At just 11 years old and competing in her second CDI, Paige Hendrick may not have seemed a shoe-in for victory. But, do a little detective work, and you’ll find her double wins in Week 8 in the FEI Pony Team test (65.52%) and freestyle (66.57%) at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida, were not actually so surprising. If you’re hearing abut Hendrick for the first time, it won’t be the last.
She’s also the youngest recipient of Robert Dover’s 2018 Christian Kennedy Future Stars Scholarship, which is what brought her to Wellington from her home in Providence, Rhode Island. There she got to show in the Fédération Equestre Internationale pony division for the first time.
“Being surrounded by amazing people and being in Wellington is like living a dream,” said Hendrick.
In actual fact, Hendrick’s Wellington wins aren’t even the most impressive thing about her already burgeoning résumé. She is the youngest U.S. rider to earn her U.S. Dressage Federation silver medal, and she won the USDF/GAIG Region 8 junior/young rider fourth level championship in September. If that wasn’t already enough, she’s already ridden multiple Prix St. Georges-level tests.
But these impressive accomplishments all start with her superstar pony Otinio. The 14.1-hand New Forest, now 20, showed through Prix St. Georges with an adult amateur before dominating the FEI pony ring.
Paige and her mom Kelly Hendrick, an amateur dressage rider herself, bought “Tiny” from accomplished pony rider Asia Ondaatje Rupert when Paige was just 9. Until then Paige had only showed through training level, sharing the ride on her mother’s Morgans. Paige was too young to compete in the pony division—you can’t do FEI ponies until the year in which you turn 12—so she looked to see what else she could do with Tiny.
“In the meantime I did third level and received my bronze medal,” said Paige. “But I still wasn’t of age, and so I did fourth level and Prix St. Georges and got my silver medal.
“Tiny is the perfect pony,” she continued. “I know a lot of people say that, but he has a huge heart. You still have to ride him, but he gives you his all and makes me feel very confident because I know he’s able to do it. He’s the most sane and sweet horse; he has all the training, and he makes me feel so special and confident.”
Paige explained that Tiny will even cover up her mistakes from time to time: “In one pony test—that he knows because he did ponies with his previous owner—I made a mistake and picked up the wrong lead,” she said. “So he did a flying change because he knew he was supposed to be in counter-canter.”
But don’t mistake Paige for just a girl on a schoolmaster. She has iron determination to succeed and singular focus to improve. She said her training with Dover in Florida has boosted her up the riding ladder significantly.
“On the first day, he taught me all about the basic principles and how to truly use them and ride like a top rider, not just like a girl on a cute pony,” said Paige, a sixth-grader who was allowed to miss some school to pursue her competitive ambitions in Wellington, although she’s been diligently studying while away. “I had my white breeches on, and Otinio was all braided because I wanted to make a nice first impression. Robert—and he was very nice about it—said I didn’t need to come in whites and braided. Before this training, I was just the girl on the cute pony. Now I want it all more uphill, and I want to ride like a professional rider. I’ve taken so many notes.
“Tiny has a lot to do with the way I ride, but I used to lean forward too much, and my arms weren’t independent; I’d use them too much and not use enough seat,” she continued. “Back home Liz Caron has helped me so much with my position, and here in Wellington it’s improved so much. I’m able to be independent and ride with seat and leg. I’ve always got a lot of tips, but Robert really made me understand all that in the last couple of weeks.”
Paige said remembering tests comes easily to her, and her nerves melt away when she hears the bell ring. And her single-mindedness to pursue her vision of becoming a professional rider and trainer is unshakeable.
“I have heard a lot of people saying, ‘You don’t want to have being a rider as your career,’ but I really do,” she said. “I’ve given a couple of beginners lessons, and it was so fun.”
She has also learned, through Otinio, to ride Grand Prix movements.
“I remember the first time I saw him. He was so cute, like a smaller version of my mom’s horse, and I fell in love with him at first sight,” she said. “It took time to figure him out, but when I first rode him I could tell he could do all this extra stuff even though I was only asking for walk, trot and canter.”
As their partnership progressed, Paige started pressing those extra buttons, discovering first-hand the pony’s extensive training.
“We had quite a few mess-ups riding through the Grand Prix stuff, as I didn’t know the aids,” she remembered. “Actually, it’s been a bit of a problem stopping him doing the Grand Prix movements in pony tests. But when I do something wrong, he corrects me.”
But this rockstar pony can’t go on indefinitely.
“I have to get one more set of scores to qualify for ponies for nationals, and I don’t think he can do another year,” said Paige. “He’s given me so much, and we want to be fair to him. It would be great to find something as trained as Tiny, so I can do juniors and young riders and carry on moving up with levels.”
So what is next for this dynamic duo?
“I knew there were a lot of mistakes in my CDI tests, and I can’t wait for next time for my scores to be better,” Paige said. “There were a lot of firsts down in Wellington, but I can’t wait to do it all again—and with better scores. Having my name up on that billboard and having everyone watching was amazing.”