|Peggy Verdonck visits with Jay in the pasture at StarDutch Equine in Wetumpka.
Immigrant Horse and Rider Live American Dream
by Jade Currid
The story of Peggy Verdonck Riley of Wetumpka and her registered 2004 palomino overo mare, Jetalito Sunny Step, known as Jay, epitomizes the American Dream.
Both natives of the Netherlands, the harmonious horse and rider pair have made a mark not only on the local equine scene but have earned worldwide acclaim.
Verdonck and Jay emerged as world champions from the final test of their Level I Open Western Dressage class at the second annual Western Dressage Association of America World Show held in Tulsa, Okla., November 1-2, 2014, after a clean, collected ride marked by smooth transitions, a flowing and ethereal trot and lope, and a rock-solid partnership of horse and rider hewn by a long, rewarding journey to this shining moment in their history.
Verdonck’s cues to Jay were imperceptible; horse and rider were truly one.
Since she and Jay were the first team to enter the monumental class early that morning, a long, anticipatory wait for the results loomed ahead at a venue characterized by gargantuan buildings, multiple arenas, roomy wash areas for the horses, a feed store on site, and the attendance of the top riders and trainers in the emerging discipline of Western Dressage.
"When the class was over, I didn’t really grasp what had just happened until my family back home started texting and when my parents from Europe called me on my cell phone," Verdonck revealed. "That’s when the tears started streaming down my face and it really started sinking in that Jay and I had become the 2014 World Champion WD Level I Open."
||Peggy Verdonck displays the High Point Buckle of the Level I Open Division she won at the show. (Credits: Peggy Verdonck)
Verdonck and Jay also won the High Point Buckle of the Level I Open division, Reserve Champion in Level II Open, which she is particularly proud of since it is a class higher, and a fifth and sixth place.
Verdonck decided to enter the second annual Western Dressage Association of America three months prior to the event.
Leading up to the epic show, she rode Jay almost every day, fine-tuning the details they needed to work on, and held fundraisers and clinics to finance their venture.
The Making of a World Champion Equestrian
At 8 years old, Verdonck began riding a Norwegian Fjord at an English barn in the Netherlands. That might explain her weakness for the breed and why an endearing Fjord named Jelly Bean currently takes up residence at her barn.
"The first year I took vaulting lessons to create a good balance and feel for the horse’s movement before moving on to a saddle," she explained. "Soon after that, I got totally hooked on horses. It wasn’t a hobby anymore; it had become a lifestyle."
The enterprising young equestrian started volunteering at that barn, and then after moving to Germany when her dad received papers to work at a different military facility, she started riding at a new barn where she focused on dressage.
|Peggy Verdonck and her husband Joel Riley, Riley Horseshoeing, strike a pose in the cotton field near their home in Wetumpka. Joel supports Peggy in her equine dreams and in operating StarDutch Equine. (Credit: Peggy Verdonck)
She became a groom and then eventually an assistant trainer at the barn in Germany.
In her teens, she was a member of a pony club and honed her skills in the disciplines of show jumping, dressage and quadrille that is akin to a drill team, but with the incorporation of dressage.
Verdonck worked at a number of large barns when she was young, not in return for money but for the golden opportunity of riding and showing the barns’ horses.
"I took many, many lessons from different trainers and competed in dressage and show jumping as a teenager and in my early 20s," she said.
While serving in the Dutch army at age 21, she bought her first horse, a 3-year-old Arabian named Aglaya, with her hard-earned money and a little help from her older brother Dennis.
Shortly after that, she felt the urge to try her hand at something new with horses.
Verdonck started Aglaya in English, but cross trained her in Western. That is the pivotal point when her Western riding career began.
"While mainly riding in Western events, I never forgot the importance of dressage exercises while training my horses, so I was already riding Western Dressage before it even officially was given a name in 2010," she related. "I was ecstatic to learn about the founding of the Western Dressage Association. It felt like coming home!"
A World Champion Horse Shows Promise Early On and Steals Owner’s Heart
Verdonck bought Jay when she was 6 months old in the Netherlands from American Paint Horse Association breeder Leo Copinga.
"She turned out to be a winner at a very young age," Verdonck said. "I started exposing her to the show ring as a weanling in several in-hand classes such as in-hand trail and halter. Jay is my heart horse, my once in a lifetime horse! She is extremely versatile and has a heart of gold!"
She’s never ever going to go anywhere, she gives everything, Verdonck said.
Jay is not the type of horse Verdonck can ride in the arena every day as Jay starts anticipating what Verdonck will ask her next.
She knows what is coming next because she is so smart, Verdonck said.
"So really, with her, one day we go on a trail ride, the next day we do some trail obstacles and the third day we do some dressage work, and I think that’s important – diversity in the training – for every horse and not just Jay."
Verdonck’s highlights of competing with Jay include winning a class in reining at a stock horse show.
Jay’s versatility and ability to do well in any class, whether it is trail or Western Dressage, is what Verdonck is proud of most.
Verdonck’s goal in training any horse is to develop a well-rounded mount.
A Hobby Turns Into A Profession
Verdonck and Jay moved from the Netherlands and Verdonck became a proud United States resident in 2006.
"After that, I just had more land here, and I could afford more horses, too," she explained. "So from there, more horses started coming, people started asking me to start horses for them and that’s where it kind of started."
Verdonck started receiving more requests to give lessons and to start horses, and once she moved to her current residence in Wetumpka, StarDutch Equine, her boarding, lessons and training facility, was born.
"I train, I start horses under saddle or I work with horses that have problems with people," Verdonck laughingly related. "I also help people with their problems with the horse so they can work together to eventually becoming a team again."
She gives lessons in Western, Western Dressage, English and jumping.
"When it comes to training for people, there’s always lessons included to teach them to deal with their horse when they get it home," she said.
Verdonck also gives clinics and demonstrations.
"It’s still a hobby to me," she fondly said.
Everyone has a day where they say, ah, it’s too cold to go outside to feed, she quipped.
An Explanation of Western Dressage
Western Dressage is the addition of classical dressage techniques to the daily training of every horse and rider, no matter what discipline and no matter the breed, but especially for the training of the Western horse and rider, Verdonck explained.
"It teaches the horse to create a healthy posture and build healthy muscles to be able to do certain exercises in a healthy way," she continued. "It teaches the rider what to do and what not to do when it comes to the physical and mental health of the horse in the long run."
Western Dressage follows a training progression ladder called the training pyramid that helps to avoid skipping steps while training and provides a goal to work towards, she revealed.
"So it’s not really discipline-related," she stipulated. "Some people just put everything in boxes. Dressage is this, Western is that, but a lot of techniques coming from other disciplines benefit every horse."
Dressage techniques can benefit the Western horse and Western techniques can benefit the dressage horse, she said.
The diversity of horses and people is Verdonck’s favorite aspect of Western Dressage.
Western Dressage is a melting pot for many different breeds and crosses of horses and equestrians with all sorts of backgrounds.
"Western Dressage doesn’t discriminate," Verdonck said. "Everyone is welcome!"
Currently, there are not many Western Dressage shows in the area, but more equestrians and groups are showing interest in the discipline, she said.
"There are certain dressage groups that have added Western Dressage classes," she said. "They think it’s important. They welcome every horse; it doesn’t matter if it’s a big Warmblood for dressage or a Fjord, the Birmingham Dressage and Combined Training Association is very open to it. They always have big classes and the Western Dressage classes were added for us, even if it is just me, but it’s growing. More and more people are coming. Hopefully, it will keep growing from now on."
It’s A Team Effort
Verdonck has the utmost support of her husband Joel Riley, of Riley Horseshoeing, in achieving her goals as an equestrian and operating StarDutch Equine.
"He’s a test-caller. He’s a groom. He’s a chauffeur. He supports me, and he’s my shoulder to cry on. Everything – he’s very supportive of everything," she tenderly revealed.
"Joel and I are both outdoor people," she related. "We share the passion of horses, but also of just being outside."
Verdonck plans to keep doing what she loves: ride, teach and occasionally show.
"Of course, in Western Dressage, but also in my other favorite disciplines: obstacle/trail events, ranch pleasure and ranch trail," she revealed. "I also love going on long trail rides with my husband and friends."
Jade Currid is a freelance writer from Auburn.