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Lizzie Fera and Gigi Conquer the US Dressage Finals in Kentucky

When asked what it was like to be at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington for the US Dressage Finals this November 7-10th, Lizzie explained, “It was definitely overwhelming, I had never been to a show that big. Although, when I got there, it felt magical – probably what it feels like to a kid going to Disneyland!”

After winning the Reserve Championship at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 5 Dressage Championships in Parker, Colorado this past September 19-22 in the Adult Amateur Division, Lizzie and Gigi were nominated to represent Region 5 at Third Level in Kentucky and received a travel grant, helping them professionally ship Gigi to Kentucky and meet her there. 

Although, her journey has been wrought with health challenges, Lizzie (Elizabeth) Fera has had the goal of competing in the US Dressage Finals since they began in 2013.  The 26-year-old mountain area native started having back troubles as a teenager which lead to a diagnosis of Kyphosis at 15 years old.  This required a 10-hour surgery to fuse her spine from T1-T12 with 2 rods and 28 screws.  A year later, the surgeon removed the hardware because her spine was supposed to be fused by then and would hold its own. 

Originally starting in the discipline of Eventing (a horse and rider team triathalon which includes Dressage, Stadium Jumping and Cross Country Jumping), which has a higher rate of injury to riders, the lifelong horse lover had to switch gears to accommodate her back and began to pursue Dressage.  Lizzie did not show for a few years while she healed, but returned to showing as a Young Rider (riders between 16 and 21), winning the 2014 Great American USDF Region 5 Championship at Training Level on her horse Bojangles. 

Due to ringbone, Bojangles was retired from competition, leaving Lizzie without a horse to show for a time until Gigi (Gypsy Rose) a now 15 year old Hanoverian Mare came along.  Gigi was advertised cheap as a broodmare because of an injury and at the time Lizzie and her mom, Kristie Cotton, were looking for a nice mare to have a foal that they could raise and eventually bring up through the levels of Dressage.  Gigi did not hold on to the pregnancy, so they decided they would try to ride her.  Gigi had some significant behavioral issues at the beginning, but fortuitously one of Kristie’s specialties is retraining difficult horses and Gigi was transformed into a kind, hard-working, sound and incredibly successful show partner.

As Gigi and Lizzie progressed, Lizzie felt and could see something was wrong again in her back again, while she also was experiencing significant pain.  Her original surgeon said there was nothing to do, which she accepted for a year and a half until her mom knew they had to get a second opinion.  They found Dr. Evalina Burger at the University of Colorado, one of the top spinal surgeons in the country.  Lizzie was then diagnosed with Scheuermanns disease, a rare disease where your vertebrae form into wedge shapes in the teenage years, creating an unstable spine, causing Kyphosis.  Dr. Burger said without another surgery, she would likely be paralyzed because her T12 vertebrae was rotating and close to compressing her spinal cord. 

Spinal surgery number three was another complicated 10 hour procedure, including 2 weeks in the hospital with 3 blood transfusions.  Now, Lizzie’s entire thoracic vertebrae are fused as well as all but three of her lumbar vertebrae in order to support and stabilize her spine.  After 6 months in a brace, Dr. Burger gave Lizzie the go ahead to ride again.  Right away Lizzie was back on Bojangles, who had brought her through the first two surgeries.  Two weeks later she was back to riding Gigi with the goal to get back to showing. 

Kristie had been training and working with Gigi while Lizzie was healing.  Once the brace was off, Lizzie had just 10 months to prepare for finals.  Lizzie and her husband Michael currently live in Grand Junction where she graduates this month with a degree in Biology from Colorado Mesa University and Michael  graduates with a degree in Geology May 2020.  Lizzie traveled to Evergreen in between studying to train Gigi.  Without the luxury of an indoor arena, Lizzie trained in the early morning, late evenings and rain.  If snow made the footing too slick, “in hand” work (riderless) helped keep Gigi schooled and fit. 

Preparing for something like the US Dressage Finals, requires consistent work for both horse and rider to be fit physically and mentally prepared.  Kristie explains this beautifully: “It is not about repetitive work, it is not about riding the movements the way they should look in the test. The horse needs to understand the comfort of suppleness so they will always seek correctness, not resistance in their work. We train with gymnasticizing strategies that improve balance, strength, and elasticity. It is about creating unity, with the horse becoming completely focused on the quiet dialogue of the rider. (Because of her back) Lizzie can only sit very neutral in the saddle, she cannot influence the horse like other riders. This is actually a good thing as she is not disruptive to the horse with unnecessary body movement. Gigi has to respond with muscle nuance of the rider (sitting taller means go forward, flexing of stomach muscles means rebalance or slow) this creates minimum effort with maximum results. Coaching for shows has to meet the needs of both horse and rider. Assessing the mental and physical obstacles that can appear in the moment, means coming up with the proper remedy. Every horse is a wealth of knowledge as they cannot train in the exact same way, and just like humans, they have good days and bad. Catering to the horses comfort brings valuable success.”

Pain is still a huge daily obstacle for Lizzie, she has learned to listen to her body and rest on tough days, but also learn to emotionally persevere without becoming discouraged. Lizzie states, “Having a bond with a horse and competing in a sport I love is worth it.“ Lizzie is not one to give up.  Her love of Dressage has become more of an art, bringing her deeper into the training and tactics necessary for each part of the test (while showing), while creating a picture of “beauty and harmony.”

Once in Kentucky Lizzie recalls, “There were times I was intimidated, but I’ve been showing for so long and it’s what I really am passionate about.  I think it helped my nerves a lot to just think about that and I just kept telling myself that I qualified to go with my placing and my scores and that I worked really hard to get there.”  Lizzie continued, “I did feel like I belonged (at the finals in Kentucky) actually. Even though I’m from such a small town and I do not have the financials of most people in the sport, Gigi was a great teammate and beautiful horse to bring.  My mom is an amazing trainer and I really wanted to be able to show all that we had been working so hard on!”  Lizzie and Gigi ended up placing 20th out of over 40 horse and rider teams in her division, representing the best Third Level teams in the nation.  Congratulations Lizzie, Gigi and Kristie!                         Heather McWilliams ©2019

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