By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
Rebecca Waite’s passion for horses is in her DNA. The daughter of a horse-loving mother, Rebecca has followed her heart from her family’s vegetable farm in Houlton, Maine, across the country to international dressage competitions in Wellington, Florida. After working her way up from stall cleaner to head groom under world-class rider Shelly Francis, Rebecca has now taken the reins to start her own training career.
Rebecca is proud of her upbringing in the tiny town that borders Canada. “My parents are organic farmers,” she said, “Growing up, we’d get out of school in the fall for potato harvest, which was a three-week break in September when kids were meant to work the potato harvest.” The farming lifestyle instilled a work ethic in Rebecca at an early age.
“My love for horses was in my blood from my mother, but it was a babysitter who first put me on her horse at a young age — maybe 6 years old — and I was hooked,” Rebecca reflected. “My step-dad isn’t involved with horses at all, but he loves golf courses like we love pastures and fences.” Nevertheless, Rebecca is grateful for her parents’ support of her horse obsession.
Like many successful riders and trainers, The United States Pony Club led Rebecca through her equestrian education and first horse shows. “I first got addicted to eventing while I was in Pony Club,” she said. “I loved Pony Club because you had to label everything — to this day I still label everything! It was very structured and encouraged us to be independent, but also work as a team, which is important.”
After testing through C1 in Pony Club, Rebecca shifted her focus to USEA shows and expanding her education through riding in clinics. One clinician, Shelly Francis, led Rebecca to explore the dressage world. At 15 years old, Rebecca arranged a lease on a Prix St. Georges horse, packed her bags and headed to Florida for one month of intensive dressage training with Shelly.
Patience Pays Off
In just one month’s time, Rebecca’s mind was already made up — dressage was her calling. Despite the temptation to drop everything and rush down to Welly World, there was unfinished business back home in Maine — school. Rebecca recognized the importance of her education, setting her dreams aside to finish high school and college.
“I always knew I wanted to go to college and I’m so glad I did,” she said. “One thing I tell almost everyone is, ‘Go to college!’ For me, it was such a crucial time in my life to grow!”
Rebecca attended the University of Maine in Orono, a stark contrast to her small-town high school. “I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, so I went with business and I loved every second of business school.”
Graduation came with new freedom and a few hard decisions. Rebecca was craving more of what she got a taste of in Florida, so as the fall of 2014 approached, she made a phone call to Shelly. “A few weeks later, she hired me to clean stalls and I couldn’t have been more excited,” Rebecca said. “Cleaning stalls in warm weather instead of a Maine winter was very appealing!”
Rebecca never expected this one opportunity would lead her to groom in Europe and eventually ride down centerline in Grand Prix CDIs. At that time, she stood muck fork in hand, just happy to be in Shelly’s barn. After proving her work ethic to Shelly, Rebecca was invited to sit on a few horses, and before she knew it, she was wearing a shadbelly for her first Prix St. Georges.
A Special Horse
As Rebecca worked her way up the ranks to the title of head groom, more riding opportunities came her way. She earned her gold medal on Shelly’s personal horse, Le Roi, and began creating a name for herself on the CDI circuit in Wellington. With Shelly’s focus shifting to her up-and-coming international mount, Danilo, she chose to put her other Grand Prix horse, Doktor, up for lease.
“I’d worked for Shelly for six years and I’d ridden all of the other horses in the barn, but never Doktor. He’s a very special horse,” Rebecca said of the magnificent and sensitive Oldenburg gelding whom she’d gotten to know on the ground. She’d followed him to several overseas competitions in Europe as his primary caretaker.
“When the perfect lease situation didn’t come about, one day Shelly casually told me, ‘You get to ride him.’ Everyone was being so causal, so I acted very casual, but inside I was freaking out!” Rebecca laughed. “I couldn’t believe I was going to have the chance to ride such an amazing horse!”
Though Rebecca was already familiar with Shelly’s training system through her time riding Le Roi, the transition to riding Doktor was tricky at times. “Only Shelly had ridden him for all those years, so it took some time for us to get used to each other,” she explained. “As soon as we cantered into the CDI stadium for our first show, Doktor knew his job, and thankfully he did because I’m not sure how much of it I remember!”
Showing such a well-known horse brought about a great deal of pressure for Rebecca. “The judges knew the horse and what he was capable of since he’d been the traveling reserve horse for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I absolutely could not mess this up!” she said. “For weeks leading up to our first CDI, I went to bed riding every step of the Grand Prix test in my head.”
Rebecca’s diligence and commitment to good riding paid off as she watched her score rise from the high 60s into the 70s among the stiff competition on the winter circuit. “I really learned how to ride for the best results,” Rebecca said. “He knew his job very well, but it was me daring to ask more for better results that was risky. Doktor gave me so many wonderful experiences.”
Combining her education from Shelly with her business degree, Rebecca has embarked on a new journey to build her own successful training business.
Her business, Rebecca Waite Dressage, is based at Havensafe Farm in the heart of Wellington, located just 10 minutes from the Global Dressage Festival. “I love it in Wellington! It’s the place where so many of my dreams have come true,” she said.
Rebecca is enjoying life as her own boss. “I cherish every moment I had at Shelly’s, but I’m also cherishing every day running my business now. My days look about the same — riding, grooming, teaching. Shelly’s training philosophy of teaching the horse to be responsive to light aids is an element that I use and teach every day.”
Goal setting can be difficult for any rider during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Rebecca hopes to debut Janet Bell and Tommy Benson’s gelding Quincenzo in the small tour this season. “I’ve been riding him for a few years now and I’m really excited about him. He’s really starting to mature and develop into a special little horse,” she said. In the long term, Rebecca hopes to ride for the United States team and inspire others that hard work pays off.
“Starting from the bottom at Shelly’s taught me so much about horse management. Truly learning the amount of work, time and sleepless nights it takes to keep high-performance horses going is such a crucial part of the picture,” she said. “If I had missed out on the many years of working my way up, I wouldn’t be the rider I am today.”
For more information, visit www.rebeccawaitedressage.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise