'I Feel More Pressure to Perform': What It's Really Like Getting the Ride on a Gold Medalist

'I Feel More Pressure to Perform': What It's Really Like Getting the Ride on a Gold Medalist

Alessandra Ferrucci rode 20-year-old Sagacious HF, a Pan American Games team gold and individual silver medal winner, in the 2019 US Equestrian Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic Week. She hopes to compete Sagacious at the FEI North American Youth Championships for Region 3 this year.

It all started in April 2018 at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival. I was with Al Guden and his wife, Andrea Nason, and they asked if I would like to come to their barn and ride Sagacious with Petra Hoffman, their coach. I was previously a working student for Andrea’s daughter, Caroline Roffman, and she suggested to Al that I would be a good match with Sagacious. After seeing how well we paired and Petra offering her praises – my boldness in trying a line of one-tempis one-handed gave everyone a good chuckle – Al offered me the ride, and our journey began.

It can be intimidating riding such an experienced horse. At home he is just good ole “Kitty”, but when we arrived at the Global Dressage Festival showgrounds for US Equestrian’s Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic Week last month, his entire mindset changed to “game on”. On Sunday, in the middle of my warm-up, when I was preparing to perform my broadcasted practice test, Kitty exploded. He jumped up on his hind end, grabbed the bit, and attempted to take-off. Kitty has no idea of his age; he still thinks he’s a young horse! Several people scattered but I was able to get him back to a semi-relaxed state.

That episode certainly rattled my nerves. But in those short few moments before my test, Mr. Dover told me a funny story about a rider who had a horse start running through the grand prix test when the rider wanted to do the grand prix special. Robert was able to take my mind off the explosion and refocus my thoughts on the positive. He told me Kitty and I would do great and I headed into the ring believing in myself. That’s when you say, “Wow, what a coach!”

"He accepts nothing less than 100 percent."

I feel more pressure to perform and ride well because I am riding a “been there, done that” superstar. Kitty knows the ropes, so I feel others may demand more from my riding. Everyone, myself included, knows what Sagacious is capable of scoring. This creates monumental pressure to perform to the best of my abilities. When mistakes are made, I have to own up to them and then apologize to all the people who help, believe in, and sponsor me. I cannot afford to buy an international grand prix superstar, so disappointing sponsors and risking losing Kitty is not an option for me. That is most intimidating of all.

Photo by Al Guden.

Getting to Know ‘Kitty’

Of course, it takes time to develop a partnership with a new horse. My greatest challenge was getting Kitty to open up in his personality. He was previously with Chase Hickok for a few years so I could tell he was upset about a rider change. He was a little like “Who is this kid?” I eventually broke through to him and now he is a cuddle bug. He loves his morning walk, Sunday trail rides, night check cuddles, and resting his head on me while he stands on the Theraplate and begs for cookies. He likes to be the center of my attention 24/7.

When it comes to riding, figuring out all of Kitty’s buttons was – and still is – difficult. He’s super sensitive to everything – too much leg or too little, or holding him for a fraction of a second too long affects the ride. He’s an extraordinary horse. For me, the buttons are one of the coolest things about him. So many times I think I’ve got them all figured out and then I find a new one during my next ride. I think one way to manage the buttons on a horse like Kitty is with a little bit of trial and error until you get that “ah-hah” moment.

These fundamental lessons from Robert Dover will change the way you view your riding.

Kitty is the best schoolmaster because he tells you when your riding is slightly off. He’s intelligent and knows he’s great at what he does. He accepts nothing less than 100 percent correct aids from the rider (maybe 95 percent if you have sugar in your pocket). Kitty makes you so attentive to everything you're doing from your fingers to your toes!

But no matter what, his one-tempis are always, without fail, one-handed or bareback, perfectly and impeccably straight. That’s the only freebie I get from Kitty!

Now, I am applying what I’ve learned from him to Anastasia, the young horse I ride and train for Iana Gonzalez, my co-worker at Golden Point Partners. Anastasia is proof of how Kitty has improved my riding abilities due to her rapid advancements in the dressage levels.

Photo by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.

Riding With Robert Dover

This year was my first experience riding in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic. The first time riding for Robert was nerve-racking, especially on a live stream and in front of an audience. I have always admired Robert’s teaching style and couldn’t believe I was finally getting to ride with him. The lesson itself was one of the best parts of the clinic. He instilled a great amount of confidence in my ability as a rider in just a short session.

One of the things I especially liked was when Robert told me to make a movie in my head and visualize what I want Kitty and I to look like when performing a movement. He told me to think in my head when we do our extended trot “Verdades, Valegro... Sagacious!” He also said that if I’m doing a movement and not happy with Kitty’s response to my aids, “Don’t just sit there.” I need to make Kitty respond immediately and make it clear what I’m asking him to do. These two things have already impacted my riding greatly. When I ride now, I find myself being more firm (I had been a softie towards him because he’s my sweet little Kitty) and riding what I really want. I know he can do it, I just have to ask for it.

"I find myself constantly asking, 'Where’s the stuffing?'"

I also rode twice with Olivia LaGoy-Weltz at the clinic. She really helped me figure out how to ride Kitty from back to front off my leg and seat. She told me to keep him from going into a slinky-like state when asking him for the collection by half-halting with my seat and legs and giving him space in the reins to help keep his neck out while closing his hind legs. She also told me to be sure to make him hold his own balance and keep him on my seat while letting go in the hand until he fills the contact I want.

A good visual she gave me was to imagine I’m on a surfboard and know whether I’m riding the back or front of the wave versus the middle. This gave me a great representation of staying balanced in the middle “riding the wave”. She also gave me another great visual by asking me where the “Sagacious stuffing” was. When I’m on a circle, I need to keep his “stuffing” equal on both sides to keep him from falling in or out. Now I find myself constantly asking, “Where’s the stuffing?”

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We did it...our very first show together. We ended up first with a 70% in the PSG. I was so overwhelmed with joy with how good of a ride we had that I broke into tears after our last halt. This opportunity has been one that I have dreamed of since I was a young girl and I can’t believe that it is coming true. I had to pinch myself multiple times today to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. So here’s to the start of Sagacious and I’s journey, it will be one of a lifetime. ❤️❤️❤️❤️ Tons of thank you’s to Al Guden for believing and entrusting me with this very special horse and the trainers who have helped get me there Petra Hofmann and Caroline Roffman. Also a thank you to my lovely sponsors who I couldn’t do this without Choice of Champions , EQ Saddle Science and Sox for Horses. Last but not least thank you too all of my continuous supporters Valerie C. Ferrucci, Andrea Nason, Ben Meredith, Dominic Vargas, Julia Harrison Lee, Iana Gonzalez, Cassie Ball, Jessi Louw and everyone else tagged!! I love you all thank you! ❤️ #sagacioushf #hyperionfarm #psg #u25 #fei #youngriders #classicalriding #blackknight #love #dreams #come #true #blessed #happiness #joy #lovelife

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Big Goals Moving Forward

My biggest takeaway from the clinic was learning how many people are dedicated to helping aspiring young riders reach their goals. I am so grateful for what USEF and USET have done to help young riders like me get a good education and provide opportunities. From first-hand experience, I know how the team around the rider is just as important to success as is your own hard work and dedication.

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I’d like to thank all the amazing people who have helped me gain this opportunity with Sagacious. Al Guden for trusting me with his beloved horse, my mom Valerie Ferrucci for constantly supporting me, Caroline Roffman for helping me get this opportunity with Al and providing coaching over the summer, Petra Hofmann for helping me along this journey, my work family at Golden Point Partners for being so supportive, and my sponsors.

Most importantly, I came away from the clinic with a strong sense that our country has an incredible amount of talented riders from all areas that are supportive of each other. I look forward to getting to know, learning from, and competing with the riders I met at the clinic. I felt as if it unified all of us as one big team and that was an indescribable feeling. I cannot wait to represent the United States of America one day, see our flag hung high, and listen to our national anthem play.

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Feature photo by Taylor Pence/US Equestrian.