March 12, 2010

Kennebunk equestrian has been on quite a ride


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Staff Writer

Pick the right sport, and Olympic aspirations come unburdened by expiration dates.

Susan Jaccoma, a 55-year-old dressage rider from Kennebunk, has her eye on the London Games of 2012.

''The age, for her, is of no concern,'' said Lendon Gray, a two-time Olympic dressage rider from Dixfield who lives in Bedford, N.Y. ''Equestrians are some of the oldest competitors at the Olympic Games. As a rider you have to be fit, but it's not like a gymnast has to be fit or a swimmer has to be fit.''

No, in dressage the most important fit is the one between horse and rider, a bond of trust and familiarity that takes years to develop.

Jaccoma has been riding since junior high in Andover, Mass. She took a break when her son and daughter were young, but now that they are adults, she can devote most of her attention to her horses. Wadamur and Donatella, a Hanoverian gelding and an Oldenburg mare, are 9.

''When you have a passion, it's not really like work,'' said Jaccoma, who, on a typical day, rides in the morning and teaches in the afternoon. ''I work seven days a week and I'm happy to. I would be doing it no matter what.''

Jaccoma spoke from Wellington, Fla., just west of Palm Beach, where she is competing in high-level dressage every other weekend this winter. Her goal is to qualify for the 2010 World Equestrian Games in Lexington, Ky. If successful, her next step could be London.


Dressage harkens back to the ancient Greeks. It involves intricate and elegant footwork, with horses performing various balletic movements while walking, cantering and trotting in a pre-determined pattern around an oval measuring 20 by 60 meters.

As in figure skating, there is a compulsory component and, with music added at the Grand Prix level, a freestyle component. Judges score for technique and artistry.

''It's really gymnastics for the horse,'' Jaccoma said. ''To be at the Olympic level takes at least five years of training and building up strength. If you start with a horse at 4 years old, it's like taking a 6-year-old gymnast and looking ahead to the Olympics when she's 16.''

Jaccoma got her first taste of dressage in 1986 while involved in eventing, a three-phase competition that also includes cross-country and stadium jumping. Her friend, Milda Castner -- they go back to when a 20-year-old Jaccoma boarded her horse at Castner's Arundel farm -- had convinced her to branch out from jumping, which had been Jaccoma's primary passion but required her to drive daily to a barn in Haverhill, Mass.

''The horse she was eventing turned out to be very suitable for dressage,'' said Castner, a lawyer in Kennebunk, who also saw similar qualities in her friend: ''Preciseness, the need for accuracy, perfection and the constant search for the perfect movement.''

Castner encouraged Jaccoma to join a regional team competing at the 1988 U.S. equestrian championships in Gladstone, N.J., where Jaccoma came away with a blue ribbon.

''It was like a lick of a lollipop -- I knew I wanted to do more,'' Jaccoma said. ''I loved the idea of a team competition.''


Progressing through dressage's various levels in much the same manner as a student progresses through elementary, junior high, high school and college, Jaccoma eventually reached the graduate school level of Intermediare II. Her horses also had to make similar progressions, and it was with a schoolmaster named Nightwind that she reached the highest level, called Grand Prix, in 1992.

A schoolmaster is a horse already trained in dressage, so the rider learns from the horse more than vice versa.

''When I started this as an amateur, I had young kids at home and one fabulous horse,'' Jaccoma said. ''Because I'm Type A and want to be the best, I came to Florida. At first it was for six weeks. Now I'm here for six months.''

Florida is the place to be in the winter because that's where all the top riders, judges, horses and those in the horse industry congregate.

Jaccoma never has to travel outside a 10-mile radius to compete. She kicked off the season last weekend by winning six ribons at the three-day Wellington Classic Dressage Challenge, on both Wadamur and Donatella in the Intermediare II and Grand Prix levels.

This fall the New England Dressage Association awarded Jaccoma a $2,000 scholarship to help with expenses this winter and allow her to train four times a week with a Danish Olympian, Lars Petersen.

With Donatella, Jaccoma is ranked 12th in the country at the Grand Prix level. With Wadamur, she placed fifth at the 2008 National Intermediaire Championships in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., a competition she attended only after friends and colleagues, responding to a challenge issued by a six-time U.S. Olympian, Robert Dover, one of Jaccoma's trainers, banded together to raise much of the trip's $25,000 cost.

''It was so humbling and so awesome,'' Jaccoma said. ''Even some of my fellow competitors donated to that fund.''


Trained as a nurse, Jaccoma spent only a few years in medicine, mostly in the emergency room at Southern Maine Medical Center in Biddeford when it was known as Webber Hospital, before training horses and teaching riders consumed her professional life. While in Maine, she often gives clinics and lessons out of Wolf Run Farm in Buxton, owned by Jenny and Warren Knight.

''She used to ride jumpers and hunters but she got intrigued by the intricacy of dressage,'' Jenny Knight said. ''She has an unbelievable dedication to it, which is what you need to get ahead. And she's totally built for it. Tall, thin and lots of leg, which makes hers the perfect body for dressage, because it's such an elegant form of riding.''

Dressage makes no distinction between genders -- human or equine -- nor does it require a certain breed. It does tend to favor the older rider because the learning curve is long and steep.

Since 2000, Jaccoma has been on the United States Equestrian Team's list of high-performance athletes, a designation that continues to be a source of delight for her.

''To think a 55-year-old ex-housewife from Maine is a high- performance athlete is awesome,'' she said. ''It just makes me smile.''

And so her quest continues. She has represented her country in international competitions such as the Nation's Cup in Australia and several Can-Am challenges, but never at the Pan Am Games, the world championships or the Olympics.

Not to worry, though. She's only 55. Her horses are young. Time is on her side.

''Whether I ever make a team or not,'' she said, ''the journey has been fabulous.''

Staff Writer Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at:

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