A Rocky Road to World Championship


Front Page / Apr. 20, 2017 10:33am EDT

Equestrian Treated Horse’s Illness by Shifting Gears
By Scott Beavers

Lori Berger, along with her horse Lexi, took up Western dressage after years in the traditional competition circuit and scored highly at the Western Association of America’s World Championship in Oklahoma. (Herald / Tim Calabro) Lori Berger, along with her horse Lexi, took up Western dressage after years in the traditional competition circuit and scored highly at the Western Association of America’s World Championship in Oklahoma. (Herald / Tim Calabro) When equestrian Lori Berger first rode her horse, now named Lexi, 10½ years ago, she never imagined the life lessons she would learn from her relationship with the horse.

Berger first learned of Lexi, the quarter-Shire, quarter-Thoroughbred and half-Saddlebred, in 2006, when a friend told her about a horse that was for sale that she thought might be a good fit for her. She was looking for a horse to bring along, train, and ultimately show in English dressage, so decided to have a look.

“It was love at first sight!” Berger said. “Lexi was striking; black with four white legs and a white tail.

“The first time I rode Lexi there was an immediate and total connection,” she added. “We were outside and the weather was very windy, so I was a bit skeptical on how it would go, but Lexi didn’t act scared at all and I had never felt a connection like this with a horse in my life.”

Berger calls advice to students during the VTC dressage team’s practice on Tuesday. (Herald / Tim Calabro) Berger calls advice to students during the VTC dressage team’s practice on Tuesday. (Herald / Tim Calabro) Not long after that day, Berger was having lunch with a friend who told her she had never seen her act or talk so profoundly about a horse and suggested she buy her. The horse was not quite within Berger’s budget, so her friend offered to loan her the money and soon there was a new horse on Monarch Hill in Tunbridge.

The relationship between Berger and Lexi solidified and grew quickly, and within six months, they were showing in English dressage and easily moved up the first levels. Over the next few years, they showed and competed successfully in dressage and kept moving forward in training and competitions.

Jessica Riley (standing) holds the two blue ribbons won by Lori Berger and Lexi at the championship event in Oklahoma. (Provided) Jessica Riley (standing) holds the two blue ribbons won by Lori Berger and Lexi at the championship event in Oklahoma. (Provided) Then after having her vaccinations in the spring of 2011, Lexi starting acting strangely. She seemed to be afraid of everything, had a major sensitivity to light, was constantly shaking her head, and developed a nasal infection. Berger became very concerned and tried everything possible to figure out what was wrong; spending lots of money on medicine and treatments, but nothing seemed to help solve the problems.

Lexi would never be the same. They soon realized that the problem is known as Idiopathic or Equine Headshaking Syndrome (Headshaking). They continued to work, train, and show; but the shows became miserable experiences for both and Berger knew something had to change. In the Fall of 2014 Lexi lost interest in everything, and Berger decided she would have to stop riding her or sell her. They took the winter off from riding and reassessed the situation.

Life-Long Rider

Berger started riding horses at age eight, got her first horse when she was 12, and has been intimately involved working with and riding horses ever since. When she went to college, she brought her horse with her and boarded it. That’s when Berger discovered dressage. She liked the history of this type of riding as well as the challenge of the perfection required to do it well.

After college, she had the tough decision of focusing on her degree or working with horses and not surprisingly, the love of equine won out. Berger moved to Vermont, where she landed a full-time horse training job in Hartland and coached the Dressage team at Dartmouth. She was also involved with GMHA doing instructor training, working with the adult camp and teaching private lessons.

Fully entrenched in the equestrian world, Berger married Gary Mullen of Tunbridge and the two joined her love of horses with his life in dairy farming. Since dairy barns aren’t exactly appropriate places for horses, the couple built a horse barn on their Monarch Hill property and Berger began riding and training horses on the farm.

In 2005, Berger started working at VTC and helped develop the college’s equine program, in which she has been immersed ever since in classroom instruction, teaching Equitation, and as head coach of the VTC Intercollegiate Dressage Team.

During the winter of 2015, Berger continued to research Lexi’s ongoing severe neurological condition of headshaking. While this syndrome is not uncommon, there is no proven solution for it. Berger found and tried a UV blocking mask that helps with photo sensitivity for horses.

Almost immediately, Berger saw a very positive affect on Lexi’s violent headshaking and all aspects of handling and riding seemed to be much better. Lexi wore the mask at all times except while riding and Berger was elated that they may have found a partial, but very real solution.

Western Dressage

Berger kept thinking about other ways to help or solve the problem and had read articles on a discipline of riding she did not have experience with—Western Dressage. There were similarities with English Dressage, but many subtle differences, including the saddle, positioning, and how the horse moves. She thought some of these differences might have a positive effect on how Lexi acted and responded.

“Western Dressage allows the horse to move more freely than in traditional English dressage, yet shares the same roots in the work of the European masters of the 1500s,” she noted. “It replicates much of the type of riding that the early Spanish explorers brought to the Americas, and as a teacher of equestrian history, it seemed like a logical possibility.

“I didn’t know much about it, but with the help of my department head at VTC, Jessica Stewart Riley, an experienced western rider, we began playing around.”

They began doing some trail riding and right away saw a difference in Lexi, how she acted and her apparent level of happiness.

They started slowly, but with the help and guidance of Riley, some borrowed tack, the mask, and a new style of riding, Lori and Lexi were back to riding, training, and working together as a team. Before long, Berger decided to enter a Morgan show in the First Western Class at the Tunbridge Fairgrounds. They did an Introductory Pattern and not only did the team enjoy it, they did very well, got good scores, and positive comments from others at the show.

Berger did some research and found the Western Class in other shows and in September 2015, they entered the Champlain Dressage Schooling Series show in Montpelier and proceeded to get the high score. The team entered four more shows that year, got the high score for Western and Overall for all levels.

“It was like a dream we dreamed one afternoon long ago,” she said.

The new team of Lexi, Lori, and Jessica now saw what a strong riding partnership they had. Riley saw real potential, and suggested they go to the World Championships later that year. This was something that had not crossed Berger’s mind, but she responded “Why not?” But only if you go with us.”

World Championships

They entered the 2016 Western Dressage Association of America World Championships in late September at the Lazy E Arena in Guthrie, Okla. (www.wdaaworldshow.org). They showed most weekends last summer, got excellent scores, and others encouraged Berger to go to Oklahoma.

“The best part of all this was that Lexi was clearly happy again, as was I,” she said.

The trip to Oklahoma was not easy and included many unforeseen obstacles. Their truck stalled countless times and they were on the phone with Riley’s husband while driving to get mechanical help. They got pulled over when their trailer lights suddenly stopped working. Arriving at their lodging destination in Indiana they found they didn’t have their room and slept in a horse trailer. One of their trailer tires delaminated while driving and their trailer fender peeled away.

Persistence paid off and they finally made it to the show site in one piece. While preparing for the show, Berger was on the phone with a local truck dealership to trade in their truck for a new one. This was not something that typically helps a serious competitor but had to be done.

On Day 1 of the championship events, their first three were Dressage Suitability, Equitation and Dressage Hack, and she won them all! Berger and Riley were somewhat surprised and happy beyond belief. The rest of the competition saw the team perform incredibly well and receive third place in Freestyle, eighth place for Basic Level 4, ninth place overall for Basic Division, and High Points for Saddlebred.

“This was one of the best experiences of my life and could only happen when the horse is ‘on board,’” Berger said.

The entire experience with Lexi has been life-changing for Berger.

“It made me realize how important it is to be open-minded and willing to change and learn new things,” she said. “It’s allowed me to take a fresh look at how I do things as a trainer, instructor, rider and person in general. I feel Lexi and I were given a tremendous gift and opportunity. I hope to not lose the importance of that.”

The team is currently ranked #15 in the WDAA Top 100 horses, planning on doing more rated shows around New England this summer, and has moved up to Level 1 for competing.

When asked if they’ll be going to the championships again this year, Berger said “I don’t know, but we have until July 1 to decide, so stay tuned!” She expressed her profound thanks to Jessica Stewart Riley for all her support, saying there is no way she could have done this without her.

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