Dawn White-O'Connor is the kind of small town story that horse-obsessed little girls dream about. The rising dressage star grew up in a town with less than 300 people, before following her ambition to the big city where she landed a coveted working student position. There she apprenticed under the close eyes of Steffen and Shannon Peters, putting in hours as a groom and assistant trainer before eventually earning herself an Olympic mount at the young age of 27.
The story sounds downright cinematic, but White-O'Connor credits hard work and the generosity of a community for her success. From the very beginning, the determined young rider remembers seizing every opportunity to get in the saddle.
(Dawn White-O'Connor on Aristo. Photo by Joseph Newcomb)
White-O'Connor recalls begging her parents to drive her to a barn in a neighboring town for lessons, where she "did dressage, or as much dressage as you do when you're six years old."
However, as White-O'Connor got older, the ambitious rider sought to make the leap to a bigger pond, seeking out a working student with greater opportunities outside of Colorado. A mutual friend of Shannon Peter's passed along the trainer's phone number and suggested White-O'Connor to reach out to her.
""I called Shannon up one day and asked if they had any positions open, She said that I could come as a working student and work off lessons on her schoolmaster, Wilma. He was the best horse! (he passed away last year) I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn so much from him! "
The move to turned out to be exactly the change White-O'Connor needed to catapult her to a new level and instill a high performance mentality.
"Being able to be around a high performance barn that is caring for the horses at the level that Shannon and Steffen's horses are you just learn so much about the management side of everything from riding to care. And I think just being able to travel with Steffen and just see how he operates at the Olympics, you get a chance to see what he does the day he shows, the day before he shows, and the week before, and the month before. White-O'Connor says perhaps the most eye opening observation was simply "being able to see that he doesn't change everything all because he's going to a big show, or that he all of the sudden starts doing things differently or riding his horses differently."
Ever the observant student, White-O'Connor also took note of the Peters' unwavering professionalism.
"They both always go out of their way to be nice and courteous to everyone. Even when they are in a high pressure situation they don't take that out on everyone else. They run the barn very professionally and that just trickles down to everyone that's around them."
Over time some of the Peter's magic did in fact trickle down to White-O'Connor. When Steffen found himself with three horses ready to compete at the same CDI level he was forced to find a new rider for one of his trio, as FEI regulation states that riders may only compete two horses at the same CDI level. Consequently, White-O'Connor earned a seat atop Dutch Warmblood, Aristo, and went from being an assistant to a name on the scoreboard almost overnight.
White-O'Connor recalls, "Steffen asked Carla Hayes, Aristo's owner, if she would consider letting me show the horse and take over riding him. She was awesome about it and agreed to let me show him in an open show and then depending on how that went show him in the CDIs the rest of year."
At the pair's debut show they earned a 68%, and from there the duo went on to grab reputable scores at local CDIs, qualifying them for Championships in Gladstone, New Jersey.
While scores weren't a problem, funding to get the pair across the country for the east coast show proved to be much more challenging. White-O'Connor admits, "It's really hard if you don't have an unlimited bank account."
"It's ten or eleven thousand dollars if you fly them, and it's a bit unfair to try to drive them across the country if you expect them to compete next week. It's hard, but that being said, I think there's a lot of people that are willing to help. When we did that Go Fund Me and a silent auction it was amazing to me the amount of people that were willing to help out. It was just crazy how many people were willing to give 500 bucks, or 1,000 bucks, and Steffen gave a whole week of training to the highest bidder. It's amazing how people will pull together in the community to help with something like that."
Needless to say, White-O'Connor made it to Championships with Aristo thanks to the support of the Southern California dressage community. However, the trainer's success, and her ability to inspire generosity didn't stop there. At the end of last year the 27 year old received one of her greatest contributions of all - the opportunity to ride and compete Steffen's 2016 Olympic mount, Legolas, owned by Akiko Yamazaki.
White-O'Connor remembers her initial shock, saying "I was obviously excited because it's an amazing opportunity, and amazing that Steffen and Akiko were both wanting to make that happen. That really meant a lot to me that they are both willing to support me. At the same time it's a bit of a daunting idea because the horse has been so successful!"
Regardless of Legolas' intimidating resume, White-O'Connor has taken over the reins with an enthusiastic, but pragmatic mindset.
"Anytime you take over a horse that has been competed by somebody else I think if you can continue riding with that person it makes the transition so much smoother. He's had him for almost five or six years, and together they've competed at so many shows, and had so many experiences, that Steffen knows how he's going to react to situations before they even happen. He's a very sensitive horse, and especially sensitive to your leg aids, particularly in the flying changes. So we're trying to sort out all of those things as I get used to him and he gets used to me. The transition process just takes time. "
In addition to getting her feet wet with Legolas, White-O'Connor is grateful that she is able to continue her efforts with Aristo.
"I'm still riding both. I moved Aristo up to the Grand Prix last year and did his first CDI, and myself and Legolas's first CDI at the Las Vegas show. Aristo did the Grand Prix and the Special, and Legolas did the Grand Prix and the Freestyle. It's pretty amazing to have two CDI Grand Prix horses - I did not foresee that happening!"
Undoubtedly, White-O'Connor is a talented rider, but perhaps one of her greatest strengths is her ability to inspire and rally an entire community behind her. It's no secret that the road to the podium requires not just a rider, but a dedicated team, and the gracious equestrian is well on her way to mobilizing a dynamic assembly. If White-O'Connor's previous success is any indicator of what the future holds for her and Legloas, it will certainly be interesting to watch where this new journey takes them.
If there's one thing we know for sure though, it's that they won't be alone.