By Tai Parrish
I began riding at the age of 10 when my grandparents surprised me with a week of horse camp, and I was immediately hooked. From that time on, I never passed up an opportunity to ride (regardless of the discipline). My family did not have a lot of money and could only afford to send me to a few lessons per month. I was so desperate to ride as much as I could, that I began helping out at all of the barns that I rode in, in exchange for extra ride time. By doing so, not only was I getting more riding time, but I was also learning the inner workings of show barns and horse care. It was win-win!
By the time I was 13, I was primarily focusing on show jumping. I would take an occasional dressage lesson here and there, but at the time, I honestly thought dressage was pretty boring! I loved the feeling of running fast and jumping the jumps as high as I could, which is why I still love to go eventing when I have time.
When I was 14, an amazing opportunity became available for me to not only take dressage lessons, but also to help out after school a couple days a week, with Lauren Chumley. As I said, I never let an opportunity pass to ride horses, so I jumped at this. I was over the moon and very nervous at the same time. I will never forget one of my trainers telling me, “This will be a lot of hard work, but I know you can handle it.” She was not kidding about the hard work. I was used to working at lesson barns, not a big show barn like what Lauren runs. However, I put my head down and went to work. Everyone at Lauren’s barn was so welcoming and willing to share their vast knowledge, and I happily soaked it all in. My hard work paid off when Lauren asked me to stay on as an unofficial working student. Lauren typically only takes 18-year-olds on as working students, but here she was, taking a chance on a 14-year-old kid. I couldn’t believe it.
After working and lessoning for a few months, the opportunity arose to ride Saracchi (Odie). I remember thinking it had to be a mistake! He is a beautiful 17.1h Oldenburg gelding that I had been watching Lauren ride since I started there, and I had loved him from day one. He’s such a goofball and the most caring horse you’ll meet. So, I took advantage of the opportunity and decided I would make the most of it. Working with Lauren and riding Odie is what made me realize that I really enjoyed dressage. Sure, running fast and jumping high are exhilarating, but dressage is the pursuit of perfection. It is demanding, challenging, and takes immense concentration and patience. And I discovered that I loved it.
After a few months of training, Lauren decided it was time for me to enter a show. We loaded up and went off to a local schooling show, where I did my first real dressage test. I remember, as we were entering, Lauren looked at me and said, “If he’s too much we’ll just scratch.” Sure enough, we walked into that warmup and Odie immediately spooked. Lauren casually called over the fence, “He does that sometimes! Just walk around and he’ll be fine.” I was not feeling too confident, but Odie calmed down just enough that I was able to make it into the ring and ride my first dressage test. That day started a feeling that I hope never goes away. It was also the beginning of an amazing show season that I will never forget.
In my first season, I qualified for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Championships at Training and First Levels, after only three shows. The regional championships were my first out of state show, which meant I was insanely nervous. To calm my nerves, I had decided that I was not going to ride to win, but just take a deep breath and have fun. Not only did that help my nerves, but Odie and I took first place! I will never forget the feeling of running to Lauren and telling her that we had just won First Level. The next year we returned, this time competing at Second and Third Levels. However, this time I decided it was not just for fun. This time I had a goal. This was the first time junior classes would be offered, and I was going to qualify for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®! But, after an injury set us back and I was unsure how we were going to perform, I decided to fall back on my original mentality of “just having fun.” Yet again, this mental tactic paid off! Odie and I won at Second Level and made alternate for Third Level! I could not have asked for a more exciting first two seasons.
As for the future, I have some big plans. First and foremost, I want to qualify for the North American Youth Championships Team and compete in Michigan this year. I also want to compete in the United States Pony Club Championships in North Carolina and keep progressing through the levels (hopefully at Regionals and Finals)! I plan on continuing to learn as much as Lauren will teach me and take on every opportunity that comes my way. My pipe dream, of course, is to compete in the Olympics some day, but at the end of the day, it has been so much fun to have all of these opportunities made available to me with this amazing horse and amazing trainer by my side. And for that I am truly grateful.
**Tai Parrish is a youth, new to the sport of dressage and USDF is thrilled to feature him as part of our Many Faces of Dressage series! If you would like to share your story as part of this, or any other series, please feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.