My (20+ year!) Journey to the Festival of Champions

I am so excited to welcome my friend and incredibly talented FEI dressage competitor, Cassie Nolte, to the blog today! What a perfect way to end a writing hiatus, my bad, friends. I love my platform for numerous reasons, but the reason that tops the chart would be connecting with fellow likeminded people... and in-turn, creating special friendships I cherish closely. Cassie definitely falls under that category. Not only is she kind, pure, truthful and overall fantastic, she and her mare, Halli, are ginormous inspirations for my partnership with Leah. I can always count on her for support and encouragement, which is a rarity in this day and time. Cassie is humble, hardworking, and the proof of her labor is evident within her raw talent. Today, I am so humbled that she chose The Blonde & The Bay to share her story from this year's Festival of Champions - a prestigious, invite-only competition for the best of the best within the United States, held at the iconic Lamplight Equestrian Center. Cheering Cassie and Halli on through the live stream was such a treat, if only I could have been there in person. Don't worry, Cass... I'll be in SoCal soon enough for a girls weekend slash reunion! Anyway, my blabbering aside, please welcome my gal-pal, Cassie, to the blog...


When Maddie asked me to write about my experience at the Festival I immediately said YES!!! In true TB&TB style, I am keeping everything here super real.


About this time last year, I remember eating dinner with my coach and one of her dressage judge colleagues that I clinic with on occasion. I casually mentioned that I would like to try the Developing Grand Prix and (hopefully) earn an invite to compete at the Festival of Champions. I had literally waited my entire life for an opportunity to ride a horse like Halli and (thank my lucky stars!!!) had just secured my ride on her for the foreseeable future. I had only done a handful of GPs ever in my life and don’t have a ton of experience at that level, but I felt like there was an opportunity presenting itself that I couldn’t ignore. Halli was knocking on the door of the GP and being 9 years old she was the right age to try for the Developing GP. I had been riding her for nearly a year and our partnership was starting to really bloom. She was happy in her current I2 work and getting stronger, so what the heck right? I was pleasantly surprised that no one laughed at me that night and they both supported the idea. They both said it’s a big goal, but a realistic one and potentially achievable. You never know what you can achieve until you try, so with that in mind, I decided to send my declaration of intent to USEF and give it a go!


I should probably start by saying that it is very humbling and a bit intimidating to ride a horse like Halli. My first horse growing up was an off the track thoroughbred that went off at 99-1 odds in his last race (I swear my parents really did love me, they just didn’t know much about dressage or horses in general). As fate would have it, he actually won that race. It also set the tone for his dressage career. When I wasn’t being run away with, we managed to win few hard-fought CDS and USDF Regional Championships throughout our journey together. I learned so much from this horse and have him to thank for my love of hot and sensitive horses. He was my best friend growing up. Together we climbed our way up the levels of dressage. We even attempted to qualify for Young Riders and though his heart was huge, it just wasn’t meant to be. Later while I was in college, I was given the opportunity to start youngsters for a few sporthorse breeders. I learned a lot about breeding, bloodlines, and rode some incredibly talented babies that eventually were sold and went onto amazing show careers. I even bought a few youngsters along the way who were super talented, but just didn’t have the mind or the heart for the challenges of upper level dressage work. After college, I ultimately decided to pursue a professional career outside the horse world. By this point I had realized nice horses cost serious money and I wanted to eventually someday own a nice horse. I have MASSIVE amounts of respect for people who can earn a living as a professional in this sport, but I knew that I wasn’t the most talented rider or trainer out there. I wasn’t ever going to be in a position where people were sending grand prix dressage horses to me. So, while I pursued a career in marketing and business development, I also trained horses in the evenings to get my fix. My evening work also helped support my own horses and since I loved it, it never felt like work (I still work full time at an 8-5ish and though I have cut back substantially on my training, I still ride as a professional and have all kinds of tips and tricks on time hacks!) I rode a lot of horses that were changing careers, needed work, were being rehabbed, had some vices, etc. I love an underdog. I was probably also just a bit younger and crazier then and didn’t mind hoping on the horses that people would line up along the rail to ‘come see the show’. Many of these horses went on to show and win at the lower levels. I loved getting comments at the bottom of these tests that cited “correct basics." Nothing made my happier than seeing a horse blossom with confidence and helping riders learning how to unlock their talents. Some of these horses graduated onto other careers and some stuck around the dressage world. I was starting to feel like my calling was helping these horses and riders and, while incredibly fulfilling, I really did want to someday get to the upper levels again.


My first horse Landseer circa 2000/2001. Perpetually the underdog, we climbed our way up the dressage levels together. What he lacked in talent he made up for in spades with his heart. Never let anyone tell you that you need a fancy horse to do dressage!

Fast forward a few years and enter my coach, Jan Curtis. She was helping me on my own horse, who not so surprisingly, was a HANDFUL (yes, this one really deserves all caps). He was big and strong and fancy, and we would either be in the 70s or the 50s – IF I actually finished my test. In one of his more infamous stories, after we won high score of the show, this same horse sat on the hood of my boyfriend’s (now husband) parents’ car. 100% true story. We can all finally laugh about it now and I have the front fender of their BMW hanging in my garage as a memento. Picture BoJack Horseman, I own the real-life equine version who is now pensioned in a lavish paddock with his palomino girlfriend down the street from my barn. After one particularly eventful ride my coach said to me after my test, why don’t you come over to my barn and ride my personal horse. I honestly thought my competitive dressage career was over. I was so defeated and felt so inadequate as a rider, but I felt like I had to at least take her up on this generous offer. Years of riding babies and problem horses meant that my own riding had suffered. Jan was instrumental in helping me become more polished and effective in the saddle. I gained valuable experience, confidence, and most importantly, found my love of dressage again. Jan truly has the patience of a saint. With her help I achieved my goal of riding at Grand Prix and earned my USDF Gold Medal. I am forever grateful to her for taking me on as a charity case and she is still my coach and mentor today.


I will never forget the day when she called me and said, “Sabine is off to Europe to train for the fall, would you like to ride my mare Halli?” First off, I am NO Sabine. Second, am I dreaming?


Shortly thereafter Halli came down to my barn and in typical mare fashion, she wasn’t so sure about me as her new rider. Now Halli is a super girl and did everything I asked of her, still you could just tell she was sizing me up. I had ridden a few mares throughout my career, but mostly I rode geldings and a few stallions here and there. Halli was different. She wasn’t like any mare I had ever ridden and probably best described as ‘a girl who wears a skirt but plays with the boys’. She wasn’t emotional, but she was extremely sensitive, very smart, and under saddle Halli was all business. Slowly I figured out where her itchy spots here, what her favorite treats were, and how she preferred her routine. In the beginning, the challenging part for me was trying to figure out if Halli had made an honest mistake when we schooled or if it was an error on my part. Halli had shown through I1 and was schooling I2 / GP but was not confirmed in her ones. Again, I am not super experienced at this level and it was forcing me to question my confidence. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough to ride this horse. Several clinics and many lessons knocked some sense into me and helped me realize that I am, in fact, good enough to ride her. Things started to click. I even went up to work with Sabine several times who also assured me we were a good pair. What a treat to work with her and learn from a master. She had great insight for us as we started to get ready for the show season.


Halli and I learned a lot about each other during our first few shows of 2019. There were moments of brilliance and moments we would rather forget – but it is all part of the journey and I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world! Fun fact, I was actually hanging on for dear life during this ‘expressive’ extended trot.

There were many ups and a few downs. We did a few small shows and were nearly in the 70s at the I2. Then I decided to step it up and we entered our first CDI – unfortunately the atmosphere was too much and we BARELY got into the show arena (ahhhh the exhilaration of being run away with in front of a panel of 5 CDI judges). I also earned my first 10 that same weekend. Overall our scores were horrible, but the judges had great comments for us and everyone at the show was extremely positive and supportive. I was of course disappointed, but at the same time so encouraged. I knew we just needed miles and more experience. Halli was super young and hadn’t really been shown all the much. We needed more time, so more schooling and more shows were in order. The next time out we had much better rides. I was figuring out how to keep Halli on my aids even when she was tense. Throughout the year things kept getting better and better. I did the two required qualifiers we needed and the second time we did our Developing Grand Prix I scored a 70%. Halli and I were both gaining confidence.


We found out at the end of July that Halli and I were ranked among the top 15 horse and rider combinations in the United States for the USEF Developing Grand Prix National Championships. We had actually earned an invitation to compete at the Festival of Champions / US National Dressage Championships! This competition is held yearly and rotates around the United States. This year it was going to be held at the gorgeous Lamplight Equestrian Center, about 30 minutes outside of Chicago. As a horse-crazy kid I grew up watching my childhood dressage heroes compete at this show. In the past, the Festival of Champions has served as the Selection Trials for the US Olympic Dressage Team. I couldn’t believe that Halli and I had earned an invitation to compete here!


This was by far going to be the longest distance we have ever traveled for a show. Coming from California, we decided the safest and most comfortable way for Halli to travel to Lamplight would be to fly. After we got our official invitation I made arrangements with Tex Sutton to fly out with the group of Southern California horses. The California riders definitely team up to support each other, thank goodness for the advice I received before we left! Being a first-time passenger on Air Horse One I had no idea what to expect about the entire process, but even for rookies we were adequately prepared and comfortable during our journey. I could probably write an entire blog now on preparing to fly / flying with your horse! If anyone has questions, feel free to reach out so I can pay it forward to the next rider flying for the first time.


Halli was quite happy flying. Being up front she lucked out with a window stall!

We loaded up at the Nellie Gail Ranch Equestrian Center very early on Friday, August 16th and headed out to Ontario for the flight to Chicago. There were 15 total horses on board along with the flying grooms and several other dressage riders who were going to be competing at the Festival. Stall to stall it was just over 9 hours from Laguna Hills to Lamplight, even with a slight delay at the airport. I had to get on the plane before the horses were finished loading, so my poor non-horsey husband was left to help the flying grooms load Halli. Let me say that my husband is a saint, and that Halli is a VERY good girl for unloading onto a live runway, in the dark, with the plane’s engines running, and then walking up a very steep ramp. Once on board she quieted down and was very happy once she realized I was on the plane with her. We both arrived a bit tired, but Halli happily settled into her stall and was eager to drink and eat her mash – which of course made me very happy. She pulled a shoe walking off the plane (really Halli?) but thankfully the hauler managed to catch it when it flung through the air. So, the first order of business after she settled into her stall and the tackroom was unpacked was to find a farrier. It was a bit strange to be at the show venue with the stables nearly empty (only the 12 horses that flew in were on the ground at this point). We all found these first few days to be very relaxing, as we walked and hand grazed the horses it was nice to have some quiet time while the horses recovered from the journey. I felt like Halli and I had cemented our bond in ways I didn’t think were possible during those first few days. Anytime Halli was questionable about a situation, she would give me a look – when I would reassure her it was alright, she was good to go.


Princess Halli left her silver slipper aboard her carriage! Thankfully this was the only hiccup during our trip.

Even though technically the show stabling didn’t open until Monday, by Sunday the barns were starting to buzz with activity. Sunday marked the first day that most of our little group went back to saddle work. Halli and I were both eager to get to work, lots of stretching and suppling on this first day back. We had a great ride, I was so pleased that she was feeling so good and was so happy!


My jog wasn’t until Wednesday and my first class wasn’t until Friday. I was joking that this was starting to feel like the LONGEST show of my life and I hadn’t even shown yet! The extra time meant that I was able to capitalize on a few training sessions with the US Dressage Team coaches and watch many of the classes and the warm ups. That alone was an incredible educational opportunity. Particularly the young horse classes, where the judges give a commentary following each ride. I was loving every bit of the whole experience and trying to soak up every single second of it!


I think us dressage riders can learn a thing or two about fashion from eventers. I am personally trying to bring more elegance to the jogs at dressage shows one event at a time! It was raining and muddy, but the weather cleared and Halli and I went girly girl matchy matchy in our red, white and blue.

The heat and humidity were a bit of a challenge for both Halli and myself particularly early in the week. We live in a fairly mild climate, so prior to leaving we scheduled our training rides during the middle of the day to help us get more accustomed to the heat. But the humidity and summer storms were a new element and something we couldn’t prepare for in Laguna Hills. Short training sessions, lots of walk breaks, and lots of electrolytes proved helpful. I also received some great advice during the week from Maddie – who we all know is a pro at dealing with the summer heat! (Ha, am I a pro, though? - Maddie)


Proudly rocking our Mare Person TB&TB merch at Lamplight!!!

Friday finally rolls around and we are more than ready to get in that show arena. I drew the last spot in the I2. It was a bit hard waiting all day, but I passed the time by grooming, braiding, and a doing few handwalks with Halli. I didn’t want to do too much with her and risk having her be tired by the time our ride came around. After speaking with team coaches and knowing our usual warm up routine best, we had agreed that a shorter, more focused warm up would be better for both Halli and I in the heat and humidity. Well, she did come out feeling tired and we did need more time! I found myself having to really work to get her supple and riding lots of forward transitions to get her engine revved up. We made the most of our warm up time and trotted into that show arena hoping I could keep her with me. As we cantered down the centerline I wasn’t sure what would happen, but something took over in both of us and we found our game faces. Halli tried her heart out for me and we had a solid test with only one mistake (my fault – mistake in the timing of my half halt) for a 66.127%. My goal was to go out there and put in a respectable test and we were within a percentage point of being in the top 5! This score would count for 40% of our final score, so we still had to score well in the more challenging Grand Prix test on Sunday. Needless to say I was over the moon!


Saturday, I let Halli rest most of the day and took her out early evening for a short school in the snaffle. I worked on her lateral suppleness and transitions forward and back to get her a bit hotter off my leg. Normally her piaffe and passage are quite good, but the heat and humidity left us with much energy to be desired in that part of our test. After our stretch and quick tune up, it was back to the barn for dinner and to get ready for the Developing Grand Prix on Sunday.


On the final day of the competition we had a great warm up. Halli and I went into that arena confident and I pulled out all the stops in my test. In my attempt to ‘go for it’ we had a bit of tension in a few spots and one mistake near the end of our test. We came away with a combined score of 64.626% and earned ourselves a very respectable 10th place finish in a very competitive field of young grand prix horses. Unfortunately our inexperience and weaknesses showed a bit in our test, but the judges had great comments for us and we learned so much throughout the competition. I cried a few happy tears on the way back from the arena after our test that day. As we began to pack up and get ready for our long journey back home, I couldn’t help but feel even more excited and inspired for our future together. Above all, I was just so grateful to have this incredible experience and to ride a horse like Halli.


With nearly all of the competitors already well on the way back to their respective homes, the barns had returned to that same peaceful bliss that we had found upon our early arrival at Lamplight. It provided the perfect opportunity to enjoy some quiet time and reflect on the incredible week I shared with Halli. She loved the attention and the grazing and I enjoyed a glass of wine before we headed back to the hotel to get ready for our early morning flight. We packed up our tack and equipment and started getting ready for the long journey back home.


Cheers to you Miss Halli, forever my mare crush!

We awoke to pouring rain and a steady thunderstorm. I think the horses were all so tired and happy to be going home they didn’t pay any attention to the rain. They easily loaded onto the trucks and we all headed to the airport. Once again, all the California dressage riders pitched in and helped each other out, this time loading tack and equipment in the pouring rain next to the plane roaring with its engines running. I was asked by the flying grooms to help identify the dressage horses (the horses have assigned seating on the plane). So, I got to see some of the behind the scenes care and loading of the horses before I went back to help with equipment again. Loading this time was much easier, the ramp from the plane was set up to go directly onto the truck. The horses walk from the large rig directly onto the ramp of the plane, so the horses’ hooves never even touch the ground. Less steep and less stress – definitely the way to go next time we need to fly!


Halli was up front again and her seat mate was Ferano, the horse that won the Developing Grand Prix Championship. They became fast friends and seemed to share a few laughs over their inflight hay, then dozed off for a bit. I sat with Halli for nearly the entire flight home and shared my bananas with her, her favorite snack. 3 hours and 20 minutes later we landed at Ontario where my husband Craig was waiting with the truck and trailer to pick us both up. From stall to stall, total travel time from the Lamplight Equestrian Center to the Nellie Gail Equestrian Center was 8 hours.


Halli and I taking sky selfies on Air Horse One (it is VERY cold on the plane!)

We came into these National Championships ranked #14 and left ranked #10. I couldn’t be more proud of Halli and how far we have come as a team together. From barely being able to get into the actual show arena in our first big outing together in January, to finishing up the season with multiple scores above 70% in the Developing Grand Prix and Intermediaire 2 tests, we have both learned so much together in a very short period of time. Halli is truly a special horse and I am forever grateful to have the opportunity to ride a horse like her. Our next goal is to work on polishing up the Grand Prix / Grand Prix Special tests and work towards making our Grand Prix debut in the near future.


As a kid growing up struggling with transitions and dreaming of doing ANYTHING other than riding countless 20m circles, I remember watching and reading about my dressage heroes riding at the Festival of Champions. I literally got goosebumps driving into Lamplight every single day during our stay there. I am far from being a great rider, but Halli inspires me every day to keep learning, keep training, and keep striving to be the best rider I can be. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to compete alongside so many great riders at the Festival of Champions and to finish in the top 10 was icing on the cake. You never know who you might meet, what opportunities may come your way, or how your circumstances could change. Hopefully my story will help encourage other riders to keep trying or to inspire someone who might be ‘on the fence’ to also say “What the heck!” and just go for it! You never know how the story might end unless you go out there and try!




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