There and Back: Heather Oleson reflects on her journey to the Dressage Festival of Champions and the East Coast vs. West Coast debate
By Lori Fleming
I caught up with Heather Oleson on a Sunday as she headed to the barn. The January morning temperature had risen to 18 degrees in Eagle, Idaho, outside of Boise. At that temp, most of us wouldn't think twice about giving our horses a day off and staying far away from the barn. Not Heather; eighteen degrees at 10 a.m. meant she could get multiple rides in before the sun dipped too low to maintain that balmy temperature.
Getting to Wellington
Heather is accustomed to managing challenges as a High Performance rider in the Pacific Northwest. In November, she and her 13 year old gelding Victor (Welt Hit II x Purioso) made a difficult but important trip to Wellington, Florida. There, they competed against the nation's top Grand Prix pairs at the USEF Dressage Festival of Champions. Getting to Florida wasn't a cake walk but getting home turned out to be even more harrowing.
Heather credits a USEF Travel Grant with making this trip possible. After extensive research, she developed a travel plan based on safety and cost considerations. The best way to get to Wellington would be to fly out of Ontario, CA. But, first, to get to Ontario. "I've taken horses to the big shows in California once or twice a year for a while now," Heather explained, "but hauling in December can be a totally different matter. You can hit significant wind gusts and weather this time of year." As luck would have it, one of Heather's clients is married to a professional driver for FedEx. Ted Fears (remember this name!) volunteered to drive Heather and Victor down to Chino Hills, a trip that took about 15 hours.
They arrived in southern California without incident and were hosted by Amanda Olson at W Farms, allowing Victor a brief rest before the flight to West Palm Beach. On Friday, they boarded a Tex-Sutton Boeing 727 cargo jet (nicknamed Air Horse One) equipped solely for equine transport. "It's a surprisingly straightforward process," says Heather. "We pulled the trailer right up to the ramp, unloaded, and reloaded on the plane. Thankfully, Victor has always traveled well -- he eats, drinks, gets on off and trailers will little fuss."
Heather is awarded The Dressage Foundation's 2015 Patsy Albers Award in Wellington. The award provides financial support for continuing education and training to a High Performance rider. Photo by Susan Stickle.
Flying with Victor were some of the top horses in the country, among them Steffen Peters' competition horses Rosamunde and Legolas and Guenter Seidel's Zero Gravity. Most horses were accompanied by their grooms, including 2015 FEI Groom Award winner, Eddie Garcia Luna. Kim McGrath and Tracy Lert, like Heather, accompanied their horses on the eight-hour flight.
“What I remember most about the flight out was the noise. It's not like a commercial flight -- the noise is deafening and I worried about Victor." This is not surprising coming from Heather, who is attuned to her horses' comfort. She occasionally rides in the trailer with them to observe their level of relaxation while hauling. During our conversation, she mused on using ear plugs for her horses during travel.
Victor was keyed up upon arrival in Palm Beach Friday evening but settled down after the 30-minute haul to Wellington. The Adequan Global Dressage Festival show ground is one of the premiere competition venues in the US. Victor and the Festival competitors stabled in the CDI barn right next to the main arena. Heather was particularly impressed by the footing. "It was a monsoon when we arrived and it lasted for several days. But, as soon as the rain stopped, the outdoor arenas were perfectly rideable -- no puddles or soft spots at all!"
Managing Disappointment: Mixing pragmatism with risk
The pair rested on Saturday and went back to work on Sunday. Heather was acutely aware that they had exchanged Idaho's arid 22 degree weather for Florida's humid 80s but, other than being a bit laid back, Victor felt good at the beginning of the week. Wednesday's ride, however, didn't go as planned. "We just didn't have a good show," she begins. "I didn't have him where he needed to be for the GP." In spite of dumping rain, there were some very good moments for a score of 61%, but Heather's frustration is apparent. "Our test was not the one I wanted to have. It was not representative of our work this year."
The next day, Heather took a calculated risk and did something she never does: she changed the warm up. "Because Victor is naturally lazy, I normally keep the warm up fairly short. I had begun to notice early in the season that our routine was not always as effective as it could be so I decided to take a chance and change it right then." She lengthened the warm up substantially and, in spite of the heat and the humidity, she could feel it working. "I was so happy with our change in performance between the GP and the GPS. We improved on a lot from the day before and, though I was baffled by the nearly identical score, I was thrilled with Victor's responsiveness!"
I stop Heather to ask about the risk of changing her routine mid-competition and she admits that it's not something she generally recommends. "I had nothing to lose," she laughs. "Luckily, it worked this time."
Air Horse One refuels in Oklahoma City, OK. Heather Oleson photo.
Victor with traveling companion Udo, owned and ridden by Tracy Lert. Heather Oleson photo.
The scoring for the GPS was something of a mystery to Heather. Why the same score for a much improved ride? Later on, she discovered that several other riders experienced the same thing. A conversation with another top rider shed some light on the "score stamping" phenomenon, where judges stamp riders with a score on the first day of a competition and it carries through multiple days. "It can work in your favor if you have a really strong first ride," Heather explains. "Unfortunately, that wasn't my experience."
Saturday's Freestyle ride earned the pair increased scores and placing but Heather describes "weird little mistakes that are unusual for us. Any time you put yourself in these high pressure situations, the small cracks can show up." I ask Heather how she stays focused when things are going wrong. "In the Freestyle, I kept remembering how well we turned around between the first two tests. It's important to reframe situations in the context of your training. If I have a bad ride at a show, I cut through my disappointment to find a couple specific things I can address in my warm up for the next test. I can't change everything in a few hours, but I can find one or two things that were weak and try to improve them for the next ride." Good advice for all of us.
The Trip Home
After a long week in Florida, Heather and Victor flew back to California where Todd met them for the drive back to Idaho. The last leg of the trip had more challenges in store for the exhausted pair and their friend. A storm front was moving through southwest Idaho blowing snow across the highway. As they made their way home, the weather worsened and they began to see rigs in ditches on the side of the road. Traveling about 20 mph on Highway 93, they came over a slight rise and hit a sheet of ice. The truck spun 180 degrees, smashing the truck into the gooseneck horse trailer. The force of the impact spun the 5-horse trailer around and the giant rig did a 360 spin in the middle of the highway. "I remember the truck spinning, hitting the trailer, and seeing my trailer through the windshield from my passenger-side seat," Heather recalls. "It was surreal. Somehow, Todd was able to punch the truck at exactly the right time and get us out of the spin. He kept us on the road and alive. I know I would not have been able to keep the truck and trailer upright in that situation!"
The damage to the truck included two smashed out windows but they continued the drive home---two more hours in dark, windy, 27 degree weather. They stopped in Twin Falls to check on Victor who was clearly anxious but unhurt. "My trusty truck gave its life for us--it was totaled out." Like all horsewomen, Heather mourns the loss of her truck. The trailer should be reparable.
Heather and Victor in the GP Freestyle, 2015 Dressage Festival of Champions. Photo by Susan Stickle.
The East Coast-West Coast Debate
Heather is already thinking about next year's Festival of Champions. "I'm thrilled that Festival will be in California next year, because I think having that show on the West Coast will increase our CDI participation and stimulate more West Coast riders to try to qualify."
I ask Heather about the current East Coast-West Coast debate and the recent announcement that the US Dressage Finals will stay in Lexington for now. "Well, it's true that our West Coast facilities cannot easily compete with the Global Village, or Gladstone, or the Kentucky Horse Park. The East Coast dominates dressage opportunities--they have big numbers and much more money in the sport than we do." But rotating the big competitions--like Festival or US Dressage Finals--will help draw the West Coast competitors, she continues. "I've thought for a long time that it makes sense to have selection trials on the coast that's closest to the foreign competition destination, whether it be Asia or Europe."
Heather reminds us that Region 6 has a long history of the geography debate. Years ago, regional championships were only held in the Seattle area. When a 3-site rotation was first proposed, there was an uproar about including the Idaho Horse Park. "Many of the arguments used by the East Coast contingent now (about moving the Nationals out west) are exactly the same arguments used years ago by Pacific Northwest members in Region 6. They claimed that moving regional championships to Idaho would cost too much money, that no one would participate, that it was too far from the largest member base. For me, in the end, it is about fairness and trying to stimulate dressage growth, whether it be in our region or our country."
The damage to Heather's truck. You can see two missing windows as well as significant body and frame damage. Heather Oleson photo.
Heather and riders in Idaho are accustomed to having to travel long distances for dressage shows--perhaps that's an advantage in some way, as some of the CDIs in California are just as accessible as a trip to Donida. She summarizes, "The fact is: we live in a big country. Someone, somewhere is going to have to travel a long way, over a mountain pass or two, to compete in championship shows. In my opinion, the only fair thing to do is rotate a national championship. I think that it will help stimulate the growth of dressage throughout the entire country."
Heather Oleson is a dressage trainer, instructor, and competitor based in Eagle, ID. She earned all the USDF medals on her self-trained half-Arabian SB Flame Dancer and has trained multiple horses from the start to Grand Prix. In addition to Victor, Heather is currently campaigning three other horses: Prom Date, Bolero, and Wriley. Heather is originally from Beaverton, OR and has a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy from Stanford University. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.