It was almost 20 years ago when Helene Dellechiaie first heard about The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club, which recognizes horse-and-rider teams with a combined age of 100 or more. She knew she wanted to become a part of it some day.
And this summer, with two more decades under each of their belts, she and her Connemara gelding Finnian’s Chase finally were old enough to get into the club. They completed Intro Level Test A, with a score of 73.12 percent, at the Greendell Dressage Schooling Show (New Jersey) to earn their spot in the Century Club and a special honor of being named the 500th pair to join the club
since its founding in 1996. Since her ride, the club has welcomed six more members for a total of 506.
Dellechiaie, 71, who started riding when she was 35, purchased “Finn” 26 years ago from a breeder in upstate New York after a trip in Ireland where she fell in love with the breed. They have won
numerous honors together, including three Horse of the Year awards in 2014, but this one may have been the longest in the making.
“I kept joking about it, saying we were going to go for the Century Club. I call it my centurion award,” Dellechiaie said. “All of the sudden when I was in Florida this winter, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, Finn is going to be 29 and I’m 71; we can do it.’ ”
The idea of TDF’s Century Club was created in 1996 by Dr. Max Gahwyler, a renowned dressage judge, to honor and recognize senior riders and horses in the sport. Grand Prix rider and former U.S. Dressage Federation President Lazelle Knocke was the first member of the Century Club, and Gahwyler was the second. It since has grown to more than 500 dressage and western dressage horse-and-rider teams across North America.
To join the Century Club, along with meeting the 100-year minimum combined age, a pair must complete a dressage or western dressage test, at any level, scored by a dressage judge at a recognized or schooling show.
The Dressage Foundation Executive Director Jenny Johnson said the Century Club is a vital part of the foundation’s program and hopes to see other riding disciplines adopt the concept.
“We’ve begun to see other organizations work on creating their own versions of the Century Club, and it’s so great because it inspires so many,” Johnson said. “It would be great for all disciplines to recognize senior riders and horses.”
The Century Club has enjoyed a surge of growth in the past five years, thanks to social media and members sharing their stories. The club welcomed 48 new members in 2020 and 54 new members—its highest number ever—in 2019. Many riders have picked up their helmets and returned to the show ring to complete their century ride, Johnson said.
“It really isn’t too late to go for what you want and learn something new or return to something you did when you were young,” Johnson said. “Many of these riders have taken breaks from riding and start riding again just to join the Century Club.”
The Century Club has no membership fees and runs solely on donations and sponsorships. The club allows riders to join and keep in touch with other members, creating a group of riders from
all different backgrounds who share a love of horses as they age.
“There are so many inspirational riders I’ve learned about,” said The Dressage Foundation’s Director of Grants and Programs Sara Weiss. One of her favorite examples, she said, was from 2020, involving childhood friends Sue Peterson and Sheila Bludworth, who took riding lessons together in middle school.
After not riding for decades—but staying involved with horses by cheering on her daughter and her daughter’s horse, Mighty Revenue—Bludworth decided in her 60s to return to the saddle. She bought a pony called Mouse who she enjoyed dearly, but set her sights on the Century Club, planning to borrow “Revenue” from her daughter Bonnie Lemcke and complete the ride in spring 2020, as soon as she was 72 and he turned 29. Unfortunately, Bludworth died unexpectedly before she could achieve that goal. That’s when Peterson came in: She had not ridden for years, but she approached Lemcke to say she’d like to complete the Century Ride on Revenue in her old friend’s memory. It took several years and numerous setbacks—rider injuries and age-related complications for horse, plans scuttled by COVID-19, to name a few—but on November 20, 2020, Peterson and Revenue finally completed their Century Club ride, in honor of Bludworth.
“Sue hadn’t ridden in decades, but she saddled up to help make Sheila’s dream come true,” Weiss said.
Dellechiaie, the club’s 500th member, sees the Century Club as a goal not just for seniors, but for younger riders as well.
“My philosophy has always been to set goals for yourself because if you don’t strive to achieve, you’ll never accomplish anything. Do what you’ve always wanted to do; pursue your passions; they pay off,” she said. “The Century Club inspires young people to realize that there are things they can achieve as a senior. It’s never too late, and you’re never too old.”