Last October, Allison Semanchik achieved the implausible. The plucky horse-crazy teen from Oldwick, N.J., set the goal of qualifying for and competing at Dressage At Devon (Pa.) aboard a 5-year-old chestnut Trakehner, despite the fact that neither horse nor rider had previous professional dressage training.
Against the odds, Semanchik made it to Devon with Ilaria Borghese and Maria Denzer’s Inferrous . She joked that she’d be happy if she wasn’t laughed out of the arena. But the youngest rider competing in the 5-year-old division did far better than that, finishing with two respectable scores and a sixth-placed ribbon.
And their story didn’t end there.
Hurricane Sandy And A Setback
Although Semanchik spent time at the barn with Hopper, she didn’t resume training until late October. Not long after, Hurricane Sandy hit, bringing just about everything in New Jersey to a halt, including Hopper.
In general, the horses at Borghese and Denzer’s Tewksbury Township farm fared well in the storm, but Hopper nicked his right front leg. It appeared to be a superficial scratch, but a few days later his leg swelled, and antibiotics were prescribed for the infection. He recovered promptly and was sound for a few weeks, then became head-bobbing lame.
It turned out Hopper didn’t have a minor scrape; he’d chipped the bone. As a result, a dead bony fragment or sequestrum had separated from the bone and was preventing the re-growth of healthy bone. Veterinarian Dennis Milne excised part of the bone and removed the sequestrum. Although the operation was successful, Hopper needed a few months to recover.
Making The Most Of Downtime
While Hopper was laid up, dressage judge and trainer Lisa Schmidt encouraged Semanchik to come to Rockland Farm as a working student. She worked up to three days a week while still attending high school, travelling from Oldwick to Flemington to groom, clean tack and exercise up to six horses a day in exchange for lessons.
Riding a variety of horses was a great opportunity for Semanchik, who’s never had a horse of her own. “They are all very different,” she said. “Some are green and some are experienced; some are hot and some are very lazy.” She rode and took lessons on everything Schmidt had to offer, from an FEI pony to a 17.1-hand warmblood.
“What I really like about her as a student,” said Schmidt, “is that she’s not afraid to take her experience on one horse and transfer it to another horse. She’s a rider that has a good feel.”
It wasn’t until February that Hopper got the green light to go back to work. Happy to be back with her partner, Semanchik tacked him up on a snowy, windy day. It was Hopper’s first outing in three months, and he didn’t miss a beat.
“He couldn’t have cared less,” she said. “Everything was still there mentally.”
“Hopper’s temperament for a young horse and a Trakehner is extraordinary,” said Schmidt.
By the time Hopper (Freudenfest—Isleta, Martini) turned 6 in April, he was in training six days a week, and the pair soon started showing at first level. Scores in the mid-60s at first level qualified them for the Youth Dressage Festival in Saugerties, N.Y. “What I like about this pair is that they have grown up through dressage together,” said Schmidt. “They’re learning together.”
Lendon Gray established the Youth Dressage Festival in 1999 with the goal that all youths might learn how to become, not just better riders, but also better all-around horsemen. Gray also emphasized her interest in the “improvement of all riders (not just the privileged ones) and all horses (even the littlest ones)” helping to create a festival environment of not only inclusion, but also possibility.
A three-day extravaganza for young dressage riders aged 4 to 21, the festival features a wide variety of exhibitions, demonstrations and competitions (like tack room decorating) alongside the actual division championships. Championships are comprised of three equally weighted tests: a written test, an individual dressage test and a group equitation ride. Semanchik’s goal for the festival was simply to have “good rides and get good feedback.”
Books And Barn Skills
“I rode a bit more conservatively than he needed,” she admitted. Outside of that blip, the test was solid. She received a 70.00 percent—the second highest score in her division—and scored 8s for the walk, halts, gaits and harmony. Semanchik moved up to second.
The group equitation test came later that day. Hopper and Semanchik’s group trail riding experience came in handy for a class where riders must execute a variety of first level movements —such as a canter lengthening on a 15-meter circle—in close proximity.
But the judges liked what they saw, awarding her with 89.00 percent—again the second highest in her division—and that score pushed her into first place in the 16- to 17-year-old division on a total combined score of 84.00 percent.
“I was shocked,” Semanchik said. She quickly shifted the praise to her mount. “Hopper holds a special place in my heart,” she said. “There are days where I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Because Semanchik isn’t able to own her own horse, she’s learned that the only way to guarantee saddle time is through hard work and gratitude. She appreciates every moment she spends with Hopper, and her horse time is about far more than ribbons.
Semanchik recently qualified for the Great American/U.S. Dressage Federation Region 1 Championships this fall and is hoping to earn her USDF Bronze Medal by year’s end.