By Katie Navarra
Many of today’s top trainers affectionately remember their introduction to horses. For most, it was about the same time they learned to walk. From that moment on they were hopelessly infatuated with horses and riding.
Kaitlin Blythe, an assistant trainer for Jessica Jo “JJ” Tate in Chesapeake City, Maryland, remembers her first encounter with horses was lukewarm.
“My parents all but forced me to go on the pony rides at the state fair when I was 5 years old. I was afraid and it took more than a little coaxing,” she reminisced.
By the end of the short ride, her sentiments had changed. Her parents had to peel her off the pony. “I ended up loving it and refused to get off,” she laughed.
That same year, she began hunt seat riding lessons. By the time she was 11 years old, she was competing in American Paint Horse Association (APHA) shows in hunter under saddle and showmanship with her first horse, KBS Mad Max.
After competing at a Paint Horse show held in conjunction with the North Carolina State Fair, she was determined to compete at the APHA World Championship Show. Max was too small to compete in hunter events at the national level so in 2004 she purchased Willy B Cool, aka Willy, a leggy 17-hand bay tobiano.
While Willy entered training for hunter events, Kaitlin’s trainer at the time, Julia Dearborn, suggested Max try dressage. “Max was athletic, and thrived in dressage work. I loved the new challenge it presented,” she said.
For six years, Kaitlin simultaneously competed in dressage and APHA events. During her final year of APHA competition in 2009, she went to the APHA World Show in Fort Worth, Texas, and three weeks later traveled to the North American Junior and Young Rider Competition (NAJYRC) in Lexington, Kentucky.
“It made for the quite the schedule. These experiences helped me become a better competitor and learn how to manage my nerves, no matter how big and important the competition was,” she said.
Dedicated to Dressage
At age 17, Kaitlin officially switched from hunter to dressage. Willy followed the career change. Even today, Willy competes in dressage. He’s leased by one of Kaitlin’s friends and together the duo will debut at Prix St. Georges in 2016. “We discovered that Willy actually had quite a bit of talent for it,” Kaitlin said.
Max and Willy may have introduced her to dressage, but it was her next horse, Daverden, aka “Dylan,” that propelled Kaitlin’s dressage career forward. The bay Hanoverian gelding joined her painted partners in dressage training in 2006.
“He’s a very athletic, powerful horse who can be reactive at times. I always knew he was a special horse, so I stuck with him,” she said.
During their decade-long partnership, Kaitlin estimates falling off Dylan nearly 100 times. He once unseated her so badly she fell into a fence and broke her jaw.
Despite Dylan’s quirky personality, they excelled when competing together in four North American Junior Young Rider Championships, placing as high as sixth individually.
“Young Riders was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. As a young professional with aspirations of riding on a U.S. team, NAJYRC gave me the experience of qualifying for and competing with a team,” she said.
The Adequan/FEI NAJYRC is the premier equestrian competition in North America for riders 14–21. The young riders compete for team and individual medals in the three equestrian Olympic disciplines of show jumping, dressage and eventing. The championship also includes the Para-Olympic discipline, para-dressage and the FEI reining and endurance events.
“My biggest takeaway from the Young Rider program is how to handle myself under pressure, which is very similar to the pressure that I now deal with when competing horses for clients,” she said.
Kaitlin and Dylan also competed in four Festival of Champions competitions, placing as high as third. He also helped her earn USDF bronze, silver and gold medals.
“Most importantly, he has taught me the ropes of bringing a green horse up to Grand Prix, and how to have patience in even the most trying situations,” she said.
In addition to finding success in the show ring, Dylan introduced her to BioStar, a whole food supplement company and a sponsor. “He was struggling with building muscle and fitness, and also with stomach ulcers,” Kaitlin explained.
After putting him on the whole food diet and BioStar supplements, he became a changed horse. She believes his diet is a large part of why she was able to train him to the Grand Prix level.
“I’d been using BioStar products for some time before I became a sponsored rider, and I love having the support of a company with products that I absolutely believe in 100 percent,” she said.
Four years ago, while preparing for her first trip to the NAJYRC, Kaitlin connected with JJ Tate through a silent auction fundraiser.
“I’d seen JJ ride at a show when I was much younger, and I admired her riding style. When I saw her lessons available at the silent auction, I had to put my name in,” she said.
Kaitlin had been searching for her next working student opportunity and had a gut feeling that Team Tate was the right fit. As fate would have it, Kaitlin was the highest bidder. Shortly thereafter, she went to work for Team Tate, first as a working student and today as an assistant trainer.
“I feel so fortunate to be part of such a great group of people, with such a high standard of training and horse care every day. It’s such great experience for me, and I love spending every day in the barn,” she beamed.
The 24-year-old North Carolina native has collected a long list of accolades, but is far from satisfied. “My goals are to start my own business out of my mom’s farm, Legend Hill Farm, in Rougemont, North Carolina, and to represent the United States in international competitions,” she said.
She acknowledges the support critical to her past and future success.
“I’m so thankful for my family, friends, trainers and clients who continue to support me while I chase my dreams. It’s so meaningful to have all of these great people in my corner,” she concluded.
About the writer: Katie Navarra is a professional writer based in Upstate New York. She has been a lifelong horse lover and competes in ranch horse events with her dun Quarter Horse mare.