With shows shut down for several months in 2020 due to COVID-19, hunter/jumper rider Maddy Thatcher thought she’d take the extra time at home to really hone her flatwork skills.
“I became very interested in flatwork and a true connection to the horse and making them work,” she said. “And in 2021, I wanted to show in dressage as, like, a crowning achievement of how much I’d learned of my flatwork and how far I had come.”
That didn’t happen. Graduating from Emory University School of Law (Gerogia), preparing for the bar exam and starting her career as a corporate attorney for Dentons in Atlanta, prevented her from fulfilling the goal of doing a dressage show that year. However, the extra time devoted to flatwork fostered a stronger desire to explore dressage more.
“It’s been hard,” she said. “Anybody who thinks dressage is easy is kidding themselves—and I, at one point, thought that dressage was easy as well. I can’t tell you how many days I felt like a short stirrup kid riding. It’s been very humbling and very educational and most of all it’s been really fun. I enjoy the horse shows. I enjoy the precision and the balance that comes with dressage, and I enjoy how much it benefits my horses, even the horses that still jump.”
Last May, Thatcher, 26, made her dressage debut at Chattahoochee Hills Dressage May I (Georgia) with Chances R.
On paper, the 10-year-old warmblood bred by Thatcher’s mom, Maura Thatcher, was destined for the jumper ring. He’s sired by Chill RZ (Chellano Z—Nina R, A Lucky One), with whom Charlie Jayne competed in two FEI World Cup Finals and was the traveling reserve for the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 FEI World Equestrian Games (France). His dam, Carlotta (Argentinus—Colette, Jasper), was a successful junior jumper and grand prix mount—even jumping clear in one of the 2010 WEG Selection Trials (Florida)—with Maddy’s sister Kelsey Cruciotti.
“Chance” began his career in the young jumpers with Jayne before Cruciotti took over the ride in the amateur-owner jumper divisions. While they had some success, he didn’t always shine in that ring.
“He is naturally a little bit spooky and hot,” said Maddy. “And in the show ring sometimes he would spook, and he just wouldn’t jump clean. Instead of jumping a little bit higher, he would just jump lower when he spooked.”
Maddy’s interest in dressage coincided with Cruciotti taking a break from riding to start a family, so the Thatchers decided to see if Chance might enjoy dressage. After a successful first show, Maddy went on to compete him three more times in 2022. Their 2023 season began with three wins out of their five tests at first and second level at the Scenic In the City Dressage Show (Georgia).
“I would definitely like to brag on my horse’s scores because we worked very hard for them,” she said. “We were both green and rusty the first day of this horse show, but then we scored 69.30%, a 67.63% and a 65.71%. I was very excited for those scores.”
While competing at dressage shows has been an adjustment, Maddy said she loved how dressage scoring works.
“I love getting the written test back; I wish hunters would do that,” she said. “I also like how in dressage if you screw up one movement or one part of the test, it doesn’t just blow it. You know, in the hunter ring you have one chip and you might as well leave the ring because you’re not going to get a good score. I like that about dressage. I appreciate the transparency in the scoring, and I appreciate that you get feedback from an ‘R’ judge. It’s something that never happens in the hunter world unless you’re in a clinic.”
Maddy started riding dressage with Miriam Offermanns of BellaRose Equestrian in Woodstock, Georgia, in September. She made the switch after moving to a different part of Atlanta, and the traffic meant she needed to find a place closer to ensure sufficient saddle time.
“She is an amazing trainer, one of the best people on the ground I’ve ever worked with,” Maddy said. “She’s really helped me with my connection and made me so much of a better rider. … She improved my scores by like 15%, so she knows what she’s doing.
“The hardest thing is learning to ride in that saddle,” Maddy added. “In the hunter/jumper ring we’re used to our flat saddles and our relatively short stirrups. You essentially have to post differently in a dressage saddle, so that took me a long time to learn and then a long time to learn how to actually sit the trot. It takes lots of strength, but you also have to be loose, which is a really hard concept.”
Maddy’s goal for this year is to earn her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. While Chance is the only horse she shows in dressage, she has her eye on a few of her mom’s homebreds. Maura also has a foal by Sandro Hit due this spring, who will come to Maddy if it doesn’t show promise in the hunter ring.
“My mom breeds a few horses every year, and now I really have the skills and the tools necessary to develop these young horses into an athlete for jumping or hunters or dressage,” she said. “I just think that there are so many tools now that I have with dressage, and I’d love to bring these horses along to be show horses for my sister and I or to sell.”
While Maddy hasn’t shown a hunter since her longtime partner Summer Place retired in 2011, she still shows in the jumpers with Tou La Moon, Wonder Woman and Celine. Her jumpers reside in Wellington, Florida, with trainer Ryan Genn, so she flies down from Atlanta to ride and compete as her work schedule allows.
“[There’s] a lot of PB&Js in the car and some late nights, but it’s always worth it when I get to horse show and ride in lessons,” she said. “I just love being around horses, and I love riding. I think you make the sacrifices that you need to to make it happen. I also have two amazing trainers, both my dressage trainer and my jumping trainer, that keep my horses going when I can’t always be there and just make it easy and fun for me to come and horse show.”
Maddy had a successful riding career as a junior, earning ribbons at some of the biggest shows throughout the country, but she said she’s enjoyed the slower pace she’s found as an amateur.
“Towards the end of my junior career I was kind of burnt out and not really wanting to horse show and not wanting keep doing this, but I think turning amateur really helped me realize this is a huge commitment,” she said. “Things are very expensive, and if you love horses there’s a lot of different things you can do in the world. It doesn’t have to be showing so much to qualify for indoors or nationals or anything like that. You can still ride and enjoy horses at your own pace and do what you want.
“I think as a junior you get so wrapped up in ‘I have to qualify for Medal Finals; I have to get junior hunter points; I have to make the young riders team,’ and there’s just so much,” she continued. “Whereas as an amateur you get to appreciate every horse show you go to.”