It’s Never Too Late — The Inspiring Journey of the oldest USDF Gold Medalist

Rita Dunn of Knoxville, TN, made history when she accepted her gold medal at the 2016 USDF convention in St. Louis in December. At 73, she’s the oldest recipient of the Federation’s highest rider achievement award.

The gold medal was the culmination of a 12-year quest for Dunn and her Welsh Cobb/German Riding Pony gelding, D Grande Finale. Along the way, she’s survived breast cancer and underwent knee surgery. “Finale” fractured a splint bone and was diagnosed with Cushing’s disease. On top of that, Dunn hates showing, and fights show nerves at every competition. With all of that, many riders would have hung up their tack and retreated to the sidelines. But Dunn says that the lure of dressage inspired her and kept her going.

“It’s fascinating, learning the movements and feeling something done really well. To feel a perfect pirouette or changes – it’s just cool,” she says.

The Army Way

Like many girls, Dunn was horse-crazy, although horses were not part of her life. She begged for riding lessons, but her mother did not like that idea. She took piano lessons instead. When she was five years old, she wrote, “I want to be a horse trainer when I grow up” in her baby book, although she had never touched a horse. “Aside from some pony rides, I didn’t sit on a horse until I was in college. I was eighteen or nineteen before I cantered.”

After college, Dunn married C. Hilton Dunn, a career Army officer. The couple’s first assignment was to Germany. She hadn’t discovered dressage yet, and with two young children and the demands of a military wife overseas, she didn’t ride. Dunn sighs when she thinks about the opportunities for German dressage training that she missed.

Returning stateside of Fort Ord, CA, Dunn bought a good-natured Appaloosa. “He had poor conformation, but it got my foot in the door of riding,” she says. A transfer to Fort Leavenworth, KS, meant a new mount and her introduction to dressage.

“We were stations at Ft. Leavenworth in 1975. There was a lesson program where people donated their time to give lessons. One of them was a ladies’ dressage class, taught by Sharon Wass de Czege. I was riding a Quarter Horse with a lot of Thoroughbred in him. I was using him for foxhunting, but he had a real ‘try anything’ attitude. I took the class and found it fascinating. How do I do this? How can I learn it? I didn’t think about competition then. It was just for fun.”

Her progress halted when her husband was assigned to the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. The remote location meant “no one was willing to drive an hour over the mountains to give a one-hour lesson.”

Fortunately, the family’s next move, to Fairfax, VA, made up for that. “It’s God’s gift to horses. Everything is there,” Dunn says, including access to high-quality dressage training. For the net 15 years, she trailered her horse to the Charlottesville, VA, area every week to ride with Elizabeth Lewis. For the first time, she rode and FEI-level horse, one of Lewis’ schoolmasters, as well as her own horse.

The Grand Finale

The Dunn’s final move, in 2001, was to Knoxville, TN, area. Shortly thereafter, Dunn began looking for a mount with the potential to carry her to the upper levels of dressage. At a 2004 visit to sport-horse breeder Klaus Biesenthal’s Bell Oaks Farm in Illinois, she noticed a green three-year-old.

“I liked his presence. He had a good behind and lots of try,” says Dunn, who ultimately passed over the unstarted youngster for another horse. When Dunn and the other horse did not click as partners, she took a chance and had Biesenthal ship the three-year-old to Tennessee. That was Finale.

“By that point,” Dunn says, “I had gathered enough knowledge to do my own training. He was only a three-year-old, and I decided to wait until her was four to start working on Intro and Training. He had two trots. I called them the ‘pony trot’ and the ‘big boy’ trot. Initially, it was a problem, but it worked out.”

Dunn began working with trainers Gigi Nutter and James Koford. At a clinic in 2005, Koford asked Dunn about her goals. “She said she wanted her gold medal. I knew she could do it and told her I’d do whatever I could to help her.”

Koford traveled monthly from his then-home base in Lexington, KY, to work with Dunn. “I worked three days a month with her,” he says. “She put the time in and does not cut corners. I’d come back and she’d done her homework. She knew where they were (in their training) and where to go next.”

Operation Gold Medal seemed to be progressing according to plan until later in 2005, when Dunn was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her treatment – surgery and radiation, but no chemotherapy – her new horse, and the prospect of riding again, kept her motivated.

“Having a horse you are excited about is huge. It was probably six weeks or two months before I could get on at all. And the training was light. Radiation zaps your energy. It was a full year before my energy returned. That was tough because he was a young horse and I was excited to ride and continue.”

In 2010, Dunn found herself out of the saddle again for knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus. “That was more painful than the breast surgery and treatment,” she recalls of the procedure, whose rehab kept her grounded for several more months.

Around the same time, Finale began showing signs of lameness. Initially, veterinarians thought he has injured a hind suspensory ligament, although MRIs were clean. The correct diagnosis finally came in 2012: Cushing’s disease, an endocrine disorder. While it’s an unhappy development, Dunn says, compared to suspensory injuries or some other problems, “It’s kind of a relief. It means constant blood work and expensive medications, but it is manageable.”

The last setback on the road to gold occurred when Finale fractured his right front splint bone in April 2015. “I watched it happen,” Dunn says ruefully. “He was playing in the pasture. He spun around and whacked himself, a huge spin and kick. That set us back five months.”

Throughout the setbacks, Dunn and Finale competed when the could and moved up through the levels. That achievement is remarkable considering that fact that Dunn suffers from severe show nerves.

The jitters would get so bad that Dunn tended to forget her tests in the ring. “She appears calm, cool, and collected, but I had to call every test for her from First to Fourth Level,” says friend and fellow rider Susan Hill. “After that, (competitors) must ride the test from memory. Even with me reading, she would sometimes be so concentrated on the move and what she was doing that she would zone out and not hear me and go off course.”

Finale, fortunately, doesn’t feel the pressure,” says Dunn. “He says, ‘Come on, let’s do it.’ He’s a very consistent horse. He’s the same at shows and at home. He doesn’t get rattled.”

In 2015 and 2016, Dunn doubled down on her training for Grand Prix. She spent several weeks in intensive training with Lewis. Nutter helped her to polish Finale’s piaffe and passage. “Rita is very exacting. She was not going to compete until they had it down perfectly,” Nutter says.

It took only two shows and two rides for Dunn to earn the Grand Prix score she needed for her gold medal. The first one came in June 2016 at a show in Franklin, TN. The second show was a month later in River Glen, TN, not far from Dunn’s home. She earned the final needed score on the first day of the show, but friends and family were coming on the second day, so she rode again.

“On the one hand, it was really cool that all of my friends and family were there. But the bad thing was that I knew who was watching.”

During that ride with everyone watching, for the first time ever in their career, Finale disobeyed. As Hill tells it, “At the extended canter, he got to the end of the arena, and he bucked. He’d never done that in the show ring. Right after that is the zigzag, which is a move Rita struggles with, so we were all holding out breath. But it was the best zigzag she’d ever done. It was perfect. She actually got a better score for the test on the second day, even with the buck. She just went for broke and really rode it.”

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