enay Vaughn grew up surrounded by professional athletes. Her mother, Michele, is an accomplished dressage rider, and her father, Greg, is a former Major League Baseball (MLB) player. So it was only a matter of time before the 24-year-old dressage rider, who was named to the first U25 team representing the United States at the 2015 CDIO5*/CDIU25 Rotterdam in The Netherlands, started to make a name for herself in her chosen sport.
Genay knows what it feels like to rub elbows with athletes who excel in their craft and how much benefit stems from such an environment. It’s similar to osmosis — the idea of absorbing inspiration and learning the ins and outs of the sporting world by spending time with those immersed in it.
“My dad, who was an MLB player for 15 years, always told me that they would put the rookie players next to the seasoned veterans in the locker room,” Genay says. “That way, they could learn from the best.”
'You’ll learn so much just by observing and listening.'
It’s this concept that prompted Genay to seek a similar opportunity, but she recognized that mentorship is an element of equestrian sport that is lacking. “You can only have so many working students,” she says. “So I needed to figure out how to best put myself, a ‘rookie,’ next to the seasoned pros in the horse world.”
Through a mutual friend, Genay was able to secure a connection to decorated Danish rider Andreas Helgstrand. Perhaps best known by casual fans as the rider of the sensational gray mare Blue Hors Matine, the duo had a storied career, including rocking the world with their legendary, silver medal-winning freestyle at the 2006 FEI World Equestrian Games™ in Aachen (Not familiar? Drop everything and watch this).
Andreas was preparing to open up a full-scale training and sales operation in the United States when Genay reached out. Expanding his training and sales operations to international soil, the American-iteration of Helgstrand Dressage would be a springboard for horses sourced from the Danish arm of the business.
Photo by Lily Forado.
Genay was granted a riding interview with Andreas in Denmark. Helgstrand Dressage would need riders to help train and produce their horses coming to the United States, and Genay was up for the task. In her quest to find a program where she could immerse herself and learn, she’d found the perfect fit.
The learning opportunities with this position have been invaluable for Genay, so of course we had to pick her brain about the biggest takeaways.
1. No One is Better Than Anyone
At Helgstrand Dressage, Genay says, there is no “hierarchy,” and there is not a single job too menial for anyone’s doing. With a staff of six at the American base, all members pitch in for chores. While specific riders such as Dr. Ulf Möller, Anne Marie Hosbond, and Kenneth Damgaard are the veteran riders, the operation feels more like a family and a team than anything else and fosters excellent team morale.
“This environment really sets you up to be successful, because there is so much happening at any given time,” she explains. “We have both young and veteran horses coming in and out at all times, and you have to stay on your toes, but everyone pitches in to help get things done smoothly.”
2. Coach Won’t Always Be There
Also common among European-style programs is the type of hands-off coaching. “You really have to learn how to think for yourself,” Genay says.
“We usually aren’t getting full lessons — this is a training position — but everyone kind of keeps an eye on each other and helps out. This is more about being around the best riders and knowing that you’ll learn so much just by observing and listening. You don’t get to have a coach instructing you every step of the way, and I value that independence a lot.”
3. Train a Horse Anyone Can Ride
“We’re a sales operation, but we don’t just market to professionals,” Genay says of Helgstrand Dressage. “We’re putting the training into these horses so that the amateur can come out and find their horse or a pro can come and find their next superstar.”
The importance of having a universally well-trained horse is one that Helgstrand Dressage takes pride in. And this is far from a small undertaking given the sheer volume of horses they work with.
Photo by Susan Stickle.
“We are training the horse so that anyone can get on and continue to have good rides once they bring the horse home,” Genay says. “It’s not just horses that are good with specific riders or professionals. We enjoy keeping the horses happy and are genuinely excited when a good match is made.”
4. Be a Jack of All Trades
Growing up, Genay learned a lot about breeding and had the opportunity to ride different types of horses. Genay’s family farm, Starr Vaughn Equestrian, based in Elk Grove, California, is also a breeding farm, which lends itself well to working with a variety of horses.
This background, Genay says, has been a huge advantage when it comes to being a professional. “Being around the industry’s best professionals really makes you step up your game,” Genay says. Just like the young players in that baseball locker room her father used to tell her about, Genay has found herself working right alongside the sport’s best to perfect and hone her skills.
This skill set includes riding any horse confidently and well. Yes, the belief at Helgstrand Dressage is to train each horse to be universally rideable, but that comes, in part, from the rider’s ability to adapt.
“You could ride a young four-year-old and then ride a grand prix horse,” Genay says of a typical day. “That ability to switch is so important when it comes to training a horse.”
5. Find Your Motivation
Genay now splits her time between Helgstrand Dressage in Wellington, Florida and her home base in California. It’s a demanding schedule, but she knows the value of the education she’s receiving.
“I take what I learn and apply it to my everyday riding and to teaching my own students at home,” Genay says. “I also take in sales horses at home, so working with Ulf and Andreas has really helped me learn the business.”
These experiences fuel Genay’s desire to continue improving her own riding. When she’s not at the barn, you can find her watching her riding idols on YouTube or watching an inspiring sports documentary.
Genay has learned to draw motivation from any source, and uses that motivation to keep grinding, day in and day out. “To be your best, you have to be willing to give it your all. But you have to love it, too, because at the end of the day, it’s not easy. And I find if you can find your inspiration from your work, you’ll continue to really love it.”
Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.