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Preparation put partners in motion

Horse and rider brace for early call at Missouri Dressage Classic.
Sunday, July 15, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:34 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008
Stephanie Wilbur adjusts the bridle on her horse Damascus. Wilbur, who recently graduated from William Woods University with a degree in equestrian science, worked in high school until she had earned enough money to buy Damascus, her first horse.

The 13-year-old shakes her head a few times.

It’s 6:20 a.m. Friday and she doesn’t seem ready to begin. However, Freude will be competing at 7:27 this morning, and she needs to practice with her partner if their dance is going to be perfect.

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It’s the 2007 Missouri Dressage Classic, and Freude is a horse.

Her partner, Stephanie Wilbur, 24, a recent graduate of William Woods University, proceeds to bend over to apply more hair spray to her red hair and also to her hat.

“I learned this trick from a rodeo queen,” Wilbur said. The trick is to spray the hat in hopes of keeping it from falling off during competition.

Wilbur and Freude are one of many competitive duos from across Missouri and other states hoping to do well in this weekend’s dressage competition. Many other pairs are already up and preparing for the early competition as well.

“I didn’t really have horses growing up,” Wilbur said.

She describes herself as a horse-crazy little girl growing up in Madison, Wis. Her parents didn’t grow up with horses and thought that their daughter’s passion for horses was just a phase.

“My mom is afraid of anything with teeth bigger than hers,” Wilbur said, laughing. “I don’t think my parents took me really serious until now.”

Eventually her parents realized that it was not a phase, and Wilbur began taking lessons when she was 12. The local 4-H county fair offered dressage lessons, and Wilbur signed up for them.

“I fell in love with it then,” Wilbur said.

It’s 6:30 a.m. now as the duo enters the freshly furrowed main arena to do some warm-up practice. The pair first walks up and down the side of the arena before Wilbur stops to mount her horse. Wilbur first checks the tension on both the bridle and saddle before she attempts to mount Freude.

Before they left for the arena, Cheryl Holekamp, Freude’s owner and Wilbur’s boss, called after Wilbur asking if she needed a mounting block.

“I can get on from the ground,” Wilbur responded.

As Wilbur’s right leg leaves the ground, Freude starts to move, but Wilbur easily swings her leg over into the other stirrup. The pair starts to practice.

In high school, Wilbur worked and earned enough money to purchase her first horse, an Arabian named Damascus. She will compete with him in lower level events.

Wilbur just graduated from William Woods University with a degree in equestrian science. She now works as an assistant trainer at New Spring Farm in Columbia under Holekamp’s guidance. Her basic duties are helping with the overall management of the farm and working with the younger horses.

“I just want to become a trainer,” she said about her future aspirations.

It’s quiet now at 6:40 a.m. as the two easily work through the different patterns and gaits that they will need to complete in order to do well. The only audible sound is Freude’s breathing and the sound that her hooves make through the dirt. Holekamp arrives to offer advice to the horse and rider, “soft hands … forward right away … get her straightened … sit up,” fill the still air.

Wilbur laughs when asked if she remembers her first dressage competition.

“Yeah, I won,” she said. “That’s why I stuck with it.”

She quickly credited the horse that she rode, saying that the horse was well-experienced in dressage, which made it easy to be successful and have fun.

Twenty minutes before their appointed time, the two have to leave the main arena. The competition is about to start. They find another practice field on the hill situated above the main arena. The sun has finally risen in the sky as the two continue to practice. Even as other horses and riders enter to share the practice arena, the concentration between the two remains unbroken.

Wilbur enjoys many aspects of the sport and is quick to defend dressage as a sport. She offers the following advice for anyone that is willing to scoff: Go out and take riding lessons. Afterward, see if you’re sore and then tell her it’s not a sport.

“It’s a mental and physical sport,” Wilbur said. “Every stride, you’re thinking.”

Seven minutes before their set time, competition Duo No. 67 (Wilbur and Freude) waits outside the main arena as another pair competes. Wilbur directs Freude silently in a circle, pacing while waiting for their turn to enter.

“I go through the pattern,” said Wilbur of the last few minutes before she enters the ring, “I actually ride the test in my mind.”

As their turn arrives, Wilbur guides Freude into the arena, stopping in the middle. She delivers a quick, decisive nod to the judges and the two begin their dance.

“I like being in the ring by myself,” said Wilbur of why she enjoys competing. “I like the challenge of looking for the perfect score.”


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