EXCELSIOR — Area dressage athletes, and their horses, helped score the region’s first team championship at the North American Youth Championships (NAYC) earlier this month.
Region 4 team members can qualify from anywhere in a seven-state range. Yet, three of the four team members hailed from the southwest metro. Nico Beck, 15, is from Chanhassen. Maggie Elsbernd, 16, is an Excelsior resident. And Hannah Thiher was a 17-year-old team member from Maple Grove.
The riders had something else in common: It was each rider’s debut at a competition of this scale. The fourth team member was Averi Allen from Missouri.
“It was a lot of fun to be able to go to an international competition with people you know,” Beck said.
Beck was the team’s anchor, meaning he came into the competition as the strongest rider on the team. He posted the team’s highest score at 70.27%. Together, the team posted a combined score of 203.18 at the championship, putting them ahead of the Region 2 team, which earned silver with a score of 202.63.
Horse dressage is an artistic sport in which the rider communicates with their horse through slight movements and rehearsed training. Mastering rhythm is the first step in conditioning the horse. The highest level in dressage is “collection,” the United States Dressage Federation says, describing it as “balance and lightness of the forehead from increased engagement.”
The sport is like “speaking in a different language,” Elsbernd said.
“In dance, you’re doing it yourself,” she said, “In dressage, you’re asking the horse to dance for you. If you don’t ask the right way, they won’t do it.”
Dressage athletes would compare the NAYC to the Olympics. It is an international competition between riders from the United States, Canada and Mexico, and it took place in North Salem, New York. Seeing as the Region 4 team competed in the North American Junior Dressage Team Championship, it can be thought of as the Junior Olympics.
Cologne native Heather Salden-Kurtz trained Elsbernd.
“For her to do so well, and for her team to do so well and win a gold medal was just the icing on the cake,” she said. “I was super-duper proud of them.”
She said the Twin Cities dressage community has been historically small, but is showing signs of growing. Each of the three area competitors have different trainers.
“The more success we have locally, the more we can grow the sport,” she said.
For Elsbernd, finding herself in a pool of fellow dressage athletes at the championship was a first-time experience.
“It’s a completely different stage because it’s international, and you see people training like I am — rigorous training at the barn every day,” she said. “It was such a cool experience to be with other people like me.”
She’s eager to work her way up to a return at next year’s NAYC with her horse, Zeestar. Beck and his horse, Campari, are preparing for the upcoming U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions.