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WoSJ Exclusive; Katie Dinan – on Nougat du Vallet, Harvard studies & making it to the US team

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Katie and Nougat du Vallet at the World Cup Final earlier this year. All photos by Jenny Abrahamsson.She just turned twenty, but her young age has not prevented her from building up a pretty impressive list of merits – Katie Dinan is one of those young American girls who made her mark in the sport already as an 18 year old. Not only is Dinan an exceptionally talented rider competing at the highest level of the sport, she also goes to Harvard where she now enters her second year – and thinks about going deeper into biology. Katie is definitely a little different from the showjumpers we usually meet.

What she has in common with the best riders in the world though is her very apparent determination. Being on the same team as the likes of the world’s leading lady rider Beezie Madden and her trainer McLain Ward does certainly not scare her, rather on the contrary it just seems to sharpen her. “I mean, for me who has only been jumping at this level for about two years and then to find myself on a team with McLain, Kent and Beezie is really cool,” she says. “That being said – when I get picked like this, I believe I have been so for a reason and then I am really going to do everything I can to belong on that team.” And so she did in Dublin. After having twelve faults in the first round, Dinan came back to jump a second clear. “And I knew I could do better than what I did in the first round, so to come back and be able to jump a clear round was really gratifying,” she smiles.

“To get to go to Hickstead and Dublin – which are two amazing horse shows – was great! It’s nice to meet a group of different people, and it’s definitely something else. Like for example in Florida you compete against the same riders, again and again. The biggest difference for me as a rider is that when we come to Europe we come with our two best horses, and we come to do the biggest classes. That obviously makes the trip worth it for us. I usually spend the winter at the WEF and then we go to Spruce Meadows, and I compete a lot more horses there than I do in Europe,” Katie explains on how Europe is a somewhat different experience for her. “For me to come to Europe – first in April for the World Cup Final and then the second time for Hickstead and Dublin – is something I really have built towards. It was definitely the set goal and the plan. We have a nice show in New York called Old Salem that I jumped before I left, and then after that I went to Spruce so I felt really ready to go to Hickstead and Dublin with such preparation,” Dinan explains.

Katie describes her top horse Nougat as “unbelievable”. For Katie it’s obviously been a great experience to be part of a senior team already as a young rider – getting the chance to really prove herself. But she also appreciates other aspects of it, such as getting to know her team mates in a better way – telling us that “when you go over to Europe like this you really get to know the people you travel with – and you really are like a team.”

The horse that has played a big part of Katie’s success is of course the tiny rubber ball Nougat du Vallet. The 12 year old French bred gelding is described by Katie as “unbelievable” – and it’s clear that to her Nougat is much more than just a competition partner. Nougat came to Katie a little over two years ago, after he had been produced and competed by Sandra Kofmehl. “Sandra had had Nougat since he was four, and moved him on very slowly – and then in the spring of 2011 she was showing him in 1.50 classes in France. At that point we had already heard about him, so I went to try him,” Katie explains of how the gelding came to her attention.

Nougat’s size was a small concern though – as he stands at only 162 centimeters. Although Katie loved him after the first time on his back, it was not a done deal immediately; “When I tried Nougat the first time he felt great, but he is very small and as we were looking for a Grand Prix horse we were not 100 % sure whether or not he had the size for the big stuff. At the end of the day we decided to take the chance – because it was a great fit. And then worst case scenario would be that I had a horse that was competitive at 1.50 level instead. When I got him it took me a few months to figure out to ride him, because he was a lot different from the other horses I had been riding before,” Katie tells.

But, it went fast and the pair won the first Grand Prix they ever did together in January 2012 in Florida. “It was a great moment for me, as I realized that he could do it with me and I could do it on him,” Dinan says looking back. “At that point in my life it was the biggest thing that I had ever won. At the end of that winter I also jumped him in the Olympic Trials, and then we did a 5* Grand Prix where he jumped amazing. Last summer we made our first trip to Europe, and did two GCT shows before we went to Gijon. When I came back home I went  indoors, and we ended up with some good World Cup points so I got to go to the finals in Gothenburg in April,” she smiles of her continuous success after Nougat entered her life and she his. 

It was amazing to ride there, but I have to say I was a little bit nervous" - Katie says about riding her first World Cup Final in April this year.“We have been so lucky with Nougat; he’s an amazing horse – he is so talented. But he also has a great attitude. If you make a mistake, it does not affect him. So I know that if I ride well, he will jump. If I make a mistake I might have a fault, but then next time if I fix it – like in the Nations Cup in Dublin – he will jump it clear the second time around. He rarely has a mistake if I do my job,” Dinan says smiling. “He is also the friendliest horse – like a little teddy bear – so sweet! Over the last years I think he finally realized that he is pretty special though. And so he has gotten a little bit more of an attitude, but only in a good way!”

For Katie, the World Cup Final was not only her first final – it was also her first indoor show in Europe. “It was amazing to ride there, but I have to say I was a little bit nervous.  It was by far the biggest I had ever jumped, and I had never jumped anything that big indoors – and on top it was my first European indoor show,” she laughs. “And I came from the huge sand ring in Florida where I had been competing for three months – so it was quite a big transition to come to a small and intimate indoor ring.”

It was not only the ring and the track that was intimidating, as Katie suddenly found herself surrounded by the best riders in the world, “riders I look up to and who I’m used to watching on internet” as she puts it – and suddenly she was in the same class as them. “Nougat jumped great there though,” she says. “On the first day we were in the top ten in the speed leg which gave me some confidence for the rest of the week. In the second round I made some mistakes, which was probably due to my inexperience indoors. On the last days when the courses were huge he jumped really well, so I was very happy with that.”

Katie with Glory Days that she has had since the end of January. Earlier this year Dinan added another star to her stable, the 12 year old Swedish bred Glory Days. “At the end of last year we were looking for another horse that could do these big shows, because you want to be competitive in all the classes. We were really looking for a horse that was ready to go out and compete, when we heard that Daniel [Zetterman] was thinking of selling Glory so that’s how he ended up in my stable. Glory was great during Florida, and then I brought him to Gothenburg to do the other classes there – and he got a lot of good ribbons at Spruce Meadows. He’s a very fast horse, and very competitive. I have only had him since the end of January so for sure we are still building our partnership. I feel very lucky to have him,” Katie smiles.

Katie is also very lucky to have a very supportive family that backs her up – they were all there to cheer for her in Gothenburg, as well as having McLain Ward training her. For the past three years, Katie has been under Ward’s guidance – he has his farm ten minutes away from Katie and her family’s yard. “I started training with McLain in December 2010, and at that time I had moved up to do some small Grand Prix classes in the States. It has been great to be able to train with someone who is a competitor himself, and of course to be able to go with alongside him to shows like these is really cool – I don’t know if any of us expected that three years ago,” Katie laughs. “When McLain was injured at the WEF last year he couldn’t come along with me as much as before, and I had to learn to do things on my own – which at the end of the day was good although the circumstances were terrible. Now at these big shows where we come together, to have been on my own has been a good experience for me as I need to be self reliant. McLain also needs to focus on himself when we are out competing,” Katie explains.

Summer is over, and now it’s back to Harvard and Boston for Katie. “During fall I live at school and take a full load of classes. I try to do as many indoors as possible though, and usually it works out pretty well unless I have an exam or something that clashes. I obviously show a lot less during autumn than during summer,” she explains on juggling full time studies with a showjumping career. “And then when its WEF – it’s a little more difficult because we have the Grand Prix every weekend and every Thursday there is the qualifier for that. So if I want to do the Grand Prix I have to be there by Thursday. But this past year I managed to take my classes Monday to Wednesday – it’s a little intense, but it works out well,” she explains on her busy schedule that includes a three hours flight back and forth between Boston and Palm Beach every week. When asked if it’s not a little exhausting to do this kind of exercise for three months, she simply smiles and says “It’s worth it”.

Katie and Nougat jumping at Hickstead this summer. “I love the horses and I love competing, so when I am at school I look forward to the show. But at the same time I feel like my studies add a little bit of balance to the riding part of my life. Just to do showjumping can become very consuming. I mean if I had a weekend that didn’t go quite the way I wanted to I can go back to school and forget about it a little bit. And that really helps mentally.”

At this stage in her life, Katie has not made up her mind as to whether or not she will end up as a full time professional rider. Only time will tell if she decides a career in the ring. “I have no idea if I want to do it full time yet. Right now I am very lucky to have Nougat and Glory – and as long as I have them I keep riding and see how far I can go in the sport. It was so inspiring to go to the World Cup Final; you get to see the best of the best and how amazing they are. So, I am motivated to try and take it as far as I can!”

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