Refuge Found

Photo by Three Redheads and a Moose

We are celebrating Plus Size Riders as our July Featured Riders of the Month on YourDressage!

In this story, a Region 2 plus size rider shares her riding journey and the people (and horses!) that have impacted her life along the way!

By Christina Westfall

I have been a plus-size rider throughout my whole riding journey, from saddleseat to dressage. While I am aware of the challenges that I have faced due to my size, I also think of the amazing people I have met along the way, and the opportunities I have had, regardless of my size. When I was young, riding in other disciplines, I faced challenges with my body which led to unhealthy habits and an obsession with my appearance. These habits led to depression, anxiety, and body dysmorphia. Upon coming to the dressage world, I was fearful of how I would be viewed, as I did not believe I fit into the ideal body riding type. But to my surprise, dressage has become my safe haven and a place where I feel as if I belong. With the help of my friends, parents, and coaches, I have realized that all bodies are meant for riding.

My dressage journey began during my sophomore year of college on the University of Kentucky’s Dressage Team. On the day of tryouts, I was quite nervous as I had never ridden through a dressage test before and had previously competed on the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) team at a different college before transferring. I was worried about my size being an issue, but I was shocked to see that I made the team even though we had a large turnout at tryouts. Our coach, Alexa Ehlers of Clearview Equestrian Center, taught me so much about dressage and made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Through her knowledge and patience, I was given opportunities to ride and learn from wonderful schoolmasters. Even years later, I have been blessed to receive riding opportunities from her, out of the kindness of her own heart. She has always pushed me to feel empowered in every way and made me aware of the positive aspects of my riding.

Over the years, I faced many trials and accidents that made me lose my confidence. I suffered from two riding accidents that left me rattled and untrusting of horses.  In the first, I broke my back and then, only three months later, I crushed my foot when my horse fell on me. I never thought that I would ride again.

Once I healed, I met a special horse that I knew I could trust. He will always be my “once in a lifetime” horse that I will never forget. Gus was a 17-hand Off the Track Thoroughbred (OTTB) that had so much experience and patience. In his earlier years, he competed at the 3* level in eventing, and then went on to compete in the modern pentathlons with his owner. He was the first horse I rode after recovering from my foot injury, and I immediately felt safe; we could gallop in the field and then immediately hack out alone on the buckle. He had so many buttons, especially on the flat, and taught me lateral movements, transitions within a gait, and the art of keeping a horse connected.  Gus helped me regain my confidence, and I even began jumping small courses and participating in cross-country outings. However, Gus was not the only factor in helping me get comfortable in the saddle again. I met “Miss Lynn” through Gus’ owner and she became my coach and gave me lessons during this time. Little did I know that Miss Lynn would become one of the most important people in my life. She has always been there for me and never made me feel embarrassed about my size. It was the complete opposite– she made me feel capable and motivated to keep improving my riding skills. I can’t even express the amount of gratitude and love I have for Miss Lynn and her family. Without her support, I doubt I would be riding today.

In June 2019, Gus passed away suddenly. I was completely devastated; he was my best friend and we had worked so hard to build our partnership. Miss Lynn was there for me every step of the way during this period. With her help, after some time, I was able to find another horse to lease, Dharma. Dharma is the queen of chestnut mares and has taught me some very valuable lessons, including how to have a better feel when riding, and the importance of effective half halts in a movement. She is owned by my current coach, Wayne Quarles, who has been very influential in my riding today. I have learned so much from him, and he has never made me feel discouraged about my size. He has pushed me to dig deeper in my riding and ride every step. Because of him, I have learned how to be aware of my horse’s body and straightness, and become less passive in my riding. Every lesson with him feels like a gift, and I cannot believe my luck that I get to learn from him. Not only has he been one of my biggest supporters, but he has also become a great friend.

When it was time for Dharma to retire, I started leasing another OTTB named Brooks. Brooks was the perfect mount to show me the ropes of competing. In the time we were together, Brooks and I went to many shows, clinics, and enjoyed our time together. My most memorable experience with him was going to my first USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized competition, Midsouth Eventing and Dressage Association (MSEDA) at the Kentucky Horse Park. While we scored well at schooling shows, I was anxious about showing in a more formal setting. I was extremely nervous that I would be judged for my size, and it even affected my riding during my test. However, after my first test, I realized that was not the case. In fact, I received a 7.5 score for my position. I couldn’t believe it! That weekend we won both of our divisions, received Thoroughbred Incentive Program (TIP) Champion both days, were fourth in the Team Challenge, and earned Reserve Adult Amateur Highpoint Champion. I was so ecstatic and grateful for the experience, and it has really helped me, even to this day, to let go of my fear about my size.

When it was time for Brooks to be sold, I had no idea where to go from there. I owned two senior horses, and I did not have the financial means to support another horse. For the first time, I felt as if this event meant that I should quit riding. Even after my injuries and the many trials I had gone through to be able to ride, I had always persisted and had the drive to keep going. But, after time and time again of pushing through, and facing numerous challenges, it felt like I would never achieve my riding goals.

Then, as if it was a miracle, my friend April offered to let me ride her horse, Moppi, on the days she was unable to ride. Moppi has helped me find my love of riding again, and taught me to enjoy every ride in a way that I never thought I could. Moppi is a gorgeous bay Oldenburg, who stands well over 18 hands. With a large forelock and four white socks, he is known to turn heads everywhere he goes. He has easily been the most talented and kind horse I have ever ridden, and I cannot thank April enough for the opportunity to work with him. I have learned so much from him and his coach Nikki Jewell, of Hidden Gem Equine. Through her lessons, I have become more aware of a holistic approach to working with my horse, and the benefits of having one’s horse supple and working correctly. She has even had me cross-train through cavaletti and ground pole exercises, which I never thought I would do again after Gus. And to my surprise, I have enjoyed it and even do these exercises when I am schooling on my own! Nikki has been so encouraging and, again, has never once made me feel embarrassed of my size.

Even though my body has always been one of my strongest insecurities, I have learned to embrace it. My body has held up through the toughest of accidents, and made it possible for me to ride. And when I feared it would affect my riding opportunities, it never did. In fact, I cannot believe the chances I have received in my riding journey. I am surrounded by such wonderful people (and have the most amazing parents), and I cannot truly thank everyone enough for believing in me. Without my support system, I have no doubt that I would not be where I am today.

Over the years, I have learned several things. Size does not determine whether you are a good rider or not; just because someone may be larger does not mean that they do not work just as hard as others. Every body is meant for riding, and it is important to make the riding community a safe place for everyone. After all, most of us are here for the same thing—to seek refuge in riding and to enjoy being with horses.

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