around quickly.
“Working with Debra [Reinhardt], I also learned how to run sport-horse-breeding shows,” Grisolia says. “Through that I got to know [breeding-show chair] Melanie Sloyer and [president/CEO] Lori Kaminski from Dressage at Devon [Pennsylvania], so I started helping out there, too. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself as the breed-show secretary for the last two years. Last year I also worked a few shows in Wellington [Florida] with [professional show secretary] Monica Fitzgerald and really liked it. Then my husband decided that this year we would spend the season in Florida, so I’ll be working there again, too. I am finally achieving my dream of escaping winter entirely!”
The Project She’s Most Proud Of
Of all the competitions at which Grisolia works or volunteers, the US Dressage Finals, she says, remain the nearest and dearest to her heart.
“It’s hard for me to not get emotional talking about our volunteer team,” she says, “because everyone is so dedicated and we’ve become such a family. Every single person wants to be there; they never complain, even when it’s miserable outside; and most of them come back year after year like it’s a big family reunion.
“Everyone knows that the Finals are so special that—even if you’re just a pooper scooper in the Alltech Arena—you’re an intimate part of such an incredible event, and we all feel it. It’s an honor to be there every year, and I couldn’t be prouder of my team. We couldn’t do it without them!”
We couldn’t do it without Grisolia, either, and so we salute her tireless efforts on behalf of dressage in the US.
Jennifer M. Keeler, the longtime US Dressage Finals press officer, is a freelance writer and photographer and a three-time American Horse Publications Equine Media Award winner. She is the owner of Yellow Horse Marketing, Paris, Kentucky.