Dressage for a Year: Behind the Scenes with Arden & Whisper

Mystery Whisper and Phillip Dutton. Photo by Samantha Clark

Mystery Whisper was bought with the express purpose of competing for the USA in Eventing at the London 2012 Olympics and then immediately becoming Arden Wildasin’s top horse. When Whisper returned from the Olympics in the fall of 2012, Arden began her journey towards building a whole new relationship with this phenomenally talented horse and trying to figure out how to get him to trust her and become her own.

“After the Olympics, we always knew he was coming home to me, and he was going to have a vacation. He got two solid months off just being a horse in the field,” Arden said. “He had to recover from his intensive campaign of 2012. I started legging him back up. I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was just going through the motions.”

However, during this bonding time in the fall, an idea struck Arden that seemed to fall into place. “Riding him on the flat is so amazing; he is always teaching me something new and different. Whisper is just so talented, and I’m so appreciative to have that kind of experience. He did pure dressage before we bought him from Heath Ryan— up to Prix St George.”

“I’ve always loved dressage; I really think of it as an art form, and I don’t want to just get it over with. Even as an eventer, I was the one who thought it was so fun! I really wanted to take a whole year and double down.” So Arden asked her longtime dressage coach, Tom Noone, in January if it was realistic to attempt to get to the North American Young Rider’s Championships … for pure dressage. “He said it was totally unrealistic, but it could happen anyway!” she laughed.

Pure dressage NAJRYC is at the Prix St. George level, which is about two levels above our CCI3* test in eventing. Arden had only done one Advanced test before in her life, so she was basically entering with an understanding of Intermediate and Preliminary movements, which isn’t much in the dressage world. Until this spring she had never done tempi changes, canter pirouettes, or even canter half passes, all of which are required in the Young Rider tests.

“Because of Whisper’s past with Heath, he knew all the movements. Tom and I just had to dig it out of him and teach me how to ride him,” Arden said. “When we went to try him in Australia, Heath was showing off a bit and doing the 3’s and 4’s around the arena, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll never need that!’”

Region 1 NAJYRC Team: Kaitlin Blythe, Jennifer Foulon, Alexa Derr, Arden Wildasin, Katie Lang, Nick Hansen, & Ashleigh Conroy-Zugel

In order to get on the NAJYRC team, Arden had to fulfill score requirements in three different tests before the end of June. She had to have three scores at 62% or higher in both the team test and the individual test, as well as a score greater than 62% in the freestyle test. Her competition schedule was relatively light, she said, because each time she went out, she was able to achieve the proper scores. Teams for Young Rider dressage are selected by pure math: the top four scoring riders of the region go to NAJYRC.

When I asked her how her experience differed attending NAJYRC as a dressage rider versus attending as an eventer, Arden said that there are unique experiences from each side. “For example, there is no camp for dressage. You meet your teammates in Kentucky when you arrive the week of the competition. Everyone also brings their own coach; there is no team coach for the region. The team aspect is different because we all operate individually, but that doesn’t mean that we weren’t there for all of our team members clapping and hollering after every test,” she said. “Eventing is more like a huge family.”

“It was such an amazing journey to get to Kentucky. It was a very long shot at the beginning of the year, so I was very grateful to get on the team. I cared very much how I placed, but I was also just enjoying the fact that I made it this far. I surely wish I could have done better, but I was asking myself and my horse to do a level that I never thought would be possible so quickly. I know I’ll continue to do pure dressage as well as eventing. Dressage takes two lifetimes to master; there’s always something new to figure out. It’s so incredibly intellectual, whereas eventing is more gut reactions and quick thinking,” Arden said.

“I also think that it was unbelievable that Whisper was able to go from elite eventing to elite dressage — what a horse! Eventing is more endurance; dressage is like weight lifting and body building. The concentration and focus required of the horse is insane. It’s like being on another wavelength with your horse that I didn’t even know existed.”

Arden & Totally Awesome Bosco competing in the Pine Top Advanced 2012

Arden also mentioned that she positively would not have been able to make it this far without the help of her two amazing grooms, Emma Ford and Colby Bauersfeld. After working for Phillip Dutton for many years, Emma was able to move on to work for the Wildasin family this past fall, and has been integral in Arden’s success.

“Emma just has a heart of gold. She travels with the horses to all the shows while Colby stays at home and keeps everything running smoothly. I know that the horses are always well cared for and that is truly a beautiful thing. To have two top notch people working for my family who are both extremely experienced in the Eventing world is a real blessing. I cannot thank them enough for all their hard work.”

Obviously my next question for Arden was when she plans to come back to eventing to kick our butts?! She laughed and said her intention was always to return to the sport that she loves. She’s going to wait until 2014 to compete in eventing. As for Whisper?

“He’s only 13, and I’d like to build our partnership more. My goal is to be confident in myself and in him. Eventing is supposed to be fun, and I don’t want to rush up the levels. I need the partnership because if something goes wrong, that horse needs to save me. I’m going to try to take advantage of the opportunity he presents: to sit on one of the best horses in the country and learn all I can from him. Theoretically, I’d like to get him to Fair Hill in the fall, but if it doesn’t happen, that’s OK too. ”

The last part of this story is the best, and I hope a year from now I’m writing about their success in this endeavor. “What I’d really like to do is see if I can compete in my last year as a young rider at NAJYRC in both pure dressage and the eventing,” Arden said. “That would be very cool.”

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