'They're Both All About Feel': How Christian Simonson's Pilot Training Helps Him Soar in the Dressage Ring

'They're Both All About Feel': How Christian Simonson's Pilot Training Helps Him Soar in the Dressage Ring

If you watched U.S. Equestrian’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic earlier this month, did anything stand out to you? I’ll give you a hint, this rider was the only male and rode the stunning liver chestnut stallion, FRH Rassolini. Did you guess correctly? Let me introduce you to Christian Simonson – don’t forget the name as I’m positive we’ll see him winning international dressage grands prix around the world for years to come.

Christian is like any other 16-year-old. He likes to hang out with his friends, spend time with his family, and loves sports. But Christian isn’t just a normal teenager, his sport of choice is dressage – and he’s on the fast track to becoming the next U.S. dressage super star. I may be getting ahead of myself, so let’s take a step back and get to know the real Christian.

A Feeling That Can’t Be Replicated

A native of California, Christian was born to parents who were both involved with horses growing up. His mother rode when she was a kid, and his dad grew up on a farm riding Western. So horses are in Christian’s blood, but dressage – an uncommon discipline for a young boy in Southern California.

“I went to a barn with my sister and rode all these Western ponies and I just had an amazing time. I was hooked from there on,” Christian explains. “It was one of those moments where it was ‘let’s go ride for fun on a trail horse’ one day and it slowly progressed from there.”

Less than six years after he first sat in a dressage saddle as a 10-year-old kid, Christian has won individual silver and team gold at the 2017 FEI North American Youth Championships, team silver at the 2018 FEI North American Youth Championships, become a member of the Discover Dressage™ USEF/USDF Emerging Athlete Program, and he’s a two-time participant in the USEF Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic.

Not too shabby for a teenager who just got his driver’s license.

Christian and FRH Rassolini working with Robert Dover.

Although Christian tried his hand at jumping and Western, there was something about dressage that made him feel invincible, and it didn’t hurt that he had quite the knack for it from the beginning.

“The best thing about dressage is the technical portion of it, which I find extremely fascinating. But also the feel of dressage – like doing a giant extended trot or one-tempis – you can’t really replicate that feeling in any other equestrian sport, but that’s my personal opinion,” Christian says. “You develop a serious one-ness with the horse in dressage compared to jumping or another discipline. That connection and that really technical and personal bond that you have with your horse is really amazing.”

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Living in Southern California does come with some benefits when it comes to riding dressage. Besides its excellent weather, for the past four years Christian has trained with Olympian Jan Ebeling at his home base in Moorpark, Calif.

Painting the Picture of Brilliance

Besides training under Jan on a regular basis, Christian’s prowess in the ring has been elevated by the legendary Robert Dover. A three-time Olympic medalist himself, Robert recently retired as the U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor, a position he held since 2013. Now focusing on up-and-coming talent, Robert’s annual clinic in Wellington, Fla. features promising Under 25 riders looking to make their mark on the international scene. And that’s exactly what Christian is aiming to do.

Although this was his second time participating in the clinic, Christian was prepared to bring his “A” game in front of Robert.

“He always brings such intensity and brilliance to each lesson that you have with him. Even when he’s speaking in a normal conversation, there are so many quotes that you keep and remember and use every single day as you ride, which I find absolutely fascinating with him,” Christian says.

Some of his favorite takeaways include, “If you have your leg on the horse too much, then the horse becomes completely dull to the aids,” and “You have all the colors in your brain, you just need to paint the picture.”

On a Horse or in the Air, It’s All About Feel

Besides his excellence in dressage, Christian's other passion is flying. And not the type of flying that you feel when you’re performing an extended trot across the diagonal. I’m talking about flying airplanes – a Cessna 172SP and Cirrus SR22 to be exact.

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Following in the footsteps of his father, a pilot, and his sister, who recently got her license, Christian is using his natural feel for dressage and parlaying it to the cockpit.

“I really love intense and intellectually stimulating things. There are a lot of ties to piloting and dressage,” Christian explains with a voice wise beyond his years.

“Getting the perfect landing when you’re coming in is a lot like trying to perfect your, let’s say, half-passes. It’s all about feel. As you go in [about to land] you look at the path and check the indicators if you’re too high or low relative to the runway, and it’s kind of like knowing if you’re aligned on the centerline.

“You feel the airplane descending, you look at your turbulence and speed gauge to see how fast you’re going, then you go down and feel the ground effect, you start to float, you flare up, you feel the wind and start to slow down and develop some drag. And hopefully if you get right into that ground effect, you’re able to touch the runway and have the perfect landing.

“It’s like you’re coming down the centerline, then you feel your horse getting excited and you do two changes to the left and then a change to half-pass to the right and you look at your line kind of how you check the speed gauge. They’re both all about feel.”

The Sky's the Limit

As for what the future holds, the sky's the limit (pun intended) for Christian. Although he’s only a sophomore in high school, he’s setting his goals high and flying his planes even higher.

“I have really big goals. Certainly being on a team, competing in the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games – those are huge goals and ones that I would really love to accomplish,” Christian explains, adding the Pan American Games and Aachen to his bucket list as well. “I think that also being in the Emerging Athlete Program helps to make those goals a little more realistic and have a pathway to achieving the larger goals.”

Keeping his eyes set on the ultimate dream of strutting the stars and stripes and representing the United States around the world, Christian is staying focused on what most 16-year-olds would pay attention to right now – getting into college.

But don’t count on Christian taking a break from the saddle any time soon. His horses FRH Rassolini and Donizetti will be in tow to whatever college he chooses. Harvard, anyone?

Read this must-know wisdom from Robert Dover next:

10 Lessons We Learned From Robert Dover That Will Change the Way You View Your Riding

What Would It Cost to Hire Robert Dover As My Life Coach? 8 More Lessons From the King of Positivity

Photos by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.