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This article was published 29/6/2018 (420 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Ariana Chia galloped to Poland to find one teammate, acquired a youthful pair in Germany and then welcomed a fourth into the fold — the world, actually — two years ago in Winnipeg.
She's assembled quite the stable of equine athletes in Charleswood as she strives to become one of Canada's finest dressage competitors.
But her most compelling partnership has, indeed, been developed with a radiant grey gelding named Teo, a terrific find near Zagozd, a village tucked away in the northwestern Polish countryside.
Twenty months after the purchase, rider and horse are all but inseparable at Meadow Green Stables, owned by Chia's parents, on Loudoun Road. They work out together daily in a ring that perfectly mimics the dimensions of an Olympic-size dressage arena — 60 metres long by 20 metres wide.
Chia's ascent in the exacting, elegant and somewhat enigmatic sport of dressage has been steep — and she's attained some of her greatest accomplishments aboard Teo, a 19-year-old Dutch Warmblood. The pair competes at the Grand Prix level, the most challenging classification of dressage, catching the eyes of the judges the last two seasons in the winter equestrian mecca of Wellington, Fla.
"For three months, it's the equestrian capital of the world. It's 12 weeks of gruelling competition where, if you can even make it into the prize giving (top eight) even once, you make a name for yourself," says Chia, 26.
"This year, I was in the prize giving seven or eight times with this horse, which was beyond my wildest expectations. Together, we accomplished more than we could have ever hoped for."
Early on, Chia could tell she and Teo had a special connection, and that bond of communication and trust continues to grow.
"It's really a 50-50 partnership. We have this great relationship," she says. "My emotions are there for him, as a friend and mentor. It's a really unique situation."
The silver-coated sensation has a short name but is long on pluck and personality, she says.
"He's more spirited and more opinionated than any of my other horses. He's very certain about what he wants. The second that you put on his legwear — his boots and his wraps — and he knows the saddle's coming, his patience dissolves and he knows he's going out for work and he's literally champing at the bit, ready to go into the ring and do his work," she says.
Dressage is derived from the French term translated to mean "training"; its roots trace as far back as ancient Greece, where specific movements were developed to prepare horses for war. The sport involves rider and horse performing a series of highly skilled transitions and moves — in the most appealing way possible and, sometimes, choreographed to music — before a panel of judges.
There are no rails to jump, no changing elevations to navigate. Judges sit at various points around the rectangle, scoring the moves as they see them from that angle, gauging grace, poise and precision from the competing tandem.
Harmony and unity is the key to dressage, as riders cue their horses to complete the intricate movements from memory. The simplest moves involve altering the horse's gait — extending the length and tempo of its stride. Far more complicated movements include the "piaffe," which is a trot in place, or the "pirouette," which is a 360-degree spin.
"It's judged a bit like figure skating, where you perform a set of predetermined movements within a given time frame in a show ring," Chia says. "It's really described as the highest level of training for a horse."
Chia and her trusty steed are currently ranked at No. 251 on the list of the top dressage teams in the world, according to the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI), the sport's governing body. That might sound rather unimpressive to the uneducated, but let's pony up some perspective.
The FEI regularly tracks the progress of nearly 800 riders around the globe, although the majority hail from European nations such as Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden. Only 10 Canadian riders are ahead of Chia on the list.
She's trotting in unchartered territory, as no Manitoban has ever gripped the reins of such a lofty placing on the international dressage stage.
Just two weeks ago, Chia and Teo thrilled the crowd with third- and fourth-place finishes in a pair of events at the 2018 Black Tie show in Calgary. It was, she hopes, a precursor to the World Equestrian Games, scheduled for Sept. 11-23 at the Tryon International Equestrian Center in North Carolina. The team still has some work to do to qualify for Team Canada.
Beyond that, there are the 2019 Pan Am Games in Peru and — dare to dream — the ultimate goal of Tokyo's Summer Olympics in 2020. By then, Teo will likely be past his competitive prime, but Chia has high hopes for an eight-year-old Oldenburg gelding named Fider Flame, purchased in Germany when he was just six months old.
"It's kind of a shot in the dark, but you put in countless hours of training with them," she says. "Flame is showing incredible potential. He's a very talented horse."
Chia owns another eight-year-old, named Fantasia, also purchased in Germany, and a two-year-old named Prince, the product of an embryo transfer from a mare, Wishtadanz, that has since died.
Prince is her home-bred pride and joy.
"Another year and I'll start the basic training with him, putting the saddle on, crawling on him and hoping to not get bucked off. It takes years and years to become a show horse, it's a long process to get there," she says.
One of Chia's mentors, former two-time Olympian Jacqueline Brooks of Cedar Valley, Ont., says the sky's the limit on Chia's potential, whether she's on Teo's back or commanding the show ring aboard one of her younger horses.
Brooks has a hunch it's the place Chia calls home, oddly enough, that sets her apart.
"One of the most impressive things about Ariana is that she's from Winnipeg. It's not a knock against the city or Manitoba, but it's not exactly a mecca for dressage. Yet, she has this drive to work even harder to succeed. She's done a great job of educating herself, she's well mounted with her horses and she has this great support system at home.
"No one from Manitoba has really moved beyond the 'advanced' levels, which is significantly below Grand Prix. But Ariana has done it. When you're that dedicated to a sport that's kind of foreign to the area you're from, you need even more commitment, and she's shown that."
As youngster, Chia was drawn to performing, whether it was on stage in musical theatre or in front of the piano. But horse power quickly won her over.
"I remember us driving down the road, and if I saw a pony I would bang on the window and cry unless my parents would pull over. I knew if I threw a fit they'd let me get out and pet the pony," she recalls with a laugh. "I had my first riding lesson when I was seven, and the rest of that week I had musical theatre, piano, swimming, and I faked being sick for all of them. All I wanted to do was ride. I started doing five lessons a week.
"My first pony I rode was Frosty, and she's still one of the most fiery creatures I've ever met in my life. It was quite comical. She would throw me off and I'd just get right back on."
Chia trained in several equestrian disciplines, including jumping, but chose to focus on dressage in her mid-teens. By then, she had developed into one of the country's best young competitors. At 16, she became the first Manitoban to qualify for the 2008 North American Young Riders Championships, placing 16th on a horse named Marzipan in the individual event at Colorado Horse Park, just south of Denver.
A year later, she returned to the championships, climbing all the way up to fourth place in Lexington, Ky., aboard Odilon. That same year, 2009, Chia captured the Canadian junior dressage championship in Edmonton on Odilon's back.
"For me, jumping was just about how fast you could go and whether or not you could leave the rails up. But I had more of a passion for dressage," she explains. "It's like combining two different personalities. You have to be a perfectionist and obsessed with details, and also have that artistic side."
If you believe horse riding requires little athletic ability, think again. Chia says fitness is an integral part of her training regimen.
"I work with a personal trainer," she says. "I'm in the gym five days a week."
While Chia works to fulfil her dream of being a world-class rider, she continues to share her passion for equestrian sports and the knowledge she's gained over the years by training many up-and-coming riders in Manitoba throughout the spring and summer months.
"I have 15 clients in full training. The best part is when you are coaching someone and they have that light-bulb moment when something they're working on finally clicks," she says. "You see how much they love the sport, you see it through them. It's very rewarding."
Kali Parry, 26, has been working with Chia for the past six years and is awed by the exploits of her trainer.
"It's a small community here in Manitoba, so we're all thankful we have someone like Ariana to look up to," said Parry. "She's someone we all see as a role model.
"What strikes me is that she really puts everything of herself into the sport. She never takes a day off, whether she's training horses or working out to become a better athlete herself. I know she's really focused on going far in the spot, and she has that determination to get there. I'd love to see her make the Olympics one day."
Assistant sports editor
Jason Bell wanted to be a lawyer when he was a kid. The movie The Paper Chase got him hooked on the idea of law school and, possibly, falling in love with someone exactly like Lindsay Wagner (before she went all bionic).
Updated on Friday, June 29, 2018 at 9:53 PM CDT: minor edits
June 30, 2018 at 7:43 AM: Typos fixed.