Wellington, Fla.—June 10
When the U.S. Olympic dressage short list was announced in late April, most of the 12 names likely were familiar to dressage fans, but notably there were three adult amateur riders: Alice Tarjan, Charlotte Jorst and Jessica Howington.
Tarjan has earned recognition by winning several U.S. Dressage Finals championships and national championships at the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, and Jorst is best known as founder of her Kastel Denmark clothing company and for competing internationally for several years.
Howington’s name may not have been as well-known before this week, but she and her chestnut mare Cavalia have vaulted into the spotlight at the U.S. Dressage Olympic Shortlist Mandatory Observation Event.
They earned their spot on the short list with strong performances this winter at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida) in the open CDI classes. It is both Howington and Cavalia’s first year at Grand Prix.
Howington has lived in Wellington for several years and worked full-time as a nurse practitioner for palliative care and hospice patients until recently, when she made a big life change and bought a farm in Ocala, Florida. While she’s still working part-time as a nurse practitioner, she decided to turn professional as a rider just a few days after being named to the short list.
We caught up with her at the mandatory observation event to learn more about her background and Cavalia, a 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood (Sir Donnerhall—Pearllia, I.P.S. Gribaldi).
How did you get your start in horses?
I started eventing when I was a lot younger, and then over the years I’ve mostly focused on backing my own horses and training them up through second or third level and then selling them, not as a profession, but for fun.
Then I had a long break where I didn’t ride at all because I was in school getting my nurse practitioner degree. Fast forward, and I’m here now.
Tell me about Cavalia.
She came from Helgstrand Dressage. I saw her and went over [to Denmark] and tried her, and it was love at first sight.
She is really spicy. She’s ultra, ultra sensitive and ultra forward, which I really love in a horse. Right off the bat, we kind of clicked. She’s very sweet on the ground. All of those combined is the perfect match.
Her chestnut-mare tendencies come out during the jog! She likes to flare her nostrils and pin her ears and act like she’s going to bite me. She never has, thank God, but that’s when it comes out the most!
Has it been a challenge to get to know a horse with more training and experience?
Very much so. I think a lot of it is because I’ve been so used to bringing up my own horses and training my horses as youngsters. That’s easy; it’s your style of riding because you’re training them. When you get any horse that’s already been trained through a higher level, I think figuring out how that horse has been trained and maybe the particular quirks they have does make it a little more difficult. But it does make it ultra rewarding when you figure out the keys to those locks and are able to really make it happen.
How did you feel when you were named to the short list?
This is my very first season ever even riding Grand Prix, and this is my horse’s very first season ever doing Grand Prix. I was very happily surprised. Definitely not complaining! I was shocked in one way, but in another way, I’ve put in so many hours of hard work, as all the athletes do, to try to even get close to this long-term goal of mine to be on the team. It’s super exciting.
How has working with Andrea Woodard been? Has she given you any advice that’s really stuck with you?
We’ve definitely tried to intensify the training lately, and it’s been a little difficult because I’ve moved to Ocala recently. We’ve been doing the best we can. I came down to Wellington about a week early to train with her before the observation event.
Cavalia is not easy at all! I think anyone who’s ever sat on her would tell you that. She’s also the kind of horse where she will rise to the occasion when asked to, and I just have to remember to trust her and trust that fact and have faith in myself and in her that we can do it, and we can get the scores that we want.
Andrea’s been really amazing as far as a mentor and coach in every aspect.
You’ve recently turned pro and moved to Ocala. What prompted that decision?
I’ve really always enjoyed backing and training my own horses and going that route. Now that I feel like I have a little more experience riding at some of the upper levels, I figured I’d just make the leap. I’m still a nurse practitioner, and I’m still having to work in that world too, but my love is riding and training horses, so I figured it was time to make a change.
My parents have always had horses. We’ve had a family farm ever since I was a little baby. They are kind enough to help support me in this venture. We bought a farm that’s close to 150 acres, and the goal next year is to have six to eight foals on the ground. It was really so I could grow the breeding business as well, and it’s hard to do that down here in Wellington. We have some more land and some nice green grass for the moms and babies.
Right now, we have a Jameson foal out of a Grand Galaxy Win mare.
With COVID-19 last year, I’m sure it was quite difficult to be in the field you’re in as a nurse practitioner. How did you handle the stress of that and trying to ride and compete?
It was really difficult. I’ve been doing it for a little over 10 years. I was still working full time as a nurse practitioner, and I was working with hospice patients and palliative-care patients. They’re already so fragile. It was very stressful. But we’re hopefully on the upside of all of that. I’m so grateful for the years of experience that I have. It’s pretty amazing to be able to help people, especially at the end of their life, in any way.
How does is feel to be changing your career focus and turning professional at age 41?
It’s a little terrifying! I have been a nurse practitioner for a long time, and I’ve gotten kind of secure and settled in that, but I really hope that I can just continue learning, too, in the horse world. Learning more myself and becoming a better rider and hopefully progressing my own horses and other people’s horses the best that I can. It is very daunting, but I have faith that it will all work out exactly as it should be.
Who else do you have in the barn now?
I have J’Adore [a 9-year-old Hanoverian gelding], and we’re schooling all the Grand Prix on him. I’ll probably bring him out next season. He injured himself in the pasture about four months ago, so he was out of work for quite awhile, but he’s back and doing great.
I just bought a 9-year-old who’s schooling all the Grand Prix. She’s a little bit green for a 9-year-old, but I have high hopes for her. She seems to be pretty amazing. I hope when she gets here that we click, and I’ll be bringing her up this next season, too.
How are you feeling about competing in the mandatory outing this week?
I’m just really excited and happy to be here. Of course it’s stressful and a little nerve-wracking, but overall I’m just trying to stay focused and do the very best I can and keep Cavalia happy.
I’m beyond grateful for every single person who’s helped me get this far.
How did your Grand Prix test go?
We had a great warmup. We were confident going into it. It was the first time I’ve ever ridden her under the lights. No excuses, but coming around, she was a little looky at the crowd, and it was rider error. [Cavalia balked in the first piaffe at A, facing the crowd.] I should have had her more in front of my leg, especially because she was sucking back from the crowd. Totally my fault—lesson learned.
I’m so honored and so happy to be on the list, and I worked really hard this season proving my scores, and I think this is the worst score I’ve gotten to date! But it happens, and hopefully Friday will be much better.