Savvy onlookers may have experienced dressage déjà vu as they watched the awards ceremony for the 9- to 13-year-old walk/trot/canter division at Lendon Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival, held Aug. 11-14 in Saugerties, New York. Evelynn Schwarz stood with a gold medal around her neck, just as her mother had two decades before.
When Kat Schwarz (née Mathieu) won her division in 2002, the now-annual festival had only been running for three years out of Ox Ridge in Darien, Connecticut. It was known then as the Northeast Junior/Young Rider Dressage Championships.
“It was a lot of fun, and I couldn’t wait to get [Evelynn] involved, because I wanted her to see why I value the festival,” said Kat, a former student of Gray’s.
This year, the Wappingers Falls, New York-based 11-year-old secured top honors with a 66.75% in her USDF introductory level test C aboard Courtney Mooney’s Thoroughbred gelding Gabriel SES. Coupled with a strong equitation score and a 94% in the written exam, it was enough for Evelynn to clinch the championship title out of a field of 12 competitors. Not bad for a girl who primarily considers herself a hunter/jumper rider.
Mooney originally put “Shrimp” into training with Kat, but as soon as she realized how tolerant the gelding was, Kat asked Mooney earlier this year about letting her daughter take the reins with the goal of YDF in mind. As a fellow former student of Gray’s, Mooney supported helping Evelynn get to the show, which she otherwise would be unable to attend. Evelynn and Shrimp have been a team since the spring. It was a serendipitous match, as much like his young hunter rider, in his younger years the gelding didn’t seem destined for the dressage arena.
Born to a dam that rejected him, Shrimp was hand-raised at a rescue from 3 days old. “[He] was a dummy foal when he was born. He wouldn’t get up, he wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t stand,” Evelynn said. “It was slightly a disaster. And then his mother stepped on him, broke a couple of his ribs on his left side. That cracked them into pieces. He still has a pretty decent dent in his side at the girth. They had to surgically remove them—it was a big deal.”
Prior to partnering with the now 16-year old rescue this spring, Evelynn’s competition experience was entirely in the hunter/jumper world under the tutelage of Vanessa Roman and Michael DelFiandra of Grafton Ridge LLC in South Salem, New York.
“I think having the duality of both, and having me sort of in the background in the dressage and then the primary being the hunter/jumper stuff, it gives her this really well-rounded approach,” Kat said of Evelynn. “And [the festival] gave her this opportunity to really see the reward for all of the different pieces that she had to put together to make the whole thing work. I think that’s why it went so well.”
Evelynn has competed in hunter/jumper classes on Grafton Ridge LLC’s green Welsh pony mare Hot Cross Buns, which helped her win the Searsmont Trophy for the highest scoring hunter/equitation rider and the Russell Mills Memorial Trophy for the highest scoring jumper rider at YDF.
Because her competitive opportunities have been entirely on other people’s horses, giving back has always been a priority for Evelynn. All YDF competitors are required to volunteer for one hour at the competition. For her part, Evelynn spent several at the awards table, in addition to test-running and working the Dressage4Kids merchandise booth. When she noticed that Mooney’s 3-year-old daughter was infatuated with a donkey at the barn, she handmade a hobby donkey for her to play with, as a thanks for sharing Shrimp.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the fact that she manifests what she wants without being obnoxious about it,” Kat said. “Evelynn very tactfully makes things happen for herself. And so she makes it so that she can have these opportunities by being that kid in the barn that people want to have around.”
The differences between YDF and hunter/jumper shows extend beyond the disciplines, from Evelynn’s perspective.
“At hunter/jumper shows you really do notice that a lot of kids have some really, really expensive ponies, and it can make you jealous,” she said. “I know there’s no need to worry about that because with [Hot Cross Buns] I’m making a hunter pony, I’m not there on a pony that’s not going to get any better. I’m there on a pony that is going to achieve something other than being green.”
By comparison, Gray puts a heavy emphasis on camaraderie and inclusion in all the Dressage4Kids programs, including YDF. Evelynn was quick to notice that, especially upon meeting other kids with self-made and imperfect horses.
“[Seeing other riders on green horses] makes you feel a lot less left out sometimes,” she said. “What I mean by ‘left out’ is that you don’t feel like you have to have a lot of money to do it.”
Evelynn will continue to work with Shrimp until this winter, when she’ll head to Wellington, Florida to ride at Grafton Ridge’s southern base. While she’s not ready to leave her first love of the hunter/jumpers, YDF left a lasting impression on her.
“I definitely want to go again,” she said. “100%.”