By Ruby Tevis
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
At 22 years old, Natalie Pai is a rising star in the sport of dressage. With Nations Cup and NAYC medals, titles at the Brentina Cup and experience competing in Europe, Natalie has a bright future and the passion to pursue it. Though horses have always been part of her life, Natalie didn’t begin seriously competing until she reached high school. Instead, she spent her days playing with her horses and rescued animals on her family’s farm, Canaan Ranch in Middleburg, Virginia.
“It was great growing up on a farm with a lot of different animals. We had cows, chickens, cats, goats, mini ponies and donkeys, bunnies and, of course, dogs and horses,” Natalie said. Canaan Ranch was founded by Natalie’s mom, Melanie Pai, with the goal of breeding FEI dressage horses. “My mom had me up on a horse as soon as I could walk,” Natalie said. “When I was a kid, I just enjoyed messing around on horses. I’d jump bareback, take them swimming in the ponds and creek, set up barrels and do my best to race around them, shoot arrows off of their backs or set up a fake cow and rope it. My friends and I would also play catch with footballs on horseback.”
Natalie was 7 when she made her first debut in the show ring. “Some birds bombarded my poor horse as soon as I entered and halted, and I fell off,” she laughed. “It didn’t deter me though; I hopped right back on and finished out the show!” She began seriously focusing on dressage in high school as she fell deeper in love with the elegance of the sport.
In 2014, Natalie took her first centerline at the North American Youth Championships in the juniors division. An unfortunate injury to her horse led her scrambling to qualify with a lease horse, Way Not. “He was the sweetest horse and tried so hard for me. I think we came in third to last, but I was happy just to be there since I didn’t think I’d be able to go,” she said. “The next year I qualified for the Young Rider team with my horse Fritz San Tino. We won the Young Rider Team silver medal and also won the Young Rider Individual gold medal.”
Dressage and Diplomas
Natalie spent her first winter in Florida during high school and immediately fell in love with the atmosphere of Wellington. “It’s so special because it’s like Disney World for horses!” Natalie said. “There are so many things to do during the season; it’s always great to escape the cold and have 12 weeks of shows to choose from.” Being surrounded by top dressage riders, as well as leading jumpers, eventers and polo players, has inspired Natalie to improve her riding.
Despite Wellington’s magical ambience, Natalie’s time in Florida hasn’t all been fun and games. Education has been a priority for Natalie throughout her life. “Getting a degree is important for a number of reasons,” she said. “First, it never hurts to have a backup plan in case something happens, such as an injury. Also, if you study business, it can help when starting out as a young professional.”
In May 2019, Natalie graduated from Palm Beach Atlantic University with a business degree. “My parents always put a huge emphasis on school. If I didn’t do well in school, I wasn’t allowed to ride,” she said. After graduating from high school, Natalie chose Palm Beach Atlantic because of its renowned business program, as well as the half-hour proximity to Wellington. During competition season, Natalie would school her horses in the morning, drive to class, then drive back in time to go down centerline.
“Going to college full time and still riding and competing was an amazing opportunity,” Natalie said. “It was very difficult trying to balance academics and competing, but it taught me great time management skills and being so busy helped me focus even more.”
Competing Across the Pond
After a successful season competing in the U25 with her Dutch Warmblood gelding Unlimited, the pair was selected to compete in Europe as a part of the Discover Dressage Emerging Athletes Program. Natalie and Unlimited competed in Rotterdam, Leudelange and Aachen, which she describes as the “biggest highlight” of her career.
“Competing in Europe is definitely a different experience than competing in the United States. The warm-up arenas are very intense, as all of the top riders in the world were riding right next to me!” Natalie said. “The shows are much bigger and there are many more spectators than there are in the United States. Being able to go to Europe was so important for my education because I was exposed to the environment at a young age — without the added pressure of being part of the senior teams.”
While she enjoyed every aspect of competing in Rotterdam and Leudelange, Natalie’s dream come true was competing in Aachen. “To be riding down centerline of Aachen, where every great rider in history has been, is the highlight of my riding journey so far,” she said. “The stadium seats 40,000 people and there were lots of spectators. I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I was going to be.”
Though the competition at Aachen was the highlight, Natalie also enjoyed the unique experience of the closing ceremony. “It was super cool! All of the riders rode around on rented horses in the jumping stadium, which seats 65,000 people, and everyone waved white handkerchiefs while German marching music played. It was an awesome way to end the European tour.”
A Strong Support System
Riding on a team isn’t an everyday experience for most equestrians. Though dressage is typically an individual sport, Natalie appreciates any opportunity to ride on a team. She’s also won team silver and gold with the United States at the Wellington Nations Cup. “Riding on a team is such a fun opportunity. I’ve made some of my best friends at the championships. My ultimate dream is to represent the United States on the senior team one day,” she said.
During her time in Europe, Natalie trained with USET dressage coach Debbie McDonald, who connected her with her current coach, Olympian Adrienne Lyle. “Adrienne’s such an incredible rider — one of the best in the country — but she’s also a phenomenal coach,” Natalie said. “She’s given me so much insight on what it’s like to compete at the top level because she’s done it herself. She’s been able to teach me how to ride off my seat and can zero in on the smallest details to take it to the next level.”
Between the friends she’s made by competing on various teams, her relationships with trainers and her family, Natalie has built her own community of supporters to lean on. “Having a team behind you who supports you unconditionally is advantageous in absolutely anything you do,” she said. “I’m very blessed to have such a strong support system and a mom who’s behind my riding 100 percent. My parents are always there to cheer me on in the show arena!”
Though Natalie enjoys being a busy person, she recognizes the importance of taking a step back to re-balance. “Horses take up almost every single part of your day and it’s incredibly hard to find time for a personal life,” she said. “It’s nice to take a break and not be so micro-focused on the horses all the time. Being an equestrian can be very tough at times, so having a strong support system and having other interests is important to stay mentally healthy.”
Outside of the arena, Natalie hopes to follow in her mother’s footsteps by rescuing abandoned animals. “All animals deserve a second chance in life and I want to help provide that for more animals,” she said. “All of my pets are rescues and they’ve given me so much joy.” She looks forward to her future as an animal advocate, as well as continuing to train and compete internationally.
Natalie has retired Fritz San Tino and Unlimited, and is gearing up to debut her new horse Utopie D’Ouilly in the U25 division. “The sport of dressage is growing! There are so many different programs now that are aimed toward helping youth,” Natalie said. “I would encourage every single young rider to take advantage of these programs as much as possible.”
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com.