Chasing the North American Youth Championships Dream, Part 2

Young dressage rider Sophia Chavonelle shares her personal journey of ups and downs on her way to the 2018 North American Youth Championships (NAYC).

As I sat behind the barn at our third show in a row, sobbing into my dad’s shoulder after leaving the ring in the middle of a perfectly fine test, I wondered why I was still trying to qualify for the North American Youth Championships (NAYC). To fully explain how we ended up here, we have to go back approximately 52 weeks, 348 rides, and 20,000 miles on the odometer, to the April 2017 Mystic Valley Hunt Club (MVHC) dressage show in Gales Ferry, Connecticut.

It was Spotlight’s and my first show together, and our partnership was about six months old. I will never forget the first day of schooling, which tallied up to four people, dozens of sugar cubes, constant moaning and groaning from Spotlight (and maybe some from onlookers), and one longe line to get into the schooling arena. Our test the next day featured multiple mistakes ranging from unpredicted stopping to excessive flying changes, to going off course and nearly exiting the ring not once, but twice. We scored 58 percent.

This year, our qualifying season also began at MVHC. At that point, Spotlight and I were feeling pretty good about the Junior test; we had been working on it for a whole year now, and I knew we had made significant improvements to our riding and our partnership in that time. This year, he felt comparatively relaxed, and though we made a few bobbles in parts of the test, I felt pretty good about it. Somehow, we managed to score the exact score as last year: 58 percent. While the score was pretty disheartening, we sure learned what we needed to work on for the rest of the season.

Photo by Ava Dzilenski

One thing that made the crazy qualifying process a whole lot more fun was my teammate Leah Tenney. Leah joined the Vienna Farm family in the late summer of 2016, and we have been pretty much glued at the hip since then. We spent dozens of weeks on the road and at home together during the 2017 qualification process. I groomed for her and her horse Adel when they qualified for the 2017 Junior team, and we spent three months together in Aiken, South Carolina, as Tanya Rennie’s working students. We always have the best time, and I am so thankful to have her at my side.

Leah, Adel, Sophia, and Spotlight. Photo by Kristin Chavonelle.

A couple of weeks after the show at MVHC, Spotlight and I, along with fellow Vienna Farm rider Fiona Perreault and her horse Flynn, headed down to Carbery Fields Farm in Lebanon, Connecticut, to ride in the USDF Region 8 Jr/YR Clinic with Charlotte Bredahl-Baker. I always love riding with Charlotte because she gives great insight into what judges are looking for. Spotlight and Flynn were perfect gentlemen all weekend, and we both had great lessons. Charlotte immediately mentioned Spotlight’s tension and had me do lots of transitions and lateral work to loosen his body and keep his mind busy. She also had me ride him in a low, stretching frame instead of the high, tense frame he prefers to be in; this deeper frame eventually allowed him to move through his whole body and develop more swing, throughness, suppleness and rhythm. This is a theme that would continue throughout the rest of our summer, and what would greatly benefit us later in the summer. On Sunday, we all had to hurry home to meet Schleese Saddlery for Spotlight’s evaluation.

Walking to Charlotte. (Photo by Peter Chavonelle)

To ensure Spotlight’s comfort and to further our qualifying preparations, we asked Schleese to readjust Spotlight’s saddle. It had been several months since they had last visited, and since then, Spotlight had undergone surgery (I’ll explain later), requiring several weeks of walking, and over the span of five months, was subsequently rehabbed up to Fourth Level. I was sure his back had changed over that time, but when the expert saddle fitters took a look at Spotlight’s back and watched me ride him in his saddle, they said that his back had barely changed! His muscles had developed in almost the exact way during his rehab as they had over the previous summer. We got the green light to continue using his saddle for the rest of the season with no adjustments needed.

Four days later, we made the schlep to Centerline Events @ HITS on the Hudson in Sau-gerties, New York, seven hours south of home. We had very low expectations for our test due to the pouring rain; anyone who knows Spotlight knows of his hydrophobia. Yet my boy put on his brave face and splashed his way through a wonderful test, now boasting more than 130 views on YouTube and earning us a pretty blue ribbon. The pride I felt for little “Spotty” wholly made up for the soaking we received that day.

The following week, Spotlight and I were signed up for our favorite clinic of the year, the annual Dressage Dreams overnight camp. This clinic is unique, as it not only brings in a clinician who is new to every rider, but lectures are scheduled throughout the weekend as well. It’s a great way for local young riders to bring their horse to a new environment without the stress of a show. This year, our home, Vienna Farm, in Gorham, Maine, was the host.

( Photo credit by Kristin Chavonelle)

As the host barn, we had to make sure that everything was in tip-top shape! It was a hectic week as we had veterinarians, farriers and the dentist visiting in between the riding, lesson and barn cleanup schedules. Spotlight and a couple of other horses also traveled to TNT Equine to have their teeth inspected.

However, on Friday afternoon, as I was stretching Spotlight under saddle, it was impossi-ble not to notice a lameness in his right front leg. While I felt terrible for Spotlight and frustrated at this roadblock in our qualifying plan, I was very grateful that we were not far away at another dressage show, to which we had considered traveling. It was also convenient that the Saturday morning lecture was titled “How to Present Your Horse to a Veterinarian,” and Spotlight was the perfect demonstration! I was also very grateful to Cathy Liston, who let me borrow her mare for the Dressage Dreams clinic.

We attributed his lameness to a strain in the mud during the torrential rain at the HITS show and were able to make him comfortably sound within a few days. Spotlight received not only joint injections in his coffin joint—thank you Dr. Omar Maher of Atlantic Equine Services!—but also custom glue-on shoes for his front feet.

Throughout the 2016 show season, Spotlight presented a very inconsistent, mild lameness in his left front hoof (later proven through the use of nerve blocks). Over five months, it would come and go, show itself then become invisible within a single ride. We took x-rays, ultrasound images, and iced and injected the area, though nothing was shown to positively or negatively influence his gait. But finally, in October, the lameness became more pronounced. While an abscess did erupt through the top of his foot, and one showed in the medial white line, resolving these had little impact on his chronic lameness; we then decided to put Spotlight under general anesthesia and take a contrast-enhanced CT scan. In the detailed imaging, you could clearly see a mass attached to the inside of the hoof wall. The mass proved to be a keratoma, a benign overgrowth of keratin (a protein that makes up hair, skin, horns, feathers, claws, as well as hooves). We quickly decided to remove the tumor, which ended up being the size of seven chickpeas stacked on top of each other. The surgeons drilled a hole through the side and the bottom of Spotlight’s foot to remove it. 

The surgical site, January 2018 (Photo by Sophia Chavonelle

Flash forward eight months, and the side hole was about a quarter of an inch from the floor, taking up space where one typically puts nails for a shoe. Luckily, Ben Lamos of BLD Horseshoeing was able to give Spotlight support in his feet without the use of nails. We were all set for our next show, Young Horse at MWW, in two days!

It was Spotlight’s and my first “alone” show together, without any other horses from home. Just Spotlight, my dad, my coach Tanya, and me in Middletown, New York. We had a great setup, and I was feeling confident about our luck that weekend. Though Spotlight was his usual wild self on the day of arrival, I was excited to show off his moves in the ring.

Our—or at least my—feelings of confidence and preparedness continued into morning chores on Saturday. Spotlight had slept, eaten, drank, passed manure, urinated and still kept his socks white: a miracle. On our routine walk around the showgrounds, he was glowing. I broke my record time for braiding, polished my boots, brushed Spotlight’s tail, and still had time to stretch both him and myself before getting on for our warm-up.

Unfortunately, even in our second year together, I had not mastered a warm-up plan for Spotlight and did not allow for enough time to go through the movements of the test. Going into the test, we were not thinking on the same level, and we were not “together.” In hindsight, I definitely should have added about fifteen minutes to the warm-up, as well as headed to the test with the mindset of having fun, rather than doing well. Mindset is definitely something I have struggled with over the years.

Not uncommon for Spotlight, as soon as the judge at C rang the bell, he turned into a fire-breathing dragon. Into the test we went, with too much energy and not enough control. As I remember it, we stumbled through the first few movements, and though this was not unusual, it was not the test I had in mind for that day.

We continued to zoom around the trot tour, executed the walk sequences in record time, and finally came to the dreaded left-lead canter depart at A, for all the world to see. It was my fault that I did not prepare Spotlight in my usual way, so I suffered the consequence: nothing. Nothing happened when I asked a second and third time. At this point, I am panicking, and the wall near F is approaching very quickly. So what do I do? I stop. Oh my gosh, I stopped. I look at the blank-faced judges, my dad’s wide eyes, open mouth and forgotten camera. I look at Tanya and ask telepathically, now what? No response. I turn around and walk Spotlight out of the ring.

Never before have I frozen in a test, and what a strange feeling it was. I blew it: our one shot at redemption for our 58 percent-er at MVHC. Goodbye, NAYC. Goodbye, Juniors.

So here I was, sitting behind the barn at our third show in a row, sobbing into my dad’s shoulder after leaving the ring in the middle of a perfectly fine test, wondering why I was still trying to qualify for NAYC. At this point, I decided and believed that we had not and could not qualify for the NAYC, again, this year. The only two scores we now had for the Team test averaged 62 percent, putting us below fourth place in the region. At least we could have fun with our test on Sunday—it didn’t matter now.

Going into the Individual test with this mindset on Sunday proved to set us up for success. We produced a boring but error-free ride and were rewarded with a 65 percent and another blue ribbon. Though I am rarely nervous going into tests, I struggle with “going for it.” My previous horses have all had unusual health problems, and I tend to ride with a voice in the back of my head reminding me of their fragility. My horses have always also been hot, so I never need to do that much, just steer and stop. In the Team test, where I was aiming to “go for it,” I subconsciously set myself into panic mode, which is not a place where you need to be for a dressage test. In the Individual test, where we were just riding for fun with no pressure, we found more success. If I have learned one thing this show season, it is the importance of keeping every ride with your horse fun.

With our 65 percent, we were back in the game and looking for an extra show to enter to hopefully earn a Team score. With only 14 days left in the qualifying process, finding a last-minute show entry would be a challenge. I emailed Sue McKeown, secretary of a June MVHC show, on Sunday night, on our way home from Middletown.

I knew it was a long shot, as this is a very popular show which had closed weeks before, but it was our only chance at getting the Team test score we needed to drop the 58 percent earned at MVHC earlier this year. (To learn more about the qualifying requirements, check out the first part of this blog here.) Not only did we need to squeeze into the class schedule, but we also needed a stall for Spotlight to stay in on Friday night.

It is a miracle that we were able to pull off this next adventure, four days after MWW, at the Mystic Valley Hunt Club. This final weekend of qualifying was only possible due to the amazing efforts of Sue McKeown.

37 minutes after my initial email, Sue confirmed that it was our lucky day! Because the show did not start until 9:00 AM, they were able to fit me in at 8:51. Though there were no temporary stalls left, there was one permanent stall, which we shared with another rider, who only needed a day stall.

We did not even bother with unpacking the trailer on Monday; we were in for a quick week! To make matters just a bit more complicated, this was also my school’s “Senior Week,” which all seniors were required to take part in for the graduation ceremony on Sunday. Spotlight got Monday off, two days of stretching, and we were back on the road Friday night, arriving at Mystic nearly in the dark.

Overall, our seventeen hours spent at Mystic were uneventful, relative to the previous weekend, though I was delighted to see my friend Emma Szegvari, with whom I traveled to Maryland last August (read about it here). She and her horse Ringmoylan were in the process of qualifying for the Region 8 Young Rider team. Spotlight was unmistakably more relaxed once he recognized his pal “Ringo.”

Feeling good at MVHC. (Photo by Ava Dzilenski)

Due to a scratch in the class, our new ride time was 9:27. Despite our disaster in Mid-dletown, I still did not schedule quite enough time for our warm-up, which made for a weird test. With a stray bobble here or flying change there, Spotlight was behind my leg, then running away, then behind my leg, then running again. We just couldn’t click. I was disappointed with our 60.455 percent, but it was better than our 58 percent. Onwards and upwards to Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) June Dressage Days—my favorite show of the year. Three days later, we were off again.

But first…

Graduation Day. (Photo by Kristin Chavonelle

As usual, we arrived at the breathtaking Woodstock, Vermont, on a Wednesday. Because the FEI Junior division is always on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Spotty and I had Wednesday and Thursday to ourselves.

While GMHA is normally a fun, peaceful show to attend, this particular show filled the NAYC contenders with anxiety! Not only was GMHA our very last chance at qualifying for the Championships (and my only remaining chance to drop the wicked 58 percent), but half of the other Region 8 juniors were trying to qualify at Centerline @ HITS over the same weekend. What made this even more nerve-wracking was the lack of cell phone reception at GMHA. How would we check their scores?!

Friday, Team test day: All or nothing. Keeping with the theme of the season thus far, our warm-up was still too short, but we managed to have a pretty solid Team test, earning a 66.061 percent, our highest score of the qualifying season. Finally! We banished Mr. Fifty-Eight from our average and proved that we were now capable of producing a reasonably good Team test, putting Spotlight and me in fourth place for Region 8.

Saturday morning was the Team test day for the riders at Centerline @ HITS, and Leah and I were glued to our phones, refreshing the online results. Posted by 2:00 that afternoon, the scores ranged from 60 to 67 percent. Whoever ended up on the Junior team, it was sure to be a great year for Region 8.

Right after lunch, we finally got to show off our freestyle. Our music was the Peanuts soundtrack by Vince Guaraldi, which I adore and listen to year-round, even though it is technically Christmas music. Despite the fact that we were behind the music for half of the test, one section of the music repeated twice, and my walk music was too short, we had a blast! Spotlight was so pleased, shoving out his chest and tossing up his legs for the crowd. Several people whom I had never met stopped us on the way back to the barn to compliment our music and our dance, and I had never been more proud. We earned a 71 percent for that test, and I knew I could make several improvements for the NAYC.

Sunday was our last day of qualifying at the FEI Junior level, as Leah and I are both 18 years old. Though I felt that Spotlight was incredibly and abnormally lazy for the test, the judges disagreed and awarded us with a 65 percent, just .3 percentage points behind Leah and securing our spots on the Region 8 North American Youth Championship team.

Stay tuned for the third part of my NAYC blog covering Championship week!






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