Dressage has been a hot topic in the news lately, thanks largely to a mare named Rafalca, and the London Olympics. The coverage of the discipline has not always been favorable, and much of it has ignored, misrepresented or otherwise demeaned the actual sport of Dressage and—by extension—the people who compete in it. Dancing horses and fancypants owners may be what many people now associate with Dressage, thanks to comedians and pundits eager to get a few laughs or score some satirical points at the expense of Rafalca’s part owner, who happens to be married to Mitt Romney.
For every Rafalco, though, there are hundreds of horses like Noble Baron and Ruby Rubinstein, horses that have accompanied two Pennsylvania riders on exceptional journeys of self-discovery. They might never command the media attention that Rafalca has, but these two horses have inspired their young riders, who are less-heralded than Mrs. Romney but irrefutably enthusiastic about the sport of Dressage.
Emily Sours of Newtown, PA leases Noble Baron, and has been riding him in competition for several years. “Baron is 22 and he’s going strong,” she says. Ruby Rubinstein is Lian Wolfe’s 12 year-old mare. They’ve been together for three years. In this demanding sport with its patina of hoity-toity, these two teenagers are down to earth and smitten with the beauty of Dressage done well.
“I think it’s the elegance,” Wolfe explains. “I love watching the extended movements. It looks easy, but it’s not.” She says she’s been watching all the coverage of Rafalca, and is not impressed. “I don’t think people realize that it’s not an easy sport. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t ride.”
Wolfe and Sours competed for the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Region 1 in the North American Junior and Young Rider Dressage Championship (NAJYRDC) in Kentucky in July. Although the team finished out of the medals, both Wolfe and Sours saw the competition as an invaluable learning experience, and an honor.
Inspiration + Dedication + Commitment = Success
Both riders are from Bucks County, and both took the equestrian road less traveled. “I started riding when I was five,” Sours says. Her mother noticed her fascination with movies and TV programs that featured horses. “She looked in the newspaper for a riding camp, and signed me up.” She says she spent several years riding in “little kid camp,” but there was only one discipline that she loved. “I kind of grew up in Dressage.” She says jumping never appealed to her. “To this day jumping still scares me,” she says, but notes that most of the younger riders she sees love jumping. “I think it’s the adrenaline.”
Sours, who is going into her senior year in high school, says that qualifying for the team competition was not a simple matter of going to a couple of shows. “I needed to do at least three different shows that would qualify for the championship,” she says, “and I ended up going to Wellington for a month.” That was not a whole month, but four weekends in a month. She was still in school in Bucks County, and had to keep up with her classes. The solution was not easy. “I would go to school from Monday to Friday. I would get on a plane after school on Friday night, and go to Florida and compete on the weekend.” She flew back home on Sunday, and was back in school on Monday.
Wolfe’s mother introduced her to Dressage, she says. “I started out jumping and then when I was around eight or nine, my mom went to do Dressage and she said to come and try it.” Wolfe was hooked. “I don’t jump anymore. I just solely do Dressage now.”
Wolfe is a junior in high school, but is home-schooled. “I home school all year around, and there’s a place I go to in Florida,” she says, where they use a program from the University of Nebraska. She has been home-schooled for half a year since sixth grade. “I ride with Todd Flettrich and we keep our horses at his farm. And we go to Florida for the season and stay with him in Florida,” she says.
Both girls spend hours every week at their respective barns working with and around their horses. “I’m there six days a week, a couple of hours riding, hacking and feeding and stuff,” Wolfe says. Sours, whose horse is in New Jersey, says she spends about nine hours a week riding Baron and the other horses at the farm.
The NAJYRDC is a big deal. The United States Dressage Federation says that NAJYRDC is governed by rules established by the Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI). This annual competition attracts competitors from the United States, Bermuda, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands. Riders ranging in age from 14 to 21 compete for individual and team medals. For some, it’s the first tantalizing foray into international competition, exposing many young riders to elite fields of competitors. It’s the only FEI championship held every year in North America.
Sours had actually qualified for NAJYRDC once before. “I had qualified for Kentucky two years ago, but some paperwork got messed up so I was never invited,” she explains. Wolfe says that the timing was right this year for her and Ruby. “I got my horse three years ago and I always wanted to try for the team,” she says, “but she wasn’t ready. Then she was ready but I wasn’t. This was the first year we were both ready to go.”
Both Sours and Wolfe approached the competition with similar goals. “In Kentucky, I knew going there I wasn’t going to win, but it was really just a learning experience,” Wolfe explains. The competition helped her focus on the things that she and Ruby need to address in their training.
“I kind of went with the attitude that ‘I’m just happy to be here, and I’m so honored,’” Sours says. ”Honestly, I was just happy that I made it there. I got a 62 the first day. Then we had a day off and I ended up with a 64.5. Unfortunately I ended up 17th out of 41 and just missed the freestyle by 2/10 of a point.”
The Region 1 Young Riders (Sours’ team) finished in eighth place out of ten teams. Wolfe’s Junior Riders team came in ninth. Neither of the riders competed in the freestyle.