What do you get when you combine the sizzling, high-pressure atmosphere of Dressage at Devon’s Dixon Oval and 12 junior riders, all girls between 14 and 18 years old?
You get meltdowns, some tears, lots of laughs, friendships forged in the fire of high-pressure, wildly decorated barns, and gleeful expectations. Oh yes, and there’s the national championship too.
Led by Noel Williams on Pik-L, who also won the individual competition, Team Liberty grabbed the top spot in the USEF Junior Team Dressage Championship on Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
Team Liberty–Amanda Stearns on Nice Catch, Reena Idnani on Levant, Ryan Michelle Eskridge on Rubin and Williams–took the lead from the first day and easily held on over Team Independence (Ana DiGironimo, Arianne Weiss, Jami Edwards, Jennifer Dainer) and Team Freedom (Eloise Aud, Jordan Meadows, Kelly Gormley, Caroline Roffman).
The 12 junior riders qualified for their spots throughout the year at shows across the country. Once selected, the riders were then split into three teams using a handicapping system that made the teams as equally balanced as possible.
Riders contested both the FEI Junior Team Test and the FEI Junior Individual Test as part of the championship, weighted equally. Each team was allowed one drop score per test.
Williams, 17, Delaware, Ohio, won both classes, scoring a 66.75 percent in the team test and a well-deserved 73.12 percent in the individual test. She joined her father George Williams in taking home two blue ribbons from Devon (see main story).
Noel laid down a beautifully ridden team test, and the Dutch Warmblood stallion responded accordingly. Throughout the test, he was supple, through and connected to his rider. His self-carriage was consistent, and Williams had him light and elegant on her aids.
Despite the ease with which she seemed to compete, Noel said she was a complete and absolute ball of nerves before each test.
“It was really intimidating to come here and compete,” she said. “This is only my fourth show on the horse, and this qualifying season is the first time I’ve regularly showed in two years. I have the horse that can do it, so I feel I should be able to too.”
Cesar Parra trained and competed Pik-L, owned by Horses Unlimited and Anne Whiten, to Intermediaire I. Parra dominated the small tour classes with Pik-L at the 2003 Dressage at Devon show.
Williams said Parra approached her about riding the 12-year-old stallion on behalf of Whitten because Whitten wanted the stallion’s career to shift gears and focus on being a young rider’s mount. Williams now trains with Katie Riley, Parra’s assistant, under Parra’s guidance.
“It was a huge honor for someone of Dr. Parra’s credentials to think of me for the ride. It was a little intimidating because Pik-L is such an incredible athlete, but Cesar put me at ease and has been awesome to work with,” she said.
Even with all his credentials and experience, Pik-L is no cakewalk ride. Williams said because he’s a stallion she has to focus every time she rides him. “I really have to ride him every step of the way. There’s no expecting him to do something; you have to ask him for everything. If you ask him properly, he’ll do anything for you,” she said.
Idnani rode Levant, an 11-year-old, Dutch-bred gelding, to sixth place individually and was the second-highest-scoring member of Team Liberty (64.86%). Idnani, 16, a member of last year’s championship’s silver-medal team, also on Levant, commented on how great the atmosphere was in the junior barns.
She said that everywhere she looked, there were fellow riders pitching in to help each other, mothers cleaning tack, fathers sweeping aisles, and other supportive family members doing whatever it took to help.
“It’s so important to have supportive family. My mom is extremely involved and hauls me all over the place. We usually spend most of our summer in California for shows, so she’s great about devoting a lot of her time to my dreams. I think for girls especially, you build a better connection with your mother when you go to horse shows or have anything to do with horses together.”
Idnani, Phoenix, Ariz., trains with Shirley Rector, who is also a judge. She said she wants to move up a level to the young riders division next. Idnani will have her plate full soon, though, since she’ll be attending Harvard University (Mass.) to study business before, she hopes, going on to medical school to become a cardiac surgeon.
“I’ve known since I was 3 years old that I wanted to be a doctor and have known since the seventh grade that I wanted to do surgeries. I’ll definitely be taking my horse with me to college,” she said.
This was Stearns’ first competition at Devon, but she won’t be attending college or moving up to young riders anytime soon. At 14, Stearns is a freshman in Wellington Christian School, near her home in Royal Palm Beach, Fla.
The self-proclaimed “baby” of Team Liberty finished eighth individually on Nice Catch. Owned by Blue Marlin Farm, “Slam-mer” is a 10-year-old, Dutch Warmblood gelding.
Stearns trains with John Zopatti and agreed with Idnani that supportive parents make her world go around.
Stearns’ teammates all commented on how “cool” her dad was and how sweet it was to see him devote so much positive energy to her championship experience.
“My dad is the greatest,” concurred Stearns. “He said that every time he was sitting in the stands watching us, he was going to start the wave.”
But a wave wouldn’t have helped Eskridge. Her horse, Rubin, a 10-year-old Oldenburg, was quite excited to be at Devon and gave Eskridge a lot to handle. He gave the term impulsion new meaning as he charged around the arena. Eskridge did a masterful job of trying to keep the lid on her horse to finish 10th individually.
Rubin was a 15th birthday present for Eskridge, of Charlotte, N.C.,earlier this year. Rubin was trained to Grand Prix by Linda Oliver but had never competed at that level before trainer Diane Ritz found him. Rubin is by Rhodiamant and is related to Relevant, American Lisa Wilcox’ 2004 Olympic bronze-medal partner. The liver chestnut actually looks just like Relevant, with a similar white snip on his forehead.