By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Kristie Scholten
Scarlett Gauthier’s equestrian journey once seemed improbable. However, like Walt Disney famously said, “All your dreams can come true if you have the courage to pursue them.”
A horse lover as long as she can remember, Scarlett never had the opportunity to saddle up when she was a child. Combine that with an unexpected brain surgery at age 21, and riding horses seemed like a dream that would never come to fruition.
But Scarlett has persisted. Fast forward two decades and Scarlett is now a USDF Bronze Medalist, has her very own horse of a lifetime, Chulo, and a second horse, Ejeo.
Although Scarlett spent her childhood being mesmerized by horses, she wouldn’t put her foot in the stirrup until she was 33. It was at that time that Scarlett and her husband, Dr. Mark Becker, relocated to Texas.
“After my husband finished his residency, we moved to Texas so he could further his career. Mark spends quite a bit of time away from home as he’s a very busy ER doctor. So, I started thinking about what I could do to fill the hours when I’m home alone,” Scarlett said.
An ER nurse herself, Scarlett was looking for a way to de-stress and give her downtime purpose. “I was at a point in my life where I could financially support my childhood dream, so I started researching options for riding here in Texas,” she said.
Scarlett was invited to attend a dressage show shortly after arriving to the Houston area. “Growing up in Louisiana, I had never seen dressage. After watching that first show, I knew dressage was the discipline for me,” she said. “I have a very romantic personality, and to see riders accomplishing such an intimate dance with their equine partners intrigued me.”
After attending that first show, Scarlett began taking lessons at Woodlands Equestrian Club with USDF Gold Medalist Marta Renilla. “Marta sells PREs; it was with her that I fell in love with the beautiful Andalusian breed after riding her school master stallions,” Scarlett said.
It didn’t take long for Scarlett to start her search for a horse of her own. “Unfortunately, I’m unable to have children, so I was looking to buy a horse that I could build a strong bond with. I wanted a journey with one very specific horse, my horse. I didn’t want to just ride multiple lesson horses,” Scarlett said.
When Scarlett first saw Chulo, her now-18-year-old PRE stallion, she immediately had a connection with him. “Acquiring Chulo is what truly sparked the fire for this entire journey,” she said.
Although Scarlett found her dream horse, she quickly realized that she didn’t have the mind-body connection required for a discipline like dressage. “My struggles with coordination were apparent early on. It goes without saying I had my trainers working overtime to figure out what instruction could help me with my frustrated horse,” Scarlett said.
After high school, Scarlett had entered the military, becoming a sergeant in the U.S. Army. “During my two years in the Army, I realized that when I started doing physical fitness, especially running, I’d have syncopal episodes and lose consciousness. This brought on a whole investigation of what was triggering these episodes, eventually leading to having surgery on the area of my brain that controls fine motor development,” Scarlett explained.
It wasn’t until Scarlett started exploring the discipline of dressage that she participated in a sport or activity that required the fine motor skills she lacked. After a few years of struggling trying to figure out if dressage was right for her, Scarlett and Chulo took a break from the sport and embarked on a different journey: bitless bareback riding.
By stepping out of the dressage arena, Scarlett and Chulo were able to truly bond. “Heidi Lowthorp, who’s a staple in the community here and a horse whisperer, helped me at a time when Chulo and I were very frustrated with each other. She had me take the bridle and saddle off and I rode Chulo in a halter in a 200-acre field for a year and a half,” Scarlett said.
Through learning Parelli groundwork and removing the pressure of getting the fine-tuned precision of dressage down, Scarlett was able to learn true horsemanship and how to gain Chulo’s trust. After a two-year hiatus and with an incredible bond built, the duo decided to try their hand at dressage once again.
When Scarlett reentered the dressage ring, she knew she had about a 30% difference in the use of her weaker left side compared to her right. Rather than letting her disability hold her back forever, she decided to take action.
“I feel like if you really want to see something out, you find answers rather than focusing on the problem. You can find answers, and there is almost always a solution,” Scarlett said.
With the help of personal trainer who had a background in osteopathy, Scarlett started working on proprioceptive exercises, so she could have a better mind-body connection. “Within a year of starting my fitness journey, I was back in the ring showing Second Level. I was so excited about my progress, I started taking courses to better understand the process of functional anatomy,” Scarlett said.
This past June, the duo showed Third Level and Scarlett received scores for her USDF Bronze Medal. “It was very important for me to achieve all my scores on Chulo. For me, the journey has always been about proving myself worthy of his patience and becoming a better rider for him,” Scarlett said.
In Chulo, Scarlett found an incredible partner, “He means the world to me. I don’t think any other horse would have been able to carry me the way he’s carried me. He’s had an insurmountable patience with me and the many disabilities I felt I had with this sport,” Scarlett said.
Scarlett also believes if she hadn’t started her fitness journey and educational courses, she wouldn’t have made the progress she has as a rider. While she’s always been passionate about fitness and considered herself to be a generally fit person, once she began her education, her fitness routine completely changed.
“My exercises are now corrective in nature and focused on improving brain-body response time. I truly believe that with the right program, all riders who experience adversity can overcome obstacles. In understanding my disabilities, I got a benchmark, something to fix rather than something to accept,” Scarlett said.
In 2021, Scarlett started The Functional Rider. “It has been the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for fitness, nursing education and riding together. I was encouraged by my educators to spread the concepts that have helped me to others,” Scarlett said.
As Scarlett too often experienced herself, riders can try their hardest to implement the instructions given by their trainers but still leave the lessons feeling defeated, knowing they gave their all, but it didn’t all click. That’s where Scarlett hopes The Functional Rider can bridge the gap between rider and trainer.
“I help teach riders how their anatomy works in motion. Most people are just confused on how the body works and can’t solve the puzzle without a little bit of help,” Scarlett said. “My sessions consist of postural correction, core strength training and myofascial stretching.”
Through her own journey, Scarlett learned a one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t work, as each rider has different challenges and conformation. “Once you’re able to identify your weaknesses, you can direct your energy to improvement,” she said.
Scarlett initially began offering her expertise to riders at the barn. However, it quickly blossomed into The Functional Rider, a full side business on top of the 24 hours a week she works as an ER nurse. Today, Scarlett works with several riders via Zoom, and she’s even begun working with European riders.
“It’s so rewarding to see that the exercises that helped me improve in the saddle are also helping others achieve their goals,” Scarlett said. Looking to help more riders, Scarlett is launching The Functional Rider website where riders can sign up for a six week “Get Fit” rider course, as well as continuing to offer one-on-one Zoom sessions.
“My program isn’t an exercise program where you’re going to lose weight. It’s geared specifically to core stability, balance and mobility. All these exercises will help make riders stronger in the saddle,” she said.
The future is looking bright for Scarlett. Next spring, she hopes to find a mare to breed with Chulo to continue his legacy. “Chulo has been such a special partner for me that I want to breed him to create his own offspring. He’s taken care of me every step of the way, so I’m looking forward to having another Chulo in my life.”
While she’s waiting to see how the next generation develops, Scarlett will spend her time working with Chulo and her other horse, Ejeo, with Katie Bortel at Bear Riding Stables. An 8-year-old PRE stallion, Ejeo and Scarlett are enjoying learning each other’s buttons.
After 23 years in nursing, Scarlett is hoping to phase out of the profession and devote all her time to her equestrian journey in and out of the saddle. “I know it’s going to be quite the journey to develop the same bond with Ejeo that I have Chulo, but I’m excited to see how our partnership evolves,” Scarlett said. With courage, discipline and a lot of hard work, Scarlett will continue to beat the odds and achieve all of her dressage dreams.
For more information, visit www.functionalrider.com or on Instagram @thefunctionalrider
Photos by Kristie Scholten, www.moonfyrephotography.com