In this series, the Chronicle follows multiple riders as they seek to fulfill their FEI World Equestrian Games dreams in Tryon, North Carolina, in 2018. We’ll check in with them in the coming months as they pursue a team spot to see how they’re getting their horses ready and preparing mentally.
For three years, South African dressage rider Gretha Ferreira traveled between Johannesburg and Europe in pursuit of her equestrian dreams. Since 2016, the 29-year-old has exclusively based out in Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany, with the 13-year-old Danish Warmblood mare Lertevangs Lavinia (Celebration F. Damgaard—Libel, Linaro).
Ferreira purchased Lavinia in January 2013, and they competed in their first FEI competition three years later. In August, the South African Equestrian Federation named the pair as individual dressage representatives for the WEG; they traveled to the United States on Sept. 3.
I grew up in Johannesburg, and I started riding when I was 3½. I started in pony riders; I used to do eventing. In high school I played netball competitively, and at 17 I decided to focus on riding and not do other sports.
I was 13 when we bought my first horse, and I clearly remember the day he was trotting in the paddock, showing natural talent for passage. I was extremely intrigued because this was the first time I experienced a horse moving that way.
[Dressage] has one of the biggest followings in South Africa. Unfortunately, it isn’t seen by our government as a sport. To get sport visas, they’ve said, “But that’s not a sport; that’s a hobby.”
In 2005, I realized that the biggest horse scene is in Europe, and I always said that I wanted to pave my way and make it. My mum and dad said, “Before you go overseas, you have to go to university and get a degree.”
I got my degree, and I didn’t ride for those three years; I really focused on my studies, and then I said to my parents, “Please, if it’s possible, let’s try and get me overseas.” I started moving back and forth between the two continents, but I decided that, if I really wanted to make it, I had to be based [in Europe].
I will always be South African at heart — that’s never going away, but at the moment [dressage in South Africa] just isn’t big enough.
There is no point in sugar coating it—there were many nights of tears and not being sure if this was the right thing. You get up in the morning; you get on your horse; you have a really good training session, and you’re like, “Well, this is why I’m here. This is what I’m doing this for.”
It’s not easy, and the language barrier is a difficult thing—English is my second language; Afrikaans is my mother tongue—but you have to put yourself in a position where you focus on the positive little things. I found myself thinking, I saw a really cute bird on that tree while I was riding, and it seems silly, but you have to focus on the good things in life.
After a while I started settling in more, and when you start understanding the language it’s much easier to make friends and communicate.
This Is Not A Dressage Horse
We have really tried—the dressage community, mostly at their own expense—to import better blood into South Africa, so we can start the bloodlines and increase the bloodline quality.
When you import a horse from Europe, the moment they land on South African soil they get vaccinated against African Horse Sickness, which doesn’t necessarily guarantee them not getting infected by the [mosquito] carrying the virus. There’s still a risk of us losing the horse.
It would be a massive contribution to the sport in our country—as well as for representatives of our country—[if we were] able to bring a homebred from South Africa to Europe.
Lavinia was the first horse I tried in Europe, and I ended up comparing every horse that I rode to her, never quite finding something until I tried my stallion [Zidane].
We bought Zidane, but the whole time I said, “I hope [Lavinia] finds the right owner.” She was such a special horse.
We went to the 2013 European Championships in Denmark, and it was complete fate; [Lavinia] was ten minutes from where Zidane was stabled.
We went and looked at her, and she was fat and in the paddock. I remember riding her and having the same feeling, and my mom said to me, “Are you sure? I don’t see it.” I said, “Trust me, there is something in this horse.”
Lavinia was a jumper. When I tried her, she was only doing dressage flatwork for three months—that’s probably why everyone was like, “You’re crazy; this isn’t going to be a dressage horse.”
She’s extremely sensitive, very hot but the most willing horse I’ve ever worked with. Even if she doesn’t understand straight away she’ll keep trying for you no matter what. It took me eight months before I could say she transitioned to dressage.
Road To WEG
Aug. 1, 2017, I shattered my collarbone. I thought, “If I had any chance of getting to WEG it’s just not possible.”
Luckily the bone healed quickly, and in December I started riding again. At that point Lavinia wasn’t even at the Intermediaire level. I trained and trained, and I entered the [Ebreichsdorf CDI*** (Austria) at the end of March 2018].
That was her first Grand Prix and international Grand Prix, and she got [64.76 percent].
That was a big shock because I remember thinking, “If I can get 60 I would be really happy.” I didn’t have any reservations or hopes up until that point, and then before I knew it I got my two qualifying scores for WEG.
I still don’t think it’s hit me that I’m going to Tryon with her. They say everything in life happens when you least expect it, and this was literally that way.
I’ve always been passionate about the sport growing in our country and just the general public understanding the sport and the beauty of it. That to me would be the biggest dream—if we could have a few more big CDIs in South Africa.
I’ve had people message me, and I always want to tell them in detail everything I’ve gone through because I know how difficult it’s been for me to find a way. It has to start at one point, so it becomes easier for everyone.
Catch up with our other Road To The WEG riders:
On Sept. 16, SportsQuest International LLC will host Day of the African Equestrian, a twilight gala celebrating African participation in the World Equestrian Games. The event will take place at Harambe Farm in North Carolina’s Polk County, with ticket sales benefiting African charities and educational institutions. To learn more about the event and purchase tickets, click here.
The Day of the African Equestrian Concert will take place the following day at the Rogers Park Amphitheater in Tryon, North Carolina. More information and ticket sales can be found here.