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Dressage Rider Carries On Legacy For Athletic Family With MLB Roots

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Geñay Vaughn has learned a lot from her relationship with Gino, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding that the dressage rider first partnered with when he was just a green 6-year-old. In addition to competing him at the upper levels and getting to know his unique “Mr. Macho” personality, one particular lesson stands out. 

“Trust your mom,” Vaughn said with a laugh. 

At this year’s Adequan Global Dressage Festival, Vaughn, 30, and Gino have landed in the top three throughout the season, including multiple wins at the Grand Prix level in the national competition, before tackling Week 10’s CDI3*, where their upward momentum culminated in a second in the Grand Prix (69.52%) and fourth in the Grand Prix Special (68.46%)—their best scores in international competition. Vaughn’s Grand Prix partner originally was intended for her mother, fellow dressage rider and trainer Michele Vaughn. On a horse shopping trip to Europe, Michele saw something special in the gelding. 

Geñay Vaughn and Gino took second in the Grand Prix and fourth in the special during the Week 10 CDI3* at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Fla.). When Michele Vaughn, the gelding’s owner and Geñay’s mother, saw the pair together, she handed the reins to her daughter. Hannah Sherk Photo

“She fell in love with him right away,” Geñay said. “She knew right away; even though he wasn’t like he is now, she could see the potential that he had.”

It wasn’t long after Gino (Bretton Woods—Lugienna, Haarlem) arrived at the mother-daughter pair’s training and breeding farm, Starr Vaughn Equestrian in Elk Grove, California, that Michele started to rethink the match. She connected well with the horse, but she also began to see that Gino’s talent might make him a better fit for Geñay’s professional ambitions. 

“I rode him and she saw us together and—she’s so selfless—she’s like, ‘This could be a horse for you in the future that can do really big things,’ ” Geñay said. “She didn’t have the aspirations to make a team, but she wanted for me to do that type of competitive, high performance dressage. So she gave me the reins to him.”

It wasn’t the first time Michele had gifted her daughter a life-changing ride. The Vaughn family acquired Geñay’s first horse accidentally, when a flood hit their area and Michele took her trailer out to help evacuate local horses. Geñay remembers the unlikely animal who began her horse obsession. 

“There was a little, blind mini pony stallion in someone’s garden shed,” Geñay explained of her mother’s rescue mission. “Then when we went to call to bring him back, they didn’t want him, so that was my first pony. I named him ‘Rescue’ and he was awesome. … I rode him around bareback in my dresses and he was so fun. I was hooked ever since.”

As soon as she began riding Rescue in a halter around her family’s farm, Geñay knew that horses would be her lifelong passion. 

“I know that sounds ridiculous, because I was 4, but I just had this real attachment to animals in general,” she said. “When I got my first pony, I was glued to [him]. My mom couldn’t even get me to go to school without being like, ‘No, I want to stay home with my pony!’ ”

Geñay Vaughn beams with her first pony “Rescue,” a blind mini stallion who her mother helped evacuate from a flood. Photo Courtesy Of Geñay Vaughn

Like Mother And Father, Like Daughter

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As Geñay became more serious about her riding, joining Pony Club and taking up both jumping and dressage, she envisioned a career for herself with horses. Geñay admired her mother’s example as a dressage rider and, despite her own interest in jumping, she began to take the discipline more seriously. She laughs, acknowledging that her mother not wanting to haul her to a jumping barn for daily lessons may have also influenced her to pick dressage.

“Because she rode dressage, it was so inspiring,” Geñay said. “I wanted to be just like my mom, going to the horse shows. I knew right away, ‘OK, this is what I want to do.’ ”

Geñay is a mix of her mom’s dressage talent and her dad’s athletic ambitions. Her father, Greg Vaughn, is a former Major League Baseball player. He has supported Geñay with insights on successfully pursuing a sport at a high level. 

“He calls me before my horse shows and he always gives me advice,” Geñay said. “The advantage is that [he’s seen] what it takes to get up to that next level of a high performance athlete is. He always says, ‘It’s not hard getting to the top, it’s hard staying there. … So, if you have these big goals, what are you doing that is different from everyone else?’ ”

Her father’s influence has pushed Geñay to consider how she can make improvements to her training routine, up her mental game and make sure that when it comes to her own workouts, she meets the same level of fitness that she expects in her horses. But, she adds, it’s not all about adding more pressure to herself to better her performance; she’s also inherited some of her dad’s wisdom about being in the moment. 

“I love the aspect of competing and being successful, and that’s just my personality. I’m a competitive person; I grew up with my dad doing professional sports,” Geñay Vaughn said. Photo Courtesy Of Geñay Vaughn

“He always just tells me to have fun,” she said. “ ‘Remember where you started from, that you do this because you love it. Enjoy the journey; this whole thing is a journey no matter what happens, so make sure you take in every moment of it. When you’re in the ring, have fun. No matter how well you want to do, this should be fun.’ ”

While Geñay’s family valued athletics, she said that her parents also put a strong emphasis on education. In her teens, as she became more serious about showing, many of her riding friends opted for private tutoring to open their schedules for training and competitions. Geñay’s parents, on the other hand, wanted their daughter to have the traditional school experience. Greg’s career in pro sports made the couple pragmatic about their kids’ education. 

“It was big in my family that my mom and dad wanted me to go to school,” she said. “Then it was like, ‘OK, if you want to be a trainer, that’s fine, but you have to go to college, because you just never know what can happen. You need to have a degree as a backup in case you get injured or anything, you just need to always have options for yourself.’ ”

After high school, Geñay attended the University of California, Davis, where she originally considered a path as a small animal veterinarian. Realizing how little time she would have left over for riding and training, she eventually landed on a different academic path. She graduated in 2016 with a major in communications and a minor in coaching principles, two fields that have helped her grow her and her mother’s dressage program. 

‘We Do It Because We Love Horses’

After college, Geñay returned home to Elk Grove to dedicate herself full-time to the program she runs with Michele, where the pair share a horse-first philosophy. The horses are turned out for much of the day and the Vaughns balance arena sessions with easy trail rides. At the end of their careers, their horses are retired on the property. 

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“It’s all about the care and the happiness of the horse first,” she said. “We do it because we love horses.”

“She trusts my opinion, I trust her opinion, and it’s teamwork; it’s fun to do it together.” Geñay Vaughn (mounted) said of working with her mother, Michele Vaughn (right). Photo Courtesy of Geñay Vaughn

While Geñay loves the competitive aspect of riding, she said that she and her mother prioritize the health of the horses—both physically and mentally. 

“It’s not just about going into the arena and grinding; I take my young horses out in the field and gallop and have fun, and make sure that they’re happy in their work,” Geñay said. “You have to take into consideration that they have feelings and emotions, and that it might not add up with your timeline and that might not be convenient.” 

Geñay personally prefers the more emotional horses, often mares, who require a more finesse and patience in the relationship between horse and rider. 

“I think that’s why I ride so many mares. Most of my horses are mares; Gino’s my only gelding,” she said. “With the mares, you always have to ask them. You can’t just force them or tell them. You have to convince them that this is both of our ideas. I really like that because it teaches you patience, and then when they do get on your side, man, they fight for you.”

She jokes that she gets along with Gino so well because he isn’t a typical gelding. He was gelded late and has some stallion-like qualities that give his personality a certain “swagger.”

“Because he’s always traveling with the girls, he thinks he’s king of the herd,” Geñay joked. 

That swagger paid on March 14 when Geñay piloted Gino to a personal best and second place, ahead of 28 other riders, in the competitive CDI3* Grand Prix Special. On March 16, their momentum carried over into a fourth place finish in the CDI3* Grand Prix. 

At home, Geñay is trained by her mother, but while Michele holds down the operation in Elk Grove, the rider is working with former U.S. team coach, Debbie McDonald. 

“She is so fun to work with, so positive, and she truly gives you confidence and believes in you, which is such an important thing for a coach,” Geñay said. “Of course, as an athlete, you have to be the person who believes in yourself no matter what, but it’s really nice to have your coach believe in you, too.” 

Geñay Vaughn says that Gino has a big personality to match his talent. “Everything is so easy for him,” she said. Catie Staszak Media Photo

Her season with Gino has her looking forward to her future with the gelding, and her ultimate goal of riding on a team for the U.S. She believes he’s a horse with team potential. And when she thinks of the dedication required to get to that level, it doesn’t intimidate her. Between her dressage trainer mother and her pro athlete father, she’s seen the benefit of investing all you have into what you love. 

“One thing my dad taught me is if you want to get to a certain level of greatness, you basically will be consumed by this, and that’s kind of a sacrifice,” she said. “But in a way, it’s not that huge of a sacrifice when you think of it. You’re still living a pretty good life, getting to do what you love.” 

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