This California rider and mother will realize her life-long dream when she competes on the U.S. dressage team at the Pan American Games.
Marisa Festerling has a quick smile and kind demeanor that immediately put people and horses at ease. A petite blonde, this native Californian possesses an elegance and tactfulness that seem to encourage the best from her mounts.
But what you don’t see at first glance is the steely determination that lies below the surface of the 34-year-old’s bubbly, cheerful exterior.
From childhood she’s dreamed of representing the United States in an international team championship, and she’s methodically and patiently developed her own young horse until he blossomed into a high performance dressage competitor.
This year, her hard work and patience paid off as she’s arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico, to compete for Team USA in the Pan American Games.
Just Another Horse-Crazy Kid
Growing up as “just another horse-crazy girl” in Camarillo, Calif., Festerling was riding her grandparents' Quarter Horses before she could walk. “I had the typical room with Breyer horses and Black Stallion posters, and I knew the name of every Kentucky Derby winner,” she said. “I wanted to take lessons so badly. I even tried to enroll myself at a jockey school in Indiana when I was 14, but they wouldn't let me come because I was too young!”
After realizing she’d be too big for a career as a jockey, Festerling re-focused her passion. “I saw pictures in magazines of English riders and decided that I wanted to do whatever it was that they were doing,” she said with a laugh. When she did finally get those longed-for lessons at a local barn, she dabbled in dressage but admitted she was pretty clueless.
Enter Marie Meyers, a member of the U.S. team at the 1990 World Equestrian Games and an alternate for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Meyers not only took Festerling under her wing as a working student, but also became her friend and mentor.
“When I came to Marie, I knew nothing,” said Festerling. “The first horse I had was a Thoroughbred, and right after I started with Marie we were showing in a few tests at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, where he jumped out of the ring in one class and then for the others got two 45-percent scores. It was horrible. Charlotte Bredahl-Baker was sitting in the stands near Marie, and said, ‘That poor girl needs a trainer.’ Then Marie said, ‘I am her trainer.’ Today we remember this all the time and get such a kick out of it because it’s all come full circle. Charlotte has become one of my biggest supporters.”
Being the only horse-crazy child in the family, Festerling wrestled with pressures to pursue higher education and a “normal” career path. After high school, she attended and graduated from California Lutheran University with a degree in English, but throughout her studies she continued to focus on riding.
“One of the reasons I even chose my college was because it was close to the barn! I knew that it was important, and I’m glad I did it, but I rode all through school, and I honestly never considered any other career path,” Festerling said. “Of course, there was a time when I finished college and was on my own, when I had a little bit of an, ‘Oh my God what am I going to do now? I don't have a real job’ moment, but thank goodness I had been riding with Marie for five years by then, and she gave me an opportunity to make this my career. I think that the hardest part of being a professional in this business is the actual act of getting started.”
A “Big Tyme” Horse
As a budding young professional and official assistant trainer at Marie Meyers Dressage in Moorpark, Calif., Festerling proved she had a knack for working with young horses, including Jetsetter, who went on to compete through the Prix St. Georges level, and Remy Martin, who carried her onto the national stage by winning the reserve championship at the 2003 USA Equestrian Young Horse National Championships in Allentown, N.J.
But it was a barely-broken 4-year-old that would change Festerling's life. In 2004, Meyers saw a flashy gelding in Belgium while she was on a horse-shopping excursion. She showed a video to her husband Frank, who promptly remarked, “Wow, honey, that’s a big-time horse.” After purchasing and importing the newly-christened Big Tyme or “Frankie,” Meyers gave the mount to Festerling to ride and prepare for re-sale.
But Frankie never left the barn. “I didn’t have my own horse at the time, and when I started riding him, I really clicked with him so well. When Marie put him on the market, I was able to buy him with gracious support from Dave and Ann Marie Walter,” said Festerling.
Festerling and Frankie got their first international experience together when they traveled to Verden, Germany, for the 5-year-old division at the 2006 FEI World Breeding Championships. “Going to Verden was great experience for both of us. As a rider, it was a really good avenue for exposure, and getting that chance to ride for the U.S. proved that we could handle the trip and pressure, produce results and represent the country well,” said Festerling.
She continued to move Frankie up through the young horse program in the United States, bringing the Belgian Warmblood (Saros van 't Gestelhof—Elvira, Wendekreis) out at Prix St. Georges at the end of 2008. “It takes a long time to bring them to this level. You hope that they will be a great horse and fulfill your expectations, but it’s a long process and takes a considerable investment of time, wait and hope and see how it all works out,” said Festerling. “Sometimes you don’t know how good they will be until you put them in those tough situations. I think it was good for both of us to go through these programs, do the steps, and learn how to compete and travel both nationally and overseas.”
Plans Come Together
Although Festerling harbored high hopes for Frankie, she always took his career one day at a time. “I never picked a specific games or a year that I had to be somewhere. Every day I get up and go to work and ride the horses we have. I do the best I can for them and keep in mind the track I’m on,” she said. “But the timing this year was right. We came to [the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival Of Champions] for the first time last year and finished fifth, and I looked at the trip as an investment in my career as a hopeful team rider. I knew I needed to come, learn from the experience and what to expect, so that if I was fortunate enough to come back this year I would be even better prepared for the Pan Am Trials.”
That plan worked out, as Festerling finished fourth and earned a spot on the Pan Am team along with Steffen Peters on Weltino’s Magic, Heather Blitz on Paragon and Cesar Parra on Grandioso.
Festerling claims she never succumbed to the paralyzing effects of nervousness, even when her chance to wear a U.S. team jacket was on the line. “When I’m riding, I work to stay focused and don’t think about the emotional part of it. I guess it’s as much a part of training yourself as it is my horse,” she said. “When I go in the ring, I feel nothing, just my horse. I remember the sound of his footfalls as we cantered around the ring, the very clear rhythm of it. It just felt super. I think I’ve competed with Frankie for so long that now all I think about is him and what we need to do in the test. I don’t think about what’s going on around us or the consequences of it all.”
She hopes the same focus will carry through to the Pan Ams. “Maybe ignorance is bliss, and by this being my first time as a team member, there are going to be some things that of course I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “But my plan will be the same, doing the same things to prepare both myself and my horse regardless of what country the competition is in.”
Some of the most important people who’ve helped Festerling achieve her dreams are her family. Though her parents and younger brother and sister have no involvement with horses, there’s been no shortage of support. “They’ve seen me start out as a little kid, and even though they may not understand my obsession, they respect that I stuck with it and the amount of work it’s taken to get here,” she said.
Festerling is married to husband Brian, an air traffic controller at the Los Angeles Center in Palmdale, Calif., who is admittedly not a horse person and has only ridden once in his life.
“We met in college, so he’s known me a long time, and he’s known from Day 1 that I’m an obsessed horseperson,” Marisa said. “I think he knew what he was getting into, but maybe just not how deep. But he knows that this is my dream and my passion. He knows how much I put into it, and he respects that.”
Festerling acknowledges that keeping their relationship a priority in the face of her demanding horse career can be challenging. “I think it’s important that you don’t let the horses consume your whole life,” she said. “You have to make time for other things and keep them a priority. Make time to go have fun and do other stuff, even if you just go out to dinner together or visit your non-horsey friends.”
Adding a young child to the mix just makes juggling family time with horse time that much more complicated. Ella Grace was born in 2007. “I always knew that I wanted to have a child, and we’d always planned for a family, but we waited for a while, and I think I was ready, as prepared as I guess you can ever be!” she said. “Of course your priorities change. It doesn’t necessarily mean that everything else becomes less important in your life; it’s just that your child is MORE important than anything else to you. You have to figure out how to fit things in. Everything involves more planning now, especially shows that are out of town, because now I can’t just jump in the truck and take off to a show.
“When I leave the barn and go home to my husband and daughter, we try to do ‘normal’ things together,” Marisa continued. “We try to take a couple of trips every year in the RV and go water-skiing. I try to be mindful that everyone has different interests. My daughter may choose other activities than horses and that’s great, too. As much as I love it, the riding can’t be the only thing we exist for.”
But Brian and Ella regularly attend shows to support Marisa, and her daughter shows early promise as a budding equestrian herself. “Ella loves being at the barn, she loves the horses and dogs, and she’s the official treat feeder,” said Marisa. “She has a ladder outside Frankie’s door, and she loves to give him treats—he’ll eat anything. It’s funny because you look at her, and she looks really girly-girly, but she loves to get dirty.”
And despite dreaming of the day when she would finally wear her country’s flag, Marisa doesn’t feel like much has changed. “It’s happened over such a long period of time and so gradually that it just feels really natural how it’s all happened,” she said. “There hasn’t been one giant moment in particular when I knew ‘I’d arrived.’ It’s been an ongoing series of small achievements to get here. This whole process has been an inspiration to ME, especially how many people have been so kind and willing to help me along the way.”
Staff writer Mollie Bailey will be in Guadalajara for the start of dressage on Oct. 16 and will be posting daily reports from the Pan American Games from all three equestrian disciplines on www.chronofhorse.com.