Along For The Ride

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

Here, a Region 2 adult amateur shares the story of her mare, who has given her the confidence to chase a ticket to the National Dressage Pony Cup, and USDF Rider and Horse Performance Awards!

By Hayley Self

Like every equestrian, I have a story that shows I was hooked on horses from the very first moment. I was no more than five years old and my mother took my brother and I on our first pony ride, at a nearby zoo. I’m certain she expected it to be a fun and cute moment for her young children, but instead she ended up with two crying toddlers. I was in tears because I did not want to get off the pony I was on. Luckily for me, my brother, also in tears, wanted nowhere near the ponies, so I was able to take his ride and go around several more times. I never wanted that pony ride to stop. 

Now, at 31, I’m still that little girl that never wants the ride to stop.

I do not come from an equestrian family, and aside from random trail rides I did not start truly riding and taking lessons until I was a young adult, away at college. I also don’t have the stereotypical body type of most equestrians, and I’ve struggled with body image for the majority of my life. I was very lucky to start off at an eventing barn, with an incredible trainer by the name of Nadeem Noon. In the short time I knew Nad, I learned so much, and the eventing community was so kind and welcoming to anyone who had a passion for horses. My heart was never in eventing, however, despite loving the thrill of it all. I lived for the dressage lesson days—a bit odd for an eventer. Unfortunately, Nad passed away in 2015 and I stopped riding to focus on furthering my schooling, in pursuit of a career as a nurse. 

When I met Castleberrys Rockette, it was entirely by chance. She’s a flashy little Dutch Warmblood/Welsh Cob cross that lives up to every chestnut mare stereotype you’ve ever heard; and I love her all the more for it. I had not ridden in ages and she had not been ridden for several years. She, too, had her start in eventing, before taking some time off. 

Our partnership started by, of all things, a Facebook post. In late 2019, I decided I wanted to get back into horses and reached out for nearby recommendations. An old coworker of mine, Lisa Brezina of Castleberry Welsh Cobs and Sporthorses, commented that I was welcome to come out to her farm and meet her herd. I fell in love with the Welsh Cobs instantly, and the warmblood crosses, in particular, had my heart. Lisa has since become a very dear friend, and I am blessed to have an incredible breeder as a friend to learn from. 

At the tail end of 2020, I began work in travel nursing, and Lisa offered Rockette for me to take along as a ride. I had recently decided to begin taking lessons again; this time I knew I wanted my focus to be on dressage. After a long time searching and researching, I found my trainer, Jolene Bester, near the hospital I was traveling at. Neither Rockette nor I had any idea what we were doing after years off and being out of shape, but her training and patience has been more than I could have asked for. 

Rockette and I went from pasture puffs, who technically had an idea of what to do but little finesse, to truly learning what dressage was all about. My mare is not an easy ride, she can be tricky at times, and VERY opinionated. But, all her quirks have made me a better rider. She makes me work for every step of the ride and, with Jolene guiding us, we began to get an idea of the kind of team we could be.

In June of 2021, I attended my first ever USDF-recognized show at Waterloo. We scrubbed ourselves up, and I dug out some old show clothes I had from years prior, throwing the rest of my ensemble together. I didn’t have all the gear at the time, but I was just happy to go. Rockette cleaned up better than me—though with the rain at Waterloo, you couldn’t see my hard work in whitening her socks! All that time White-N-Brighting for the mess in the ring to slop it up. 

I have horrible show nerves and, at the time, Rockette’s canter was hit or miss (often hitting the miss mark) on any kind of rhythm or quality. We completed the Training 1 test and didn’t do half bad at all! We had some bobbles, and I’m sure my show anxiety was of no help to her relaxation. Rockette proved to be a pro, behaving better at the show than she often did at home. 

Rockette has significantly helped my confidence as a rider, with the support of my trainer. She has the best brain on her, and even when I get nervous, I know that my mare has my back. 

In 2022, we graduated to showing at First Level. Not the biggest deal, but I’m not out to do the FEIs! So for me, it was huge. My friends and trainer pushed me to do it, but with my confidence issues I didn’t think I was ready. There was no way I could be a First Level ready rider… ever. Rockette and I were meant to play around at Training Level together forever, right?

Wrong. At our first show at First Level together, Rockette and I got our First Level USDF Bronze Medal qualifying scores. I may or may not have cried a little.

Around that time is when I began dreaming of attending the National Dressage Pony Cup (NDPC), as well. Rockette’s breeder, Lisa, had been the one to put that bug in my ear. She mentioned that with Rockette’s half Welsh breeding, as well as her height (a whopping 15.1!), we would likely meet requirements to go. However, for the championship classes you have to ride First Level Tests Two and Three. I had only ridden through First 1 and was terrified! Plus, the 2023 season meant all new tests. 

I have spent my entire winter and spring preparing myself for showing First Level 2 and 3. Rockette and I have worked, practicing and perfecting the movements. Jolene has been an enormous help in this process, and we’ve found ourselves, and our partnership, rapidly improving. 

Sometimes, riding Rockette felt like I was waiting for us to have a long-standing disagreement that we would need a counselor to mediate before we could compromise (we are both stubborn ladies). Now, every ride is delightful. She knows and enjoys her job, and First Level seems a breeze now. We’ve competed at both schooling and recognized shows so far this spring, in preparation for NDPC. This year has been the first year that I feel like our partnership is truly cemented and we are ready to give it a go. We are also trying to qualify for the Great American/USDF Region 2 Championships this fall, as well. 

There have been a lot of little steps leading up to the NDPC, but the organization is incredibly welcoming and helpful. To qualify, both you and your horse must become a member. There is further paperwork to fill out, as well, that the organization needs, including height documentation from your vet. Rockette is too tall to qualify for the pony classes, however they have a small horse class for any horse under 16hh that’s too tall for the pony class. I have become used to seeing all the tall (to me) horses at the local USDF shows, so I’m looking forward to seeing all the dancing ponies and their partners at NDPC. 

Suffice it to say, I’m addicted to dressage now. In my spare time, I listen to dressage podcasts, read dressage books, and do workouts outside of the saddle designed to help rider fitness in the saddle. Rockette always gives me her all, so I thought that I should do no less. I try to never miss lessons when I can help it, and I’ve even had walk lessons in the pouring rain before a show, just to get my trainer’s eyes on us. 

Rockette means everything to me, because I could not have done any of this without her or had any of these goals. She has helped me earn my Rider Performance Awards for both Training and First Level, and we’re hoping to earn her a Horse Performance Certificate at First Level. 
She has been a patient partner that has helped me learn more than I thought possible, and every ride I learn something new. As an added delight, I have been able to attend Welsh Breed Shows with her, as well. She is my dressage partner, but she’s also my heart horse. We can go from showing recognized dressage one day, to galloping across the 500 acres by my farm the next. 

She also makes me feel good about myself and my riding. Being a plus size rider, sometimes I would feel mismatched on my equine partner. But Rockette is like me: a bit short and a bit wide, and I never feel that odd sense of not quite right. When I swing my leg over her, it feels like coming home. 

Rockette is getting older now, she’s 19 this year, but we hope to show Second Level next year. I have hopes and dreams of a USDF Bronze Medal someday, and if she wants to take me there, I’ll just be happy to go along, still never wanting the ride to stop.

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