When I filled out the application for the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Dressage Talent Search Program, I did so with few expectations. I’m 18 years old, riding a borrowed horse with the occasional attitude problem, I have difficulty with the ambiguous definition of “half-halt,” and I still get giddy when I catch a glimpse of Steffen Peters (I’ve stopped pointing and babbling though). I’m not exactly Olympic material, but I decided that if, IF I was chosen to participate it would be a wonderful opportunity to be in front of renowned equestrian Debbie McDonald, meet some up-and-coming riders, and get in the U.S. Equestrian Team’s Gladstone, N.J., arena before Lamborghini Dane and I compete there at the USEF Festival of Champions in August.
So when I found out we were one of the 35 pairs selected to be apart of the program, I was more than happy. Here are my thoughts on the experience.
Thursday, July 8, 2010
A lot of preparation goes into packing and planning for any event for me (not really, usually 15 minutes), so when I arrived at Gladstone and promptly started a haphazard pile of Tupperware and tack I was only following procedure. It had taken a while to find my name amongst the other red, white and blue cards posted on the stalls. I started on the first floor and worked my way down lingering next to some of the names long enough to be labeled creepy by everyone in the aisle. But some of the names were amazing and etched in bronze, holding the distinct honor of having a permanent place at the former USET headquarters: Brentina, Touch of Class and a host of other legendary horses.
After determining that I wasn’t on the first floor I made my way to the bottom level via the long horse ramp that I have yet to see a horse go near. Lammy (Lamborghini Dane) might learn a new trick. I found my name and began “setting up,” admiring as I have done many times before the beauty of the architecture and the depth that pervades the entire place. I led Lammy into a stall big enough for a small mammoth, and after a final check, I set out to find my hotel.
Friday, July 9, 2010
I woke up sick this morning and the forecast only made me feel worse. Although it was brutally hot most of the morning, storms were predicted for the afternoon, when I would ride–typical. But since I was in the last group of the day I had plenty of time to watch some of the other sessions and learn the procedure.
The riders were paired up to ride in 30-minute intervals. Each horse and rider had 15 minutes in the ring in front of Debbie McDonald (ahhhh!) and at the end of the evaluations she would choose up to three pairs to take part in her developing rider clinic over the next two days. There were some fantastic horses and riders to see, but more significantly there were some great pairs. You can always find a well trained rider and put him on a talented horse, but you cannot replicate a true partnership and from what I have read that is the idea behind the developing rider search–to find and further develop those partnerships. From what I saw, it seemed like Debbie would have her work cut out for her.
It is no wonder that a country club is slowly encroaching on these stables. The surrounding land is stunning, and I could not help but sit and look at the ring framed by dogwoods and flower beds a little longer than I was supposed to. Living in New Jersey, I have visited the former USEF headquarters many times, but I had never seen it quite like this. It always seemed too grand for small day shows and too intimate for the Festival of Champions, but watching the horses trot loosely around the ring, intent on their riders and their work, I recognized the peace harbored between the austere buildings. This was a place meant for study and nothing is more beautiful than seeing something be what it is meant to be.
As I feared the rain came an hour before my appointed time, loud enough on the roof to wake me from a dead sleep–I think it is the true mark of an equestrian to be able to sleep soundly sitting on a sawdust bag in a crowded barn while a horse drops pieces of hay in your hair. The session before mine was pushed back to avoid the poor weather, making it difficult to discern when to start my warm up. In the end I got on a little later than I should have.
Lammy, who was already very tense about the intimidating ring, immediately started off in full auction horse trot, taking a good look at the bleachers, gazebos, spectators, puddles, microorganisms, the great sand monster in the corner, etc. Eventually he settled down, but his excitement and the lack of his typical long warm-up taxed his energy and suppleness. I was happy to see that the new footing had handled the downpour very well, but as some of the other riders had warned, it was very deep in some spots and difficult to get through. It wasn’t our best performance, but he tried very hard to keep it together, and I am reminded once again that he really needs his time to stretch and focus or else the easiest movements will be difficult.
Debbie was not scary at all! It sounds silly, but that’s always the first thing I think about when riding in front of someone for the first time. I’ll admit that I was a little unsure of the whole process because I thought that we would ride for our 15 minutes and then never receive any feedback, but Debbie talked to each rider after her session and had some great tips and encouragement to offer.
At 4:30 everyone gathered in the upper aisle to retrieve their evaluations and see who was chosen to be in the clinic. Two very talented teams were accepted, but there were plenty of great pairs that were not. Being a young rider who still has a lot to learn, I did not expect to move on. However, I had a wonderful experience, received a very helpful critique from Debbie, and was able to get Lammy over his fears of the ring before the USEF Festival of Champions in August.
Nicole DelGiorno is an FEI Young Rider from Hammonton, N.J. She is currently partnered with Lamborghini Dane, a Danish Warmblood gelding owned by Kathleen Faltz. In 2009 the pair won the individual and musical freestyle gold medals at the North American Junior Championships, helping their team to a bronze medal finish. DelGiorno is also a B-dressage rated member of Shore Riders Pony Club and represents her area on the U.S. Pony Club National Youth Board. In addition to her responsibilities on the board, she is chairman of the U.S. Dressage Federation Youth Programs Advisory Subcommittee. She will be attending the University of Richmond this fall.