Kathleen Fitzpatrick is a amateur Dressage rider currently competing at Prix St. Georges on her 16 year old bay Andalusian mare. We sat down with Kathleen to learn more about how she balances life challenges, the show ring, and working full time as a first grade teacher.
When did you start riding? Tell us about your riding career.
I was always obsessed with horses for as long as I can remember, but my parents always hoped I would grow out of it! As a result, I never had a horse of my own growing up. I didn’t start formal riding lessons until I was out of college. Two of my aunts owned horses, so my riding career began with western trail riding at Whittier Narrows Equestrian center and Riverside (Santa Ana river bottom had the best trails!). Despite asking for a horse every Christmas, I never rode in formal lessons as a child. After graduating from USC, I moved to Orange County. Still horse obsessed, I researched barns, trainers, and disciplines and began lessons at Sycamore Trails. I began leasing a wonderful thoroughbred gelding owned by April Adams named Buddy Holly and started dressage lessons with Brent Hicks. This was the late “90s. I’ve been riding with Brent ever since! While in training with Brent, I was privileged to lease some wonderful dressage horses: Buddy Holly, Kyra (dutch warmblood), and Jakarra (owned by Gail Gardner) taught me so much, as all horses we ride do. Finally, I purchased my own horse, Noblesse Oblige, a.k.a. Noah. He was bred by Hilda Gurney, but I don’t think he liked dressage, or working at all! I loved him, but he was a challenge to say the least. He launched me a couple of times when he just wasn’t in the mood. He taught me how to land on the ground gracefully! Eventually, I retired him because he developed lots of health issues, and it wasn’t fair to keep him going in a career he clearly hated. Shortly after that, I was without a horse for a few months. But thanks to Dream Horse, I found my one and only perfect girl, Sangria Maria. She was trained by Kelly Phillips and loved her career as a dressage princess. She was trained through PSG, but I was not! So we started at Second Level, and moved our way up the ranks, and are currently showing PSG, toying with the idea of Freestyles for next season. I began taking additional lessons with Kathleen Raine because I finally had a horse that I could really compete! Her lessons have been like magic and I have so much respect for her. I am blessed to have 2 wonderful coaches that I can also call friends.
What does your training regimen look like?
I am at the barn every day, but I like to give Sangria one or two days off a week. She lets me know when she needs a break, so I don’t have any set days off for her each week. I take lessons with Brent 2x/week and ride with Kathleen 1x/week. In between, I work on my homework that my coaches give me in my lessons. On Sangria’s days off, she gets much-needed turnouts. She takes those very seriously and is so fun to watch! I teach first grade and I’m at my school most of the day, so I’m part of the “late shift” at Sycamore! Sangria & I aren’t really morning people, anyway.
What horse has been most influential in your life?
Sangria has been my most influential horse. She is the kind of horse that everyone dreams of. She loves her job, she’s beautiful, sweet (she gives me kisses all the time!) and she is my best friend. She has taught me so much. I never dreamed I would EVER own a horse that could be shown at the FEI level! Because of her, I want to learn more and more about our sport so I can be sure I’m taking care of her and riding her to the best of my ability. She deserves nothing but the best for all she has done for me.
What is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned from horses?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March of 2017. Shortly after showing Sangria that month, I learned that my show season would be cut short. I went through a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and a couple of hospital stays due to complications during my journey. Thankfully, I had wonderful support from Brent and dear friends who helped me take care of Sangria when I couldn’t get to the barn. This was an extremely difficult time for me (I lost my fiance, Jason, 5 years prior to leukemia, and my mom 10 months after that, and my brother in law was diagnosed with glioblastoma – brain tumor – about the same time I was diagnosed with breast cancer), and I was in a very dark place. But Sangria needed me. I had to fight for her. When I could get to the barn, it brought me so much joy that I would cry when I saw her. She is the reason why I am still here today, I’m sure of it. She taught me that no matter what happens in life, you have to always look for the positives in every event – no matter how bad the challenge is. Lots of good things happened as a result of my cancer. Sangria was my best medicine!
What advice do you have for other competitors?
After recovering from cancer, I made this show season my “Bucket List” year! I wanted to travel to away-shows & qualify for as many competitions as I could. Mileage builds experience! I didn’t always ride my best, but I made sure that my goal was just to enjoy the moments. Ribbons and scores are nice, but it’s got to be about your horse. Your horse is not a machine. Your horse is family. Treat them that way! Also, in dressage, you learn very quickly that every judge is different. They all have their preferences. Some like bend, some like more parallel movements. Some insist on perfect geometry, but some will overlook the geometry if your horse has pizazz! Just ride the best test you can and learn from the comments from your judges. Any mistakes you make are important – learn from them, don’t let them get you down!
Riding is a tough sport, what keeps you coming back each day?
As a widow, I can easily fall into “dark places” mentally when I am at home alone. The loneliness can be extremely painful at times. But the barn is a place that keeps my mind occupied. My dear friends are there and Sangria is my therapist! It’s the one place where I can let it all go and have pure fun, experience pure joy.
Everyone falls off, what is your post-fall off routine?
Well, we all know that if you fall off a horse, you have to get right back on! That is, if you aren’t hurt! When Noah would launch me, I’d fall off & yell, “Horse for sale!!!!!” He was a total jerk & would take off after he launched me. But the only times I fell off of Sangria, it wasn’t her fault and she was very concerned that I ended up on the ground. It happened twice – she tripped in the same spot in our dressage arena. She takes good care of me, generally. So when you fall, you just get up & get back on! What else is there to do?
Thank you, Kathleen for sharing the healing powers of horses. We wish you and Sangria all of the best!