August is Youth Month on YourDressage! From stories about remarkable young dressage enthusiasts across the country, to articles about some of the opportunities USDF offers to youth riders, join us all month long as we celebrate equestrians aged 25 and under. They are the future of our sport!
“I can’t think of any other sport where I would have the opportunity to feel such incredible unity with another creature!” In this story, a Region 1 competitor shares about the horses she has met after being bitten by the ‘horse bug’ at a young age, as well as her future goals in our sport.
By Paige Zimmerman
My name is Paige Zimmerman, I’m from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and I am 19 years old. I attend Lehigh University as a full-time student in the School of Business, studying marketing, data analytics, and studio art. Additionally, I am a barn rat, and I relish my time at the barn! I usually log at least 40 hours a week caring for the horses on top of my other responsibilities. I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I certainly can’t imagine my life without horses and dressage. I like to think that one way or another, had my life gone differently or I’d been born to a different family, I would’ve found horses anyway, since I can’t imagine life without them. I’ve vowed to myself that no matter what happens, no matter where I end up or how busy I get, that I will never, ever quit horses!
I am fortunate that both of my parents were involved in the horse world. In fact, they met at a clinic! My mom’s horse, Americano, had rolled in his stall right before her ride and my dad offered to help get him clean. Unfortunately, I never met Americano before he passed during colic surgery when I was a newborn. My mom also had a 40 year-old former lesson pony named Charlie, who was my first ride. I do not remember much about being a toddler, but I can easily recall the feeling of sitting bareback atop Charlie and thinking about how wide and soft his back was. I think from then on the horse bug had officially bitten me. Even through my first falls, bumps, bruises and a broken collarbone, nothing could deter me.
I took lessons as a hunter/ jumper for several years before my mom got back into riding and purchased a little Off-Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) mare named Campie. I first rode her when I was 9 years old, and she was very different from any other horse I had ever ridden. I had only ridden packer-type lesson ponies, and Campie was, well, an OTTB mare: spicy and opinionated. I had no idea what contact was, what bend was, or how to help a rather unbalanced horse become balanced. And as I took a few jump lessons on her, it became increasingly clear that I was too small and inexperienced to control her over fences. Though she was a challenging ride, I quickly fell in love with her sweet face and gentle mannerisms. From that point on, I received many lunge lessons from my mom, which helped me eliminate my perching hunter seat and establish a greater sense of confidence and control in my riding. I didn’t even realize that I was learning dressage: to me it was just “training”. Over time, Campie slowly but surely became more and more supple and relaxed, and I really enjoyed feeling this transformation in her physical and mental state. What I learned from Campie helped establish a foundation for all of my future riding: to be tenacious yet patient, and firm yet tactful. Everyday I continue to develop these skills and remember the mental fortitude it takes to manage them.
When I was 14, I began riding with Olivia Steidle, based in Quakertown, PA. She has extensive experience in the show ring with young horses, and she also has quite the knack for helping challenging horses through their struggles so that they can shine. She has been absolutely transformative in my riding and my journey, and I would not be where I am today without her! My mom and I had been in search of a trainer with schoolmasters available, because as much as Campie was teaching me, she was not educated beyond First Level, and I needed to receive valuable knowledge from a more experienced horse. Due to financial limitations, buying or leasing another horse was never an option. Olivia had a schoolmaster I could begin taking lessons on, and thus the partnership began. Said schoolmaster was Buddy the Fourth Level OTTB, who was 18 at the time, and had a lot to teach me!
Olivia met Buddy when he was 14 years old. He had raced and been retired due to a bowed tendon, he’d been through some detrimental training programs, and he’d been in a tragic barn fire. He hadn’t been cantered in two years since his riders had been afraid of his big, powerful, race horse gaits. However, when I began riding him, no trace of these difficulties existed: he was perfect! He was not easy, just as Campie was not easy, but he was a different kind of challenge than Campie was. Campie was quick and reactive, but Buddy was a much bigger mover, had the bounciest trot I’d ever ridden, and to get him properly using his hind leg was a challenge.
As Olivia retrained my muscle memory and taught me to have a seat rather than just legs and hands, my partnership with Buddy grew. He’s got quite the personality. He gives the impression of being stoic and quiet, but when we ride him, he is extremely vocal. When he feels good, he lets out some loud groans of relaxation and occasional squeals that often get laughs from onlookers (and judges)! He took me to my first recognized shows, all the way through earning me my USDF Bronze Medal in 2019. He was 20 years old, and I was just about to turn 17. Buddy continues going strong today, at 23 years old, teaching many new students, and also continuing to teach me. Whenever I ride him, he always reminds me to fix my bad habits and to use my seat properly, and I always laugh at his grunting and groaning. I always enjoy riding him!
In 2019, I also had the opportunity to begin riding a Hanoverian gelding named Ducati (Dancier x Londonderry), owned by Brenda Curnin. He came to Olivia’s program in early 2018, and I was immediately struck by what a beautiful mover he was. He was so floaty, though he seemed very sensitive and challenging. I got to know him as he developed in Olivia’s program, and of course, I very quickly fell in love with him. I’d go hang out by his stall and let him lick my hand for minutes on end. He was always quiet and polite, and a very sweet horse to interact with though he was fairly shy at first. Over that winter, Brenda was going to go to Florida to beat the cold, and since I was staying back in Pennsylvania, I had the opportunity to lease him for a few months. It was a dream come true! Olivia worked with Ducati and I all throughout that winter, forging a new partnership.
I’d never ridden such a quality horse before, especially one that was as capricious as he was. While he was always very safe and reliable, when Brenda bought him and he came to Olivia’s program, he had very little strength to carry his power, and he was a ball of anxiety. He would hide from the contact, and much of our work in the beginning was trying to have him stretch his neck out and touch the bit. Whenever he felt any sort of pressure from the reins or leg when it was in the wrong timing, he’d react quite negatively and shut down. It was extremely challenging to regain his attention and relaxation after a dramatic moment. We all worked very hard to develop his confidence, and over time we slowly began to see the fruits of our labor.
I had the opportunity to take him to his first shows in 5 years since he did the 4 year old classes as a young horse. At the end of that season, we were fortunate enough to attend Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships in Saugerties, NY, and earn a ticket to the 2020 Festival of Champions for Dressage Seat Equitation (though we unfortunately did not end up attending the championships due to the pandemic in 2020). Throughout that first year, his progress in and out of the show ring was immense, and I am always amazed at the videos when I look back on them. It is hard to believe that we began the year as a Training Level pair trying to achieve a leg yield without Ducati throwing his body around, and then Olivia whipped us all into shape and we ended the year scoring in the mid-70s at First Level! Then the next year (2020), we were Second Level Jr/Yr National Champions on the Adequan®/USDF Year-End awards standings!
I am extremely lucky that Brenda is willing to share her Ducati with me, and allow me to continue my partnership with him. She rides and shows him too, and so we are all contributing to Ducati’s development. This is my fourth year showing him, and we are currently working to solidify the flying changes, which has so far been our greatest challenge yet. He can be both too sensitive and too dead to the aids at the same time, and so encouraging him to have confidence in the changes without either doing a late change or doing a huge leap has been a complex endeavor. In every lesson with Olivia, I feel that I learn something new, and I am determined to help Ducati learn his changes. Even though it is frustrating at times, I enjoy every step of the learning process. I truly believe in him and I see the progress, no matter how slow it may seem to be. I love the feeling I get from riding him, and I feel totally at home on his back. There are moments where I just think of doing something, such as a transition or a half-pass, and it is almost as if he reads my mind. Those moments are what draw me in and what keep me going: I feel like I continuously chase that elusive perfect feeling. Those perfect moments, no matter how brief they may be, make me even hungrier. I can’t think of any other sport where I would have the opportunity to feel such incredible unity with another creature!
Without these incredible women (Olivia, Brenda, and my mom), I would not be where I am today. Every horse I ride teaches me something. They are all unique characters with their own talents and challenges. Over the years I’ve been able to ride some other horses in Olivia’s program as well, and I am very grateful to be gaining experience on young horses as well, in hopes that one day when I am out of college and can afford it, I can buy my own baby horse. All of this invaluable experience riding so many different and special horses makes me feel incredibly grateful for where I am today. I feel that I’ve already met several “horses of a lifetime”. This is my journey and I wouldn’t have it any other way!