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Sunday, July 14, 2024

UC Davis Dressage dances way to Nationals

Dressed in all white and black, a horse and its rider salute the judges and prepare to … dance? Dressage, commonly known as “horse ballet,” focuses on precise movements between rider and horse – movements that the UC Davis Dressage team showed off at the Intercollegiate Dressage Association’s National Championships for the first time in the sport club’s history.

The dressage team became the 2011 West Coast Regional Champions after beating both Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Stanford University. On April 29 and 30, eight of the 18 teammates competed at the IDA’s National Championships at the University of Florida.

Each of the four competition divisions – Introductory, Lower Training, Upper Training and First Level – vary by level of precision and complexity of movements. Samantha Stewart earned the team’s highest individual score with a seventh place finish in the First Level, followed by Kelsey Mock with a 10th place finish in the Introductory level.

The team placed 12th overall in the Nationals team competition. Coach Kathy Jorgenson said the competitors are relatively young and most were experiencing collegiate nationals for the first time.

“It was a rookie team. We got some surprises, but the kids really had good rides and competed well,” Jorgenson said.

Lauren Hunter, sophomore animal science major and president of the dressage team, commended her teammates for their success this year. Individually, the team qualified in all four levels, which meant that UC Davis sent the maximum number of competitors allowed from the West Coast region.

“Since this is our first year [at Nationals], we competed as best as we could. We did our best and we had a really fun time,” Hunter said.

At Nationals, the rider draws a number out of a hat, randomly picking a horse with which she will compete. The competitor then has 10 minutes to warm up that horse.

The IDA uses standardized and progressive training of the horses, which allows riders to let an unfamiliar horse know which movements are associated with each step. Jorgenson said the best riders are able to adjust to different horse personalities.

A group of judges grades each movement and averages the total score of all the different movements. Kyra Heirich, sophomore animal science major and member of the dressage team, said the hardest movement depends on both the horses’ and riders’ training and personalities.

“Sometimes it’s hard because you’re never really sure what’s going to happen and how [the horses] are going to respond,” Heirich said.

There are four different equestrian clubs at UC Davis – western, hunter-jumper, dressage and event. Each club emphasizes different forms and styles of riding. Dressage uses an English style saddle and has no jumping.

“[Compared to the other styles,] dressage is more about connecting with the horse and being more precise. It’s about looking as pretty as possible and doing things as perfect as possible,” Hunter said.

Heirich also noted that riders aim for harmony with the horse, although they have only 10 minutes to understand a horse’s personality and strengths.

“You’re never sure what’s going to happen and how they’re going to respond. The idea is for it to look like the horse is doing it on its own,” Heirich said.

In the past, Hunter has competed in both hunter-jumper and western, but she prefers dressage.

“My favorite part [of dressage] is when you’re working with a horse who doesn’t know something. It feels really good to know you’ve taught them something,” Hunter said.

As a UC Davis sport club, the dressage team is self-funded and pays quarterly fees for private lessons with Jorgenson. Most of the team members don’t own horses and they also pay to rent horses from the equestrian center. The team held a schooling show to raise money to send the team to Nationals.

In addition to the weekly lessons, many team members practice independently with various horses and they do cross training in the gym, such as the Pilates physical fitness system.

“To improve, a lot of the girls do core exercises and Pilates to get a lot stronger and have more control,” Jorgenson said.

As a longtime fan of UC Davis Dressage, Jorgenson hopes the young team continues to improve and work with each other. She also noted that the team’s depth, overall, was very good.

“We don’t have a star right now, we have a bunch of stars. We have a galaxy,” Jorgenson said.

GRACE BENEFIELD can be reached at features@theaggie.org.


  1. My family and I drove to Florida to cheer an amazing group of passionate,hard-working equestrians.We were truly impressed by their dedication to the sport and their love for U C DAVIS!Great job,girls!


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