‘I Can't Get Enough!’ Dressage Rider Lauren Chumley Gets Her Kicks on Cross-Country

‘I Can't Get Enough!’ Dressage Rider Lauren Chumley Gets Her Kicks on Cross-Country

By Lauren Chumley with Amber Heintzberger

Professional grand prix dressage rider Lauren Chumley of Pittstown, N.J. spends many weekends competing in eventing, giving herself and her horses a fun “out of the box” experience. Lauren grew up near Cincinnati, Ohio, taking lessons at a local all-around stable and had dreamed of eventing. Every April, her parents let her skip school to volunteer at the Kentucky Three-Day Event. Though she ultimately became a professional dressage rider and has a thriving training, lesson, and import/sales business, Lauren’s passion for eventing persisted. Today, Lauren events several of her dressage horses at the lower levels and has found the experience is not only good for herself, but also the horses’ mental and physical health.

Dressage is my “day job” and I should probably stick with it, but eventing is my hobby and I can’t get enough. Spending five days a week going in circles in the dressage arena is a lot, so one day each week my horses jump and one day they condition. I don’t think their dressage training suffers from getting out of the ring – just the opposite, actually. I find the dressage horses who also event are fitter, sounder, and braver. When you think about it, top human athletes cross train, so why can’t horses?

My grand prix pony, Avatar’s Jazzman, did the intermediate II, the grand prix, and the grand prix freestyle at the Regional Championships. The FEI tests are long and when a horse has to do them multiple days in a row they need stamina. Also you have to ride without a whip, so keeping the horse in front of your leg can be a challenge if they are getting tired. The conditioning we do for eventing has been so good for him. Last year he was tired by the last day of the Regional Championships, but this year since he does trot sets and canter sets to stay fit to compete at training level events, he was ready to go.

Lauren and Avatar's Jazzman compete at grand prix level dressage and training level eventing. Photo by Suzanne Fischer.

We do all that fitness work outside of the dressage arena, and I feel like my dressage horses stay sounder when they go out and work on other types of footing; they go on hard ground, soft ground, and grass. A lot of small horse trials have the dressage ring set up on grass, and even if it’s raining, you don’t scratch (unless you’re a weenie!). I’m not saying everyone should go ride their six-figure dressage horses in ankle deep mud, and I’m not saying it would work for every horse, but I do think riding them on different footing and doing a variety of things with them only helps them stay sound. I’m going to knock on some wood here, but I haven’t had a lot of the problems some people have. And I’m not just showing ponies, I’m showing Warmbloods, too, and they do really well. Nevertheless, I think you have to be smart about it; don’t just throw caution to the wind and take unnecessary risks.

I feel like my dressage horses stay sounder when they go out and work on other types of footing.

That said, I’ve gone cross-country in not great conditions and I use studs when I need to, even in the dressage ring. I was at a dressage show in Saugerties, N.Y. in a ring where the footing hadn’t been redone and it was pouring rain. The footing was really a mess and people were scratching left and right, but my horse’s shoes were drilled and tapped for eventing, so I put studs in for the grand prix and it worked great! It may not be the norm, but on that occasion it worked for me.

All this exposure they get working outside the ring and on different surfaces is so good for the horses’ mental fortitude, especially for the youngsters. I have a five-year-old Oldenburg mare, Santa Barbara DASH, who won the open FEI Young Horse Final for Five-Year-Olds at Dressage at Devon then competed in the U.S. Eventing Association Young Event Horse Championship just a few weeks later then went to the U.S. Dressage Federation Finals a few weeks after that. At the USDF Finals in Kentucky, I schooled her in the Alltech Arena before the show started. It’s a big indoor with lots of atmosphere, and a lot of the young dressage horses have a hard time dealing with that, but she goes to all these horse trials and has seen so much that she was fine. Also, some of the dressage riders were scratching because of the rain, but the footing was perfect. I was wet and cold but we competed.

No matter your preferred discipline, you can strengthen the bond with your horse with these five steps.
Lauren and Nikolas compete at intermediate level dressage and training level eventing. They are shown here competing at the USEA American Eventing Championships. Photo by Sportfot.

What I’m doing with my horses isn’t unheard of. German Olympian Ingrid Klimke competes in both dressage and eventing and famously uses a lot of cavaletti in her training. I do incorporate some cavaletti and gridwork into my training, but not as much as I should. I think it’s really good for them; I mostly do it for jump schooling, but I think it’s good for the dressage horses to teach them to compress themselves. The trot poles can make the half-halt happen for you, and it teaches the horses to be quick with their feet, which is good for both eventers and dressage horses.

My horse’s shoes were drilled and tapped for eventing, so I put studs in for the grand prix and it worked great!

Trying to compete in two sports is, of course, very time consuming and requires some juggling of schedules. Thankfully my clients are awesome, they’re just like, ‘You do you, man, we’ll be here in the ring working on our leg-yields’. They just indulge me. They’re awesome. And Melissa Dowling, who owns Avatar’s Jazzman and Nikolas (a training level eventer and intermediate I dressage pony) is so supportive of all these shenanigans!

Sure, the entire dressage community thinks I’m batshit crazy (and they’re actually probably correct). My dressage trainer is Jim Koford (who competed at Rolex Kentucky twice, mind you) and he’s like, ‘What’s the suicide mission this week?’ He thinks it’s crazy – basically he scoffs at it – but just between you and me, I think he’s into it.

Laura and training level eventer Santa Barbara DASH perform a first level musical freestyle at U.S. Dressage Finals.

My goal in life was to do training level, but then we moved up to preliminary, so I don’t know what the future holds for me as an event rider. I’m leasing this perfect Dutch Warmblood mare, Atlanta B, from Rita Reynolds. She’s smart and brave and athletic and she knows a lot more than me, which is awesome – I love doing it, but I have a lot to learn and this is a good way for me to go out and get my kicks with less risk. I’ve had her for about a year now; we started at novice, and after a while at training level it was getting kind of easy and boring, and then we won our first preliminary event. I’m having a really good time and I don’t know where it’s going, but people always told me if you have the right horse it wouldn’t matter how big the jumps are, and they’re right.

No one should have to navigate the crazy world of horse sports alone. Even top riders get by with a little help from their friends.

I’d say for anyone who wants to try eventing, just go for it, it’s so much fun. The horses enjoy it and I think it makes you a better rider, too. It literally gets you out of the [sand]box and makes you brave. It’s hard, yes, it’s even terrifying sometimes, but you don’t have to impress anyone, you can do a starter level horse trials and literally just trot over little logs out in a field. I don’t think I‘d ever event as a career; just watching my eventing coach Meg Kepferle go around the CCI2** at Fair Hill International was terrifying. That said, she told me I have to prepare just in case I do something really crazy like compete in a three-day event in the spring. You never know…

Feature photos by Suzanne Fischer and Sportfot.