Earning the right to compete just once for the title of National Dressage Champion is a dream of many riders. For Cathy Morelli, it’s a yearly event.
Morelli, 63, lives right down the road from the U.S. Equestrian Team headquarters in Gladstone, New Jersey, where the annual Dressage Festival of Champions has been held since its inception in 1991. And that’s a good thing, considering that she’s competed in the event pretty consistently since the first year.
In fact, she’s not entirely sure, because she hasn’t thought much about it, but it’s occurred to her that she’s probably competed in the Championships every year for the past 16 years. The way she figures it out is by counting the medals of participation accumulated in a wicker basket in her kitchen.
Her latest appearance was at this year’s Championships with BeSe, an 14-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding by Flemmingh out of Wabatsje and owned by Diane Rosenberg. BeSe and Morelli made their debut at the Festival in 2002. Morelli is always a crowd favorite, and not just because her family and friends can usually come to cheer her on. She is adored and respected by her students, as well as those who know her in the American Dressage world.
“A lot of people dream of going to Gladstone, because it’s a big deal, but then they don’t make it. I guess I’ve always taken it for granted. But you shouldn’t take anything for granted, Morelli said.
Double Masectomy - Advantage in Riding!
And when she says that nothing should be taken for granted, she means nothing, not even life. Just three months before competing in this year’s Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Festival of Champions, Morelli underwent a double mastectomy. She first had a bout with breast cancer eight years ago and it recently returned. But a week after surgery, she was back in the saddle.
“They think they got it all and I didn’t need chemotherapy. They’re quite sure it didn’t spread and they got it soon enough,” Morelli said. The cancer reappeared in one breast but she opted to have both removed, which, she said, would also make her body more balanced. That was because she also chose not to have reconstructive surgery after doing a bit of research and talking to others who had. After her own experience, she thinks more women should consider this option.
“For me, it was the right decision. I healed much faster than the first time around and I’ve been told with the reconstructive surgery there’s a long healing process,” she said.
In fact, Morelli jokes that her surgery is a great advantage for a rider. “There’s definitely an upside for riders – no bouncing up front. After the surgery, I actually felt the best when riding. I had more trouble sleeping. I guess my body is so used to riding and being active that I actually felt great when I rode.”
Longevity in Dressage With Her Riding and Her Horses
Longevity is rarely seen in high performance horses or riders, but Morelli, who also competed in the 1990 Dressage World Cup (in the Netherlands with RH McKinney) and her horses are an exception. Her many appearances in the National Dressage Championships were often with horses that returned with her year after year.
“I’ve had some nice horses and they’ve had longevity too,” she said. “It’s nice to make it to the Championships so often and usually when my horses have made it there, they’ve been there several times. I guess I’ve been lucky to have horses that have been nice enough to do it. And a lot of times they’ve been difficult horses that I’ve had to retrain. They’ve come in all shapes and sizes.”
Morelli is actually quite modest because she gives lots of credit to her horses and too little to herself. The horses wouldn’t be in the National Championships year after year were it not for her skill as a trainer and rider. A strong believer in the true classical system, Morelli has long advocated against the use of training “aids” such as draw reins. And, she’s been very opposed to some current training methods.
PhelpsPhoto: Cathy Morelli and Doublet at the 1998 USDF Regional Championships
A Classical Trainer With Her Own Spin on "The System"
Morelli has a varied riding background, but spent much time training with Major Dezso Szliagyi, who was trained by the Hungarian riding school. She has been increasingly concerned about modern methods in which horses are “over bent” in the neck, which she believes restrains horses and destroys backs, limbs and gaits, causes grinding of the teeth and puts horses on the forehand. Through videotapes, articles and teaching clinics, Morelli is promoting change to what she simply calls “The System.”
Morelli admits The System isn’t a new way of riding, but rather a return to the correct classical methods. She believes that if more trainers and riders stayed true to the classical approach, their horses would last much longer, as her horses do.
“I don’t force my horses. I don’t use draw rings and things like that. I focus first on getting my horses balanced and as their hind legs get stronger, I then work on roundness and collection. If you try too soon for roundness you can injure them. I let them tell me when they’re ready to move on,” Morelli said.
Keeps on Ticking With BeSe and a Full Barn
There’s a good chance that Morelli herself will continue to make an appearance in the National Dressage Championships despite the fact that she had thought a couple years ago of slowing down. It was BeSe who changed that plan. She was initially paired with the horse in order to prepare him for sale. When she first brought him home, “he proceeded to buck me off and I thought, ‘I need a horse like this like a hole in the head.’ But after I worked with him for five months, I changed my mind.”
Rosenberg then bought the horse so Morelli could keep working with him. She said he’s a super horse, but he’s not the only good horse she currently has in her stable. The talented horses now under her tutelage range in age from four on up. This leads Morelli to believe that she’ll probably be training and competing successfully for some years to come.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a time in my life with so many nice horses,” she said. In fact, despite her recent battle with cancer, she also can’t remember a time in her life when she’s felt better physically. “I feel like I’m 12 years old again.”