Marisa Festerling is living proof that nice guys (and gals) don’t always finish last. She’s still pinching herself after placing fourth in this year’s USEF Intermediaire I National Dressage Championship, which landed her a coveted spot on the U.S. dressage team at the 2011 Pan American Games, which kick off October 14 in Guadalajara, Mexico. Despite some serious competition, her 10-year-old Belgian Warmblood Big Tyme (Saros van ‘t Gestelhof–Elvira, Wendekreis), whom she co-owns with Anne-Marie and Dave Walter, showed he could compete with the best of them. “He was great even without a day off in between,” Festerling says. “He’s proven over and over again that he’s a top competitor.”
Festerling herself proved that she could contend with the stresses of the trials—and the rain delay—and keep her focus squarely on the 17.1 gelding she calls “Frankie.” “He’s the kind of horse that requires a lot of attention from me,” says the 34-year-old from Moorpark, CA. “I don’t really have time to think about anything else!”
Standing on the sidelines, her trainer, Marie Meyers, wasn’t surprised. “To compete at the highest level, you need to have an extremely strong work ethic and a great deal of resilience. Marisa possesses both of those qualities.”
Meyers would know. An alternate for the U.S. dressage team at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, she’s been competing at the top ranks of the sport for years. Meyers is also known for her ability to spot top equine talent. In 2005 she imported Big Tyme from Europe as a 3-year-old, and Festerling’s partnership began. He was the 2006 USDF Horse of the Year at First Level, and the pair represented the U.S. at the 2006 World Championships for Young Horses in Verden, Germany.
Festerling’s been working at Marie Meyers Dressage in Moorpark for 18 years—first as a working student and now as assistant trainer to Meyers. Theirs is a partnership grounded in mutual respect and trust.
“Since I’ve known Marie, I’ve gone from being a teenager to a college student to getting married and having a baby,” says Festerling. (She also found time to earn her degree in English at California Lutheran University—Magna Cum Laude, no less.) “So much in my life has changed, but what’s stayed the same are the horses.”
“Marie’s been very dedicated to me and my education,” Festerling adds. “We’re partners, but we’re also like family. It’s a great advantage to have someone there who always has your back. Every successful competitor needs to have someone who’s in their corner.”
Since the team will depart for Mexico from the East Coast, making the Pan Am team meant that Meyers and Festerling had to do a little juggling. “It wasn’t practical to fly Frankie home during those three weeks,” says Festerling, “so I stayed here while my husband [Brian Festerling] went back to work.” The couple’s nearly-four-year-old daughter, Ella, also stayed with Festerling before team training began Oct. 3. Big Tyme boarded at Betsy Steiner’s barn in Frenchtown, New Jersey—where Ella got to spoil him with regular treats and kisses. Meyers, meanwhile, flew home to California to tend their horses and clients, but returned twice to help keep Big Tyme in tip-top shape. Acknowledges Festerling, “This has been a big undertaking for us, and it’s required a lot of sacrifice on everyone’s part.”
But she’s been savoring every minute of the experience. “I’m really excited. I’ve never been on a team before, and all the formalities and the festivities are really fun. A lot goes into it—it’s really neat to see.”
When Festerling and Big Tyme head down centerline in Guadalajara, they’ll have a considerable cheering section of family and clients. “We’ll have a good group!” she says.
She reserves special praise for Big Tyme. “I’m so proud of him. He’s a great partner. I can really count on him, and that’s huge!”