By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
‘If you believe in your horse, anything is possible,’ is a lesson Hannah Irons holds to tightly. Since her first ride with Lendon Gray seven years ago, the 2020 USEF Young Rider National Champion has learned what it takes to make it in dressage — a discipline she once dreaded. Now 20, she’s building her business as a professional, and with a strong work ethic and confidence in her horses, anything truly is possible for Hannah.
Hannah discovered her knack for training animals when, at age 7, her family moved to a small farm in Queenstown, Maryland. In between home schooling and helping on the farm, Hannah spent time with her many animals.
“A variety of critters were my best friends growing up,” Hannah said. “From bunnies to sheep, I trick-trained everything I could.”
Through 4-H, Hannah began showing her animals and eventually horses, in the hunt seat division. When she joined Pony Club, she fell in love with eventing — but mostly because of cross-country. “I lived for the excitement of jumping. Even though I was only jumping 2’6” on my pony, I dreamed of competing at the Olympics in eventing one day,” Hannah said. “To be honest, I dreaded my dressage lessons. It was like some sort of torture session on endless 20-meter circles.”
Hannah’s disdain for dressage didn’t last long, however. In 2010, she attended the World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Kentucky, and everything changed. “Watching Edward Gal ride the spectacular black stallion Totilas in the Grand Prix freestyle left me speechless,” she said.
Then, Hannah saw the size of the 5* cross-country jumps. “Seeing the jumps in person scared me half to death!” Hannah laughed. Dressage it would be.
Dressage4Kids and Ponies
When the time came to buy Hannah her first pony, her parents had no idea they’d be getting a two-for-one special. Hannah showed her new pony and took her to the fair, while the mare’s belly grew larger. After she developed a full udder, Hannah’s family knew something wasn’t right.
“The mare’s previous owners tried breeding her to a Gypsy Vanner,” Hannah said. “When the vet said she didn’t take, they sold her to us. No one knew she was pregnant!” Two weeks after learning her mare was expecting, baby Charmer was welcomed into the world.
“Charmer was the best surprise ever. We did everything together growing up, and he was the first horse I started under saddle. At 11 years old, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing when I’d sneak to the barn and sit on him bareback while he ate his grain in his stall.”
Hannah never expected he’d one day become her first FEI pony. She just wanted to do some eventing for fun, but Charmer had other plans. “I was 13 and Charmer was 4 when we did our first Dressage4Kids clinic. He was definitely not on the bit and I’m pretty sure my polo wraps were sliding down to the pastern,” Hannah laughed.
Despite being slightly intimidated by Lendon Gray, Hannah was hooked on her high expectations. A few years later, in 2015, Hannah headed to Florida to participate in the Dressage4Kids Winter Intensive Training Program. “That was my first Florida experience and it truly opened my eyes to the caliber of horses and riders at the international level,” Hannah said. “It was amazing to be able to drive five minutes up the road and watch some of the best riders in the world.”
During her time in the program, Hannah took lessons on Charmer and another FEI pony named Bobo. While the education was exceptional, Hannah fondly values the friendships she made. “It was my first time living away from home, and my roommates and I have many funny memories to look back on during our first attempt at ‘adulting.’ It only took one kitchen full of bubbles to learn that dish soap does not in fact go in a dishwasher.”
Hannah returned to the Winter Intensive Program for a second year in 2016 to prepare for her campaign in the FEI Pony division with Charmer and Bobo. “It was Lendon who first convinced me that with good training, Charmer could actually become a competitive dressage pony,” Hannah said. “What he lacks in natural talent he makes up for his incredible work ethic.”
Later that year, Hannah went down centerline with both ponies at the USEF National Pony Rider Championship at the Festival of Champions at Lamplight in Wayne, Illinois. She captured the reserve championship title with Bobo and finished in third with Charmer.
A New Partnership
After proving herself with two seasons of the Winter Intensive Program and success in the Pony Division, Lendon sought out Hannah for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “Scola Bella was generously donated to Dressage4Kids by Deb Mullaney in 2017,” Hannah said of the Hanoverian mare. “I’m very fortunate to have had the opportunity to lease her for the last three years and now call her my own.”
Together, Hannah and Bella have competed in the Young Rider division. In 2019, the pair took gold with the Region 1 team at the North American Youth Championships (NAYC). “That was my first NAYC — it was so fun and rewarding to cheer on your friends and teammates.” Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Hannah’s goal of returning in 2020 was unfortunately put on hold.
After the cancellation of the NAYC, the USEF offered additional slots for the Juniors and Young Riders at the Festival of Champions to give more riders a chance to compete. “I admire USEF’s commitment to making this championship safe and successful. The dressage community really came to together as a team and did their part to make it all possible,” Hannah said. “It was also fun being able to show off our hard work on the basics while at home quarantining.”
Hannah rode Bella to take the championship title in the USEF Young Rider National Championship. “To take home the champion cooler was a great reminder that pushing forward even during the challenging times was well worth it,” Hannah said, proud to represent as a Dressage4Kids rider.
“The Dressage4Kids horse donation program has matched many successful partnerships, and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to ride such a talented horse I could otherwise never afford,” she said. “Bella has taught me so much. I’m so grateful to have the privilege of developing a partnership with such a smart, lovable and sometimes opinionated mare. I’m excited for what the future holds.”
College and Career Goals
Since she was a teen, Hannah has known she wanted to train horses professionally. For her, horses were a constant theme. Other career interests would come and go, but horses were always on her mind.
Hannah has been teaching lessons to help pay for her horses since she was 11 years old. Through her years as a working student and competitor, she grew her business by word of mouth. “This past year, I made the decision to start working for myself and made building my clientele a priority,” she said. With this comes sacrifices, like staying home in Maryland for the winters and balancing her training with college.
“I believe college is important even for horse people because it makes you think outside the box and become a more well-rounded, open-thinking citizen,” Hannah said. “Dressage can be an exclusive sport, so I think it’s important to broaden your horizons, embrace diversity and take pride in the opportunity to always learn more than what is familiar.”
After finishing her associate’s degree at Chesapeake College, Hannah is looking toward finishing her bachelor’s degree in communications. College has also offered Hannah the opportunity to explore her other interests. “For two semesters I acted in the theater production. It was one of the most challenging things I’ve tried in my life, but I loved it. I live for music, and those who know me know would say I rarely do anything in silence,” she said.
As a recognition of her riding accomplishments, Hannah was awarded with the Lionel Guerrand-Hermes Trophy by the USET. The trophy is given to a Junior or Young Rider in an Olympic discipline who exemplifies sportsmanship and horsemanship. Previous award winners include McLain Ward, Buck Davidson, Marilyn Little and Jennifer Gates. “It is an honor to be recognized by the USET Foundation for something I am so passionate about,” Hannah said. “Throughout my career, I hope to continue to inspire the next generation of equestrians to strive for the highest standards in horsemanship and sportsmanship.”
Hannah has high hopes for her dressage career, but recognizes the importance of taking things step by step. “Sometimes it feels like you’re going backwards before you see improvement or meet your goal. That’s life with horses,” Hannah said. “I’ve found the key to staying positive and motivated, even when things don’t go as planned, is to set numerous tiny goals for yourself leading to the big goal.”
For Hannah, her big goal is to represent the United States someday. Along the way, she hopes to build her business in both Maryland and Florida— and she’s already started gaining sponsorships from Singer Sound Designs and Trilogy Saddles. Next year, Hannah plans to qualify for the NAYC and Festival of Champions. If COVID-19 improves, she also hopes to be selected for the European Young Rider Tour. With surprise pony Charmer, Hannah recently rode her first Intermediate II and is looking forward to finishing her Gold Medal after their Grand Prix debut.
Above all, Hannah hopes to encourage others to follow their dreams. “I want to always aim to better myself,” she said, “and hope to inspire the next generation of equestrians to strive for the highest standards of horsemanship.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com, unless noted otherwise