If you’ve ever struggled to explain dressage to a non-horsey friend, Amy Parsons knows your pain.
While horses were one of her childhood hobbies, her true passion was competing in model airplane competitions where she participated in the “balloon popping” event.
“It sounds ridiculous,” Parsons said. “But you would fly your airplane around you and fly it out to this little six-inch balloon that was held up by a pole, and you had to bring the plane down, pop the balloon, and fly it back to you.”
Parsons loved these competitions so much that she decided to pursue flying as a career. She attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona, and graduated in 1983 with a degree in aeronautical science.
“I spent all my time flying and studying,” Parsons recalled. “My goal was to be an airline pilot, even though at the time there were probably only seven women flying for major airlines, so there was no time or money for horses.”
When she graduated, Parsons, took a job as a flight instructor for 10 months before landing her first “real” job as a pilot, flying freight in small single- and twin-engine planes for California Air Charter.
A few years later Parsons got a job flying for West Air Commuter Airlines in California. Four to five times a day, Parsons would fly from Modesto, California, into San Francisco International Airport.
“Initially they didn’t want to hire me; they thought I would immediately leave to fly for a major airline,” Parsons remembered. “So, I sat in their hiring office until they finally said, ‘If we interview you, will you stop sitting in our office?’ I think I might have been the first woman they hired!”
After West Air, Parsons returned to flying freight, this time for DHL. “They didn’t have women’s uniforms,” she said with a laugh. “I had to cut down a man’s uniform and often was mistaken for a bellman at the hotels or as a baggage check person at the airports!”
Parsons flew corporate jets for Boise Cascade before finally getting to fly for a major airline—United—as a flight engineer on the Douglas DC-8.
“It took me about 10 years after college to build the flight time and experience needed to work for a major airline,” Parsons said. “To fly for a major you need time flying jets, but I couldn’t get a job like that right out of college. I had to go where the flying was and work my way up. It’s different nowadays; the commuter airlines have jets.”
Though much of her childhood in California was spent at model airplane competitions, Parsons also enjoyed riding at Chez Scherf Pony Farm, and while working for United, the topic of horses came up again.
“We were flying a 737, and the captain started telling me about her horse, Stuart,” Parsons recalled. “I was just fascinated; I asked her so many questions about owning a horse because I had never owned one before and had never thought I could with my lifestyle. It made me realize I could finally own a horse if I wanted to. I had put that dream aside for so many years, and suddenly it was stuck in my head again.”
Parsons came home from that trip and started scheming to become a horse owner. She convinced non-horsey husband Wayne Parsons to move to Cool, California, so she could access nearby trails, and she purchased her first horse, a Tennessee Walker named Merlin, in 1996.
Amy spent years balancing flying with riding in California before relocating to Warrenton, Virginia, in 2005 with Merlin in tow. They picked a home in an area with miles of trails.
“One of my neighbors had just started taking dressage lessons,” Amy said. “I thought, ‘Oh, that sounds kind of interesting. That’s something I could probably add in.’ Except I still had a Tennessee Walker who was gaited! But I still tried to take dressage lessons on him.”
Amy soon realized she needed a horse that trotted and cantered for traditional dressage, so with the help of relatives who were in the Thoroughbred breeding business, she found Best Surprise, or “Fabio,” in 2006.
“I didn’t even look at him or see if he was sound,” she said with a laugh. “I just went and picked him up because he trotted, and that’s how I ended up with an off-the-track steeplechase horse.”
Amy stopped flying in 2008 and focused her energy on learning dressage with Fabio and then eventing. In 2011, Amy started training with Shannon Bossung. She continued to compete Fabio in eventing until he retired, but she also acquired another horse.
She found Bee at the Loudoun County, Virginia, animal shelter in 2012. The Thoroughbred mare had been confiscated by authorities after enduring neglect and abuse. Amy knew little of her history, but she thought she might become her next trail horse.
“I started riding on trails with her to see how she did, and she said, ‘Oh no. Trail riding is not for me. In fact, I think I’ll rear,’ ” said Amy. “She didn’t want anything to do with the things you see on trails. So, I took her to Shannon to see what we could come up with.”
Bossung and Amy began teaching Bee the basics of dressage. Amy only rode Bee in a couple of lessons a month, mostly getting lessons on Fabio while working on homework with Bee at home.
The mare was hot and quick to react with a rear or a buck when she was confused, but Amy didn’t give up. Since she came with no history, she turned to DNA testing through the Jockey Club to find out more. When the results came back, she realized Bee (Zizou—Cate’s Valentine) was older than she initially thought.
“She was 8 years old and just completely green,” Amy explained. “So, I thought it would be best to put her in full-time training with Shannon. I knew I could do it on my own with lessons, but it would take me so long. I figured she’d be 20, and we would still be at first level.”
Bee stayed in training with Bossung for two years, with Amy taking weekly lessons. When the mare progressed enough to enter a show, Bee debuted her new registered name, “Queen Of Spades,” in 2014.
“I still have this photo on my wall,” Amy said of the experience. “We were at the part in the test where my trainer was reading ‘lengthen,’ and when I asked her to do that, Bee must have thought I was doing it wrong because she threw in a rear. I asked again, and Bee flew backward. I think we were lengthening the wrong way!”
Amy persevered with Bee, learning to ride more tactfully. In 2015, they competed at the GAIG/USDF Region 1 Championships (Virginia) and the Col. Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships (Virginia) at first level.
In 2016, Amy and Bee made the move up to second level, qualifying again for the CBLM championships and earning the championship at first level. Amy earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal in 2018 aboard Bee. With that milestone out of the way, she began working towards fourth level, which she showed this year, earning scores toward her silver medal.
“[Bee] has taught me a huge amount because of the way she is,” Amy said. “She’s hot; she’s opinionated, and she has high expectations of me. Because she is not so tolerant, she has taught me that I have to be a lot better. It’s not good enough to just be good enough, and she’ll let me know if I’m doing it wrong, but when I do it right, she pays off.”
Amy hopes to make her Prix St. Georges debut next year.
“Shannon made me go buy a shadbelly,” Amy joked, “so now I have to do it. Shannon says we’re very close; I’m working on my threes and fours and my pirouettes.”
Even though she’s no longer a commercial pilot, Amy, 58, says her flying background is what drives her to succeed with Bee.
“Whether it’s an engine, or anything mechanical, I have to know how it works,” she explained. “I have the same fascination with my horse. I love trying to figure out why she does what she does, and there is never an end to learning. I love dressage for that reason, and I will never get bored with this hobby.”
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