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The Equestrian Life: Adalee Ladwig is riding love of horses to national championships

To say that 16-year-old Adalee Ladwig loves horses would be an understatement.

Adalee has been around horses since she was a toddler, with her parents, Ela and Milo Ladwig, introducing her to her first pony when the family moved to a small farm on Maple Swamp Road.

“I’ve been riding ever since I could walk,” Adalee said. “We moved here when I was four and my mom got me a pony and I just kept working my way up on the big horses.”

While recreational riding was fun, it wasn’t enough for Adalee. At the family’s Maple Swamp Farm Riding Academy, her love of horses grew from just riding, boarding and training horses to competing.

She competes with her horse, Diego, in eventing – sort of an equestrian triathlon – where riders and horses compete as equals, first in dressage, then cross country and finally show jumping. The cross-country course feature jumps of varying difficulty, including water jumps and some where the horse and rider must clear challenging obstacles. Riders and horses accumulate penalty points throughout the competition with the low score determining the winner. Adalee also competes in dressage with her other competition horse, Argenta.

“Riding horses I’ve been doing that for a long time, but eventing itself I really started competing recognized (events) in 2017,” Adalee said. “I’ve been gradually getting better with the whole sport.”

And in those two short years Adalee has risen to the big stage – the nationals.

Adalee participated in what is considered the pinnacle of the sport, the American Eventing Championships (AEC). More than 1,000 competitors of all ages and levels from across the United States converged on the Kentucky Horse Park as it hosted its first AECs Aug. 27-Sept. 1.

But Adalee didn’t just walk up and sign up to participate at the AECs.

“You have to qualify but you have the whole year to qualify before the event,” said Adalee. “You have to get either first place or second place in a recognized event or you can get third, but you have to get third at two separate shows.”

It didn’t take Adalee long to qualify.

“In our first novice recognized competition, me and Diego qualified. We actually got first place so it automatically qualified us,” she said.

As time neared for Adalee and Diego to enter the arena at the AEC in the Novice Junior Championships division, she admitted that she was nervous.

“There were some nerves,” she said. “We had dressage first, which is the more technical event, no jumping or anything like that. There were 50 competitors. I wasn’t very sure about it and somehow we got first out of the gate. We had the lowest score, so we were leading for that day.”

And day two – cross country.

“The next day was cross country which is outdoors where you jump a lot of stuff. We didn’t add any points to our score so we were still in first,” Adalee said.

Tensions were high come day three – show jumping.

“The next day was show jumping. It was actually in the Rolex Stadium so it was really big, scary for my horse,” said Adalee.”I was so nervous the whole day. I don’t think I ate much of anything because my stomach was turning. I was the last one to go because they go from last place to first place.”

If being the last competitor wasn’t hard enough on Adalee and Diego, the arrival of a huge storm heightened nerves.

“There were about 11 competitors before me to go and then a huge storm came in,” Adalee said. “The announcer was like, “Everybody has to go to the barn,” because of lightning and all of that. We went in and we put Diego in a stall and he was totally calm. He thought he was done, totally done. So, around two hours later, we got him back out and everybody started warming up for the big event. Diego felt good. I mean, I was a little nervous. Then we stepped into the arena and he got nervous … We did the first jump pretty good and then the second jump was okay. We got to the fifth jump and he knocked a rail. So that added four points to our score. Then we knocked three other rails so that added 16 total points to our score putting us all the way down to 30th.”

While disappointed in the final days’ competition, Adalee lauded Diego, who is a rescue horse the family acquired just nine months ago in Lexington.

“It was a little frustrating but I was super proud of him,” she said. “I mean, he was under saddle for eight months and he competed in this huge event and he was first, we were first for two days.”

Adalee said that Diego, who is 10 years old, started eventing as a 3-year-old but that something happened – she didn’t know if he “threw a fit or what” – and he was just left out in the field for six years

Training Diego did not come without its struggles.

“He’s been so difficult. So to compete with all these riders that have had their horses for quite a bit of time … it’s amazing how far he’s come,” Adalee said. “He was kind of set in his ways and didn’t want to do anything. The first time I got on him he tried to back up and rear to try and get me off and I’m like, ‘No, I’m riding you.’ We found out that he could jump really good so that’s what made me want to keep him. He sees a jump and he goes for it.”

Adalee was anticipating having to back out of the AECs after Diego sustained an injury two weeks before the event.

“We were jumping just on a Sunday, doing some jumps outside, and I was going to this bigger jump. He kind of took an extra step and just crashed into the jump. His back leg got cut pretty bad so I was afraid I was going to have to scratch the competition,” she said. “I was like, ‘Mom, I don’t think he’s going to be ready for the competition.’ But he got better. Three days later, he got back to himself.”

Adalee and her other competition horse, Argenta, who was born and raised on the family farm, leave for Michigan today to show in dressage regionals.

“Dressage is her strong point,” she said. “I did eventing with her last year and she loved the jumping she’s just more built for dressage movements. She kind of plows through the jumps and knocking down rails takes your score down.”

When Adalee returns from Michigan, she will take Diego back to the Kentucky Horse Park for the Area 8 Regional Championships.

“We will redeem our show jumping,” Adalee said with conviction. “The last time the last day was so nerve-wrecking. We can redeem ourselves this time.”

When not competing, Adalee spends the early part of each day riding and training other horses as well as her own.

“Since now I’m homeschooled, I usually will ride in the mornings and end my day in the barn and then go to the house and do school work, which has been working out pretty good,” she said.

As many high school juniors worry about what career path they should pursue, Adalee has no doubt the path she will take. And, yes, it involves horses..

“I actually want to be a horse chiropractor so I plan on going to college,” she said. “I think I can make a career out of it (eventing and dressage). It’s just that I want something to fall back on in case it doesn’t work.”

She also has another future goal …. again horse related.

Seated near her collection of Breyer horses, model horses created by hand by the world’s leading equine experts, she said, “One day my dream is for Diego and I to be modeled after for the Breyer horses.”