Thursday, Jun. 13, 2024

Amateur Recipient Of Savoie Grant Has A Touching Connection To Its Namesake

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Between building Touchstone Farm from the ground up, navigating a career as a barn owner, and riding through breast cancer treatment, Caryn Vesperman has had a lifetime of lessons about the value of perseverance. Last week, she got one more. 

After applying for The Dressage Foundation’s Jane Savoie Fund for Adult Amateurs several times in years past, Vesperman was awarded the $5,000 grant this year. In honor of Savoie’s illustrious equestrian career as a trainer, competitor and motivational speaker, her friends and family set up the fund for adult amateurs interested in furthering their dressage education without the financial means to do so. 

Vesperman, Brooklyn, Wisconsin, plans to use the grant money to train with Janet Foy and Claudio Oliveira this winter in Wellington, Florida, with her 11-year-old, Wisconsin-bred Hanoverian gelding Tanqueray MRF, who she currently competes at third level. 

After spending much of her life working in the white-collar world and running a barn on the side, a cancer diagnosis paired with a layoff spurred Caryn Vesperman to prioritize her health and happiness and focus on horses. She now competes Tanqueray MRF at third level while pursuing her USDF ‘R’ judge’s license. John Borys Photography Photo

“I didn’t come from money, and I’m not a good enough rider to have sponsors, so I have always balanced my riding with my career,” Vesperman said. “I’d work all day, but when I got home I’d go right to the barn and ride my horse. My husband and I joke that he had to learn to cook out of self-preservation. I wouldn’t get back into the house until early evening. And so that’s what I did for 30 years.” 

In 1990, Vesperman and her husband Mark Vesperman bought an empty plot of land—“a hayfield with some woods,” she said—in Brooklyn, Wisconsin. After building their house and a run-in shed for a couple horses, the couple added a barn. At the urging of a friend, Caryn built an indoor arena. Touchstone Farm has since been the home of all of Caryn’s personal horses and a couple of boarders. 

At the time they were building the farm, Caryn had a full-time position in marketing and communications. More recently, she worked for a health care company until 2017. Just a few months after she had been diagnosed with breast cancer, Caryn’s position was eliminated. In the midst of chemotherapy and radiation treatment, Caryn decided to prioritize her health rather than seek full-time employment again. 

“A diagnosis like that really stops you in your tracks,” she said. 

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During the year she spent in cancer treatment, Caryn found riding gave her a much-needed sense of normalcy, even when she struggled to summon the energy to climb aboard “Tanqueray.”

“To be honest, there were some weeks, maybe two months, where I was so exhausted that getting from my bedroom to the couch was a challenge,” said Caryn. “But my husband would saddle my horse for me sometimes and I’d go down and ride. I just wanted to feel normal. For that amount of time in the saddle, I forgot about all the troubles, so to speak. It was healing mentally in that way—it was a reminder that I could beat it, and that I was going to get through it.”  

With the exception of the hunter rider who started him, Tanqueray (Totilas—Revlon, Rohdiamant) has been developed by Caryn since she bought the gelding as a yearling. 

“He’s been making this journey with me all the way,” she said. “He’s been a fun horse but he definitely has some challenges.”

The bay gelding oozes talent but finds collected work difficult, because “he’d much rather be eating—that’s all he cares about,” Caryn said. Finding ways to motivate Tanqueray without getting into “the pump-pump, kick-kick routine” has been key. When in Wisconsin, the pair takes one or two lessons a month from Shelly Reichart. 

Finding opportunities to continue her dressage education has always been a priority for Caryn. When she was in the 9-to-5 workforce, she spent her vacation days on clinics or shows. Her desire to learn led her to the Wisconsin Dressage and Combined Training Association, an organization for which she has since served as president and, most recently, newsletter editor. Over a decade ago, the organization hosted a clinic with Jane Savoie that Caryn audited, and they had a conversation that Caryn remembers vividly to this day. 

“I said, ‘I’d really like to go do some intensive training but the money,’ and she said, ‘You know what Caryn? If you look hard enough and you try hard enough the money will show up.’ I’ve never forgotten that,” Caryn said. 

With Savoie’s words ringing in her ears, and after saving for years, Caryn decided six years ago to spend a winter in Wellington. Since then, the trip south has become a regular and invaluable addition to her yearly calendar. 

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“Wellington has become such a nice oasis of training for me, because even if you’re not getting a lesson you can watch so much. There’s always a seminar or something going on where you can learn,” she said.  

While in Florida, Caryn lives in her trailer, dog sits, and scribes at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival to make ends meet, making sure to take advantage of every opportunity. 

“To succeed, you have to have a lot of energy, and you have to get along with very little sleep. And I think you have to have a very supportive circle, whether you’re married or not. Even just friends. You can do it, but you just have to be committed,” she said. 

In pursuit of expanding her working knowledge of dressage, Caryn has become a USDF ‘r’ judge, which means she is licensed to judge tests through second level. Her journey in the judges box began when the WDCTA decided to host an ‘L’ Education program. Caryn decided to sign up not as an auditor, but as a candidate for evaluation. 

“As a competitor, it really helped me understand what judges are looking for and the vocabulary involved,” she said. “It’s something I would encourage everybody to go through, even if it’s just the auditor part of the ‘L’ program because you learn a lot.” 

And now, along with her plans to use the Savoie grant in Florida to help improve the collected movement Tanqueray will need to move from third level to fourth later in the year, Caryn has something else on her Wellington agenda. Since applying for the grant, she was recently accepted into USDF’s ‘R’ training program, which means that, in addition to her winter training with Foy and Oliveira, Caryn now has a rigorous training and examination schedule to look forward to. 

“This year is going to be a whole lot of fun and super educational,” she said. “I can’t wait.” 

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