Ari Lopez did not intend to become a dressage specialist, but this versatile rider from Pleasant Hill, California, has come to love the precision, accuracy and challenge of the sport. Riding Karen Kahn’s 11-year-old Oldenburg gelding Flynn (Fidertanz—Frontera, Rouletto), Lopez won the Prix St. Georges at the Rancho Murieta CDI*** (California) on April 6, her first foray into the international ring in three years.
“This was my first CDI competing against open riders,” said Lopez, 27. “I was just focusing on getting experience and had low expectations. I just trusted that I know the horse and focused on having fun, enjoying the ride, and doing the best we can. I am really thrilled with the results.”
This former young rider has an extensive résumé in the dressage court, but until now her international ring experience has been limited to the age-restricted ranks. Riding her own Corlander II (Cordino—Riante, Ravallo), Lopez won an individual silver medal at the CN North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in 2008 in Parker, Colorado, and contributed to the team bronze. They were also on the fourth-placed team in 2011 in Lexington, Kentucky. In 2012, the pair made their Grand Prix debut in the under-25 classes, and Lopez finished her U.S. Dressage Federation gold medal.
But the dressage arena was “Armani’s” third attempt at finding a career. Lopez and her family imported the branded Rhinelander gelding from Germany when he was a barely-broke 3-year-old and she was just 14. The intention was to make him into an eventer, but Armani had other plans.
“He was a super jumper but not very brave on cross-country,” said Lopez. “We would either win or be eliminated.”
So Lopez began to focus on show jumping with Armani, eventually competing on the A circuit. But as they moved up the levels, Armani expressed an intense dislike for liverpools. “They were just not something he was interested in,” Lopez said with a laugh. She finally switched their focus to dressage, a move that proved fortuitous.
“It just worked out that he became my dressage horse,” said Lopez. “I was hoping to be a three-day event rider but by fate ended up in dressage.”
Lopez credits her first instructor, Heidi Riddle, and her membership in the Crossroads Pony Club, with providing her with a well-rounded foundation as a rider. “We did a lot of everything,” said Lopez. “We did hunter/jumpers, dressage and three-day eventing. I did all of that on a Quarter Horse, Buddy Boy, whom I eventually got to second level in dressage and novice in eventing.”
That versatility has made Lopez a perfect fit for the job of assistant trainer at the Christiane Noelting Dressage Center in Vacaville, California, a post she’s held for nearly six years. While the main focus is dressage, horses there are also regularly schooled in cavaletti work, taken on trail rides, and free jumped at least once per month.
“Being that eventer kid who wasn’t scared to get on anything has taught me how to get into two-point and just kick on,” said Lopez. “I have sat on lots of difficult horses, the really naughty ones, and the ones that were not the most talented to begin with. I was trained how to work with these challenging horses, which has given me lots more tools in my toolbox to work with.”
Lopez took over the ride on Flynn early in 2017 from her colleague Christian Hartung, who started the horse at the Prix St. Georges level. “He was imported from Germany at the end of 2014 by his owner,” said Lopez. “She is a client at our barn, and she had wanted him for herself. But he turned out to be more spicy than she had been hoping for.”
Lopez has spent the past year getting to know Flynn better and steadily working to make his performance in the small tour stronger and more solid. “He is such a willing horse,” said Lopez. “He tries really hard.”
Lopez intends to compete Flynn in the CDI at Del Mar (California) at the end of the month, where they will debut their new Intermediaire I freestyle. “It is a mix of Latin-style music with some flutelike Native American-inspired sounds,” said Lopez. “It’s really fun.”
Lopez has set the goal of qualifying Flynn for the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage National Championships, to be held at the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois, in August.
As much as Lopez loves training horses, she is pragmatic about the risks that come with it. After two years of working for Noelting, Lopez returned to school at Sacramento State University, where she will finish her bachelor’s degree in business with a focus in accounting and a minor in German this May. “If something ever happens, God forbid, I want to have something to fall back on,” said Lopez.
Finding time to fulfill both riding and academic goals has required excellent time management skills. “I ride horses in the morning and then take my classes in the evening,” said Lopez. “The horses are really important, but so is school. It may mean that I get up at 5 and do work before I ride, or that I have to stay up late to finish work then. I’m a busy person, and I function best when I have a lot going on. So it has worked out OK for me.”
Upon graduation, Lopez plans to pursue a career as a CPA (she is actually already sitting on a job offer from a prestigious firm) and to continue to ride and train on the side.
“As a kid, we just wanted to jump and gallop cross-country,” said Lopez. “We thought dressage was so boring. But once I started to do more, and realized how accurate and precise you need to be, it really became fun. I love the challenge of it.”