Imagine this: Your beloved dressage mount needs colic surgery or specialized diagnostic tests for a lingering lameness, but access to these veterinary services isn’t just a quick trailer ride away—it means putting your horse on a plane with as much as an $18,000 ticket. Perhaps in order to have a single lesson with your trainer you face a six-hour drive each way through near-blizzard conditions. Or in order to chase your dressage dreams, you must choose between staying comfortably at home with family or leaving everything and everyone you’ve ever known behind to move to a land thousands of miles away.
Across the United States and around the world many horsemen and women enjoy dressage even if they live, well, literally in the middle of nowhere. Despite the many difficulties that their location may present, including geography, a shortage of horses, expert training and competitions, and a lack of equine-support services, these enthusiastic riders are determined to continue pursuing the sport they love and achieve their personal goals, sometimes regardless of the cost.
Braving the Elements
Adult Amateur Jennifer Spencer, of Anchorage, Alaska, has been riding dressage for eight years with her Quarter Horse, Penny, and is president of the Alaska Dressage Association (ADA), which hosts four USEF/USDF-licensed dressage competitions annually across the summer months of June, July and August. “Riding in Alaska poses a host of challenges that my friends in ‘the Lower 48’ are always amazed by, but there are also some incredible perks, like the scenery and midnight sun in the summer,” she said. “I grew up riding in Connecticut, but wound up in Alaska for my husband’s job. It was supposed to be a two-year stint, but 12 years later, here I am! It certainly was a huge adjustment coming here, especially having horses.”
In Alaska, the weather is an obvious challenge for everyone. “You would not believe the layers of technical clothing that we need to wear to ride up here. Both my horse and I have extensive cold-weather wardrobes. Most of us wear battery-controlled heated gloves, foot-warmer pads, down skirts—yes, that is a thing— over our breeches and under our long down coats,” Spencer explained. “I board my horse in a facility about 10 minutes from my house, and unless you have an indoor arena, you are probably not going to be able to ride much for seven to eight months out of the year. And the snow—it’s the bane of my existence. So it’s minus-12 degrees today? Too bad, you go to the barn. You can’t let your horse stand around and freeze. That feeling people get on a snow day when they want to stay in, light a fire and bake cookies? Too bad, it snows all the time here and the horse comes first. You go to the barn.”
To take a break from the unrelenting winter weather, 18 hours of darkness a day and feelings of isolation, Spencer tries to escape to sunnier, more equestrian-rich locations for dressage inspiration. “Since our Alaskan winters are so dark and cold, people often travel when they can to get a break and go to the ‘outside’ for sunshine,” she said. “I have a great group of friends at the barn who help each other out with our horses while we’re away. For instance, a bunch of us went to the World Cup in Las Vegas a few years ago and last year I visited friends in Wellington. It was fun and so inspiring! Of course, every time I feel bad I remember that we have a great group of riders who come down to ride with us from the Yukon, where it’s even colder and darker!”
Weather is also a challenge for Adult Amateur competitor Lisa Rush, who moved with her husband and children back to her home state of South Dakota after living in southern California for more than two decades. “Here in the rural Midwest the weather can definitely be a big challenge from November to April—it can be cold, snowy and icy, making it difficult to ride and travel,” Rush noted. “But the biggest obstacle for me is lack of proper instruction. Most qualified instructors are at least 200 miles away.”
For the past two years, Rush has driven five hours each way to Hamel, Minnesota, in order to take monthly multi-day lessons from Bill Solyntjes when the ice and snow allow it. “It’s not just the time factor: The cost of the truck, trailer, insurance, lessons, stabling, gas and lodging all add up and have to be taken into account,” she noted. Rush also tries to coordinate with a small group of other dressage riders in Sioux Falls to bring clinicians to the area. “If they have enough riders to fill the clinic, you pay up front, they book the plane ticket and have the clinic,” she explained. “We just don’t have many options and getting access to any big-scale instruction is almost impossible. So if I hear of anyone coming within driving distance, I’m going to really look into attending. But once I make that commitment to pay for the clinic, I either ride or lose the money because where we live, there is usually not a waiting list of riders to fill your spot.”
Despite these efforts, the majority of the time Rush is on her own. While she is quick to note her appreciation of the beauty and quiet of the open land surrounding her family’s Dell Rapids farm, her remote location makes it difficult to stay on track. “I ride all but two to five days a month by myself, so if there is a problem, I need to resolve it myself— there’s no one there to tell me what to do or to hop on and fix it. And slipping back into old habits in between lessons or clinics is a big negative,” Rush said. “But I think my commitment to myself and holding myself accountable to ride and reach my goals is very important in achieving them.”
Safety comes first for Rush when riding alone. “I always have a phone on me, and I also try to let someone know I am out riding, even if it is just a note on the counter.” And since she rarely has the luxury of a coach’s eyes on the ground, she has mirrors in the arena for a better idea of what’s happening in her daily training. She also embraces technology. “I use Dressage Training Online and have for many years, and I’m also a big fan of YouTube,” Rush explained. “Occasionally, I will send a video clip to an instructor and ask for help or an opinion. I do videotape many of my rides so I can come home, watch them and remember some important things we learned. It helps me to see it visually. I often look back on rides from years ago on a different horse, and that can be enlightening as well.”
Rush’s hard work paid off after she drove her 7-year-old Westfalen gelding, FineStep HW, 17 hours to Lexington, Kentucky, for last year’s U.S. Dressage Finals and came home with the Third Level Adult Amateur Reserve Championship. “There are some really nice riders and horses hidden in these small communities that just aren’t getting recognized because of lack of access to quality instruction, and it would be nice to see that change somehow,” she lamented.
Dealing with Limited Resources
For dressage riders lucky enough to live in more densely populated areas of the country, a multitude of amenities are most likely just a phone call and a short distance away. But for those living in remote areas, even something as routine as access to a veterinarian and farrier isn’t guaranteed.
“We just do not have the access to so many professionals that other equestrians take for granted, like saddle fitters, chiropractors, therapists, even veterinarians who specialize in horses,” Spencer explained. “For instance, we do not have a veterinary hospital in Anchorage that can serve horses. The vet who does barn calls for us comes from an hour away in Chugiak. There is another vet who works out of his van, called the ‘Mobile Moose,’ which is great for people in rural areas, but he’s also restricted to what he can do from his vehicle. Otherwise, if you have a major situation or need specialized diagnostics, you have to book a flight for your horse at about $6,000 for a group rate or if they send the plane up for you for an emergency flight to Seattle it’s $18,000. The alternative is to live on hope that the situation will resolve itself and everything will be OK. There are no other options.”
Grand Prix dressage competitor Ellesse Jordan Tzinberg also knows what it’s like to have limited options. She spent her youth riding and showing horses in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which luckily was home for regional dressage and jumping events and where riders from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia would travel to for the show season. Now as an adult who competes for the Philippines on the international circuit in Europe and Florida, what she especially appreciates is having the support system of equine services she didn’t always have easy access to. “Being in a remote area or, in my case, a remote country like Malaysia, meant that the availability of knowledgeable professionals, such as expert trainers, chiropractors, farriers, vets, etc., was very limited,” Tzinberg remembered. “Every few months, some people brought in a vet from France or a farrier from Belgium, but unless you were the one bringing them in, you didn’t have much control of when or where they were coming.”
Finding the Horses
For riders like Tzinberg and Spencer living in far-flung areas, shopping for a new mount can be an almost insurmountable challenge. “I never had a fancy warmblood until I was in America—they just weren’t available where I was,” Tzinberg explained. “Several of my horses were Thoroughbreds that my family and I took in as 3-year-olds to save them from being put down because they hadn’t earned their keep as racehorses. Sure, I was always frustrated that I had never felt the fancy extended trot of a German horse, but today I greatly appreciate this experience because I think the process of bringing up my own horses [often through trial and error or reading lots and lots of books] taught me lessons not many people get to learn.”
When Spencer was shopping for a dressage partner last year, she had to look far beyond the borders of her northern state and at the same time deal with daunting logistics to bring a new horse home. “I started looking in Washington state because that is the shortest flight up here for a horse,” Spencer said. “But flights are expensive and it can take months to get that going, sometimes because you want to wait for others to help defray the cost of the flight. You can have your horse shipped on land, but only in the summer months because you can’t haul when there is snow. The trip includes driving the ALCAN Highway, which is long, unpaved and through wilderness. It is treacherous even without a trailer.”
In addition to travel, another headache for Spencer is one of any horsewoman’s favorite activities: shopping for clothes and equipment. “Buying anything online from the major equestrian catalogs is a challenge because the shipping charges are out of control,” she explained. “I tried to buy a show shirt last summer, which would have been sent in a small padded envelope. The shirt was $89 and shipping would have been $48. Nope! Then I was trying to buy a new saddle—but remember we don’t have access to saddle fitters. I paid $350 to ship it to Alaska and then it didn’t fit so I had to pay another $350 to send it back. Not to mention the cost of hay, which is astronomical because it has to be hauled thousands of miles.”
Making the Toughest Choice
Of all the challenges that the pursuit of dressage in non-equestrian-rich areas may present for riders like Spencer, Rush and Tzinberg, perhaps the most difficult obstacle of all is deciding to leave—or not—to pursue competitive dreams.
As a junior rider, Tzinberg found success in the show ring in Malaysia, which led to a life-changing chance to ride in Europe. After being crowned regional champion in the FEI World Dressage Challenge, she competed in the finals in Hagen, Germany, on a borrowed horse. Afterward, Tzinberg was invited to stay and ride at Hof Kasselmann, where she spent several months developing her riding and gaining invaluable experience and industry connections. “We have some very talented riders in our area, but since we are so far away, getting riders out of Asia to gain experience in Europe or America is so hard and expensive that not many people do it. So without the World Dressage Challenge program, I might not have ever had the opportunity to go to Germany,” she explained.
Tzinberg returned home to Malaysia, but when she realized she couldn’t further her competition goals at a higher level, she knew she had to return to Europe. “I began spending months at a time in Germany. I would stay for a couple months and work and ride at a stable, and then if I was doing a good enough job, I’d get to compete some of their horses,” she said. “But with my family and home being so far away, it’s one of the hardest sacrifices I had to make. Pursuing my riding goals has meant I only get to go home and see my family once a year for a couple weeks between the show seasons and it’s devastating. It hurts me that I can’t have my family with me at the shows like they used to be when I was younger at home. When I’m in Florida, I choose to do the freestyle at every show because it’s the only class that is livestreamed, meaning my parents actually get to watch and enjoy.”
U.S. Dressage Team rider Allison Brock, who was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, and raised in Kailua on the island of Oahu, also had to make the toughest choice of her life at just 17 years old. She grew up as part of Hawaii’s thriving horse community, where equestrians enjoy competitive opportunities across many disciplines. And even though they’re surrounded by ocean waters, options do exist for horses to travel to show venues on neighboring islands via inter-island ferries with special shipping containers and stalls or safely tucked in their owners’ trucks and trailers which are driven directly onto barges. Brock noted that Hawaii has a very strong rodeo circuit, but dressage is also quite popular with eight USEF/USDF-licensed dressage competitions held annually. “There is something very special about living in Hawaii, and I was extremely lucky to have grown up with a large group of kids who all competed in every event. We were all very tight and still are to this day,” Brock noted. “As for education, I think people in Hawaii are pretty resourceful, and we did have access to great clinicians because they wanted to come there on vacation. We also had a very competitive show circuit for the size of the community when I was growing up.”
But with big dreams, Brock experienced firsthand the limitations of living with horses on an island surrounded by thousands of miles of ocean. Even though Hawaii is part of USDF’s strongly represented Region 7 with California and Nevada, riders who live in the 50th state have no access to international dressage competitions (CDIs) or USEF-designated qualifying competitions for any dressage national championship programs without flying to the continental U.S. “It’s also hard that horseflesh is limited, and when I was a kid it was rare to have a warmblood,” Brock continued. “That has changed some now, but it is still a big effort to find new horses. A lot of horses are what I call ‘recycled’—they just move from one rider and trainer to the next, and it’s always the same horses over and over. There’s only so much you can do with that. As a teenager I had been allowed to ride the one Grand Prix horse we had on the island at the time and I was curious to see how far I could go. But I also realized that if I didn’t leave Hawaii I would be limited in my access to horses and training.”
Little did Brock know that her momentous decision to move to the continental U.S. would eventually lead to her winning a team bronze medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro aboard Fritz and Claudine Kundrun’s Hanoverian stallion, Rosevelt. “To leave Hawaii was really scary. Leaving your entire family and support structure behind is no easy thing, and growing up on an island is like growing up in a small town. So the learning curve for me to move to the mainland was very hard and I fumbled around for many years just trying to fit in,” she recalled. “Not to mention, I love Hawaii and if I had to choose to live anywhere in the world, I’d move back home in a heartbeat. A lot of my friends are still there. They chose to stay, and some are professional trainers and do very well with their businesses. Unfortunately, my international competitive goals are more important to me right now than my lifestyle, and for me as a young adult that meant moving to the mainland. It’s not right for everyone, but that’s the choice I made and I think at some point every equestrian has to make those tough decisions.”
Tzinberg agreed, and every time she goes down centerline she hopes to inspire others who are struggling to pursue the sport in remote areas, whether it be among towering snowbanks or on a tropical island paradise. “It doesn’t matter where we come from, we are all the same: We all love horses and love dressage,” she said. “We’re all part of the same equestrian community, and whether you’re from a small city or large one, living in an equestrian mecca like Wellington or in a rural village in Asia, we all deserve to do what we love, and we do everything we can to further that passion.”