Women’s History Month is coming to a close, and as I looked through my blog archives, I realized I hadn’t done a thorough job of featuring women in all disciplines. There are just so many impressive women out there who have paved the way for us that I got caught up in the process.
Just as the public has taken to saying we should celebrate our love for our significant others every day—not just on February 14—we should constantly be giving credit to our fore-equestrians (women and men) when it’s due; not just during a month that they’re in the spotlight.
Those of us who enjoyed the World Dressage Masters a couple weeks ago in West Palm Beach, Fla., inadvertently have Kyra Downton to thank. And by this, I mean she is in part responsible for the rise and remain of dressage in the western United States. The WDM Grand Prix and freestyle were won by Steffen Peters, of San Diego, Calif., and I can’t help but feel Downton had something to do with the reason an athlete of Peters’ caliber (and he’s not the only top athlete out there, mind you) would have left Europe (the birthplace of dressage) to relocate to California.
An Unlikely Start
Downton was born in 1913 in Russia and grew up in Vladivostok. “Picture a little three-year-old girl in a white party dress placed on a big white horse by some Russian Cavalry officers. Then visualize a fast gallop along a narrow, mountainous road with soldiers dashing madly after the runaway. That is my first recollection of riding,” said Downton in an interview with The Country Almanac in 1986.
During the Russian Revolution, Downton’s father, a cavalry lieutenant, sent his wife and daughter to Shanghai to keep them safe. Much of her early horse exposure came from racetracks in Shanghai. She made a life there until the Japanese invaded during the Second Sino-Japanese War and forced her to live in a concentration camp for two years.
At the end of World War II, Downton met an officer from Minnesota who would becomer her husband, Frank Downton. The couple moved to Atherton, Calif., in 1946. In her start on the U.S. equestrian scene, Downton stuck with what she knew—she trained Thoroughbreds to be hunters or event horses. The Downtons helped start the Los Altos Hunt, and she later became a whipper-in.
A New Challenge
Downton started riding dressage after winning a jumping championship at Pebble Beach. She learned that she could have won the three-day championship as well if she’d entered the dressage. “I always have to have a goal, and I thought dressage would be the thing to do,” she said.
After converting to dressage, Downton identified a niche for importing warmbloods from Europe, and she’s recognized as one of the first to actually have done so.
Her 5-acre estate in Atherton casually took on the name of Atherton Dressage, where clinics, dressage shows or fellow dressage enthusiasts gathered to further their knowledge of the sport that was still so new in the United States. She also contributed to the introduction of vaulting.
To encourage the enthusiasm of dressage in others, she took an active role in the U.S. Pony Clubs in her area, teaching (and not charging) young aspiring dressage riders. Her students soon became numerous, and Atherton Dressage continued to grow.
In 2002, Downton was inducted into the U.S. Dressage Foundation’s Hall of Fame. USDF President Samuel Barish said in his speech during her induction, “She became a beacon for dressage in the western United States.”
He also spoke about Atherton Dressage, saying it was “definitely one of the forerunners of the California Dressage Society,” thus crediting Downton for her role in the establishment of CDS, which helped make it “the largest group member organization in USDF.”
Studying With The Masters
Her success as a Grand Prix dressage rider was no doubt the result of her efforts to bring European expertise onto American soil. She hosted clinicians such as Austrian Colonel Alois Podhajsky, the director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna from 1939-1965; Waldemar Seunig, the author of the highly-regarded book on training, Horsemanship; and Danish riding master, Gunnar Anderson.
Because she aspired to ride at the highest level, she imported a Holsteiner gelding from Germany, whom she called Kadett, and continued his training from Prix St. Georges to Grand Prix. She would also travel to Germany to further her training.
With Kadett, Downton won the U.S. Dressage Championship in 1966. One of her greatest accomplishments was clinching the individual gold medal at the 1967 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. She was featured in the August 18, 1967, issue of the Chronicle in an article titled “Mrs. Downton Wins Gold Medal Dressage, U.S. Team Takes Silver.”
“These three horses qualified for the rideoff for the individual placings, which was held on Wednesday, July 25. Mrs. Downton and Kadett were the first to go in the very difficult rideoff test, where emphasis is placed on the passage, piaffer, and the changes of lead. Kadett put in a very smooth and pleasing test which showed the extent of his training. The passage and piaffer were excellent, as was the extended trot. Kadett was the only horse in the competition that did a true piaffer. All the transitions were excellent, and Mrs. Downton was relaxed and rode beautifully. Everyone hoped when the ride was over that this would be the winning horse, and it was! Kadett received 597 points in the rideoff, which, added to his score on the original test, gave him and Mrs. Downton 1352 points and the Gold Medal.”
In 1968, Downton and Kadett represented the United States at the Olympic Games in Mexico. The United States placed eighth in the competition, and Downton was the highest-placed U.S. rider. Until the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, Downton held the title of the oldest American woman, at 55, to have competed. (Libby Callahan, who was 56 in 2008, now holds that honor—she qualified for a fourth time in shooting.)
Downton died on Feb. 7, 1999. Although she is most certainly remembered for her success in the show ring, her legacy lives on in every international event a U.S. dressage rider wins. Through countless demonstrations and her competitive exposure, she encouraged the interest of dressage in the United States. Her love for the sport of helped make what we can proudly call American dressage today.
Meghan Blackburn likes figuring out how we’ve all ended up where we are. And studying the history of the horse industry offers up plenty of answers. Whether it’s pilfering through countless vintage Chronicle issues in the attic, or propping her feet up to pore over one of the bound volumes which are piling up on her desk, she’s committed to getting the dirt on those who have helped the evolution of the equine world and blogging about it weekly.
Have questions or suggestions? Email Meghan at email@example.com.