Nine-year-old Isabelle Leibler was thinking of buying a new dressage saddle, but after competing in this year’s Youth Dressage Festival, she doesn’t need one.
Leibler, of Greenwich, Conn., won not only the training level and first level divisions for 9- to 12-year-olds, but she also emerged from the three-day competition, in Saugerties, N.Y., as the overall high-score champion with a score of 258.384. She went home with two new saddles.
“They’re both really nice saddles,” said Leibler, who has yet to decide what to do with the spare. “Before I won these I was planning on getting one new saddle, but now I have two.”
The championship competition, created by Lendon Gray and held Aug. 27-29, is now in its sixth year. Formerly called the Northeast Junior/Young Rider Dressage Championships, it consists of three phases–a written test, an equitation test and a dressage test. In previous years, the competition was held at Ox Ridge Hunt Club in Darien, Conn. But it has grown from a small competition for regional riders to an international competition with more than 200
riders, aged 7 to 21.
This year the show moved to the new HITS show grounds in Saugerties, N.Y., after Tom Struzzieri, who owns HITS, offered the use of his facility.
Gray started the championships to encourage young riders to excel in all aspects of horsemanship and to provide a competition that tests a rider’s knowledge and riding skills rather than his or her ability to afford the best horse. Thus, the written and equitation tests are just as important as the dressage test.
Leibler stood out in all three phases, scoring a 96 on the written test, a 92 in the equitation in her training level division and a 90 in her first level division. She earned a 70.38 percent at training level and a 65.59 percent at first level.
Yet her overall victory was a bit of a shock to her. “I was real surprised,” said the highly articulate young rider. “Mostly because there were a lot of older girls there. Some were as old as 21, and I thought that for sure they’d do better.”
But what Leibler lacked in age, she made up for in experience and determination. She’s been riding since she was 3 and has been training in dressage with Gray since the age of 5. Leibler rides six days a week. “The horses get Mondays off,” she said.
And she studied hard for the written test. “If you study, it’s easy,” she said.
Leibler has participated in the Youth Dressage Championships the past four years, and she has been competing this past year at first level with her 12-year-old, German Riding pony, Get The Picture. She also practices on her mother’s 10-year-old, Selle Franç¡©s stallion, Sakir Rouge.
She may be only 9, but Leibler knows exactly where she wants to take her riding. “My ultimate goal is to go to the Olympics, like Lendon,” she said.
Along with a new name, Gray also unveiled a couple of new events this year. One was the Horseless Grand Prix Pas de Deux Prix Caprilli and the other was the FEI CanAm team competition. The horseless competition, in which competitors “ride” to music a Grand Prix Pas de Deux that includes jumps, was a big hit with competitors, a few of whom tried it and many others who merely enjoyed watching it.
“We love musical freestyles. We do a lot at home, and we thought it’d be fun to do one at the Grand Prix level because we wouldn’t be able to do it with a horse,” said Emily O’Neill, 17, who competed in the event with Katrin Hofer-Fay, 19.
The two friends are from Chester Springs, Pa., where they train with O’Neill’s mother, Gail. At one point in their routine, they knocked down a jump. Gail ran in the ring to put it back up and then realized she put it higher. Despite its increased height, Hofer-Fay and O’Neill cleared it the next time around.
Judge Hilda Gurney passed by at one point as the duo warmed up outside the ring and offered a comment about the stick horses they were “riding.” “I’d say the backs of those horses are a bit too stiff,” Gurney said.
Alison End and Amy Gimbel scored competitors on technical and artistic merits, and they were having as much fun as everyone else. Hofer-Fay and O’Neill were dressed in their finest show clothes, including top hats. Other competitors, such as Canadians Tatianna Turcotte, 13, and her partner Catherine Goulet, 18, dressed as the horses, complete with manes and tails.
The horseless competition was meant as fun, but Gray said there is an educational side to it. She got the idea last year during a dinner when she saw kids in a backyard creating routines in a little ring and going over jumps.
“They were getting together and doing the Grand Prix movements and going over jumps. The older kids were showing the younger kids and saying, ‘This is what twos are, and these are ones, and here’s a half-pass.’ It was so cool,” said Gray, who decided it was a wonderful way for young riders to learn the Grand Prix moves. The judges consider such things as correct bend, proper passage and piaffe, and whether the extensions get longer but not quicker.
The FEI CanAm competition pitted an American team of three riders against a Canadian team of three riders. The American team (Emma Gaskell, 15; Julie McKean, 16; Jacquelyn Piro, 17) beat the Canadian team (Laurel Hutton-Adams, 21; Mariella Lehoux, 15; Goulet) by 32 points.
The Canadians suffered on the written test. One group of Canadians that arrived from Ontario only learned two weeks before the competition that they would be able to attend.
“We couldn’t afford it,” said the group’s trainer, Betty Jean Hutton. But then SSG Company, known for the show gloves it produces, paid the trailering costs for six riders and additional help came from a Toronto resident named Otto Berkis.
With so little time to prepare for the show, the Canadians didn’t have time to study for the written test. “We only got the test review books a few days ago,” Hutton said.
The Canadians may have lost the team competition, but individually, many went home with blue ribbons, including 11-year-old Madeleine Peters, of Mofat, Ont., who won her equitation class with a score of 90.