Ayden Uhlir’s Journey in Pursuit of the 18-Year-Old Rider’s Passion for Dressage

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19 November 2013

Ayden Spencer Uhir and Sjapoer enjoying championship success. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Ayden Uhlir and Sjapoer enjoying championship success. © 2013 Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com



Ayden Uhlir confesses that unlike most kids her age at 18 she has almost no social life, plans to go to college only to keep her Mom happy, dropped soccer that was her dad’s love and is lousy at housework. And 18 months ago she left home in Texas to move 3,500 miles (5,600km) to Washington state and then to Southern California to pursue her passion for riding dressage.

The journey with Sjapoer, her 14-year-old KWPN gelding, paid big dividends in 2013 with both North American Young Rider Freestyle and Individual gold medals and team silver, and the United States Young Rider Championship title.

Enthusiasm that is infectious and confidence that seem bigger than her 5 ft. 4 in. (1.6m) leaves an interviewer in no doubt that her drive to excel will see her on the medals podium in the Brentina Cup Under-25 or Intermediate national championships as the next stage in her career in dressage.

“There’s nothing else I’m really good at except horses, and nothing I like as much as horses,” she told dressage-news.com after her 2013 championship season and preparing to move to San Diego, California to continue training with Jeremy Steinberg, her personal coach.

Jeremy, aged 38, is a trainer and competition rider as well as the youth coach for the U.S. Equestrian Federation. He is credited with implementing a nationwide program that both encourages young riders and trains horse and rider combinations for junior and young rider levels and provide the tools to move to higher levels.

He worked with Ayden at clinics in Texas and, almost two years ago, was impressed enough to invite her to Seattle where he was based for 11 years. She took him up on the offer and her mother, an academic, stayed in the Fort Worth suburb of Arlington.

“She’s a people person,” was the way he described Ayden. “I think she will go a long way in PR (public relations) and doing stuff to draw people to her. She is super outgoing. A lot of horse people get so insular–she’s the exact opposite. That will work to her advantage. She has no problem starting a conversation.

“As a rider, things come really easy to her… nothing is diffiult for her.”

Jeremy Steinberg. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com
Jeremy Steinberg. © Ken Braddick/dressage-news.com

Although she has a full scholarship to Seattle University–the school will hold it for a year in case she changes her mind about the move to California–Ayden decided that training with Jeremy was working so well she and Sjapoer would leave what she describes as the “doom and gloom weather” of Seattle to move to sunny Southern California.

Ayden was six years old when her mother took her to a ranch “in the boondocks” and put her on the “fattest, oldest horse alive” that would be minimum risk.

“Not five minutes later,” she recalled, “I said, ‘this is my thing’.”

She started jumping on a Caspian pony and, horror of horrors for invincible kids, she was made to wear a safety vest.

“When I was seven I got into dressage and I loved it,” she said.

Her father, a European professional soccer player now involved in sports marketing in the United States, got his daughter into the sport early and she has the scars on her legs to show for it.

But though Ayden inherited her father’s competitiveness, she “crushed his dreams” by not following him into soccer.

“I’m surprised he let me continue in dressage,” she said, “since his love of soccer is so deep.”

Her mother taught her the power of visualization, sending her to bed early to visualize exactly how she would ride a competition down to the millisecond.

She rode a string of horses at the lower national levels until she started competing Sjapoer in the spring of 2011.

Ayden Uhlir on the podium after winning the gold medal at the North American Young Rider Freestyle Championship. © 2013 SusanJStickle.com
Ayden Uhlir on the podium after winning the gold medal at the North American Young Rider Freestyle Championship. © 2013 SusanJStickle.com

The first year at the North American Junior Rider Championships in 2011 was less than promising–Sjapoer kicked her in the chest and the horse cut his eyelid that was stitched up but medication to ease pain couldn’t be administered because of drug rules.

“We didn’t do well,” was her candid assessment.

“We got all our accidents out in one year.”

The pair returned to the U.S. Junior Championships in 2012 to win team bronze and individual silver medals.

This year, the road was paved with gold.

The medals, however, seem a lot less important to Ayden than her relationship with Sjapoer, that she calls SJ.

“It’s definitely the bond with the horse,” Ayden said. “If I didn’t get along with SJ we wouldn’t want to work for each other. We see each other every single day. It’s a partnership. He’s a part of me, not to be dramatic but it’s true.”

When she hasn’t seen Sjapoer for two days, she admits “that is tough. I get worried that he misses me. That he wonders where I am. I guess this is how people feel about their soul mates; mine is just a horse.”

Life aside from horses?

“I have a minimal social life. Mainly my friends have four legs. I do get out occassionaly because my mother still controls me.”

“I can’t do housework.”

“For a while I wanted to be a sports psychologist. Mom really wants me to get a job. It’s a good idea to go to college. I’m just doing it to please her and my father.”

“The idea of cubicles in office work scares me to death.”

She does have one non-horse interest: hand making jewelry, some of whch has been sold at auction.

“I’m coordinated on a horse,” she explained. “I think it’s magic. It doesn’t make sense as I am so uncoordinated on the ground.

“I never, ever, ever want to get out of dressage. I love the sport so much, I want to do so much.”