Ayden Uhlir On Dressage, Her Horse Sjapoer & More!
19-year-old Ayden Uhlir is a two-time NAJYRC gold medalist in dressage, a sport which has often been referred to as "horse ballet."
The young athlete recently spoke with us to discuss her history with horses and the sport of dressage, her horse Sjapoer, and much more!
Ayden Uhlir's first horseback experience, at the age of 5, was facilitated by a neighbor who owned horses.
"We were thinking that it would be a good idea to go and play with the ponies and have a good time," she said. "I went over and I got on the oldest, fattest horse around. His name was Minimum Risk, which my mother liked."
Ayden rode around on Minimum Risk at a snail's pace, but she was immediately enamored with the experience.
"I looked over to my mom and I told her that this was my thing," she said. "I've been in it ever since."
Ayden specializes in dressage, which she compared to ballet or figure skating for horses.
"We're basically trying to make the horse dance and do these really athletic and beautiful movements that are full of power and grace and beauty. It's about control," she said.
Each predetermined movement must be graceful and deliberate, and meet certain specifications. Most of all, it needs to look effortless on the part of the rider.
"We're supposed to look like we're not doing anything and that the horse is doing all of the movements," Ayden said. "But it's a lot of work. I like to brag a little bit. I have almost six pack abs from that."
Ayden guides her equine partner through minute leg, hand and seat movements.
"The horse has been trained to do certain things with different aids," Ayden explained.
By exerting pressure with her legs, for example, along the horse's sides, she can let the horse know to change its gait.
"Every movement is so small," she said. "They're supposed to look like you're not doing anything, but the horse is constantly listening to these tiny little details."
In 2012, Ayden took home the gold medal in the North American Junior Riders Championships.
"It was so amazing," she said. "I just love the podium so much. "It's an amazing feeling being up there with my friends."
She said that most athletes who participate in dressage do it for the love of their horses, and the chance to compete with them as partners.
"We work so hard for this," she said. "It's definitely the best feeling I've ever had, just achieving that goal I've had since I was I don't know how old."
She repeated the feat at the 2014 USEF Young Rider National Championships.
"I thought there was no way I could win Junior's and then Young Riders back-to-back, and it was a complete surprise being able to go in to move up another level and the next year being able to win," Ayden said. "Normally it takes a longer time to develop your training and to be successful so early. It was very surprising to me."
Ayden's horse is a 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood named Sjapoer (pronounced sha-poor).
"We call him SJ for short, because not everyone can pronounce Sjapoer," she laughed.
All of Ayden's time spent training with Sjapoer has allowed her to become extremely close with her four-legged partner.
"He is a very lovable, big guy," she said. "He's so sweet and I spend so much time with him I know all of his likes and dislikes."
For example, Ayden knows that Sjapoer loves 3-day old bananas!
"He's so picky about his treats," she said. "I know the perfect day. If they're too ripe or not ripe enough, he won't eat them. There are all of these little details about him that I think are so adorable."
Sjapoer trains daily at the barn for six to seven hours.
"I ride my horse in a lesson for an hour and in that hour we have to accomplish certain things that help develop a horse's knowledge for all of the movements and improve upon them and the quality of them," she said. "Everything is very detail oriented."
She added that working with and putting her trust into such a big and powerful creature is a humbling experience.
"He works his heart out so hard and I'm really honored to be able to work with such a large animal and have him show affection toward me during our work," she said. "It's a really amazing experience. In essence, I have to listen to his mental thoughts through his physical movement in order to have harmony in our movements together."
Ayden is originally from Texas, but she moved to Washington at the age of 16 for full-time training.
"I've been so close to my parents for as long as I can remember, so leaving home at 16 was very hard," she said. "It made it easier that my grandma came to move with me up to Seattle, and she kind of took care of me and made sure I ate dinner on time and got my vegetables."
She said that the distance sometimes took a toll on her relationship with her parents.
"It creates a very different relationship when your parents are back home and they try to keep the parental role still going from such a large distance," she said. "But we're always able to work things through. It's not a normal situation for anybody involved, with me being away from home so young."
Ayden's mom had expected her to stay home for at least another year before committing to such strict training.
"It was a surprising ordeal being able to leave home so early, and she kind of had empty nest syndrome for a little while," she said. But everybody has their little problems. I think that's normal when you're leaving to go to do something away from home."
After a year and two months in Seattle, Ayden relocated yet again to San Diego, California, where she currently trains with Sydney Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig.
Ayden has set some ambitious goals for herself. She hopes someday to participate in the Olympics!
Her short-term goals include placing in the Brentina Cup.
"It's an under-25 division where we do basically the Olympic level, but the age group is a lot younger," she explained. "I really want to work on that this year and the next, and we'll see what happens after those competitions. I'll readjust my short-term goals then."
To keep up with Ayden as her dressage journey continues, be sure to follow her on her social pages below! You can also tell us about your favorite athletes and your own sports adventures at SweetyHigh.com!