Chasing the North American Youth Championships Dream, Part 3

Young dressage rider Sophia Chavonelle gives readers a play-by-play of her exciting week at the 2018 North American Youth Championships.

What an incredible week we had at the 2018 North American Youth Championships! To achieve this goal of mine, to be recognized alongside the very best youth riders in North America, and to discover what fantastic talent the United States Dressage and Equestrian Federations have fostered was incredibly heartening. I hope that by reading these three blog posts about my experience, you will find inspiration and determination for your own riding goals. (To read Part 1, click here. To read Part 2, click here.) 

After weeks and weeks of organization and planning, the Region 8 team made our way to Salem, New York, on Monday, July 30. Because my teammate Leah and I were both traveling from Vienna Farm, in Gorham, Maine, our horses shipped together.

Adel, Leah, Spotlight, and Sophia ready to go! (Credit: Peter Chavonelle, Jr.)

Monday, Day One

As you pull into the driveway at Old Salem Farm, a huge metal gate swings open and you are greeted by a life-sized statue of a horse reaching across the lawn in a free, stretching trot. To me, one of the most memorable parts of the grounds were the flags leading up the hill of the driveway, each representing the event and its sponsors. They really seemed to embody the importance of this event.

Once you reach the top of the hill, you can see the entire farm, from the barn and its adjacent arenas, to the grassy fields and jumping stadium in the back. We said good morning to the gatekeeper and made our way down the hill to the competitors’ stabling to unload the horses and our things.

I was definitely worried about having tent stabling with the warning of major storms that week but Old Salem Farm not only had set up some of the best tent stabling that I have seen, but they also went above and beyond to keep all of the horses happy and comfortable. By the time we had made our two little aisles home, all worries had left my mind (well, all worries regarding the stabling!). We were ready for the week!

At the beginning of the week, we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed!

The USDF organized an Ice Cream Social at 5:30 that evening. It was so much fun to not only see old friends whom I had known for years but to make new friends from other corners of the United States and Canada. George Williams and Charlotte Bredahl-Baker welcomed and congratulated us for making it to the Championship. They reminded us that it was a huge accomplishment to have made a spot on a team and wished us luck for the week ahead. We cheered and ate more ice cream!

Tuesday, Day Two

The tents were bustling by 6:30 AM when we arrived to feed, water, graze and muck. That was another unexpected charm of the NAYC; watching top riders and their international coaches dump heaping wheelbarrows! Every morning of the week the barns were teeming with activity as we prepared for the day ahead. Today, the Juniors’ allotted ring familiarization time began at 8:00 AM and the Young Riders jogged for the veterinarian and ground jury at 9:00 AM.

The ring familiarization is a specific amount of time, 30 minutes for each team, given so each rider may school their horse in the competition arena precisely as it will be during the tests. As I knew he would be, Spotlight was chomping at the bit! But despite his excitement, he was still able to somewhat listen to my aids and use his energy for good, not evil. What a great horse, to be in such a high-energy environment and still keep his wits.

Kisses from our beloved coach, Tanya Rennie.

I was happy that I was able to live-stream the Region 8 Young Riders’ jog. Region 8 looked absolutely fabulous in matching blue sneakers, white jeans, white Region 8 polos, navy blazers and beautiful plaid scarfs that Leah donated. The sun shone while supporters from each team sat on the hillside and watched their riders. As each pair got accepted, it became more and more real that we were here, we had really made it.

The Region 8 Young Riders looked snazzy! (Credit: Susan J. Stickle)

After the jog, the Young Riders had their own ring familiarizations while the Juniors explored the vendors and organized for the week to come. Unique to this show, not only did we have the usual preparations to make, we also had to stay active on social media and promote our supporters, give out sponsored items to each rider, pay attention to schedule changes (such as the surprise temperature-taking with the show veterinarian), network with riders from around the country and the list goes on and on. This made for a fun yet exhausting week! Luckily, all of our work and planning paid off and ultimately made for a better experience for everyone.

Wednesday, Day Three

On Wednesday, our Young Riders Bobbie Kerr, Alison Redston, Emma Szegvari and Lara Erdogus-Brady competed in the Team test. And it rained!

Lara and her horse Duke were the first to go for Region 8; they had a good test with a few small problems and received 58.9 percent in total. Next up was my good friend Emma and her horse, Ringo, who had a solid ride, which showed their attention to detail and earned a respectable 64.676 percent. Third up was Ali and her horse Posie, who rode very tactfully through an unfortunate spook that caused them some points, though the pair still managed a 64.88 percent! The final Region 8 Young Rider to go on Wednesday was Bobbie and her horse Iggy; they had an absolutely phenomenal ride and earned a 70.353 percent, placing fourth overall and 1.5 percent behind the leading rider. I was so proud to share the Region 8 team name with these fabulous four Young Riders. Each of them had a very special connection with their horses and did a fantastic job highlighting each horse’s talents, even, for some, in the pouring rain. What a great way to represent our region’s youth!

Duke getting a kiss from his mum, Lara, after a great ride.

At 2:00 PM the Juniors were scheduled for the FEI Jog. Region 8 was first to go, and Spotlight was the first horse selected. Keeping in theme with the season, Spotlight would have to face his hydrophobia once again as the sky opened up and dumped buckets and buckets of rain onto Old Salem Farm. Because of this unexpected deluge, we opted as a team to not wear our brand-new white jeans and instead chose to don breeches, our navy sneakers and the blazers. Spotlight and I were up to our knees in the overflowing drain water as we sloshed to the indoor arena, to where the Jog had been moved. We were both soaked to the bone and out of breath when we walked into the bustling arena, and my sneakers squished as I presented Spotlight to get his temperature, respiration and heart rate taken. The show organizers were very efficient in getting the whole process done quickly; the announcer was already calling, “W Spotlight, accepted!” when my family arrived to watch.

A quick day for the Juniors, we schooled our horses, finished the evening chores and headed out to dinner. We had to be well-rested for our Team tests, scheduled to begin bright and early at 9:00 AM. On Wednesday night, the chefs d’Equipe had a meeting and drew a random order-of-go for the Junior riders. Each team was given four time slots, and each team’s chef decided which rider would take which ride time. As is usual, our chef put us in reverse order of our averages for the year, from the lowest average percentage to the highest. So, the class can be broken into four parts: the lowest-scoring average, the second-lowest, the second-highest and the highest averages earned for each team. Spotlight and I were set to ride in the third part, at my favorite time: 11:30 AM.

As our horses and our paperwork had been accepted, we were officially competing at the NAYC. To celebrate this accomplishment, the NAYC organizes a Parade of Teams, similar to the Parade of Nations at the Olympics. After finishing barn chores, my teammates and I hurried to get into our matching Parade outfits: white jeans (as it was no longer raining), donated SmartPak belts, donated blue Anique shirts and our, also generously donated, white Region 8 hats. Several people later commented on how great we looked, matching!

Region 8 is ready for the parade

Behind the jumper stadium, all of the teams lined up in a row, from dressage’s Region 1 through the Canadian teams and all of the jumping teams. Each time, the region and each rider’s name was announced as they marched around the grass ring and stood on the podium.

Lining up to march! (Credit: Leah Tenney)

At our turn, we enthusiastically marched in (trying to coordinate our leading feet), and were absolutely giddy when we realized that all eight of us could fit on the top tier of the podium. Even before competing, I had goose bumps standing on the podium, looking out and seeing a crowd of people cheering. Just as we began to step down from the podium, all of the other teams came back! Because we were the final region to march, we got to stand at the top of the podium for the picture-taking.

On Top Of the World.

To see the faces of top riders and friends running to us to stand around our team was the billionth extraordinary moment of this competition. Leah turned to me smiling and said, “Remember this moment, dude. We made it.”

We Made It! (Credit: Taylor Pence/US Equestrian)

Thursday, Day Four 

I braided Spotlight from the aisle while he snoozed with his head over the stall guard. I used several more elastics than was needed– how horrific would it have been to have a braid come undone while competing in the North American Youth Championships?! I braided Spotlight’s forelock, then unbraided it. I put on his white boots, then took them off. I took out his brand-new saddle pad to wear, which I had bought specifically for this show, then put it away. I was very relieved to have a late ride time because I could not make up my mind! By the time we made it into the warm-up arena, however, I felt good; I felt comfort in this regular, perfected routine, as though it gave an extra sense of control over a nearly uncontrollable situation. Once I finally had everything together—braids in the mane and a saddle on the back—we were ready to go. When you have worked so hard for such a short-lived experience, it’s nice to feel you have some say over how things are going to turn out (even if it’s not true).

Let’s do this!

Going around the ring before our test was one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever experienced. “Sophia Chavonelle” and “W Spotlight” shined in big, bright letters on the marquee and the crowd clapped for the previous rider’s score as it was announced. There were so many spectators, in the VIP tent behind A, sitting atop the hill that ran parallel to the E side, and my friends, family and teammates huddled behind the judges at H, C and M. I was greeted with five different “hello”s as we circled the arena, and it finally dawned on me that we were really here; ready for our FEI Junior test, ready to be watched by five international judges and hundreds of people in the stands and online. We had worked so, so hard for this exact moment and Spotlight and I were ready.

Beginning the Test. (Credit: Ava Dzilenski)

While there is very little I remember from the ride, I can say that Spotlight really came through for me. He was calm in the walk, the trot work was relaxed and all of the canter work and changes were clean. While the test wasn’t our most exciting, it was very correct, accurate and precise, which is what we had been working toward for years. It was comforting to learn that while riding a clean yet less exciting test we were still able to rank 10th in North America. Overall, one of the best parts was that there was nothing that stood out during our test because it meant that nothing went wrong, finally!

Before the NAYC, I assumed that, looking back at a very important test such as this, I would forever remember every step. This has proven to not be the case, as I can now hardly remember the test! Looking back over the test sheet, I can remember certain aspects–the bold extensions, the leaping changes, the steep lateral work–but cannot recall it in the picture-perfect detail for which I was hoping.

When we hit that final centerline, I felt as though I had been holding my breath for years. An enormous weight that I hadn’t even realized was there suddenly lifted, and I felt nothing but pride for Spotlight and myself. As I saluted, I felt an enormous balloon about to burst out of my chest, until it broke into a smile on my lips.

The Final Salute. (Credit: Ava Dzilenski)

It was the test we had been going for all season: calm and clean. (Even the extensions were clean!) While we could have shown off his bigger gaits, we did all of the movements correctly and to the book, with no breaks or bobbles, no moaning or groaning and no extravagant leg-flinging. I am still so, so proud of Spotlight for giving his all and putting in a tremendous amount of effort for me, especially on this special day when it mattered most.

The completion of our test was even more spectacular than the beginning was. So many people were cheering and clapping. After I thanked the judges and Spotlight and I began our walk out of the ring, I took one more look around at this moment. Our names still shone on the big screen, with the billboards of the USEF, USDF, Discover Dressage, Adequan and more lining underneath.

As we walked out of the arena, I found that I was not the only one crying! My family, Tanya and even my teammates were all bleary-eyed and smiling. To share the special moment after a great test with people you love is the best part of showing.

By the end of the class, Spotlight and I had placed tenth individually, and eighth in the team placing, with the highest Region 8 score of the day. I was so happy with our result; after struggling to keep Spotlight’s attention in nearly every test for the past two years, it was so rewarding to have it all come together. I was so proud of my teammates Leah, Mado and Eliza for riding their butts off! Everyone grew more and more throughout the week, and, after only day one of competition, we had made a great start.

Over dinner that night, I was still beaming as I scrolled through social media. Dozens of people from home and around the country had congratulated Spotlight and me on our ride, and the USEF and USDF had posted pictures.

(The USEF noticed the special moment, too! (Credit: Taylor Pence/US Equestrian)

Friday, Day Five 

On our fifth day at the NAYC, the Juniors had a day off while the Young Riders competed individually. Region 8 went in the order of Lara, then Emma, then Ali, then Bobbie. All the girls had very nice rides, though Ali and Bobbie earned themselves ribbons! We were incredibly proud to watch two Region 8 riders walking toward the podium for the awards ceremony and inspired as Junior riders were scheduled to compete in the individual competition the next morning.

We all attended the Young Riders’ medal ceremony and later their second horse inspection jog. By 5:00 PM, we were done for the day! So Leah, Lara, Mado and I headed off to Grand Prix New York for some go-kart racing, virtual-reality laser tag and bowling.

Lara, myself, and Leah having fun! (Credit: Mado Long)

We had such a great time! Surprisingly to me, after our outing, we all felt refreshed and much more energetic than we had since Monday. I think it is essential, especially at major competitions, to not be obsessing about your tests the entire week. Stress is the most expensive use of energy. Always remember to have fun, enjoy the people you are with and not take it too seriously!

Saturday, Day Six

Saturday morning brought the Junior Individual competition! This was the test where Spotlight had really shone in the past two years and I was excited to show him off and really go for it. Why not?!

In the warm-up, I told Tanya that Spotlight felt like a two-by-four: narrow, stiff, uncooperative. In the past, we have found a disconnect between how Spotlight looked and how he felt to me. We, of course, are always looking to have the best feeling from the horse, but we were also coming down to the wire on our warm-up time, as the steward was calling, “28, on deck!” Since he was looking great and there was nothing more to do, I decided to give him a handful of sugar cubes, told him to “chill,” and we proceeded with our warm-up.

Going around the outside of the ring, just as the bell rang, I could hear Spotlight say to me, “Okay, I know this one! Just sit back and let me take this, alright?” He was on fire! I think this was the fastest test we have ever ridden.

Blasting off into the extended canter. (Credit: Ava Dzilenski)

We lost balance in the extensions, the changes were tense, but the half passes were bold and received 8s. While the extra energy did cause a few mistakes, it also brought us higher scores. This was much more akin to how our tests had been through the qualifying season. Although I was disappointed that we didn’t make it into the top 10 individually, I was so, so proud of how Spotlight composed himself through the competition. I knew that we would grow throughout the week, but could not have known just how much we would learn!

That evening, as the sun set, the Young Riders had the awards ceremony for the Individual class. Region 8 clapped and cheered from the stands, then ran down the grassy hill to watch the giving of special awards. We were all shocked and thrilled to discover that Emma and Ringo had won the annual HorsePower trophy, awarded to an outstanding horse “who best demonstrates determination, courage, class, heart and the ability to inspire athletes and spectators alike throughout the competition.” Ringo definitely fits this description! He is the sweetest guy with the biggest heart, a 21-year-old pinto Irish Sport Horse who definitely stood out.

Emma and Ringo, posing with their trophy (Credit: Leah Tenney)

Another Region 8 member was recognized in the special awards; Katelyn Mosle, who was going to be the top rider on the Junior team, was unable to bring her horse to the competition. Even though she could not compete, she traveled all the way to New York just to support our region and was recognized with the Howard B. Simpson High Five Trophy. This trophy is “awarded annually to the volunteer who best exemplifies Howard’s spirit of volunteering,” to the person who “embodies Howard’s dedication and commitment to the championships” (USEF).

After the awards had been given, all of the Region 8 riders rushed to hand out our “thank you” cards, signed to all of the other teams, Old Salem Farm staff, and USEF, USDF and sponsored supporters. Everyone was so grateful to be personally thanked! We felt that it was important, especially as the host region, to acknowledge and appreciate all of the hard work that people had put in to support the riders.

Allyn Mann from Adequan was especially thankful for our appreciation!

Sunday, Day Seven

Our only riders on Sunday were Mado, Ali, and Bobbie, who were all riding their freestyles. Riders invited into the freestyle are those who placed in the top 18 in the individual test.

Mado was thrilled with her horse after their freestyle! (Photo by Region 8)

Bobbie’s test definitely stood out in the Region 8 freestyles. She and Iggy were seventh-to-last in the class, among some of the best Young Riders in the world. Their music was upbeat, contemporary pop and was so much fun to watch! They had an absolutely fabulous ride which earned them a 72.375 percent, tied for fourth place and just .4 percent out of the medals!

Bobbie, her fourth-place ribbon and a very proud coach! (Photo credit: Tina Busse-Irwin)

Packing up our aisle was bittersweet, as traces of our week were put into boxes and totes. We took down the banners that we had spent weeks creating. We cut zip ties and ripped duct tape. Our tired, overstuffed trunks slopped their way through the mud on the walk out of the CDI fencing to the awaiting trailers. I felt sore, exhausted, elated and proud, and I was ready to be home. We hugged our friends, thanked the organizers once again, packed our ponies and hit the road, with one final look at Old Salem Farm before falling asleep.

A happy team’s group hug.

I hope that by vicariously experiencing my 2018 North American Youth Championship week, you will find inspiration and determination and that aspiring youth riders might know what they aim for and how to pursue their NAYC goals.

I want to thank the United States Equestrian and Dressage Federations for all of their work in creating this event, even as we lose disciplines and separate from eventing. Thank you, Mark Coley, Hannah Niebielski and all of the show’s organizers who worked hard behind the scenes to keep things running smoothly. I sincerely hope we can keep this show alive for many years to come. Thank you USDF coaches George Williams and Charlotte Bredahl-Baker for making yourselves available for coaching, I know my teammates benefitted from your wisdom, and it gave us all confidence to know to know you were there for us.

Thank you to Adequan, Gotham North, Hodges Badge Company, Discover Dressage, and all of this event’s supporters who are essential in making the NAYC happen every year. We all greatly value your support!

Thank you to Region 1, Region 2, Region 3, Regions 4 & 7, and Canadian teams Ontario and Quebec/Alberta for traveling to New York, for being fabulous and inspiring people to compete against. Everyone was extremely professional, outgoing, and friendly and made the week so much fun! I hope to see you all again at future competitions.

Thank you Old Salem Farm for opening your doors to us and for going above and beyond to keep the competitors–especially equine–happy and safe throughout the week. I look forward to revisiting your beautiful farm at the 2019 NAYC!

Thank you, Jennifer Dillon, Meghan Davis and Liz Caron for keeping us all in line! Not once did I feel unprepared or uninformed, and I hope we all made you proud this weekend. We couldn’t have done it without you, and I hope you can all help us again next year!

Thank you to the whole team at Vienna Farm who made it possible for me, Leah, Tanya, and Jim to steal away for the week… and for the whole qualifying season! You are all fabulous horsepeople, and I love you all!

Thank you to my family–mom, dad and Baxter– for always supporting this crazy habit of mine! Your support means the world to me. I love you!

Thank you, Tanya, from the bottom of my heart, for your ongoing support and guidance over the years and years.

And finally, thank you Spotlight, for being the best dance partner and my best friend.






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