Sports Superstars, Royalty and UF Rider Visit the ‘Equine Capital’ of Europe!
“I kept wanting to pinch myself to make sure I was awake,” exclaimed Emily Gill. As she left the Atlanta Airport on July 11, 2016 for Dusseldorf, Germany, the UF equestrian studies senior was still ecstatic over being selected to attend the weeklong FEI European Championships in Aachen, Germany.
Gill’s backstory leading up to the trip involves a dream, patience and persistence. A competitive dressage rider, she had heard about the U.S. Dressage Foundation’s International Dream Program a few years ago. After online searches and emails to contacts, she still wasn’t able to find specific information or an application.
“The Dream Program selects just four students to travel to the European Championships, all expenses paid,” reflected Gill. She finally heard from Lendon Gray, former Olympian and founder of Dressage4Kids, that applications were being accepted for the summer 2016 trip. She completed the application, wrote an essay, provided four references and a riding video. Then she waited.
Gill learned in early 2016 that the Dressage Foundation had chosen her to accompany three other promising equestrian stars to Aachen, Germany for the Championships, which are sometimes referred to as CHIO Aachen. Also home to the World Equestrian Festival, Aachen is not only the largest show venue but also one of the most fashionable meeting places in Europe. Sitting in VIP tents near the showjumping arena this year were soccer star David Beckham, former tennis champion Martina Hingis and Her Royal Princess Haya of Jordan, president of the International Horse Federation (FEI).
“Riding is taken very seriously in Germany,” Gill added. “I think it’s a more respected sport and definitely draws more spectators. We had tickets to the dressage events and the stadium looked larger than Ohio State’s. I was able to see the showjumping stadium and that was just as big and just as packed.”
Gill’s chaperones on the trip were Charlotte Bredahl, former Olympian and Jen Verharen, equestrian life coach. Because it was shortly before the 2016 Olympics, the U.S team was competing and Gill was able to talk with all the team members. She also met well-known equestrians Debbie McDonald, Betsy Juliano, Robert Dover and Christophe Hess. All the riders had great advice for her, including how to bring along young horses and how to present a professional image.
“I couldn’t wait until I got back to the barn in Findlay to try out some things I learned,” Gill recalled.
It Started with a Book
Gill’s love of horses grew into a lifelong passion with some help from her local librarian in Louisville, Ohio. The librarian, who owned Morgan horses, noticed that 9-year-old Gill repeatedly checked out horse books. She mentioned this to Gill’s mother and asked if the little girl would like to take riding lessons.
“That was it!” exclaimed Gill. “After the first lesson, I quit gymnastics and dance and devoted my time to riding. It’s still that way.”
At age 10 Gill got her first horse, Buster. (He’s now retired and enjoying life in his pasture). She rode hunters and jumpers at first and then fell in love with dressage.
“There’s a certain amount of finesse to it,” she said. She purchased Kahlua, a Morgan “well-suited for dressage,” and is keeping him at the UF English farm this semester. The two recently competed in the GAIG/USDF Region 2 Dressage Championships at Lamplight Equestrian Center, Wayne, Ill. After her graduation in spring 2017, Gill hopes to work with a dressage trainer in Canton, Ohio. They will travel the show circuit, which means spending winters in Florida. She also has a special interest in working with young horses, helping to bring them to their full potential.
“Emily is a superstar,” said Nicole Thuengen, director of the English Equestrian Program at UF. “She was in a group from UF that traveled with me to Germany in 2015 and earned ‘Basispass’ (a level of German riding) and Germany’s small bronze medal. “
In addition to learning more about horses and honing her riding skills, Gill feels that travel has been important for other reasons.
“Traveling really creates confidence,” she added. “You have to be independent and prepared for anything. You learn to navigate airports. You also learn about other cultures. I got out of my Ohio bubble!”
The young woman who broke out of her Ohio bubble wants to continue to travel and learn about other cultures.
“If I plan another trip,” she mused, “I’d like to learn some of the language first.”