Tuesday, Jul. 23, 2024

Amateur Wins Grand Prix After 33-Year Break From Dressage

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After competing to Prix St. Georges as a young rider in the 1980s, Kyle Kuvalanka took the path many young adults do: He sold his horse and headed off to college, and from there embarked on a career far from the barn. But even as he spent decades in the professional world of consulting and biopharmaceuticals, the pull of horses and dressage never quite went away.

“When I turned 50, I said to myself, if I was ever going to ride again, it had to be now because I was getting older,” Kuvalanka, 55, said. “I had taken a 33-year break, and my husband [Jeff Sobell], who I’ve been with for 28 years, had asked me—we had just gotten married—‘What do you want for Christmas?’ I said, ‘A horse,’ so within two weeks I flew off to Denmark and tried a bunch of FEI-level horses, not having sat on a horse for 33 years.”

That was in 2019, and the horse Kuvalanka bought, Jakas Don Louvre, wasn’t able to adjust well to his new home in the U.S.

Disappointed, Kuvalanka sent him back to his previous rider in Europe but kept a part-ownership in the horse.

Kuvalanka started riding a schoolmaster while he planned his next move. He was discouraged, but a clinic with Conrad Schumacher changed the course of his renewed riding career.

Kyle Kuvalanka, left, and Don Juan with (from left) trainer Pam Goodrich, husband Jeff Sobell, and SJ Arthur after the pair’s first Grand Prix in September 2022. Carole McDonald Photo

“If I hadn’t done that, I probably would have given up,” he said. “It was Conrad who said to me, ‘Look, because you rode before being an adolescent, you have these innate qualities in you—have an innate seat; you have the right balance. I think you should continue. If you didn’t have that, I’d tell you to stop.’ That was a real meaningful point. One of the German masters is telling me I should continue.”

Kuvalanka had reconnected with his childhood trainer, Pam Goodrich, when he purchased “Don Louvre,” and in early 2020, she pointed him toward another horse she thought would be a better fit: Don Juan, a Swedish Warmblood gelding (Don Laurie 143—Wilma, Bernstein) who had been trained to Grand Prix in Europe by his Finnish amateur-owner rider Marja-Liisa Torkkola. 

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“ ‘DJ’ and I hit it off right away,” Kuvalanka said. “When I got on him, I really wasn’t a good rider, and I had lost a lot of confidence because of the experience with Don Louvre. Right away he gave me this feeling of, we’re meant to be together, like, ‘I feel confident; I got this; I’ll take care of you.’ 

“He really wasn’t for sale,” he continued. “The woman who owned him had him since he was 3 weeks old, and he was turning 12, so it was really emotional for her. She watched me ride him, and when I was done … said, ‘You two will be best buddies.’ ”

The pair spent a year and a half getting to know each other at Goodrich’s Foster Meadow Farm in Boscawen, New Hampshire, where DJ lives, about 1.5 hours from Kuvalanka’s home in Gloucester, Massachusetts. With Goodrich’s help, they made their show ring debut at Prix St. Georges in July 2021.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Kuvalanka said. “The horses in the U.S. in dressage, even at the upper levels back then, they didn’t have the power and the tenacity and the strength that they have today. I assumed getting on DJ, oh, it would just be the same, and it’s not. It’s taken a lot of courage and perseverance and love and support to make it all happen.”

The pair debuted at Grand Prix last autumn and competed a handful of times in Florida this winter. After a break, they were back in the ring at the NEDA Spring Dressage Competition II, held June 4 in Halifax, Massachusetts, where they scored a 64.56% to win their FEI Grand Prix class.

“Grand Prix’s not easy!” Kuvalanka said with a laugh. “It’s a big step up, but the more I do, hopefully it will get better and better. I saw the video, and I think where we excelled was that the test was very harmonious and fluid. We did have some mistakes in the one-tempis and the first pirouette, but overall, it was OK. It didn’t have the power that we normally have, but I really just wanted to make sure that we had a confident ride. 

Kyle Kuvalanka and “DJ” are working to improve their Grand Prix and soon will be debuting their Grand Prix freestyle. SusanJStickle.com Photo

“The ride we had last in Florida did not go well, so I really wanted to make up for that,” he added. “DJ is a really great horse. He went from being a Grand Prix horse to having to teach me to ride again—so he basically became my school pony—and now he’s back to Grand Prix. He is so great and so patient with me, and he loves to perform, but it’s been a lot for him.”

Kuvalanka typically drives from his Massachusetts home to the barn in New Hampshire on Wednesday afternoons to ride and stays over at a hotel so he can ride Thursday mornings. Then he tries to go back on weekends. Goodrich keeps DJ in work one to two days a week.

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“In Florida [this season] my company sold its assets, so now I’m consulting while I think through my next move,” he said. “Right now, it’s manageable. Last year it was tougher. It’s what you have to do to make it work.”

Kuvalanka is thrilled to be back doing the sport he loves and spending time with his horse. He said he thought about riding all the time during his extended absence. 

“I always thought I’d get back to it, but there were so many excuses—time, money, where was the horse going to live? My life was often in transition in terms of going to business school and where’s my next job going to be? And I traveled a lot for work for many years,” he said.

He’s also enjoyed reconnecting with Goodrich, who he’d also worked for during his high school years. “When I was young, she was like a second mother to me and really had a meaningful impact on me as a person, not just including the riding,” he said. “Being back with her really is special and makes returning to dressage more special. We have an innate connection at this point. I went from being ‘the kid,’ and now it’s almost like we’re peers.”

Looking towards the rest of the year, Kuvalanka just wants to continue enjoying DJ and improving their scores.

“He’s a very funny horse on the ground, and we have a great relationship,” he said. “In addition to improving at the Grand Prix, we are going to debut our musical freestyle in two weekends at GMHA. That’ll be another milestone. We’ve done that to give DJ some more variety. He picked out the music, so it will be fun for people to see him do it.”

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