There are only minutes to go before Natalia is set to enter the ring for the team competition of the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games (CACGs) and storm clouds are threatening over Puerto Rico’s La Sebastiana Equestrian Park. For the first time, Puerto Rico has a dressage team and Natalia is one of its anchors. As the last rider, she knows that she must have the ride of her life for the new team to have any hope of beating the other more seasoned and proven teams.
This is the moment Natalia has been working towards her entire career. However, her journey has been anything but easy. Natalia originally qualified for the games on her 16-year-old Oldenburg mare Regal Maskarade, her loyal mount since 2001, who gave Natalia her heart through the 2004 Advanced Young Rider competitions and earned Natalia her USDF bronze and silver medals. Unfortunately, Maskarade was stricken with a virus during the early summer of 2004 that went undetected for weeks because she showed no outward signs of the illness that had already claimed the career of at least one other equine athlete. The courageous mare continued to give Natalia everything she had, until one fateful competition where Natalia noticed a significant change in the mare’s energy level. Natalia immediately pulled out of the competition and consulted her veterinarian.
Natalia almost lost Maskarade that year, and spent 9 months diagnosing and rehabilitating her. Maskarade returned to competition in April of 2008 and was showing Prix St Georges by 2009. Natalia was determined to repay her loyal friend by giving her the honor of competing at the CACGs. But as the competition neared, Natalia began to fear that the long trip to Puerto Rico would be too difficult for Maskarade. Sadly, after a lengthy and emotional struggle, Natalia decided that it would not be in the best interest of her horse, or the team, for her to compete in the games with Maskarade.
When Natalia finally made her decision, there were only 9 days left before the Puerto Rican Federation was due to announce their final team selection for the CACGs. Not only did Natalia have to find another mount, but she also had to earn the necessary scores in a qualifying show with sufficient clout to demonstrate to the Federation that she deserved to remain on the team. Two days after deciding to pull Maskarade from the CACGs, Natalia packed her bags and headed to Canada to try out two prospective mounts. She chose Wilbur and entered him in a qualifying show that very weekend. Although Natalia had only ridden Wilbur three times before the show, the two had already developed a bond. This bond, coupled with Natalia’s talent and sheer determination, allowed her to obtain the scores necessary to re-qualify with her new mount. Now came the hardest part. Natalia had less than 5 weeks to get Wilbur, a relative newcomer, more show experience and prepare him for the CACGs. By the time Natalia arrived in Puerto Rico, her bond with Wilbur had strengthened. Wilbur began to trust her implicitly and had grown into a devoted partner. And although she had only known Wilbur for a relatively short period of time, Natalia felt ready―almost calm―as she completed her warm up. She did not feel intimidated by the fact that as one of the youngest riders at the CACGs, she would be competing against riders almost twice her age who had been with their mounts for years. Natalia had faith in Wilbur.
But as fate would have it, Natalia’s journey was met with yet another setback. Just as she was getting ready to enter the arena for her test, a violent tropical storm blew in. The officials suspended the competition for 3 hours while they waited to determine whether the games would proceed or the remaining rides would take place the next day. The officials’ decision was critical. If Natalia was still going to compete that day, she would have to warm Wilbur up all over again. At the end of the 3-hour delay, the teams voted, and the officials determined that the competition would proceed.
So once again Natalia swung herself onto Wilbur’s back and she told him, “We have this!” Although Wilbur was tired, he performed beautifully for Natalia and they executed a flawless test, allowing the Puerto Rican team to finish in 5th place just behind the seasoned Dominican team. Natalia and Wilbur also qualified for the individual competition and finished 12th overall―an astonishing accomplishment for an unknown rider who had only been working with her horse for 5 weeks.
Natalia is now looking forward to the Pan American Games in 2011 and the Olympics in 2012. Unfortunately, she will not be competing with Wilbur in those Games since his owners sold him as a result of his accomplishments at the CACGs. Thus, Natalia is seeking a new mount with as much talent and heart as Maskarade and Wilbur. But this time she hopes to find a sponsored horse that will remain in training with her through the 2012 Olympics. While she searches, Natalia continues to train and compete with her two younger horses. Natalia is currently self-funding her riding career through professional riding instruction and horse training―a rare occurrence among international competitors―but she is actively seeking sponsorships to assist her in getting to the Pan American Games and beyond.
Natalia is grateful to all the individuals who have already helped her along the way, especially her parents, family, friends, Karian Farm, Matt Gonzales, Luis Denizard, Gabriel Armando, Brothers G Enterprises LLC, Haymarket Vet, Frank Baines Saddles, Equuleus Saddlery, the Puerto Rican Equestrian Federation and Olympic Committee. If you know of a suitable horse, would like to become one of her sponsors, or would just like to read more about Natalia please visit her website at www.artofridingllc.com.