Testing the International Waters - Dressage Today
The story of one Adult Amateur’s foray into CDI classes

She thinks about riding and competing on a daily basis. Not polished enough to show Grand Prix, but more than prepared for the Small Tour, Katie Dougherty Kunde was eager to bring on the pressure and searched for an FEI Concours de Dressage International (CDI) competition in Northern California.

Katie Kunde and her 17-year-old Hanoverian, Willoughby (“Will”), 
at their first CDI (Tamara Torti)

Katie Kunde and her 17-year-old Hanoverian, Willoughby (“Will”), at their first CDI (Tamara Torti)

While this may sound like a trainer with a horse between levels, don’t look for Kunde’s name on the FEI rankings of the world’s dressage riders. Instead, you’ll find a USEF amateur card in her wallet. Undaunted, boldly moving up her game, she added a CDI in the Amateur Division to her plate, already flowing over with her 4-year-old son, Henry; a business, DRNK wines, that she shares with husband Ryan Kunde; and her position as director of partnerships and programs for Maker Media in California. Kunde learned a lot about herself and her 17-year-old Hanoverian, Willoughby (“Will”), in the process of preparing for and competing in her first CDI show and shared her story with Dressage Today.

How is a CDI Different?

According to Hannah Niebielski, director of dressage, national programs for US Equestrian, there are some key differences between national USEF-licensed and USDF-recognized dressage competitions and FEI CDI events. “The differences include, but are not limited to: FEI membership requirements, including use of either a national or FEI horse passport (depending on the level of event), the addition of a horse inspection and, in specific instances, differences in required equipment, saddlery and permitted substances for both equine and rider,” she said. “One of the biggest differences between these competition types is that you are competing for and representing your country on an international basis in an FEI CDI event.”

A Girl and Her Horse

Kunde and Will are a longtime one-on-one team. She trained him up from a 6-year-old with lessons, taking only two long breaks along the way: once when Will was hurt and again when Kunde was pregnant with Henry. The first break was after Will was found in his stall with a hoof through the bars. While they freed him, he later colicked and ended up having surgery. Kunde took care not to rush his recovery, giving him a year and a half to come back.

In 2014, when Kunde was too pregnant to ride, the then 13-year-old Willoughby headed to the California central coast for four months, where dressage trainer Ellen Eckstein introduced him to some high-level work and the movements needed for Prix St. Georges. Just four weeks after Kunde picked Will up and returned to Santa Rosa, California, she competed him at Prix St. Georges for a 68 percent. Kunde began to show regularly and moved up to Intermediaire 1.

“Katie and Willoughby absolutely understand each other,” said Eckstein, who began teaching Kunde when she was in college. Kunde co-founded the Cal Poly dressage team and asked Eckstein to coach them. The next summer she became a working student for Eckstein. “From the beginning, she was the most focused. She knew how to set goals and yet be calm and kind to her horses all the time. She doesn’t put that focus and drive on the horse. That’s a unique combination.”

Eckstein recalls Willoughby spooking in a lesson and Kunde saying out loud, ‘Willoughby, that is not in our contract.’ He seemed to respond, ‘that’s right,’ and probably never spooked with her again.”

As a student, Kunde arrives at lessons with ideas of what she wants to work on. “She comes to the party and adds to it,” said Eckstein. “A lot of times we talk about something and then I leave them alone, only stepping in when need be. She has really good feel, a good sense of where to go with that feel and how to keep it. The CDI Amateur Division is a great idea. It’s not that she can’t compete against some of the top pros, but they compete all the time.”

After last year’s March show, when the pair earned 70 percent at Intermediaire I, it became time to step it up to the pressure of multiple judges, ones who have international experience written all over their resumes. “This was a transition season for me,” said Kunde. “I was having a blast learning and schooling Grand Prix movements, but we were not ready to show it. When I was talking with Brian [Hafner, her instructor in Santa Rosa] about my goals, he said, ‘Why not try a CDI—see what it’s like.’”

Preparing for the CDI

It was the perfect setup. Willoughby knew the show grounds at the Murieta Equestrian Center in Rancho Cordova near Sacramento, and he had no qualms about competing there. Kunde was also familiar with the show management, Golden State Dressage, and easily turned to show manager Connie Davenport with questions like how best to do the jog, whether Willoughby needed an international passport and when to arrive.

“The amateurs who want to do the CDI generally have their act together and want to do it correctly,” said Davenport. “The Amateur Division encourages people to step into the CDI world. Yet, I have amateurs who are riding only in the open CDI. Actually, more amateurs are in the open than the Amateur Division.”

Davenport was quick to point out the difference in the FEI and USEF definitions of an Adult Amateur. The USEF Rule Book states that regardless of one’s equestrian skills and/or accomplishments, a person is an amateur from the beginning of the calendar year in which he or she reaches age 22 and he or she has not engaged in any of the listed activities for which the rider would receive remuneration.

On the other hand, the FEI defines amateurs eligible for the CDI Amateur Division as athletes from 26 years old who have no ranking on the FEI Dressage World Ranking list at the date of definite entry. Quite different.

Kunde was comfortable with the Prix St. Georges test. Her biggest hurdle was the freestyle, something she had never ridden or written. According to the division rules, she wasn’t required to perform a freestyle, but she wanted to do it. “There is nothing like a deadline to get me going on something. I’m going to need to develop one if I want to keep moving up. So why not start now and continue to modify it?”

Amateur in heart and soul, Kunde and friend Annette Pressas moved ahead with great confidence and excitement in putting the music from the movie “LaLa Land” to choreography with the help of the application Garage Band for editing music. “I love freestyles and have helped some friends in the past,” said Pressas. “We emailed back and forth with choreography and Katie made adjustments in her lessons with Brian.”

Two weeks before the CDI, Kunde and Will performed the freestyle at a three-star show at her home barn, Santa Rosa Equestrian Center, and earned 69.550 percent from the two-judge panel. “We only had one week’s practice,” she said. “It was a bit of a rough start, but I was happy with it and there was time to make changes. By doing it myself I am learning the process of putting together a freestyle and getting to know my music and timing more intimately.”

Show Time

The day Kunde was scheduled to leave for the CDI, an important call from work caused her to leave the farm later than planned for the two-and-half-hour drive to Murieta Equestrian Center. She arrived at the arena excited to take her first step into international waters, only to find out she would be competing against herself as the only entry in the Amateur Division. While Kunde was initially disappointed by this revelation, the jog panel, which included the FEI steward, the CDI judges and the FEI veterinarian, made up for any letdown. “The jog is special,” said Kunde. “Parading your horse before the judges and hearing the announcer say, ‘Representing the United States of America’—I never thought of myself like that. That’s what you might dream of watching the Olympics.”

Kunde and Willoughby at their first CDI jog in 2017. (Tamara Torti)

Kunde and Willoughby at their first CDI jog in 2017. (Tamara Torti)

Getting ready for the first day wasn’t very stressful, perhaps because Kunde knew the facility, her longtime trainer was with her and they were so familiar with working together and working with Will. In fact, she found the warm-up arena more relaxing than usual, as it had fewer horses than an open show.

“Doing the show two weeks before got rid of the jitters,” said Kunde. “Like most amateurs, I’m showing once every six to eight weeks at the most. You forget what you need to do to prepare yourself and your horse. Fortunately, after the first two shows of the year, I remembered that I don’t need to drill him. At home all we’ve been doing is a lot of stretching and big, round movements, to keep him relaxed.”

Kunde scored 64.474 percent. As she sat on Will for the awards ceremony, she was a bit embarrassed to be the only one. But to face the American flag, hand over her heart, and then ride a lap of victory to the national anthem was unforgettable. Though she had ridden a victory round at the California Dressage Society’s Championships, this one felt different. “I felt like I was competing in a different league. Everything felt stepped up and more formal, from checking in with the ring steward to being shepherded into the ring by the steward. It was very formal and organized, which was nice.”

On the second day of competition, the temperature hit well over 100 degrees, where just the week before Will’s barn had seen hail. While he was good, the weather and the status of the show was hitting Kunde. She became very tired and started questioning why she was there. But she qualified to move into the freestyle with an Intermediaire I score of 64.649 percent.

The day of the freestyle, Kunde’s ride was at 8 a.m., and the temperature was even hotter. While she felt she rode it better and the quality of the work was higher than the first time she showed her freestyle, she described it as super-amateur hour. Problems with her three-tempis, her timing and getting out of sync with her music caused mistakes and a score of 64 percent. “The judges felt the music wasn’t the right tempo for Will in the trot, and I didn’t feel the music as I did the first time. It felt bobbly. So now, with the comments, I need to go back and make changes. I definitely have work to do.”

Hafner has told her, “You can expect your scores to be a bit lower in the CDI than riding at the National level just due to the fact that you have more judges and there are less places to hide things in the show arena. The judges can see everything, and there is another level of precision and accuracy required for the CDI arena.”

Looking Back and Ahead

Kunde admitted that competing at her first CDI was really different. “I didn’t blow it out of the water, but I held my game, didn’t look like a fool and now I feel like I have much more to bring to it next time,” she said. “I definitely have work to do, but it feels attainable.”

In addition to her actual ride, she found great learning experiences in other areas of the competition as well. “You get more face time with the judges. They’re the same judges at each awards ceremony. They stand with you. You saw them at the jog. They are really getting to know you and your horse as opposed to a regular show where you just go in the competition arena and then disappear.”

Like many amateurs, Kunde knows it will be a long time before she has another horse at this level and so she wants to go for it. “I’m at my peak now. Before the show, I tried to remain calm about making the jump to CDI. But it really was a big step up from competing in a national show and, as a result, I’m going to expect more from myself and Will going forward.”

This year’s plan is dictated by a second child due in early summer, and the focus will be on training. “We’re working on our passage and piaffe and getting more comfortable with the ones,” said Kunde. “I hope to show our first Intermediaire 2 in the fall at a national show. I’m disappointed about not showing, but it’s exciting to apply what we learned last season without the pressure of competition.”

The trajectory toward Grand Prix is even steeper than the step into the CDI arena, but to her, the work is fascinating. “It’s really my first time training piaffe and passage, feeling the different stages and how they develop. Our passage started out large and more strung out. Now I’m able to compact it and still get the energy and confidence. It’s exciting.

“The piaffe has come along a bit slower,” Kunde continued. “I’m glad I haven’t pushed it. He has needed to get strong enough and to understand the concept. With the ones, he’s getting more confident. They’re still green, but we’re seeing the light. I want to see how he does at Intermediaire 2. If we need to spend time for both of us to get experience in the show ring at this level, we’ll take that time. It’s about enjoying the process of learning from the next level. “  

Kunde and her 4-year-old son, Henry, on Taffy. Kunde is expecting her second child this summer. (Courtesy, Katie Kunde)

Kunde and her 4-year-old son, Henry, on Taffy. Kunde is expecting her second child this summer. (Courtesy, Katie Kunde)

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Dressage Today