Jan 20, 2023

Believing In Your Program and Yourself with 2022 RevitaVet USEA Young Rider of the Year Cassie Sanger

By Meagan DeLisle - USEA Staff
Photo by Shannon Brinkman Photography, courtesy of Cassie Sanger

If you saw the 2022 RevitaVet USEA Young Rider of the Year recipient Cassie Sanger walking down the hallways of her high school, you probably wouldn’t identify her as the token ‘horse girl.’ The 18-year-old student prioritizes separating her eventing life from her social life to allow herself a bit of balance and normalcy amidst the highly-structured schedule she follows to fit school, training, and a social life into her everyday routine. But don’t let that fool you, this young rider has made great strides in her eventing career over the past few years, so much so that she ended the 2022 season on a personal high: placing third at her goal event and first-ever CCI3*-L at the 2022 Maryland 5 Star, ultimately pushing her to the top of the leaderboard to claim the Young Rider of the Year title.

Sanger got her start in the saddle at a young age after giving a wide variety of other sports a try.

“My mom and dad have some horsey people in their family and my mom used to ride for fun when she was younger so that definitely had an influence on me a little bit, but really I had done every single sport possible before I found riding and hated them all,” she joked. “Riding was the last sport I could possibly try and I was seven or eight years old when I started taking lessons weekly.”

Those lessons transitioned into half-leasing a pony, but it was her second pony who really put her love of riding to the test. “She was the meanest thing ever and I think the fact that I stuck with riding after dealing with her really meant something because she was so bad. She wouldn’t go forward, she would stand still and then run backward and would pen horses against the walls of the arena. I think at nine years old sticking with that and overcoming that was a really important point in my riding.”

Fast-forward a few years later and Sanger would ultimately find her way to Darrah Alexander’s barn in Pine Plains, New York where she has called her horsey home for the past six years. The young rider describes finding Alexander’s program as a pivotal moment in her riding career, not only because she would learn so much under Alexander’s tutelage, but also because she surrounded herself with like-minded individuals who she could model her own personal goals after.

“There was another young rider there who had my now horse Fernhill Zoro at the time, and watching her doing the upper levels and moving up to the two-star level, and the Intermediate, and then Advanced was another really important part of my education in riding and what made me stick with it and get here today.”

Over the years, Sanger has continued to progress her way up the levels and built partnerships with her horses. Up until 2022, her string consisted of Caroline Martin’s 15-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Danger Mouse (by Kannan) and the now 10-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding Redfield Fyre, who Sanger has owned for the past four years, but the 2022 season had something extra special in store with her acquisition of the 15-year-old Anglo European gelding Fernhill Zoro (Verdi x Oronia Z).

“My goal in 2022 with Redfield Fyre was to move him up to the Intermediate level,” shared Sanger. “He was amazing all year and just kept getting better and better and really exceeded my expectations. If you would have asked me at the beginning of the year if he would have gone to the CCI3*-L at Maryland, I would have said no. But he just kept getting so much better all year long. My other horse, Fernhill Zoro, was a new ride for me. I had never competed him before last year, but I have known him forever as he was at my previous barn for about seven years. I started competing with him last year and we clicked really well together and just went from there.”

Saying that the two really clicked together might seem like a bit of an understatement when you look at the results of their first competition season together. After running two Preliminary levels, one of which they won and the other they placed top five at, the duo moved up to their first Intermediate together to bring home the blue ribbon at the Ocala Winter II H.T. in Ocala, Florida. Since then, the pair have only ever placed outside of the top three twice in nine horse trials following, including a second-place finish in their first CCI2*-S together at the Fair Hill International April H.T. and CCI-S (Elkton, Maryland) in April of 2022. They emerged victorious in their first trip abroad and debut CCI2*-L together at Bromont in Canada over the summer and then moved up to the CCI3*-S level just a month later at the Maryland International + Horse Trials (Adamstown, Maryland) where they would have a top-ten finish.

Shannon Brinkman photo, courtesy of Cassie Sanger

All of this hard work with “Zoro” and Redfield Fyre were done in anticipation of Sanger’s goal event for the end of the season– the USEF CCI3*-L Eventing National Championships at the Maryland 5 Star at Fair Hill (Elkton, Maryland).

“It was a huge goal of mine to go to Maryland, specifically with Zoro, so that is something I was working towards all year long,” Sanger reflected. “He’s been with a previous young rider for years and knows his job so well and is so competitive, which is one of the many things that make him so special and one in a million. That weekend I had gone into it really hoping that I was going to do well, but as we got closer to the actual date I got a bit overwhelmed and just wasn’t sure how the weekend might play out. My favorite memory from the weekend was coming out of dressage on Zoro, it was just so special.”

Their fabulous dressage score of 26.6 placed Sanger and Zoro in the top three early on, a position they would maintain all weekend long, just adding one rail in the show jumping to their score to finish on a 30.6.

But Sanger is quick to admit that the fairytale ending to their season didn’t come easy. The high school student has had to work very hard to juggle all the pieces of her life to make these achievements possible.

“I go to boarding school, but I am a day student which adds a layer of complexity to my schedule,” she commented. “I have a lot of commitments at school that I have to do, I don’t just get to go to and from school. We have some Saturday classes or program things I need to attend on weekends. Instead of doing team sports at school, I can actually do an independent sport during one season, so this past year I did that in the fall leading up to Maryland. I rode every single day and would just go back and forth from school, which is just under an hour's drive from school to the barn. This fall, my classes would typically end at three, I would drive to the barn, ride my horses, come back home, shower/change, and then drive another 20 minutes back to school to hang out with my friends at the dorms and try to have a social life!”

Sanger’s parents played a key role in her 2022 season. “My two biggest supporters are my parents. My dad doesn't necessarily understand everything, but he loves my horses and is always at my competitions. We call my mom my ‘momager,’ she does pretty much everything with me. She loves it. She really has a good bond with my horses and this fall when we were getting ready for Maryland, if I had to rush back to school for a study session or tutoring she would stay at the barn and ice my horses after I had a big jump school on them. She is always there, I think she has only not been to one competition.”

Shannon Brinkman photo, courtesy of Cassie Sanger

After six years in Alexander’s program, it is time for Sanger to graduate to something new. Her two horses are settling into Leslie Law’s facility in Ocala, Florida and Sanger will be traveling back and forth over the course of the winter circuit to pursue her next goal: a move up to Advanced.

“I am kind of moving on from Darrah and she has been amazing, but it is really exciting to try something new. The goal is to move up to Advanced. That is what I am looking at now with Zoro and to get as much mileage at that level as I can and maybe aim for a four-star this spring or summer.”

Following the winter season, Sanger has plans to attend college at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia, while still riding of course. “My plan is hopefully to do as much riding as possible. Obviously freshman year I will be adjusting, so who knows what my fall plans will look like but as of now I am thinking of having my horses based with the Laws if all goes well this winter, so there will be a lot of travel where I go back and forth when I can to make it all happen.”

And lastly, for her fellow young riders out there, Sanger has one piece of sage advice that is wise beyond her 18 years: “Get involved with a coach and a program that you really want to believe in and invest your time in, because I think that if I was bouncing around from trainer to trainer that I would not have been able to achieve what I have so far. It is hard work a lot of the time and it is not always fun, but I think that if you keep showing up every day with a coach and program that you believe in that it will all come together eventually.”

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