Off to USDF Nationals: An Amateur and her Arabian

Courtney Varney and her purebred Arabian mare “Tess”.
Courtney Varney and her purebred Arabian mare “Tess”.

For amateur equestrians who love their horses, this story may appeal to you. It is a story of hard work, determination and a $500 Arabian mare.

Courtney Varney was a Navy kid, moving to the Orlando, Florida area as a young child and living a typical suburban life, dreaming of ponies. At the age of seven she started taking formal riding lessons and showing Arabians in the halter, hunt seat and country pleasure classes until settling on her favorite discipline, dressage.

“I went to take lessons at Summerset Farms and they just happened to compete with Arabians. When you’re seven years old being around any horse is exciting but the Arabians at that farm immediately appealed to me. I also never grew beyond a 5’1 frame so Arabians were a good fit for me.”

Throughout her youth Courtney continued to ride and show Arabians, but like many amateurs, when the pressure of the “real world” with work and school life entered the equation, riding and competing took a back seat.

“I have always had two goals— I wanted to be an Equine Veterinarian and I wanted to get my USDF (United States Dressage Federation) Gold Medal on a horse that I broke and trained myself. Before I entered college, many people with more experience than myself said that riding competitively and being an equine veterinarian were literally not possible. It was discouraging to hear but I never let that change my goals.”

The Beginning

Determined to be able to ride as often as possible, Courtney took part in working student programs with notable trainers, driving 40 minutes each way from school to break young horses. It was then that she discovered Tess (Edykts Enchantres), a fat unbroken 2-year old Arabian filly.

Courtney and Tess in the beginning at Black Water Ranch.
Courtney and Tess in the beginning at Black Water Ranch.

“I remember the day I put a saddle on her back in December of 2002. I was 21 years old breaking and training Tess along with a few other horses for her breeder, Dr. Jim Quinn (Black Water Ranch) while attending Stetson University. I unwisely got on her alone for the first time, but she had a fabulous brain from the beginning and was extremely easy to back. When I picked up the trot the first time, all I could imagine were my future challenges to sit that trot. She was bouncing me all over the place!”

As part of her working/boarding agreement with Dr. Quinn, Courtney bought Tess in June of 2003 for only $500 dollars and kept her boarded there for one year. Obviously that investment would pay off.

Their first competition was training level dressage as a 3-year old, and since then Tess and Courtney have competed at every level of dressage together, including many championships in the Arabian divisions. As they progressed up the levels it became more apparent that they would start showing in open shows, as there was better availability and the shows required less travel.

“I really enjoyed going to Arabian shows because I knew a lot of people and they were always so much fun, but I absolutely loved showing against all breeds and competing at the open shows as well. I understood the traditional dressage horse type, and Tess didn’t fit that mold, but I always enjoyed going to those shows with my little Arab to see what we could accomplish.”

Growing Up

Courtney and Tess competing.
Courtney and Tess competing.

In 2006, Courtney was accepted to the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine and immediately began to feel the stress of trying to ride and study.

“The first two years of vet school were extremely consuming. This was the first time in my life that I had to take a step back and riding truly became secondary for me. I still rode 3-4 times a week but we didn’t get to show. I just couldn’t do it all and I felt like I wanted to give Tess something else to do for the time being.”

In 2008, while still in vet school, Courtney bred Tess to a Sandro Hit son, and got a beautiful bay filly. Tess and her filly ‘Ellie’ were both inspected by the German Oldenburg Verband (GOV) in the summer of 2009 and Tess was named to the Main Mare Book for the GOV and her filly was named a premium foal. Tess is now double registered as a purebred Arabian and main mare book GOV.

Giving her that time off during vet school was just the ticket, as Tess came back from being a broodmare twice as strong mentally and physically. They quickly progressed from 3rd level to PSG, then made the transition to the FEI classes after having her foal. In 2010, Courtney and Tess went on to earn their USDF Silver Medal at PSG. With the USDF Gold Medal in their sites, another setback appeared and this one looked career ending.

Setback, Rest, & Recovery

Tess’s premium Oldenburg foal “Ellie”.

With the USDF Gold Medal in their sites, another setback appeared and this one looked career ending.

“We have had our fair share of ups and downs, including a unusual lameness scare in 2012 that could have been career ending. It was absolutely devastating. I love this mare so much and was totally prepared to just give her an amazing retirement if we couldn’t get her back.”

What followed was nine grueling months of stall-rest and hand grazing and then four months of very light work, helping Tess regain her muscle and fitness levels again. In 2014, Tess and Courtney finally went back to the show ring and after showing Grand Prix for six months together, received their USDF gold medal. But this horse wasn’t ready for an early retirement yet.

“Honestly my goals were met with Tess at that point but she had so much left. She was in the best shape of her life and seemed to have a lot more in her,Grand Prix so I decided to just let her go and have some fun and maybe even try some new things.”

What’s Next?

At 15 years of age and with help from many different trainers along the way, Tess has really reached her prime. Now in their second year of showing Grand Prix together, Courtney decided to tackle a Grand Prix musical freestyle in August and asked her long time trainer Bill Woods to help.

“I’ve had amazing help from many trainers along the way, including Chrissa Hoffmann who has helped me better understand the Grand Prix movements and made my gold medal possible. Bill has always been there for me as well. We had only two months to prepare everything before showing the freestyle at regionals. As always, Bill was a fantastic help in putting together a Grand Prix test that showed what Tess could do.”

Courtney and Tess at Regionals in Georgia on 10/11/15.
Courtney and Tess at Regionals in Georgia on 10/11/15.

On October 9th – 11th at the Georgia International Horse Park, Tess and Courtney attended the USDF Region 3 Sport Horse National Championships competing in the Grand Prix AA and the Grand Prix Freestyle. Earning Reserve Champion in the Grand Prix AA, Courtney and Tess were also the highest scoring adult amateurs in the GP Freestyle and 3rd place overall against the professionals!

Now Courtney and Tess are setting their sites on Kentucky where they will compete at the United States Dressage Finals in the Amateur Division for the Grand Prix Freestyle November 5th – 8th at the Kentucky Horse Park.

Hope for Amateurs

As an amateur rider Courtney and Tess’s success can be proven through their competitive results, but for Courtney the focal point is not quite that obvious. In a sport traditionally dominated by warmbloods many could choose to make this story about Tess, a 15’2 Arabian mare excelling as the underdog. Grand Prix Dressage is a discipline that the breed rarely has excelled in, but Courtney quickly moves away from that position.

“I don’t think size and especially breed have anything to do with limitations. Dressage has come a long way in my lifetime and I truly believe that the stigmas on breeds like Arabians not being able to do dressage is well on its way out of the sport.”

Courtney hopes that her story can help inspire other hard working amateurs who balance a professional career and their passion for riding. Her advice is to stick to it, as you never know what goals you can accomplish through hard work and dedication to your chosen sport.

“There is no doubt I got lucky with this horse. I’m not going to pretend for a second that this is somehow a normal occurrence. But as an amateur rider, my story is about taking what you have and working with it by getting the most out of your horse and loving every second that you get to be in the saddle. Passionate amateurs will always be the driving force behind our sport. I’m most proud that Tess and I are a good example of what can happen if you just do your best in the face of whatever obstacles that might stand in your way.”

In other words amateurs, stick to it because you never know what you might discover and accomplish.

Dr. Courtney Varney Bio

Courtney attended Stetson University in Deland, Florida receiving her BS In Biochemistry in 2006 before continuing onto the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, graduating in 2010. She became an associate at Ocala Equine Hospital in 2012 with a focus on lameness and sport horse medicine in the competitive sport horse. She is a FEI treating vet and is in the process of becoming a FEI officiating veterinarian.