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Dressage enthusiasts descend on Bruce's Field

Dozens of trailers from around the Carolinas and Georgia had the area of Powderhouse Road and Audubon Drive as their destination over the past few days, with horse-and-rider teams gathering for a two-day dressage competition at Bruce's Field, also known as Aiken Horse Park. 

"This is a favorite show facility for many, many people," said Tara Bostwick, vice president and treasurer of the Aiken Horse Park Foundation. "The footing is outstanding for the riding, for quality horses. It's very safe. It's the same beautiful warm-up. Beautiful area. Excellent volunteers."

Dressage, as described by the International Federation for Equestrian Sports, is “the ultimate expression of horse training and elegance,” and often compared to ballet.

Among the Saturday and Sunday riders was Kathy Viele, with four-legged friend Wicket along for the weekend's challenges. She shared some of their competition history and noted that she is looking to improve "because there's a lot more in this horse, and I'm really, really having a blast."

Viele, a Kansas native who moved to Aiken in 2011, said dressage events are held throughout the year in Aiken at various venues, with options for outdoor and sheltered performances, "so if you want to show dressage, Aiken is a great place to be any time of the year."

She added, "There's always options, and we have a number of really good trainers and coaches and clinicians coming in, and in the 10 years I've been here, the scene has just exploded tremendously, and I was just dabbling in it 10 years ago, but now it's my main focus, and I couldn't think of a better place to be."

The weekend also represented a welcome change for her parents, Tom and Kathryn Holder, both in their early 90s and formerly of the Kansas City area. The Holders moved to Aiken in November 2019, "just before COVID started up," she recalled.

"There was a tough year ... where I couldn't go  into their apartment ... and they couldn't come out to a horse show, with all the stuff, so this is the first time they've ever seen me show this horse," she said. "It was really fun to finally have the restrictions relaxed enough that they could come out and watch me." 

She also laughed acknowledged some markers of recent equestrian achievements. "My dad ... is an old Navy guy, and my brother's an Air Force guy, and they all medals, and now I have three medals, and that means something to my dad, so I made sure he saw that."

The medals, she said, were bestowed Friday by Viele's coach, Amy McElroy. "Amy's brought me a long, long, long way."

Bostwick noted that the two judges for the weekend, Heidi Berry and Cesar Torrente, were "fantastic," with international qualifications beyond those required for this level of event.

The weekend's data included 90-100 participants (horse-and-rider teams), with most taking part in multiple challenges. "You have people that come for all sorts of different reasons," she said. 

"I know the show was completely full. It's overbooked. We were only able to get two show rings, so there had to be a cut-off, so there probably could have been another full day, so it was very highly contested," she said. "It's a beautiful place, and people like to come to Aiken, because it's Aiken," she added.

She added, assessing Sunday afternoon's scene, that there were "lots of smiley faces coming into the office to pick up their ribbons and ... to get their tests back."

Testing, she said, is valuable in that it involves commentary from judges who assess the participants' performances. "That can be very helpful."

Aiken, she said, has plenty of dressage enthusiasts taking part in a variety of events, with requests being made for more events to be held in the months ahead. "We're looking at our 2022 calendar to see where we could add more dressage shows," Bostwick noted. 

The host site is named in memory of Bruce Duchossois, a nationally known horseman who bought the 66-acre parcel in 2000.

The Aiken Horse Park Foundation's website, referring to Duchossois, notes, "His dream was to nurture the property into South Carolina’s premier equestrian facility yet maintain its historic character. Following the examples of stewardship and generosity by the generations of previous owners, and knowing that he might not live long enough to see his dream realized, Bruce created a foundation to ensure the long-term survival of his dream."