Iron-Willed Teen Defies The Odds To Compete At Dressage At Devon

Oct 2, 2012 - 5:46 AM

A plucky barn girl and a discarded Trakehner surprise even themselves by achieving an unlikely goal.

Allison Semanchik of Oldwick, N.J., has never had a horse of her own. It was never an option financially. So like any horse-crazy girl she was always at a barn—come rain or shine—offering to work in return for saddle time. When she met an underdog chestnut Trakehner gelding named Inferrous, she got the opportunity of a lifetime.

Inferrous was pronounced dead in utero and was unexpectedly born into this world as a runt in 2007. Although he was by Freudenfest of the Kostolany line (the same sire line as Totilas), he was unwanted collateral from a barn rift, a foal without a future.

When Ilaria Borghese and Maria Denzer stumbled across the scrawny yearling on a chance visit to his Florida barn, their hearts went out to him. The compassionate pair who run Thera-Paw, a company that produces assistive and rehabilitative pet products, purchased the ugly duckling for his basic cost-of-care and shipped him to New Jersey. They named him Inferrous because he exhibited a will of iron, and he soon earned the barn name Hopper due to his tendency to hop over any fence in between him and the tenderest grass.

Not even halter-broke, Hopper slowly acclimated to life at Borghese’s farm—a tidy backyard barn in Tewks­bury Town­ship. She ponied him through the local trail system, worked with him on the ground, taught him to go on the longe line, and loaded him in and out of trailers. His training was slow, steady and uneventful. “Our goal was just to rescue him,” said Borghese, “and give him a job.”

Semanchik started riding at the Borghese’s farm when she was 12 years old. When Hopper was 18 months old, Borghese asked Semanchik if she would be the first person to sit on him while Borghese led them around the ring. It went well. But Borghese was Hopper’s primary rider until she injured her shoulder in an unrelated event and let Semanchik take over.

Although Semanchik rode for different people throughout Tewks­bury, she regularly took Hopper out on trails and to hunter paces. She started him over fences and took him swimming. He matured into a 16.3-hand chestnut gelding with a calm demeanor and a natural ability. His lovely gaits pointed toward a dressage career, so in 2011, Semanchik stopped jumping him. She took to her flat work with ambition, riding in an outdoor dressage ring that was losing its rectangular shape to encroaching weeds at an abandoned property down the street.

The Road To Devon

In January, Semanchik announced her goal for 2012 was to compete Hopper at Dressage At Devon (Pa.). “It was laughable,” she admits. Laughable or not, Borghese and Denzer told her to take it as far as she could. With the green light, Semanchik researched the qualifications and upped her riding to six days a week.

To qualify for the FEI 5-Year-Old test, she needed to receive two scores of at least 62 percent in recognized dressage shows. Since neither Semanchik nor Hopper had any professional training, she and Borghese made a plan to take lessons with different dressage trainers. Semanchik rode with some notable professionals including Betsy Steiner, Lars Petersen, Holger Bechtloff and Lisa Schmidt.

As summer approached, Semanchik entered Centerline Events at Westbrook Hunt Club (Conn.). “I didn’t think I would get a qualifying score,” she admitted. Wearing hand-me-downs and a stock-tie purchased at the show (she didn’t know she needed one), Semanchik received a 66 percent and placed third. She achieved her second qualifying score in July, riding in the 99-degree heat at Dressage At The Park (N.J.). Although jackets were waived, she insisted on wearing hers and finished with a 68.8 percent.

She’d achieved her scores, but there was still some hemming and hawing. This was, after all, Devon, not a schooling show at the neighborhood barn down the street. After much deliberation, she completed her application on August 30th— a day before the deadline—and FedExed it to Pennsylvania. She was accepted in early September with three weeks left to prepare for the show.

The Big Day Arrives

Semanchik—currently a 15-year-old high school sophomore—is a good student, and the trip to Devon on Wednesday marked the first time she’d miss a day of school. This made her feel even more out of place. “They’re going to laugh me right out of the ring and tell me to go home,” said Semanchik. But, despite her nerves, there was no way “Team Inferrous” was going to leave without competing.

Later that night, Semanchik rode Hopper under the arena lights. “He felt so amazing despite the completely new and terrifying environment. I felt like maybe I do belong here after all,” she said.

Thursday, the day of her first test, the warm-up ring was quiet. Semanchik found herself trotting alongside Lars Petersen and Silva Martin. She moved Hopper forward in a relaxed and supple frame with soft aides. To her relief, she didn’t stand out as an instant imposter. Hopper was obedient, reaching for the bit and moving in a light and steady rhythm. Semanchik sat deeply into her saddle, practicing transitions at the trot.

The Gold Ring was imposing with the Devon barns in the background, a large electronic score board ringside and three FEI judges just waiting to expose her as a dressage fake. As Semanchik circled the arena with Hopper, she wasn’t congratulating herself on merely qualifying. This young rider was determined to do everything in her power to finish respectably.

The FEI 5-Year-Old test includes some testing movements for a young horse in training including counter-canter, a definitive halt between canters, turn on the haunches, and the medium trot. A few seconds after the whistle blew, Semanchik and Hopper confidently marched down centerline and halted squarely at X.

There were a few blips in the test: The medium trot broke into the canter, the walk could’ve covered more ground, and the walk/canter transitions weren’t as seamless as Semanchik had hoped. Overall, the test was solid for a competitor at this level and quite exceptional for this novice pair. The canter work was uphill and balanced earning them a 7.4. The trot work was supple and rhythmic, earning them a 7.2. They ended their test with a 70.2 percent—a personal best for the pair. They tied for fifth place and pinned sixth.

Semanchik exited the ring with a beaming smile as she patted Hopper. “I couldn’t have been more proud of him,” she said. As the youngest and only junior rider to compete in any of the FEI Young Horse Tests at Devon this year, she had a lot to smile about.

With the support of Borghese and Denzer, Semanchik continues to hold ambitious goals for herself and Hopper. After a well-deserved break, the pair will resume training with Lisa Schmidt this fall and shoot for the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions in 2013.

Category: Dressage

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