Hitting her stride: Oakley resident wins Junior Olympics gold in dressage | ParkRecord.com

Hitting her stride: Oakley resident wins Junior Olympics gold in dressage

Matthew Piper, OF THE RECORD STAFF

Maddi Birch knows a thing or two about sacrifice.

How about leaving your high school to work in a barn, rearing your own horse and raising tens of thousands of dollars a year – before you can vote – just to enter the venue with the nation’s top junior dressage competitors?

For the young Oakley rider, it all paid off with a gold medal in the North American Young Rider Competition in Lexington, Kentucky, in late July. She led off for her team after competing all spring and summer to earn a spot on the U.S. Region 5 lineup at the event, which doubles as the Junior Olympics for equestrian riders ages 16-21.

Against riders from France, Mexico and Canada and the Caribbean Islands, the U.S. Region 5 team – composed of top juniors from Eastern Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico – combined with the northwestern-based Region 6 team to earn its first-ever gold medal. That also makes Birch the first Utahn to ever grace the top step on the podium.

Dressage is a type of competitive equestrian horse performance in which a rider tries to coax his or her horse to perform precisely and expressively with minimal instruction. It was first developed by the French military for warfare, Birch said. The scoring is "kind of like ice skating for horses," she said, with both the horse and rider getting judged on a scale from 1 to 10.

It is the only Olympic sport in which men and women compete against each other, and the international field is split relatively evenly between the sexes. Brute strength, after all, has nothing to do with it.

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"You want it to look like you’re sitting there doing nothing," she said. "Harmony’s a big part of it."

Birch rode her first horse at age 8, and she moved from St. George to live in Heber City with trainer and coach Margo Gogan at just 16. It was there that she began riding seriously, training to deliver the subtle movements and adjustments that guide a horse through a routine without appearing to be coached.

To make room for this time-consuming passion, Birch attended a California private high school over the Internet, as all but one of her recent Young Rider teammates was forced to do.

Now 19, Birch has lived in Oakley for the past year but still works for Gogan in the Heber barn. She also commutes more than an hour a day to attend classes as a nursing major at Utah Valley University. A typical day in her life involves waking up for early-morning classes in Orem, driving to Gogan’s barn in Heber, and then heading back at night for more studying in Orem. But she’s glad for her return to the classroom.

"I really enjoy college," Birch said. "It’s been a nice balance to get a social life."

In recent months, that’s been tough to find. Before she could ride in Kentucky, Birch had to perform in more than a dozen competitions since April.

Oakley’s Katherine Scott loaned her a horse named Starlight in March, and whereas most dressage riders will have had at least six or seven months on their horses by the time they compete, she had about a month to get ready. It bears noting, though, that Starlight is no ordinary horse. The 11-year-old is the son of an Olympic horse and half-brother to the world’s current No. 1-rated dressage horse.

As a condition of the loan for Starlight, Birch had to pay show fees and insurance on the horse. That’s no small chunk of change, to say the least. Each show costs about $1,000 for entrance fees, and additional clinics are about $500 per weekend. The cost to enter the Junior Olympics was $11,000, and though the bill was mostly footed by the team, Birch had to scramble at the last minute to get sponsors and raise funds for her portion.

Piling onto all that, upkeep for her own horse and regular travel adds about $1,300 a month. Birch said it would be impossible to live her lifestyle without the support of parents Warren, who is an anesthesiologist, and Kathleen. Birch also received help from the U.S. Equestrian Foundation, Wasatch Mountain Chapter of the Rocky Mountain Dressage Society, the Utah Dressage Society, and anonymous contributors.

Needless to say, there was a lot riding on her Junior Olympics appearance. Birch’s team took an early lead at the event following her performance before getting overtaken by Canada’s Ontario team. The two teams were neck-and-neck with three riders to go when Washington’s Jhesika Wells received the day’s high score and nudged the Americans ahead to a 199-198 victory.

As the proud owner of a gold medal, Birch will now return to riding her own horse, Yoeri. He was cared for by Gogan – past trainer to three Olympians – while Birch was away, but now Yoeri will attempt to qualify for the top level of junior riding so that Birch can ride him at next year’s Junior Olympics, then the Pan-American Games, and then – fingers crossed – the London Olympics in 2012.

"He’s really a fancy horse," Birch said. "He’s got more movement through his back and shoulders (than Starlight), which makes him more expressive."

Yoeri is nine years old – young for a dressage horse, which are often well into their teens. That would seem to make him a perfect match for Birch, who said she has no intention to stop anytime soon. For people to understand her obsession with dressage, they need only watch, she said.

"It looks like you’re dancing with your horse," Birch said. "It’s really incredible that two beings can communicate without a human language."