While her friends primped for Foothill High School’s senior ball in local beauty salons, Ashley Schempp had her hair styled in a barn.
The weekend of the dance, the Pleasanton teen was in Santa Rosa competing in dressage, an equestrian event, but she was determined to make it to her Saturday night ball, too. The mother of a fellow competitor—who just happens to be a hair stylist—gave Schempp an up-do, and she rushed to and from the dance to finish the competition. “It was crazy,” says Schempp, 18. “Let’s just say there was a lot of driving that weekend.” Despite the detour, Schempp and her horse, Mowgli, scored third overall, securing a spot in the North American Young Rider Championship in late July.
Schempp has been riding horses since she was three, and began dressage training at 12. The technique demands an extraordinary relationship between horse and rider. Athletes are judged on their ability to guide horses through tricks (like walking sideways or trotting in place) using nearly imperceptible signals.
“I like the perfection and discipline it requires,” says Schempp. “It’s something you work at long-term.”
She and Mowgli, who’ve been together for two years, go for a ride five to six times a week, and train at least one or two times a week. They’re currently mastering the canter pirouette, a move that requires the horse’s hind legs to remain in one area while the front ones circle around.
At the end of this month, Schempp and Mowgli will move to San Diego, where Schempp will begin classes at MiraCosta College while working with Olympian Steffen Peters.
Schempp is realistic about her future. Unlike gymnasts or figure skaters, whose athleticism peaks early, most dressage Olympians are in their thirties or forties. The sport requires years of training, lots of money, and just the right horse. “Few horses can perform the Olympic-level tricks,” she says.
Mowgli might have that potential, but Schempp’s taking things one step at a time. “I never thought I’d make it this far,” she says. “You learn after working with horses that you can never have a solid plan. Things happen. I’m up for anything.”