Schooling Horse Trials Spotlight: South Wind Dressage & Eventing Association

Inspired by the formation of an Area I Schooling Horse Trials Championship earlier this year, we wanted to feature more awesome local eventing organizations that are recognizing and celebrating local low-level eventers by featuring them in our new series, “Schooling Horse Trials Spotlight.”

SWDEA member, Courtney Master on Roulette

SWDEA member, Courtney Master on Roulette. Photo courtesy of Sarah MacKusick.

In the panhandle region of Florida, the next generation of eventers are learning the ropes and honing their skills with the help of the South Wind Dressage & Eventing Association (SWDEA) of Tallahassee, Florida. SWDEA unites local riders by working with local barns, instructors and trainers to promote and provide them with clinics, other educational opportunities, year-end awards and schooling shows — including a championship.

SWDEA originated as a child organization of Deep South Dressage & Combined Training Association (DSDCTA), a USDF Group Member Organization (GMO) serving all of north Florida and extending down to Ocala. SWDEA, also a USDF GMO, originally only offered awards for dressage, but has since expanded to include eventing, combined training, jumpers and, most recently, western dressage. 

Maddie Smyly on Joey. Photo courtesy of Sarah MacKusick.

Maddie Smyly on Joey. Photo courtesy of Sarah MacKusick.

Sarah MacKusick, the organization’s current vice president and scorekeeper, became involved with SWDEA in 2009. With a hunter background, Sarah had originally joined SWDEA in order to get involved in their jumper shows. However, when Sarah began teaching, her students at Iron Star Equestrian were actually interested in eventing. 

Sarah immersed herself in the rules of eventing, also taking clinics and encouraging her students to do the same. “I love the relationship that is built between horse and rider,” Sarah said of her new sport. “There has to be a large amount of trust between them in order for cross country to happen. I also like how well rounded eventers have to be; they have to be disciplined, calculating and accurate.”

Sarah MacKusick on Luna Bella

Sarah MacKusick on Luna Bella. Photo courtesy of Sarah Mackusick.

With the prestigious Red Hills International Horse Trials taking place within the city limits every March, Tallahassee is no stranger to the eventing scene. However, Red Hills only offers Preliminary level and higher. For a USEA recognized event with Beginner Novice through Training levels, riders near Tallahassee must travel about three and a half hours away to Poplar Place Farm in Hamilton, Georgia. Schooling shows hosted and sanctioned by SWDEA fill a local void for low-level eventers; their events offer Starter through Novice, and combined tests go up to Training. 

SWDEA hosts four shows per year and also recognizes local shows in the area, including events at some local eventing barns like Gray Lily Farm, Mahan Farm and Little’s Crossing. Only points accumulated at these SWDEA and SWDEA-sanctioned shows count towards qualifiers for the championship show, which takes place every November. 

“We decided to do this in order to promote more local showing and to give riders who may not have the experience and/or finances to compete in larger championships (like the American Eventing Championships) a chance to compete in a local championship against their peers,” Josey Lillibridge, the organization’s current president, said.

Josey Lillibridge on Bonfire

Josey Lillibridge on Bonfire. Photo courtesy of Josey Lillibridge.

“The grassroots level is where everything starts and many of our riders will never show at recognized shows. We try to make our Championship show a really big deal for them,” added Sarah. Special awards are offered as prizes for the championship classes and all the championship competitors get special recognition at the year-end awards banquet.

However, SWDEA still offers a way for riders who show in USEA recognized events to get involved. USEA scores can be submitted in addition to scores from schooling events to count towards the year-end awards program — a separate entity from the championship.

Having a mix of rider experience levels expands the breadth of the organization. “Some of our riders have never shown before and others have shown nationally,” Josey said. “Some of our riders never intend to show out of town and others use our local shows in order to better prepare them for bigger, out of town shows.”

Lindsay Barrack on There's an App for That. Photo Courtesy of Sarah MacKusick.

Lindsay Barrack on There’s an App for That. Photo Courtesy of Sarah MacKusick.

Josey was born into a family of eventers: Her parents, Debbie and Glenn, ran a successful dressage and eventing barn (which is now run by her brother, Casey) for more than 30 years. Debbie showed through the FEI levels of dressage and attained her “R” judge’s license, judging both dressage competitions and USEA events. Glenn was a full-time farrier and also a rider himself, starting all of the farm’s young horses. Josey has been involved with SWDEA since its inception. 

“I really love eventing for many reasons: The three phases challenge horses and riders and produce very well-rounded equestrians,” Josey said. “Also, eventing really is anyone’s game; while it is expensive to compete in USEA events, you don’t have to have a $100,000 horse in order to compete and be very successful. I really like that aspect.”

Josey Lillibridge, at age 10, on Tic Tac Toe

Josey Lillibridge, at age 10, on Tic Tac Toe. Photo courtesy of Josey Lillibridge.

As a local organization, SWDEA has much to offer a variety of eventers. “From up-and-coming young riders, to trainers bringing along young horses, to those wanting to switch from another discipline to eventing, SWDEA provides a safe, local, affordable environment in which everyone can enjoy eventing in their own way,” Josey said. “We prepare our horses and riders for bigger events by showing them the ropes, teaching them the rules and exposing them to the show environment on a smaller scale.” 

Sarah and Josey both recount immense growth in SWDEA’s membership and participation within the past five years. The increase in number of active members has allowed them to allocate more of their finances towards shows, year-end awards and a scholarship program. As their membership has increased, they have had to increase the number of board members and positions within the club. A new way of delegating duties and a new volunteer system has helped the organization to run smoothly as they have grown.

Thanks to the help of their webmaster, Rich Cefola, the club also been excited to roll out a brand new website that hosts online scoring, show entries and membership registration. SWDEA has become a family affair for Rich’s family; his wife, Buffy, holds the position of secretary, and their two daughters, Carlee and Rylee, frequently compete. 

Carlee Cefola on Momentum

Carlee Cefola on Momentum. Photo courtesy of Sarah Mackusick.

SWDEA’s membership is made up of a diverse profile with ages ranging from around 6 to 60 years old; including junior and young riders, adult amateurs, a few professionals and a number of supporting members who do not ride but are active in volunteering with the organization. With such diversity in the number of ways to get involved, SWDEA surely has something every equestrian in the region, and it’s good for the community, too.  

“I think these organizations give kids and teens the opportunity to do something really useful with their time. It helps teach them to set goals and achieve them, teaches sportsmanship and responsibility,” Sarah said. “It’s also wonderful to have a record of their achievements through the year and to earn an award at the end of the year that represents their hard work and dedication.”

Go SWDEA. Go Eventing.

Is there a great local eventing organization near you? Let us know by emailing [email protected] and we’ll highlight it in a future edition of  “Schooling Horse Trials Spotlight.”