Emily O’Neill and Sir Lancelot earned their ticket to the Dressage Finals on a "wild card" score above 68% at the Regional Finals Championship in late October.
With feathers floating as he picks up a canter, Sir Lancelot is collection incarnate as he glides into the last movement of the test and halts neatly at X. His rider, Emily O’Neill from Conestoga, PA, salutes and gives the big Friesian his head, liberally patting his supple neck. The pair just executed the winning test to capture the Third Level Freestyle during the Inaugural US Dressage Finals at the Kentucky Horse Park on November 10.
“I couldn’t believe it; the whole experience was so thrilling,” says O’Neill, 26, of her 71.778% test representing Region 1 on the national stage. “We come from a region that is known to be competitive and it was such an honor to compete against the best riders in the country.”
There and Back Again
Growing up on her mother’s farm in Chester Springs, PA, O’Neill says she was “very fortunate” to be born into the business. Her mother teaches her students a bit of everything and as a teenager, O’Neill focused on eventing. Beginning at age 14, O’Neill became a reputable instructor in her own right. She trained her first horse, Goldenglanz, through third-level dressage and training-level eventing, earning numerous awards and year-end honors along the way. However, after graduating from high school and not quite ready to join the ranks of collegiates, she headed down to Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, PA to spend time as a working student for Jessica and Missy Ransehausen.
Despite her initial interest in eventing, O’Neill found herself working more with Jessica, a member of the USDF Hall of Fame, and focusing on the precision and elegance of dressage. As a working student, O’Neill experienced many different types of rides, from green eventing horses to veteran dressage schoolmasters, and realized she wanted to nurture this growing passion for dressage through a season on the show circuit. With the support of Jami Kment, O’Neill spent the 2008-2009 winter season in Florida until Kment headed back to her home farm in Nebraska.
Enter Dorie Addy-Crow, a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist, who took O’Neill under her wing for another working student arrangement. After a month of barn chores and riding lessons, Addy-Crow offered O’Neill an Assistant Trainer position at her farm in Pennsylvania—a job which O’Neill enthusiastically accepted. Under Addy-Crow’s tutelage, O’Neill blossomed into an FEI competitor and earned both USDF Bronze and Silver medals as well as the USDF Shining Star Award for outstanding sportsmanship.
“As working students, we’re thankful for every ride and every opportunity to further our learning,” says O’Neill. So when Addy-Crow asked O’Neill, on her 21st birthday, to hop on Sir Lancelot, an 18-year-old Friesian owned by Elaine Warner of Manheim, PA, she jumped at the chance. “We are well suited for each other, and I am very fortunate to work with such a supportive team and absolutely incredible owners.” Lance seems to agree, because every time he hears Warner’s footsteps he whinnies for her, even if she is out of sight. “He’s the sweetest horse I’ve ever worked with,” continues O’Neill. “He’s pretty special.”
However, in the five year span between that first, special ride and their winning test at the Inaugural US Dressage finals, the road was rife with obstacles. The first challenge was getting Lance in shape—while he has a “heart of gold and tries his guts out every day,” he is a roarer and the narrower airway makes breathing more difficult. Although with patience, careful attention to his fitness, and Lance’s own sunny personality, he quickly rose to the demands of the advanced training. But right as his schooling readied for competition, Lance contracted the oftentimes deadly EPM disease, a neurological disorder transmitted through parasites. He missed the whole show season as he recuperated, but nonetheless when he and Emily debuted the next year, the two thrived in the arena.
The next complication happened shortly after and Lance missed another full show season when he contracted the painful, and sometimes chronic, lymphangitis, an inflammation of the hind leg. He pulled through, and he and O’Neill went on to successfully compete at prestigious shows like Dressage at Devon as well as qualify for the Regional Finals Championship.
US Dressage Finals
The Regional Finals Championship, in Lexington, VA during late October, was the last, crucial stop for competitors attempting to earn their spot in the first ever US Dressage Finals. There, the first and second place finishers in each division obtained entry to the Finals. With an “excruciatingly close” score, O’Neill and Sir Lancelot just barely missed their chance with a third place finish. Luckily for them, however, participants could qualify on a “wild card” score with marks above 68%, and with that accomplishment, O’Neill and Lance were Kentucky-bound.
Unlike most Freestyle contenders who enlist the help of professionals, O’Neill selected the music and designed the test herself. “I love musical freestyle,” she says, remembering the days of Christmas quadrilles and fun musical rides to entertain her mother’s riding camp students. During that time, she founded the Fox Meadow Drill Team which competed at events like Dressage at Devon and Ludwig’s Corner Horse Show as well as choreographed a nationally qualifying quadrille for the Radnor Hunt Pony Club and an FEI-level pas de deux.
Because of his age, the most disconcerting aspect of the journey to the Finals was the trip itself. “There’s always a risk, and I was worried about him on the trailer for twelve to fourteen hours. But I’m amazed at his resilience; he got off the trailer, into his stall, and ate some hay like nothing happened.”
O’Neill had plenty of time to get nervous as she waited for her 3:33pm ride time watching others warm up. “I thought, ‘wow, they’re good!’” she says. “It was an unbelievable facility with a huge stadium and I was surrounded by the very best.” But from the moment she settled into the tack, it was business as usual. “With Lance, you put him in a routine and he goes right to work. You know what you’re going to get.”
She credits his reliability and show-off personality as his best attributes, saying that at a show, “he puffs right up; the bigger the crowd, the better.” While other horses were distracted by the busy show atmosphere, Sir Lancelot was the same horse as always and tried his heart out for his rider. And it worked—as the crowd erupted into applause as the duo finished their test on cue, the music enhancing the impressive dance, it was obvious that the young rider and the experienced gelding have something special together. Emily O’Neill and Sir Lancelot prove that hard work and dedication, along with an encouraging support team, is the perfect recipe for a national championship.