Working Hunters To Westminster: Lydia Frey Carved Her Own Path To The Show Ring

Feb 20, 2015 - 11:04 AM
Lydia Frey showing to the Best Junior Handler
title at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Photo by Congleton Photography

Sometimes it’s the opportunities we don’t have that spring us into action toward a dream.

When your mother is a professional show jumper, and your father a professional hunter trainer, there’s a likely path set out for you, and chances are, you’ll follow it into the equestrian world. But Lydia Frey, daughter of international grand prix show jumper Kim Prince and hunter professional Russell Frey, had another idea in mind.

Her idea of showmanship, plus seven years of putting it into practice, landed her the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show Best Junior Handler title on Tuesday, Feb. 17 at Madison Square Garden in New York.

An experienced competitor in the A circuit pony hunter divisions by age 8, Lydia realized she “loved the horses more than the showing” and found her true calling when she watched the AKC/Eukanuba National Championship (Florida) on TV during her Thanksgiving break from Foxcroft High School in Middleburg, Va.

“I was just fascinated by it,” said Lydia, now 16. “I thought it was the coolest thing; I wanted to do it. And around my ninth birthday, I approached my mom and told her I wanted to do it. And she said, ‘OK. If you want to do it, we can get a show dog, but we have to get a breed that I want so that if you become disinterested, we’d at least have a great dog that we adore.’ ”

In came Piper, a Standard Schnauzer Lydia trained to show. They debuted at the Warrenton Kennel Club Dog Show (Va.) within a year.

“With my parents, I’ve always been involved with the horses,” said Lydia. “I’ve shown ponies, and horses have always been a big part of my life. And I loved it, but it just wasn’t as fun for me anymore. It’s a little bit harder to come at when both of your parents are top professionals. With my dad in the hunters and my mom in the jumpers, everyone knows who you are, everyone wants to know what your plans are, if you’re continuing, when you’re going to start doing equitation. So when I saw the dogs, I thought it was something new and something I could do on my own.”

Prince and Russell were strong supporters of her new foray. Plus, at roughly $35 per show entry, “It’s definitely a lot cheaper of a sport than horses!” joked Lydia, who now attends online high school through the University of Missouri so she can travel to compete.

Lydia’s independence and raw interest in showing dogs captured the attention of several show-goers who would become her most influential mentors. Laurie Zembrzuski and Gabby Gilbeau, longtime Bedlington Terrier breeders, spotted Lydia at one of her first shows and gave her tips.

Lydia and Tony

“A friend had asked me show a Bedlington for her for a couple weekends. She didn’t have a lot of time to get the points on her that she needed, so she asked if I could,” explained Lydia. “I took the dog to a show and really had no idea what I was doing, whatsoever! I had no idea with the grooming or anything. And I met [Zembrzuski and Gilbeau] at the ring, and of course their dogs are beautifully presented, and in gorgeous condition—perfectly groomed—and they said, ‘Maybe you should try this,’ the next day—because I lost that day. And the next day I did what they said and I came back and won. And they said, ‘You were very good; you seem very interested.’ And they had a litter of puppies at the time and they asked if I would like a show puppy.”

Zembrzuski and Gilbeau bred Pippa and then Tony, Lydia’s most competitive dog to date, and gave her a ride to competitions like a “second family.” Though Lydia was skeptical of the breed at first, she found that Bedlingtons are one-of-a-kind partners.

“They have a very different temperament than most terriers,” said Lydia. “They’re very mild and very sweet, and they become very in-tune with their owner. They adore their person, and once they have a person, that’s it, they’re dedicated to you—they follow you around; they do everything! My dog Tony loves biking, but then he’s perfectly fine also just sitting on the couch and binge-watching Netflix with me! They’re very willing to do whatever you want.”

As Lydia progressed in the show world, her opportunities snowballed, and today her life is whirlwind of traveling to shows, as a competitor or assistant to professionals.

“I assist handlers on the weekends; they hire me to help get dogs ready for the ring and take care of them,” she said. “So I do that at some shows. It’s pretty much like being a groom for a weekend!

“I love Bedlingtons,” she added, “but I really enjoy showing pretty much any breed that I’ve gotten my hands on. I’m very lucky to work with some really fantastic dogs. I knew the more experience I got the better I would do, so any show dog I could get my hands on I took into the ring. I took in Golden Retrievers and Beagles and Cairn Terriers—everything! I just tried to show as much as I could.”

But the Best Junior Handler title at Westminster marked both a lofty achievement and retirement of sorts.

“Kind of the unsaid rule at the dog show is that once you win Best Junior [Handler] at Westminster, you don’t show in juniors again,” said Lydia. “Once you win it, you retire. And so I’ve been planning a lot for this year and it’s kind of all gone to waste now because I’m not supposed to show in juniors.

“Most kids that win Best Junior at Westminster have already aged out of juniors and it’s more of their retirement show. And so winning it at 16, I’m like, ‘What am I going to do now?!’ ”

Lydia’s sights are set on the Montgomery Kennel Club Dog Show (Pa.), the largest terrier show in the world, in the fall. She competed there three years ago, but not with her star Tony.

Since she was already in the open senior division in the 9-18 age group that comprises junior showmanship, she’ll now continue showing mainly in the breed classes, in which she’ll compete against handlers of all ages.

And despite encouragement to get back to horses, especially considering Westminster seemed a fitting end to showing dogs, Lydia isn’t leaving the dog show world anytime soon, though she still enjoys spending time with the horses at Prince’s Snowbrook facility in Hume, Va., and Wellington, Fla.

“My parents were always very open to me getting back to horses, and actually a lot of their friends and other horse people say, ‘Don’t you miss showing? Don’t you want to get back into it?’ ”

But Lydia prefers to continue her routine, caring for her six dogs at home, feeding and exercising them from her bike, in hopes of showing them in the big ring, like Tony, some day.

“It’s just about practicing as much as possible,” she said. “So it’s just about keeping them in condition and keeping their coats in condition—Tony gets a bath every three days! It’s a lot of work, keeping the dogs at home. Especially the professional handlers, I really respect them, the ones that can keep their dogs in such good condition at all times. It’s a lot of work, between the coat work and the health and keeping them fit and training.”

Categories: Horse Shows, Hunters
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