FEI For My 50th Birthday

Photo by Jessica Farren Photography

By Kristen Guest

I did not go looking for a Lipizzan, but the one I found changed my life. 

Like many middle-aged amateurs, I rode as a teenager and then had to put horses on hold while I went to university and established a career. During my long hiatus I kept thinking about being able to ride again in a serious way. What this might look like took shape after I had the chance to watch Reiner Klimke exercising Biotop when he was in Toronto for the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in 1997. What I saw was not advanced movements—they were just riding quietly in a snaffle to get used to the coliseum—but the picture was so lovely that I knew that when I was able to ride seriously again, dressage was what I wanted to do. 

In 2005 I was finally ready to begin; however, my early experiences were more heartbreak than harmony. I started with an off-track Thoroughbred and competed up to First Level, but spent a lot of time crying in the tack stall. I was advised that I needed a schoolmaster, but the one I brought home needed someone to honor his needs, and I quickly made the decision to retire him. By the summer of 2009, I thought it was all over. I live in a remote area of northern Canada and my only rideable horse was beyond my skills. Maybe developing as a dressage rider was not possible for me.

I was ready to quit when I stumbled across a notice about a clinic that intrigued me. It was a ten-hour drive to get there and I only had my Thoroughbred to ride, but I decided to go. The clinician, Thomas Ritter, worked with us over the weekend, and this showed me a path forward with this horse. After the clinic, I asked if I could come train with him for a month and he said yes. In the fall of that year, we set out on the long drive to Oregon. While I was there we did intensive seat lessons and established a program that helped me develop a better connection with my horse. I also learned that real-time lessons via Skype were possible. Thomas agreed to keep coaching me by Skype and, having found the help I needed, I started to think about finding another horse. 

While in Oregon I got to spend time with a barn full of Lipizzans. Like many people, I knew about the Spanish Riding School but not much else. It was not a breed I had considered, but the more I watched these horses, the more I was impressed. Over the month I was there, I also got the chance few potential buyers ever get: I was allowed to take them out, play with them, and just interact one-on-one. I was especially drawn to one of the yearling stallions, who seemed smart, sane, and a natural fit for what I wanted to do. 

Maestoso II Imperea II and Kristen on Canada Day (July 1) 2010. Photo by Dale Guest

After I got home I kept thinking about him. I was not sure if attempting to start a young horse myself would be a good idea for either of us. I was still a barely-competent First Level rider. Nonetheless, and against all received wisdom about how these things work, I began to think that maybe this was ‘the one.’ I bought him that winter and Thomas agreed to help me bring him along when the time came. In the spring of 2010, Maestoso II Imperea II came home with me. I kept working on developing my skills with my Thoroughbred, and waited for my baby to grow up.

In 2012 we began work under saddle. I backed him myself, and when we had the basics established, we started weekly lessons with Thomas. Almost unbelievably, this went pretty well. His amazing temperament meant that he was solid and patient, but he was also athletic and fun to ride. We progressed slowly but steadily. The year he was six we traveled 10 hours to our first show, where he handled the new atmosphere like an old hand, and improved with every test over the course of the weekend. After finally getting through a horse show without crying in the tack stall, I started to dream about what the future might hold. 

Kristen and Maestoso II Imperea II proudly wear their Fourth Level AA Champion and Prix St. Georges AA Reserve sashes at the 2019 Great American/USDF Region 6 Dressage Championships. Photo by Dale Guest

In the back of my mind I hoped that maybe I could celebrate the year of my 50th birthday (in 2017) by completing a Prix St. Georges test. We moved up to Second Level, and then Third, and he was remarkably good-natured while I figured out how to train and ride movements that were new to both of us. Our path was not free from bumps (mostly pilot-related), but we had great support from Thomas and my wonderful husband–our videographer for weekly lessons and all-star horse-show helper. In the fall of 2017, I celebrated turning 50 by riding our first FEI test.

In 2018 we attended our first USDF-recognized shows in Region 6, and in 2019 returned to the US with the goal of qualifying for, and attending, the Great American/USDF Regional Championships. I was thrilled that year when we received an Adequan®/USDF All-Breed award, and my USDF Silver Medal, capping off the season by winning the Fourth Level Adult Amateur championship class and earning Reserve Champion in the Adult Amateur Prix St. Georges at the Region 6 Championships.

COVID kept us home for two years after that, but we spent that time building our skills. We were lucky at this time to add another important member to the support team: Stephanie Schacke, a talented young dressage trainer who has developed two of her own home-bred horses to Grand Prix, moved back to the area where I live, and was able to be our eyes on the ground.

This past fall, we attended Regionals again, this time winning the Adult Amateur Championship at Intermediate-1, and Reserve Champion at Prix St. Georges. We’re currently having fun confirming piaffe and passage, and have spent the winter working on one-tempi changes with the goal of trying Intermediate-2 classes. In the meantime, we’re going to tick another item off my riding bucket list this spring – entering a CDI for the small tour amateur classes. Someday, I hope we’ll be able to make the 5000-mile round trip to Lexington for the Grand Prix class at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®.

Being able to show and enjoy some success has been wonderful, and while there are ups and downs, it has been a long time since I cried in the tack room. What I’m most proud of however, is that what we’ve been able to achieve is the result of the relationship we’ve built. When I started riding again in 2005, none of this seemed possible—least of all bringing a horse up the levels doing all the riding myself. For that opportunity I will always be grateful to my once-in-a-lifetime big little horse.

Photo by Jessica Farren

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