August 2015 - Europe 101
Written by Genay Vaughn with Nan Meek
Tuesday, 04 August 2015 20:41
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USEF Developing Dressage Program experience offers ample lessons.

by Genay Vaughn with Nan Meek

Thanks to the USEF Developing Dressage Program and with funding assistance from the Courtney’s Quest Scholarship Award of Dressage4Kids Inc., and my parents Greg and Michele Vaughn, I was able to travel to Europe this summer with my Hanoverian stallion Donarweiss GGF to train and compete in the Under 25 divisions at Rotterdam and Hagen. My gratitude to them is endless.

Our pirouette in Rotterdam, a show that taught me so much! Photo:

None of this would have been possible without the lifelong support of my parents and my mom’s day-to-day coaching. The support I’ve received from family, friends, and these wonderful organizations makes me feel truly blessed and inspires me to work harder to be deserving of their faith in me.

I hope you enjoy this recap of some of our summer’s highs, lows and our many lessons learned.

Preparation? Scramble!

Originally, I was scheduled to depart the U.S. at the end of July, after my finals at the University of California, Davis were completed. Instead, I found out mid-finals that I had one week to wrap up school arrangements, find a flight for “DW” and myself, make travel and accommodation arrangements, and leave on May 31. I was able to take some of my finals by computer while in Europe, with one left to finish as soon as I can schedule it with my professor now that I’m home.

Thankfully, the USEF, as our national federation does all the show entries, but making the rest of the arrangements for the very first time, on a week’s notice, was something of a challenge. Lucky for me, Karl Webster with Apollo Shipping was incredibly helpful in arranging transportation for DW. I flew from San Franciso to Amsterdam a day before DW flew out of Los Angeles, so I had a little time to set up his stall before he arrived.

Hagen was an amazing show, and a great learning experience. I’m so proud of DW. Photo: Jessica Pijlman,

Training for a New Level of Performance

For the first couple of days, we just walked and let DW recover from the flight and get accustomed to his new surroundings. There was a show at Compiegne three days later, but it was too soon after the flight and I thought it would be best to let DW get settled into training and preparation for Rotterdam.

Johann Hinnemann’s barn was only 30 or 40 minutes away, and we were originally supposed to board there, but it unfortunately was full. He kindly drove to our barn to give us lessons. He targeted piaffe and passage, along with helping us polish the rest of the U-25 Grand Prix test.

Kathleen Raine also gave us lessons, helping me get DW working more over the back and through, and getting the piaffe and passage more reactive as they need to be at this level.

Throughout this trip, I saw the need for the horse’s response to be incredibly reactive – a big reaction to a very small aid – because at this level, the other horses and riders are so brilliant that you need to bring your best every time, in every movement.

First Competition: Rotterdam, The Netherlands

The Netherlands atmosphere was so amazing! There was a long walk from the stable to the arena, through a beautiful green forest. But that was almost our downfall, through a funny (in hindsight) confusion about the rules.

USEF Dressage Developing Coach Debbie McDonald was in Rotterdam to help us as part of the amazing support from USEF. Photo: Shannon Brinkman,

During our warm-up, the steward pulled us out and said we couldn’t even continue warming up, much less compete, because we were required to have a curb chain cover. None of us had ever heard of that rule, but wonderful Brian Hafner ran all the way back to the barn to find a curb chain cover while DW and I sat there instead of warming up. Then, the steward came back to apologize and said that was a national, not international, rule so we could continue.

It was an honest mistake that didn’t help our warm-up, but it showed how important it is to know the rules, to have a great team to help you, and to be able to take things in stride. Things like this happen at home shows as well as shows halfway around the world, and as a competitor you just have to do your best no matter what happens.

We went back into the warm-up, then straight into the test. DW was good but I was a little nervous and made some mistakes in my tempis. It was a way bigger environment than in California, with things like 50 kids in neon vests right beside the ring, and a lot more spectators overall. We had some mistakes, but I was very proud of how cool DW stayed in the electric environment. We scored 66.791% for eighth place in a quite large class going into the Freestyle the next day.

In the U.S., the Under 25s aren’t required to ride a Freestyle, so we planned to create one just for this trip. With our original schedule, there would have been time to design it and practice until we knew it inside-out. When the schedule changed from late July to early June, we were lucky to even practice it once beforehand. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go as well as I would have liked and we placed 10th on a score of 67.475%. Although I would of liked to place higher I was very happy with how we did especially because the U-25 classes are so large.

Throughout the show, it was crazy in the warm-up ring. To be riding right next to Edward Gal and Patrik Kittel: I was in awe, thinking, “Is this real?” It’s something you dream about. There, dressage is like their football: people know what dressage is, and they watch every little thing. It’s so much bigger than in the U.S. You can’t afford any mistakes; you’ve got to leave it all out there in the ring. It’s a whole different level of competition, and it makes you “up your game” so it becomes a new normal.

In Hagen, there was a welcome parade of countries in the town square. From left, Kathleen Raine, Chase Hickok, Shelly Francis, Chef d’Equipe Christine Traurig, Genay Vaughn and Charlotte Jorst with the local young rider who led our group in the parade. Photo: Michele Vaughn.

Time Out in Denmark


Between shows, I had a couple of days off and I got to go to Denmark with Charlotte Jorst. She’s the Danish-born U.S. rider with gorgeous horses like Kastel Denmark’s Nintendo, among others, and the Kastel Denmark clothing line. We went to the Nordic Championships as well as to the barn of Andreas Helgstrand, where I watched her try out young horses. It’s an incredible facility, with four or five indoors arenas, more than 300 horses, and barns so clean you could eat off the floors.

Another lesson I learned: always bring your boots and breeches. I didn’t bring mine to Denmark, so when Andreas offered to let me ride some horses, I couldn’t. It was so nice of Andreas to offer, and it was so nice of Charlotte to take me with her. It was a fun trip, and taught me to never leave home without my boots and breeches. (Almost, kidding.)

Second Competition: Hagen, Germany

Back at the barn, we had a few more days of training with Johann and Kathleen. They were some of the best lessons ever, and I felt more prepared for the next show in Hagen.

DW felt amazing warming up for our first test. Again, fans were close to the ring but that didn’t bother him, until we entered the ring at the same time as lots of spectators were walking over gravel to get into the stands. “I’m outta here,” he must have thought as he bolted. I quickly got him under control again and we started our test. He was good but seemed intimidated, and it wasn’t our best result. We were 18th on a score of 65.579%.

The next day began great. DW seemed to have forgotten all about yesterday, and the scoreboard showed us hitting 69 and 70 in our trot work. We picked up the canter, started the extended canter … and the “background” music switched to a techno Lady Gaga number at full volume. He took off at a more than extended canter and our scores dropped to 64. We ended up with an overall 65.326% for 16th, disappointing after such a good start.

Again, a big difference from home, where the background music is soft, spectators are usually quiet and wait until after a test to enter or leave the stands. At European shows, the background music sounds more like Freestyle – chosen to complement the horse but chosen without your knowledge or input, and played very loud. This is another thing to prepare for ahead of time, next time, and another learning experience for me.

Leaving, On a Jet Plane

Two days later, we returned home on the same plane, together but separated only by a wall. Our KLM flight was a double-decker that looked absolutely normal if you didn’t know there were 15 horses in the back section. The front of the plane had normal passenger seating with a door in the back wall that opened into the horse section. Those of us traveling with the horses sat in the last rows, and went into the back to hold the horses during take-off and landing.

The horses were amazing: they stood in their portable boxes for hours before takeoff, because it took time to load them and then load the luggage and passengers, and they traveled like they’d always done it. To get them into the plane, they are first loaded into little portable boxes, about the size of breeding stocks, then the boxes are lifted with a forklift onto conveyors a bit like the moving sidewalks in large airports, and moved into the back of the plane.

DW was so calm and collected. A few times I was asked, “Are you sure he’s a stallion?” I’m sure, and not only because I now have one of his sons, a colt I named D’Maggio, by DW and out of a mare we bred, named Diva Starr.

There’s a new generation coming along, and I hope that my experiences in Europe this summer will help me be an even better rider and trainer for D’Maggio when it’s his turn in the future.

Experience, the Best Teacher

That’s what they say, and I have to agree. Seeing the quality of riding among the best riders in the world, sharing a warm-up ring, watching what they do to prepare their horses was like a master class.

Being able to take lessons with Johann and Kathleen, to be coached by Debbie McDonald, and to develop an even closer relationship with DW were priceless experiences.

I learned so much on this trip, lessons about life as well as lessons about competition, teamwork, enjoying the high points and overcoming disappointments. The lessons learned during this trip will be with me forever and I am so thankful that I was able to experience this once in a lifetime opportunity.