By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
When Christian Simonson puts his mind to something, he’s sure to achieve it. An exceptional student, avid mountain biker and young pilot, Christian succeeds in many areas, but his biggest passion is the sport of dressage. As the son of his Dutch equestrian mother, the multitalented 18-year-old and dual Dutch-U.S. citizen has built an impressive record in the sport, from North American Youth Championship (NAYC) medals to topping national ranking lists with not just one, but two FEI horses.
Christian enjoyed an adventurous childhood, growing up surfing and sailing with his parents and sister in Ventura, California. Horses were introduced into Christian’s life early, following his mother’s interest in riding. At 6 years old, he was exposed to dressage but mostly enjoyed competing in jumping and equitation classes.
“It wasn’t until I had my first lesson with Dr. Gail Hoff Carmona that I became interested in dressage,” Christian said. “After taking a few lessons with Gail and realizing how intense and technical dressage was, even at a young age, I was hooked. It reminded me of a lot of sailing or other fast-paced technical activities where you’re constantly intellectually challenged.”
Christian credits Gail and her emphasis on a correct seat and hands with his early development as a dressage rider. “She taught me on a lunge line for hours and hours how to sit properly and move my body correctly in the saddle. I wasn’t able to use the reins until I perfected walk, trot and canter transitions using only my body,” Christian said. Gail’s perspective as both a judge and a rider gave Christian valuable insight as he prepared to enter national competition.
Shining Down Centerline
At 13 years old, Christian had an early start showing at the NAYC as part of the Region 7 Team competing in Parker, Colorado, in 2016. While he didn’t medal his first year in the Junior division, Christian did win the Mary E. Seddon award for the rider with the most classical seat and hands. Christian returned to NAYC in 2017, this time in Saugerties, New York, to medal team gold and individual silver.
As Christian approached his eligibility for the Young Rider division, he was offered a new partner — FRH Rassolini. The handsome Hanoverian stallion had just finished an impressive showing in the international Grand Prix ring with Christian’s trainer, Jan Ebeling. “Purchasing FRH Rassolini was a huge stepping stone for me in both learning and experience,” Christian said.
“I knew that Jan would be able to teach me a lot in the Young Rider level on a fantastic horse like Rasso,” Christian said. “Our team and individual tests in Old Salem, New York, are always in my mind as some of the best times with Rasso and his goofball personality. Together we took home a Young Rider team silver at NAYC in 2018 and won the Great American Insurance Group Region 7 Triple Champion Young Rider/Prix St. Georges for FEI, USDF and CDS!”
Unfortunately, during the 2018 winter season in Wellington, Christian’s partnership with
Rassolini came to an end. “After coming out strong at the beginning of the season, Rasso suffered a career-ending injury during competition,” Christian said, “and we had to make the difficult decision to retire him.”
A Fresh Start
With no horse to ride and an uncertain future, Christian was ready to shake things up. “I was introduced to Adrienne Lyle by a mutual friend and we decided to make a training change,” he said. “After watching Adrienne compete through the 2018 season on Salvino, I was very impressed by her technical riding and command of such an expressive stallion.”
Christian’s awe of the Olympian was only strengthened when he took a tour of her facility in Wellington. “When I first arrived at her barn, we discussed her training program. Her methods emphasized her amazing attention to detail with every horse and her continuous drive to become a better rider and horsewoman,” he said. “Also, the team environment she created was so inviting that I knew I’d found the right trainer and barn.”
Christian knew he couldn’t stay horseless for long, so he and Adrienne began the search for his next competition horse. “Realizing that I no longer had any horses to compete, we decided to purchase Zeaball Diawind, who was then a scrawny 7-year-old but with an amazing temperament and movement,” he said. “We then purchased Hemmingway as a confirmed Prix St. Georges competitor.”
The decision to take on two top horses paid off for Christian, who landed first with Zeaball and second with Hemmingway on the ranking list for the 2020 USEF Young Rider National Championships. However, due to COVID-19, Christian made the difficult decision to stay home and sit out the 2020 Festival of Champions.
“While I was really looking forward to competing with my two boys at the Festival of Champions in the Young Riders division, we decided not to go. At that time, Florida was one of the worst-hit states in terms of cases and quarantine rules were emerging about Floridians not being able to enter Illinois without a 14-day mandatory quarantine period,” Christian explained. “It would have been an amazing time, and my first championship in a while, but I’m happy we played it safe and stayed home. It gave me the ability to train more and learn so much more during the summer from Adrienne.”
The Future and Flying
With the pandemic causing uncertainties in plans, Christian is taking this time to focus on his personal growth and education. While he’d love to make the 2021 NAYC and European Young Rider team, he said the most important goal is to continue to learn from Adrienne and improve on all of his horses.
Education has always been important to Christian. As he prepares to graduate from high school, he’s looking ahead toward college. “This year, after much discussion with my parents, I’ve decided to apply to a couple of select colleges and universities in the United States. While horses are still my main priority, many top-tier colleges now offer online classes and flexible schedules — especially during the pandemic. This flexibility could give me the ability to ride and finish my education at the same time,” he said.
Christian enjoys challenging himself, and his passion for learning also led him to pursue a private pilot’s license. “I began flying in 2017 and really wanted to get my student license because my dad’s been a private pilot all his life,” Christian said. “When I was living in California full time, I was fortunate enough to have a local, regional airport that was only 10 minutes away from my house and 20 minutes from the barn. This proximity gave me the ability to fly on weekends and allowed me to obtain my student license!”
Mountain biking is another of Christian’s hobbies, and now that he spends his summers with Adrienne at TYL Dressage in Colorado, he’s able to get out and explore nature on two wheels. “I really enjoy biking as a fast-paced and technical workout,” he said. “During the summer in Colorado, I’d ride once or twice a week in the foothills enjoying amazing views and all the natural beauty that Colorado has to offer.”
As Christian prepares for another winter season in Wellington, he’s reminded of his zest for dressage every day. In the future, he hopes to compete in the U25 Grand Prix, and bring along Zeaball as well as his 6-year-old prospect Sky-Man. Ultimately, Christian dreams of competing internationally and enjoying a fulfilling career doing what he loves the most.
“I want to train professionally,” he said. “I’m really lucky to be able to be in a sport that I’m so passionate about and enjoy so much. Being with Adrienne, I’ve seen just a glimpse of what it’s like to be a professional athlete and I find it incredible, yet tough in the best way. Horses are great companions, they teach us a lot about life and ourselves. Horses give you a feeling unlike any other animal when they do exactly what you ask of them and put their trust in you. It’s so rewarding.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com