By Darlene Ricker
It’s quite a stretch to imagine an elite equine falling into the lap of a teenager who has never even owned a horse — and on top of that, to come with an expense-paid training program with an Olympic dressage rider and the opportunity to show in Wellington, Florida.
All of that happened to Catherine “Cate” Kwasnik, who must have felt as though she had won the lottery when her mare, Messina, came to her in 2017. This winter they will spend three months in the Winter Intensive Training Program with Olympian and Hall of Fame dressage rider Lendon Gray.
The Lucky Horse
Behind that incredible dose of good luck are Cate’s years of hard work and dedication to the sport, said Elizabeth A. Schuette, part of the team that chose Cate out of many others who wanted Messina a few months after the mare’s longtime owner, Susan Bruns, passed away in 2017. Susan owned Messina more than 10 years, during which she competed the mare in high-level dressage. Susan was the export barn manager at The ARK at JFK, an animal reception terminal and quarantine facility at JFK International Airport, where Elizabeth is managing director.
Susan’s relatives couldn’t continue care for Messina and wanted her to stay “with The ARK family,” said Elizabeth. The ARK would have welcomed Messina’s constant presence in its barn, but felt it wouldn’t have been fair to the horse to live next to one of the world’s busiest airports with noise and limited turnout ability. So, The ARK went on the search for a good home for her. Word got to Cate’s current trainer, Alice Petersen, who urged Cate to apply. She did, and then came the good news: Messina was coming to Cate at Blue Ribbon Farm in Calverton, New York, where she was taking lessons.
“I was really happy but a little nervous,” said Cate. “When you get a free horse, you don’t know what to think. But luckily, she’s the sweetest, most amazing horse I’ve ever ridden. She’s so willing and tries her heart out for me. The first time I got on, I fell in love with her.”
She describes the 16.3-hand black Hanoverian as “not hot and not dull,” explaining, “Some days you need to push her forward; other days you don’t. But she’s always so comfy to ride.”
Ready to Ride
Cate became a serious equestrian somewhat by chance. When she was 8 or 9, her family was planning a vacation in Hawaii and her mom wanted to go trail riding. She wanted Cate to get some experience in the saddle beforehand. Cate took a few lessons at Thomas School of Horsemanship in Huntington, New York, and said that right away she “fell in love with horses and riding.”
She began in the hunter-jumper world but said that at one point she didn’t feel safe enough to continue jumping. So, she transitioned into dressage at Blue Ribbon Farm and took lessons on school horses with Blue Ribbon Farm owner and trainer Marie Banks. When Cate got Messina, Marie’s weekend schedule was full, so she began training at the farm with Marie’s sister, owner and instructor, Alice Petersen, with whom she has been training the past six or seven years.
Although Messina knew a lot more about dressage than Cate did, it wasn’t an instant ticket into high-level dressage. The mare, 14, had been brought in from several months of being out of work, so Cate’s trainer had to tune her up and bring her back into shape before she started teaching Cate. Not long after Cate was in the irons, Alice heard about the Winter Intensive Training Program and thought it would be a perfect way for the pair to advance together. Two days after Cate applied for the program, she got the word that she was in, and The ARK offered to sponsor her and the horse.
Cate adheres to a strict and demanding training schedule with Messina. During the week, Cate attends The Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica, New York, in the Borough of Queens. Right after school every Friday, her mom drives her an hour and a half to the barn on Long Island and back home again Sunday evening. Cate also rides as often as possible on days off from school and half-days. She can’t drive yet, so her mother tries to adjust her work schedule to get Cate to the barn as much as possible. Other days, her trainer rides the mare.
The learning curve with Messina has been pretty steep, but Cate stuck with it. They competed in the 2017 regionals and qualified for the 2017 USDF Region 8 Championships. She and Messina made their First Level championship debut at the Regional Finals in September. They scored 62.045 percent (“not what we were hoping for in a championship class”), but Cate was happy with her score because “Messina tried so very hard for me to get through that test.” It turned out that the mare had a sore tooth. “But Messina didn’t give up,” Cate said. “She made it through the best she could.”
It was also a learning experience for Cate. “Most of the judges’ comments were about contact, which were absolutely expected,” she said.
Launched into Learning
Cate said her short-term goals are to learn how to “go for it” rather than riding conservatively. She’s hoping to do solid First- and Second-Level work in Florida, and she has her work cut out for her. The Winter Intensive Training Program, organized by the nonprofit foundation Dressage4Kids, is not just three months of lessons (January through March). Students have a rigorous schedule of learning that includes theory, tests, riding lessons, field trips and lectures. They are also required to maintain a regular fitness program. Guest instructors guide them in yoga, equilates, running, swimming, weight-lifting, as well as general aerobic training and coordination exercises.
A normal day in the program starts at 6:30 a.m. with basic barn chores. Each rider must take care of his or her own horse, as well as help with maintaining the facility where the program is held. After chores, lessons begin. Lendon Gray is the chief instructor, along with other high-level guest instructors.
The students are not required to compete in Florida, but Cate plans to take full advantage of opportunities to show in the Wellington area. The Global Dressage Festival grounds are within hacking distance and offer a full slate of shows all winter. She and her mother will be staying with Cate’s grandparents in West Palm Beach for the three months of the program.
Meanwhile, Cate will have to keep up her academics. She’s already made arrangements with her school so she can follow her curriculum using tutors, Skype and working on her own, depending on the class.
Cate’s looking forward to many more adventures with Messina. Someday, when Messina needs to go back into retirement, Cate is confident that she and the people at The ARK at JFK will find a great place for her. “They care for her very much and will always do what’s best for Messina,” she said. “So when the time comes, I hope I’ll have some input, but I’m confident she will always be loved and well taken care of. I will always be part of her life in some way.”
Photos by Kaitlyn Donnelly Photography