A Focus on Our Youth

The WDAFL Board feels that our youth are so important to the future of western dressage and that it in turn will make them better horsemen in what  ever endeavor they strive for.  Our March newsletter focused on our two youngest members.  This article is catching up with WDAFL’s first youth member and what her journey in western dressage has done for her horse(s) and her.  Hannah has opened the way for Florida’s youth in WDAFL and we are so very proud of her.

~ Daryl Leonard, WDAFL President

Hannah Whray

Hannah Whray, WDAFL’s first youth member

How does it feel to be a three-time Western Dressage World Champion and two-time Reserve Champion all by the age of 12?

If you ask Hannah Whray (now 14), she’d say, “Pretty Awesome!” At the same time, she will humbly breeze past her extensive list of accomplishments to discuss more important matters, such as dedication to her horses and riding as much as possible.

Since her transition to the discipline of Western Dressage, Hannah has held multiple titles from Western Dressage of America Association Florida, and Northeast Florida Dressage Association: Junior Champion Level I (2014), Level II (2015), and Level III (2016). Her award-winning dressage horse Apttobe Rowdyote, “Rowdy”, a 17-year-old American Quarter Horse, has been her constant companion. They found each other 4 years ago at a team penning event, and through hundreds of hours of training and dedication they developed a partnership producing an award-winning journey. Together, they have won titles from various local shows all the way to the World Championship show in 2015.

To the delight of her neighbors, this teenager began her equestrian journey by learning to ride the family’s Great Dane around her neighborhood at the age two. It wouldn’t be long before her grandparents took her to a local barn for her first lesson, officially beginning their journey into the equestrian world.

Hannah started competing at the age of seven as a hunter jumper, began western pleasure by nine, and then moved on a year later to the newly established equine sport discipline of Western Dressage. Like all young riders searching for their niche that promotes a riding passion, it was the Western Dressage discipline that captured her attention.

When asked, what makes Western Dressage so appealing? Hannah describes it as, “ballet on horses”. The sport possesses riding elements that highlight the bond between a rider and their horse. The rewards of this bond are exhibited in the transformation from a working cattle horse into a beautiful dance partner.

On finding the right horse, Hannah notes that finding the perfect riding partner takes time. It can be a difficult process, but then it happens when an instant connection is established, as in the case of her and Rowdy. Her extensive, yet short, riding career helped her realize that a strong connection between rider and horse takes a great investment of time. This connection requires developing and nurturing great trust to move forward in the dressage arena.

A student of the sport, Hannah explains that each dressage level is designed to incorporate new riding elements to test the riding partnership’s abilities to grasp new concepts, while all along enhancing and demonstrating the abilities already mastered. For her, Western Dressage is more than just the routine of a pattern; it’s how the sport allows the riding team to grow as partners throughout the process.

“Western horses are in it to have fun and to learn,” Hannah says. She describes horses as having an infectious energy, wild spirits, and eagerness to please. Their willingness to work is only matched by their lovable nature. Her love for dressage is only enhanced by the training required to excel. While she uses the same training techniques developed for English dressage, the western horse breed comes with their own particular delights and quirks. Her advice when training, “switch it up, keep the horse busy, don’t let the training become routine; relax, enjoy the ride, and have fun.”

Since Western horses often come from a different job, it may take time to develop certain skills such as collection or a bigger gait. She reminds riders to be patient and don’t give up. Remember the horse can feel the rider, so learn to relax, and avoid being tense.

Hannah defines her biggest accomplishment in the sport for her was going to the World Championship show. At World, she proved that she and Rowdy are truly a team. She said that at the beginning she never envisioned that she could take a working cattle horse, switch him to dressage, and then win, “That’s really big.”

Hannah’s herd of four horses includes Rowdy, a Quarter Horse, Jet, an Appendix, Lilly, a Wild Mustang and her newest horse Rocky, a Thoroughbred. Every day she may ride two or even three of her horses as part of her training schedule. Being homeschooled, allows her to train with her horses, 4 to 5 hours a day, 5 to 6 days per week.

When asked what her favorite school subject is, she says P.E. with a wry smile. She loves her barn family and her horse friends, and considers her training to be fun and not work at all. She especially loves doing Musical Freestyle. Her reasoning, “You get to have fun choosing your own music, one that fits you and your horse and you get choreograph the ride.” Choreographing the ride can be challenging when adding in the required ride level elements and ensuring the ride flows. Helping her along her equine journey requires a dedicated support team made up of her Grandparents, whom she’s always lived with, and her Trainer.

Hannah is excited to see the sport grow and hopes more young people get involved. Her advice for getting into Western Dressage is to “go in to have fun. Don’t worry about competing against other people; compete against yourself.”

Hannah and Rowdy hope to compete at the World Championships again in 2017. You can keep up with her and all her horses on their facebook page. Currently she rides and trains in Jacksonville, Florida, at HHH Ranch.