There’s a reason Dressage at Devon sells out the Dixon Oval stands every fall. Its untouchable history, unmatched depth and diversity of class offerings, world-class competition, warm hospitality to professionals and amateurs, experts and laymen alike, and its outreach to the local community in its little plot of Southeastern Pennsylvania all have something to do with it.
Olympic rider Ashley Holzer has won her share of championships at the show, but one of the memories she cherishes most comes from the year she discovered a new connection with one of her beloved partners during an unforgettable freestyle performance under the Saturday night lights. Klaus Schengber, head trainer at High Point Hanoverians, says the many breeding ribbons and championships his team’s horses have brought home from Devon simply mean more, not just because of the palpable history and distinction of the show, but because everyone there feels like family to him. For amateur rider Heather Mendiburu, the memory of standing in the footing of that arena looking up into the stands where she vowed to one day compete at Devon reenforces the unbreakable connection and dedication of her family who made it possible for her to live that dream.
For those three competitors, and countless others, the common thread that seats Dressage at Devon in a class of its own seems to be a deeper connection to the people and animals that make the show, the sport and its community one of a kind. And while Covid-19 paralyzed the world in 2020, the craving to experience those connections, whether from the saddle, in-hand, or in the stands, promises to make Dressage at Devon 2021 unlike any other year.
A Whole New Level of Connection
Canadian-born Ashley Holzer finds magical new connections when she shows at Dressage at Devon. Born in Toronto, it started at age 16 for her, the first year she qualified to ride there. “When I first went to Devon, it was a huge accomplishment for me,” she remembers.
As her career began to flourish into adulthood, she bit into her first Olympic medal for team Canada in 1988 at the Games in Seoul, South Korea, where the team earned bronze. She went on to compete for Canada in Atlanta (2004), Beijing (2008), and London (2012). In 2017, she claimed U.S. citizenship.
This summer, speaking from Aachen while coaching before this year’s Games in Tokyo, she said, “No one is in the stands here. There’s no atmosphere. Our horses need to get used to venues with a lot of excitement and energy so that they can handle the big events like the Olympics and the World Championships.”
As the world slowly and cautiously awakens from the isolation of the Covid-19 pandemic, Tokyo’s stands will still be mostly empty on freestyle night, and every other night for that matter. That’s why the signature environment she remembers from Dressage at Devon will feel so special this fall.
“You can’t recreate the atmosphere you get at Devon,” Holzer said. “To be able and ready to compete at the Olympics, a World Cup final… Our horses have got to learn to handle crowds and be better under crowds. The energy has to be used to your advantage. Devon is one of those venues that enables us to test this out and learn to channel that energy in a positive way.”
Holzer has personally experienced that positive energy. She created one of her favorite Dressage at Devon memories showing under the Saturday night lights for packed stands in the Dixon Oval riding Tiva in the freestyle. “We were debuting a totally different freestyle pattern,” she remembers. “My horse was performing incredibly well and we were so connected and I thought, ‘Wow, what an athlete you are!’ It was just that feeling of riding a horse who was giving me her all under the lights at Devon.” Holzer doesn’t remember how she placed that night, but all that really mattered was, “I was in awe of my horse. The energy and the crowds at Devon brought out more in her than I had ever felt before. We reached a whole new level of connection.”
For spectators who have been in the light blue stands during the freestyle, stories like this trigger goosebumps the way only that kind of electricity in the air can. If you ask Holzer, it’s no different for the international team riders who have shown at the biggest venues in the world. “Devon is one of those events that brings it all together for me,” she said. “It has history and energy; we get to compete under the lights in a setting like Europe, except it’s more intimate.”
Winning There Really Stands for Something
Likewise, for Klaus Schengber, Dressage at Devon has always been about connecting with the worldwide community in a place that can rival the energy found at a European championship-level show, but in a more intimate setting. He says a ribbon from Devon means more no matter what, but it is those connections in that atmosphere that make them truly remarkable.
“It’s just incredible. It’s the show where we all we meet,” Schengber said. He hails from Osnabrück, Germany, but has lived in the U.S. for decades and served as head trainer at High Point Hanoverians in Chestertown, Maryland, for over 20 years. “We’re all there supporting friends and it’s the one time of year everyone is in the same place. All the competitors know each other and it’s like hanging out with family for the whole week. All the European riders are there. It’s almost like bar hopping with friends, going around and visiting all of the stalls and seeing all the horses in person that you watch and read and hear about all year, all in one place.”
In 1986, Schengber presented a few trailerloads of prime Hanoverians at Dressage at Devon for the first time. “We brought 42 horses that year,” he remembers. “I think it was the first year that embryo transfer babies could be shown. So, in the Produce of Dam class, we would have the Dam, three yearlings, and three foals with their mares. I think our handler, Toby, had 10 horses or something in there. It was crazy but very fun.”
Since then, he’s filled those trailers and many others with dozens of ribbons and trophies from Devon; Coeur d’ Amour and Rosenthal are two champion stallions from High Point Hanoverians that immediately come to mind. But no matter which horses his crew leaves with each year, the novelty of a ribbon of any color with the Dressage at Devon insignia imprinted on its rosette never gets old to him. It just means more.
“Winning there really stands for something,” he said. “You get a ribbon at Devon and everyone respects that. It’s a special thing. You have these huge stallion classes and if you win one of them, it’s safe to say you’ll pick up some breedings from that. Or, I’ve even had sales horses who got a blue ribbon at Devon and they sold for more after the show than what they were listed for before.”
This fall, the team at High Point Hanoverians might bring another horse or two than they normally do. Maybe not 42 like back in the day, but Schengber expects, aside from reuniting with family, friends, and colleagues, a ribbon from Dressage at Devon this year after missing 2020, will be especially sweet. “I think people are just going to be happy that the show is back on. It might be bigger than it has been in years,” he predicts. “People are ready to show their horses and party!”
It has Drawn Us Together in a Very Special Way
For Heather Mendiburu, a ribbon from Devon symbolizes the priceless support of her family who helped her get there. She grew up on a farm in Wantage, New Jersey, where her family ran a boarding business and she picked up as many rides as she could as a horse-crazed kid. She got her own horse, Wildfire, at 9 years old, and they promptly started showing at a local venue called Elks Lodge. “I didn’t even know what a lead was,” she remembered, but it didn’t matter. The show bug had bitten and there was no turning back.
Years later, she met her husband Mike and they married in 1991. They built a house and horse facility just two miles up the road from that farm where she grew up. She continued training and working horses, including one for a combined training rider who turned her on to dressage. Again, she was hooked. “I learned by reading every book I could find on dressage,” she remembered. “I still find myself pausing in the barn office to look lovingly at my bookshelf and reminisce about the ‘light bulb’ moments as I scan across the titles.”
She knew what Dressage at Devon was and could feel its history and prestige calling to her from the pages of those books in her shelves. Visiting the show as a spectator was one thing, but she wanted to be down there in the Dixon Oval’s footing with her own horse. In between raising four children, Mendiburu found the time to apply all she’d learned in training her own horses, both of whom she had found in Europe with her husband, some friends, and her youngest son by her side. “[My son] trekked 1500 kilometers with my husband, my friends the Parras, and me for three days and nights when he was five months old, but we ended up with my lovely horse, Happy, age 5, and a 9-year-old who could get up to speed quicker.”
In 2011, Mendiburu won her USDF Region 1 Championships at Fourth Level and earned an invitation to Dressage at Devon for the first time. “Arriving as a competitor at Devon was the first long-term goal I set way back in the fall of 2005 in the light blue stands. It was one that seemed so lofty and grand,” she said. “When it happened, it was all I expected. Some of my favorite shows there began with hearing “Accepted” at the jog and ended with hearing the National Anthem playing just for us.”
As she stared back at those signature light blue stands from the arena, she thought of her family’s farm, the books in her shelves, and the hundreds of miles she shared with husband and infant son, searching for the perfect horses to get her there in the first place. To Mendiburu, making it to Dressage at Devon represents the priceless support she’s had from the people she loves most throughout her life.
“My family has been a consistent and enthusiastic source of both help and encouragement right from the start,” she said. “They are truly my biggest fans and boots on the ground at every venue rain or shine. We have made so many memories, and I know it has drawn us together in a special way. It has been a place where passion, hard work, and sacrifice, and a bit of glory, could be shared year after year. I needed to follow my dreams, and I needed my family to make it happen; in the house, in the barn, and at the shows. They all answered the call, and I’m actually more proud of that than the awards.”
The 2021 Dressage at Devon will take place on September 28 – October 3 at the Devon Horse Show Grounds in Devon, PA. To learn more, visit www.dressageatdevon.org.