By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
When Kayla Kadlubek turned 16, her parents gave her a choice — she could get a car or she could get a new horse. In true equestrian fashion, Kayla chose the horse. That was four years ago, and now that Kayla’s 20, she’s reflecting on her success through the dressage Young Rider pipeline, participating in Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids program, medaling at North American Youth Championships and representing the United States with the USEF Young Rider European Tour. As Kayla prepares for her future as a trainer and international dressage rider, she recognizes the importance of participating in these development programs.
Like many equestrians, Kayla’s journey started at a week-long horse camp in her hometown of Fairfax Station, Virginia. At just 8 years old, Kayla was hooked on horses and began riding as often as she could. A few years later, she acquired her first horse, Magoo, an Andalusian-Thoroughbred cross aptly named for his goofy personality. “I couldn’t have asked for a better first horse because I got to do a little bit of everything with him,” she said.
Together, Kayla and Magoo participated in almost every program the United States Pony Club offered. “Growing up in Pony Club was very educational and has been a huge asset to my riding. It gave me such a good base of knowledge — much more than just tacking my horse up and riding each day,” she said.
Pony Club offered opportunities for her to try many disciplines and eventually fall in love with dressage. “Magoo helped me find my love for dressage, mainly because I was tired of falling off every time I tried to jump him,” Kayla laughed. “One time, he stopped at a jump with hay bales underneath and took a big bite of the hay.” From then on, Kayla focused on dressage and never looked back.
Dressage4Kids and Perfect Step
Kayla became involved in Olympian Lendon Gray’s program Dressage4Kids in 2015. After a successful season competing at second and third level with her 16th birthday gift, Freewill, Kayla was accepted into the Winter Intensive Training program (WIT), a three-month training program for young riders in Florida. Kayla has participated as a student for two years, and recently spent the past season as a teaching assistant to help younger students in the program.
“The experience was life changing!” Kayla said. “Through the program, Lendon provided us with a lot of opportunities, but it’s up to each participant to make the most of any given opportunity. I did my best to take advantage of every opportunity I could. I don’t know where else I could’ve had access to the talent, knowledge and resources that I had at WIT.”
Kayla credits her success as a junior competing at NAYC, where she won team bronze and team silver, to her preparation in Lendon’s program. “After being in WIT, I had this mentor in Lendon that I could reach out to for advice and to share my successes and failures. Lendon cares so much about building the youth pipeline,” she said.
Though WIT opened many doors for Kayla, it was her constant dedication to improvement that shined bright, and this caught Lendon’s attention. “I got an email from Lendon saying she might have a nice Grand Prix horse being donated and she asked me if I was interested. Of course, I said yes!” Kayla said. “I don’t know how Lendon makes her selection of matching riders and donated horses, but after having me in the WIT program twice, Lendon knew I had big goals and was willing to work hard. I just didn’t have the right horse.”
Due to the generous donation from Suzanne Dansby, Kayla was matched with Perfect Step, a Grand Prix Hanoverian gelding. After chatting over email, Kayla was invited to try Perfect Step, affectionately known as Percy. Despite Kayla’s nerves over making a good impression, the introduction went well and Suzanne chose to send Percy home with Kayla. “I’m incredibly grateful to Lendon and Suzanne for giving me this amazing opportunity to learn from such an amazing horse,” she said.
Equipped with a capable schoolmaster, Kayla immediately dove in to preparations for her first year as a Young Rider. “It’s a big step from Juniors to Young Riders. Percy was helpful in the transition because he knew all the movements. He taught me what a good canter pirouette should feel like and how to get a fluid half pass zig-zag. There was also a huge mental factor involved. I was in a whole new ball game competing against people I looked up to,” Kayla said. “It was intimidating putting on my tailcoat for the first time, but thankfully I had a great support system to help with the transition.”
Dancing in Europe
Kayla’s dream of competing internationally came true early on in her career. After taking two bronze medals with Perfect Step at the NAYC in 2018, the pair was selected to travel abroad through the 2019 USEF Young Rider European Tour. “Europe was one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I felt a lot of pride getting to ride for my country.”
Based out of Jewel Court Stud in Wuustwezel, Belgium, the Young Rider team prepared for six weeks of tough competition throughout Europe. Though she was halfway across the world, she never lacked family support. In fact, her father stayed with her through the tour while her mother and brother flew in for her shows in Compiegne and Hagen.
“I’ve never been more nervous than when I was going down centerline for the first time in Compiegne,” Kayla said. “Knowing I was chosen to represent my country was always present in my mind. I ended up doing better than I thought I would, which boosted my confidence for the rest of the tour. At the end of the day, it’s the same 20 x 60 sand box — only it’s in a different country.”
Upon returning home, Kayla rode with her newfound confidence into the NAYC, where she took home team gold, individual bronze and silver in the freestyle. Then just two weeks later, she competed at the Festival of Champions where she was named champion in the Young Rider division. “Europe played a huge role in my preparedness,” she said. “I was able to gain so much confidence in Europe that it felt like any other show. I got to watch European riders and see how they ride their tests. They go for a lot of power to get higher marks to balance out something that isn’t as good in the test. I brought this approach to my tests and the difference started to show.”
A Head Start on the Future
Kayla’s not wasting any time as she prepares for the future. For her career, Kayla plans to become a trainer, and she’s recently been developing her abilities to coach others through a teaching assistant position at WIT.
After seeing Lendon at a show over the summer, Kayla mentioned her hopes of trying something new for the winter. “Lendon knows I want to be a trainer. She offered me this position to start developing my teaching skill set,” Kayla said. “I was beyond excited for the opportunity, since I’ve found I enjoy teaching the younger riders. It’s fun getting to be a part of the improvements of my students, and working with them helps me understand things that I could also be doing better.”
As both Percy and Freewill are reaching their late teens, Kayla has decided to put college on hold to focus on dressage. “For now, my parents and I agreed to take this time and focus on this competition year and my development as an instructor,” she said. “My parents are my biggest supporters. I’m eternally thankful for their sacrifices and all they’ve done and are doing to help me achieve my goals. I couldn’t do any of this without them.”
While Kayla’s focused on all things dressage, she recognizes the importance of taking breaks. “Having downtime to myself is when I can recharge,” she said. “I enjoy reading, playing piano and spending time with friends and family doing activities that don’t involve horses. I think it’s important to find something that takes my mind away from horses every once in a while. Otherwise, I’ve seen how this sport can burn a person out.”
Currently, Kayla’s training with George Williams as she works toward her goal of qualifying for the 2020 Young Rider European Tour and her last NAYC. “One thing I like to stress to our up-and-coming youth athletes is the importance of developing a good basic dressage foundation,” George said. “Kayla is an excellent example of someone who has the foundation, has talent, has the right attitude, works hard and was able to make the most of the opportunity of getting the ride on a terrific horse through the Dressage4Kids program.”
Eventually, Kayla plans to compete in the U25 division and become a senior team rider for the United States. “We all know luck can play a role with horses, but from what I’ve observed, Kayla sets goals and has the drive and talent necessary to achieve them,” George said. “In my opinion, she can go as far as she’d like in this sport.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com