When the sun rose in Katy, Texas, over the GAIG/USDF Region 9 Championships, held Oct. 1-4, 14-year-old Savana Garvey was already buzzing in the barn aisles of the Great Southwest Equestrian Center.
“Savana took it upon herself to get to the barn first every morning,” said Garvey’s trainer, Jesse Collins. “She got all our horses fed and all the stalls clean before we even got there. She even braided the horse I was riding in addition to braiding her own horse. It was just something she did on her own initiative. We didn’t have to ask.”
Garvey had plenty on her plate without additional responsibilities. The young Dallas native qualified for three championship classes: third level junior/young rider, third level freestyle open and fourth level junior/young rider. She landed in the top four in every class, even against professionals, and won her fourth level championship on a 65.69.
But, growing up with five siblings, Garvey knows that horse shows are no excuse to duck out on chores. As for farm duties, she got a crash course in those last winter at Lendon Gray’s Winter Intensive Training program, which she attended with Don Larson, her 12-year-old Hanoverian (Danone II—Scheherazade).
“It was a super cool opportunity to spend three months in Wellington, Florida,” Garvey said. “Taking care of your horse every day, you just build such a big connection. We were at the barn every day at 6:30 a.m., cleaning stalls and feeding. Then we had lectures or exercise. Lessons started at 8:30 and would go until 1 or 2 p.m. Then we’d have more lectures right after that. Then we’d feed and all go get dinner, and at least two girls had to go back to do night check.
“At home, I don’t get to be there that way,” Garvey continued. “It really made me appreciate that time with the horses.”
Garvey started taking lessons as a 6-year-old at Merriwood Ranch in Garland, Texas. After a year of weekly lessons and summer camps, she enrolled in Becky Brown’s School of Horsemanship in Cedar Hill, Texas. She started in eventing but shifted her focus to dressage.
“I like the aspect of really being together with the horse,” Garvey said. “Getting to understand how they move and how they work and being able to move with the horse through all the movements. It’s like a friendship, the way you’re so closely connected through all of it.”
Garvey bought her first pony, Madoc Golden Graham, and rode him to a training level win at the National Dressage Pony Cup Championship in 2017. In 2019, she earned her bronze medal and bought Don Larson, her first horse.
“When I first met him, I thought, ‘How am I ever going to have a relationship with this horse?’ ” Garvey remembered. “When you first meet him, he’s kind of a bully. But once you start understanding him and learning how he likes to be interacted with, he’s the sweetest thing. He’ll lay down in his stall, and you can lie down next to him, and he’ll head butt you when it’s time to get up. Or if you’re sad, he’s like, ‘Hey, it’s not time to be sad!’ He’s absolutely my best friend.”
Garvey’s relationship with Don Larson became her bedrock in Wellington this year. Before January, she’d never spent time away from her close-knit family, which currently includes a foreign exchange student from China. Garvey’s youngest sister, Alex Garvey, also rides and is usually on her big sister’s heels at the barn. Savana has homeschooled the past two years, which made leaving home feel that much harder.
But she soon made new friends.
“So much of the program is about team building and being with a group of people that you wouldn’t normally be with every day,” Savana said. “I learned a lot about communication and being open with everybody, and being open to asking for help. Everybody was super nice, and we all really enjoyed being together.”
When Savana returned to the Lone Star State, she started training with Jesse Collins. She climbed from third level to fourth over the summer.
“The refinement in her riding has been the biggest piece to come together,” Collins said. “She’s really been learning how to ride her horse to a true, honest connection and thoroughness. She’s fun to teach because she’s super willing to do weird exercises and really just trust me in helping her to get there.”
Most of the weird exercises Savana remembers share one common denominator.
“Lots of stretching—lots and lots and lots of stretching,” Savana said with a laugh. “Don Larson can get a little hollow, so we were really trying to bring his back up. It’s like we were saying, ‘Hey, this is more comfortable! You would like this!’ Now he almost goes there automatically. He’s gotten stronger, and we’ve really become more of a team by working through that.”
Savana hopes to move up to Prix St. Georges by the end of the year. “I think my biggest takeaway from the weekend was how much we grew as a team,” she said. “I felt like we got even closer, and it made me excited to move forward and see where we can take things next. And, it’s dressage, so there’s always something to improve!”