By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
For Jennifer Williams, it’s all about positive thinking. Instead of measuring her success by wins or losses, Jennifer focuses on one thing only — gratitude. The international dressage rider has earned championship titles, trained multiple horses from the ground to Grand Prix and built a business around her passion. Now, she’s raising a family and looking to the future of achieving her goals in the show ring while setting a good example for her children.
Jennifer grew up in the small town of Roy, Washington. By age 5, she was already obsessed with horses and would spend time trail riding with her mother. Living just down the road from trainer Terrie Hook’s riding school, Jennifer would take lessons on the saintly school horses. “Once I was older, I used to walk to Terrie’s house and rake her arena sides and do odd jobs to earn lessons,” Jennifer said. “She helped me achieve some really fun goals on my half-Arabian mare.”
The mare’s natural talent for dressage drew Jennifer deeper in love with the sport with every ride. “I spent hours upon hours watching old VHS tapes of World Cups and Olympic Games and then I’d go practice on that darling little mare,” she said. “It wasn’t long before I had her prancing around the front pasture and was teaching her the flying changes even though I had no idea what I was doing.”
In high school, Jennifer worked in a vet clinic after school, so riding was pushed further into the dark hours of the night. “I’d get home each night at 10 p.m.,” she said. “My parents called the power company and were able to get a street light installed on one of the electrical poles next to our front pasture. To this day, when I drive to see my parents and see the whole front field lit up with that dull orange glow, it brings back fond memories.”
In 1997, when Jennifer was 17 years old, her mother decided to breed their mare to a stallion owned by Charlene Summers at Summervale, a dressage breeding and training facility in Roy. “I’m sure my mom mentioned to Charlene what a horse-crazy girl I was, since I actually got hired that week to start grooming and helping with horse care,” Jennifer laughed. At that time, Jennifer was just happy for the opportunity to be around the quality horses and horsemen on the farm. She never could’ve guessed that one day, she’d become the owner of Summervale.
Learning the Ropes
Over time, Jennifer was trusted to ride the young horses and stallions at Summervale. “Charlene felt it was important that I get as much education as I could. She was like a second mother to me — always pushing me to learn and grow and to be my best,” Jennifer said. With Charlene’s encouragement, Jennifer took a working student position with Gwen Blake, splitting her time between the two farms.
“Those were some long days back then. I’ve never been as fit as I was at that time in my life. They were some of my best formative years,” Jennifer said, thinking back to her first time riding a line of one-tempis with Gwen’s Pan-American Games horse. After getting a taste of the FEI movements, Jennifer was hooked and ready for more.
Jennifer found out about the North American Youth Championships and set her goal. “I remember thinking, Oh my goodness, I only have a few years to get there and I’m only at Training Level! It’s easy to get overwhelmed but I was hungry to learn everything I could to try my best,” she said.
Two years later, she went down centerline with her Region 6 Team in the Young Riders division at Jennifer’s first international competition. “I loved feeling that pressure and having to rise to the occasion,” Jennifer said. With NAYC under her belt and an education from Gwen, Jennifer was excited to take on training more of Charlene’s young horses. She hoped to accomplish her goal of training one to Grand Prix.
A Star in Wistar
HS Wistar was just 18 months old when Jennifer started at Summervale. “There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was going to be special. He embodied the ‘it’ factor,” Jennifer said of the light bay warmblood colt. Jennifer knew his bloodlines well, having ridden her first Grand Prix on Wistar’s granddam, Phirst Solo. “Wistar brought so much joy each day as I taught the foundation skills to strengthen and develop his mind and body. He was a horse that just came out better the next day. He learned everything with ease and gave me so much confidence.”
Together, Jennifer and Wistar qualified for the Festival of Champions in 2005 and traveled across the country to Gladstone, New Jersey, to finish 5th in the Intermediate I National Championships. The next year, they returned to Gladstone to compete in the inaugural Brentina Cup for U25 Grand Prix riders.
“Charlene’s passion was breeding and promoting her American-bred Hungarian horses and making it to the international stage,” Jennifer said. This was the driving passion behind Summervale, so when Jennifer and Wistar were chosen for the Dressage Foundation’s Anne Barlow Ramsay grant in 2010, the whole team was thrilled.
The $25,000 grant was offered as an opportunity to showcase American-bred horses on the European circuit. “This was another pivotal moment in my riding career,” Jennifer said. “I flew Wistar over to train and I rode many different horses while in Europe, went to auctions, and flew to Stuttgart to watch Isabel Werth and the top-class riding taking place at top competitions.”
This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity carried extra-special meaning for Jennifer, since she was able to share the experience with the first horse she’d trained from the bottom up. “The joy of developing a horse all throughout its journey is really special,” Jennifer said. “They’re like one of your babies and you’re so proud and protective of them. For me, I always want to do right by them and make them feel good about themselves. I want them to feel like it’s so fun to go out in that ring and strut their stuff.”
To keep it all in the family, she also purchased one of Wistar’s sons, HS Wrevolution, who also made it to Grand Prix with Jennifer. She said, “Competing three generations of horses through Charlene’s program at the Grand Prix level was always a very special achievement for me.”
Family and the Move to Florida
Two years after returning home from Europe, Charlene announced her retirement from Summervale, and it only made sense for Jennifer to take over the program. Jennifer and her friend Paula Helm purchased the farm in hopes of building on Charlene’s vision.
“Paula is one of those amazing human beings who wants to better the lives of the people around her. She has been one of my greatest blessings and we’ve had one heck of a fun adventure
together,” Jennifer said of her longtime friend and business partner.
Since then, Jennifer has been hard at work to build up her business, all the while starting a family. “My daughter, Lexi, is 9 and she’s the sweetest, most loving little person. She and her younger brother, LJ, have been taking weekly lessons at a local barn in Washington — though he’s more into tractors and reenacting imaginary military battles for hours on end at this stage,” Jennifer laughed.
While finding balance between motherhood and business owner is still a work in progress, Jennifer emphasizes the importance of family. “My family means the world to me,” she said. “I’m inspired by the moms out there who aren’t perfect but they’re showing their kids what it looks like to chase dreams and live life with passion. That’s what I hope my kids see — that I’m doing something that I love every day. I aim to bring that joy and energy home to show them that they can imagine their own dreams and pursue them. They’re understanding that they don’t have to pursue perfection and can learn from experiences with all sorts of outcomes.”
Last winter, Jennifer was awarded the Dressage Foundation’s Debbie McDonald Fund for Pacific Northwest Riders, a grant made possible by donors hoping to see international riders representing Region 6 at the Global Dressage Festival. Initially, Jennifer had just planned to go by herself with four horses, but after visiting Wellington in November 2019, Florida was soon to become a family adventure. Together, Jennifer and her husband, Alex, purchased a home in Wellington and committed to the trek to Florida each winter going forward.
“My husband and I are both very driven people and any time we have an opportunity to learn, grow and contribute, we want to make that happen,” she explained. “We reorganized our entire lives. My husband figured out a way to work from home during those months so we could be together and I wouldn’t have to do this without my beautiful children with me every day. It was scary to make that commitment, yet totally exhilarating.”
With her new winter base established, Jennifer is focused on her future. She’s currently campaigning Millione, an 18-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding owned by Bob and Tina Desroche, at Grand Prix. Fifteen years after her first centerline at the Festival of Champions, Jennifer realized her dream of taking home a championship title. With Millione, she earned the 2020 Grand Prix National Championship, and together they are part of the Pre-Elite roster.
“Millione has been such an impactful horse for my life. He’s all heart, and I joke that he’s my little Viking warrior because he’s solid and strong and always ready to give 110%. I really had to grow and develop myself as a rider to support a horse like him well,” Jennifer said. “He loves to work and has such an incredible work ethic. He’s so happy and quirky, it warms my heart.”
After a solid season at Intermediate II, she formed a syndicate for Millione. “Millione kept feeling better than ever with every passing year. That statement holds true even now with him coming 18,” Jennifer said. “The syndication route of partnerships has been incredibly impactful. I’ve spent the last three years learning all I can to create an opportunity that’s a win-win for both owner and rider,” she said. “No one gets to the top on their own. I love the journey and sharing it with such amazing, kind and supportive people. I have immense gratitude.”
As Jennifer rides through the winter season and looks to the summer, she hopes to compete in CDIs and make the short list for the United States team. “It’s my dream to represent the USA in an Olympic or World Equestrian Games in my lifetime,” Jennifer said, looking to the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, then 2024 in Paris. “I’ve been training with Christophe Theallett, and his insight has been invaluable with the Olympics on the horizon.”
Ultimately though, she hopes to keep finding happiness in the small things.
“If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to define the rules you set for your values,” Jennifer said. “We often set such difficult rules and standards for success, for love, for acceptance. It creates such a narrow pathway for giving yourself a win. I recently looked at my own rules for success and found I was too quick to put my hard-fought attempts at progress into the failed category. My new rule is to be grateful — that I don’t ‘have to do’ anything, but I ‘get to do’ everything.”
For more information, visit www.summervalepremierdressage.com
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com