Trying to put this amazing experience into words is a bit like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. I'm incredibly grateful to The Dressage Foundation and the Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize for making my winter dream come true. Harrold and I have come so far in such a short time, and I'm still pinching myself that I'm living a dream I thought was way off in the future.
Our adventure kicked off in November when we journeyed from chilly Mount Vernon, Washington, to sunny Thermal, California. We spent eight weeks at the Desert International Horse Park, and the weather was just perfect the whole time. The facility is huge and simply incredible; countless arenas with perfect Premier footing, a galloping track, plenty of jumps for us to set trot poles, grassy turnouts and hand grazing areas, excellent customer service, and more. DIHP was where we entered the world of International Grand Prix competitions, which turned out to be a whole new level compared to the national Grand Prix, and Small and Medium Tour international events.
Looking back, I wish we had gotten to the Desert International Horse Park a week earlier. We felt a bit rushed before our first CDI competition because of the long trip. But still, I was happy with how we did. We finished 5th place in both the Grand Prix and the Freestyle events, with scores of 67% and 71% respectively.
The next few weeks were about getting used to the place and the weather, and getting ready for the second CDI. The Desert International Horse Park was awesome, with a gallop track and lots of well-kept arenas. There were also jumper shows happening at the same time, which helped our horses get used to all sorts of commotion. I feel like I could now take any of the eight horses I had with me, aged 4 to 15, anywhere in the world to compete, thanks to the confidence they gained in the desert.
Things got pretty hectic during the second CDI week. Besides riding Harrold, I had to manage four more horses and help coach three clients with their horses. It was a bit of a scramble when Harrold wasn't ready just 15 minutes before I was supposed to be on. Luckily, some helpful jumper grooms pitched in, but I was still a bit frazzled and still late getting on. Even so, we gave it a shot, and while it wasn't our best ride, we got 4th place and the 65% needed to move on to the freestyle. The freestyle was a blast and we got a 73% and landed 3rd place.
The busy atmosphere at Desert International Horse Park died down over the Christmas and New Year's break, giving all the horses and riders a much-needed rest. Our last CDI in the desert was the highlight of my winter. We got 3rd place in both the Grand Prix and the freestyle with scores of 67% and a whopping 77% for the freestyle, just behind Steffen Peters and Anna Buffini. It was one of the best rides I've ever had, and having Steffen greet me with a hug at the gate is a memory I'll treasure forever.
I can't thank Nick Wagman and David Blake enough for coaching us during the Desert Circuit. Their advice during warm-ups and little tweaks here and there made a big difference.
After wrapping up the Desert Circuit, we made our way to Florida. Harrold and I trained with Jan Ebeling at Tierra Contenta, and we took part in two more CDIs, landing in the top 10 each time. Each competition taught me more about what it's like to compete at this level. We had some challenges, like too much or not enough warm-up time for a few tests and dealing with the tricky climate and footing in Florida. But we powered through, and performing our freestyle routine under the stadium lights was such a fun experience.
After the second CDI in Florida and the first time we tried the Grand Prix Special, we decided to focus on training and getting even better for the next season. Jan's been a huge help with that. Our weak points were the piaffe/passage and transitions, so we broke them down and built them back up, and it's really coming together now.
In May, I thought Harrold should have a little break – he had been in hard work since preparations for Festival last year – so he went to ‘swim camp’, going on the water treadmill three to four times a week, while I still rode him on the days between. Now he's back in action, feeling fantastic. The water treadmill was great for him mentally and physically, and I think that will keep him going strong in the long run.
When I first came to Florida, I only planned to stay for about 5 to 6 weeks, do a few shows, and then head back west. But as I got a taste of the Florida equestrian scene, I kept extending my stay by a week at a time. Eventually, I decided to stay here year-round. It just makes sense with all the top-notch training, great vets and farriers, and amazing shows. Now, I have all of my personal horses in Wellington except for my 2-year-old colt. I also have a group of lovely training and sales horses. They have all been making awesome progress over the summer, and I'm really excited for the next season. Running my own business in Wellington was something I never thought I would do, and I am so thankful to The Dressage Foundation for opening this door for me.
Going from Training Level all the way to Grand Prix with a horse is a long road, and it has been so rewarding. And now, entering the international ranks feels like starting all over again. But I'm pumped to keep going on this journey with my special Harrold!