Aug 28, 2021

The Road to AEC: Dunlap Reflects on the Most Rewarding Ride of All

Viviana Dunlap and Elegance. Xpress Foto Photo

It’s early 2019, and day number “I’ve lost count” in a hospital bed. In the middle of the toughest and most depressing year of my life, I thought to myself: “If I make it out of this, I’m going all out. We are going to the Championships.” I was in desperate need of a goal or a light at the end of the tunnel when the world had gone dark on me. You know horses and riding are your passion when you’re on what certainly feels like your death bed, and even the doctors don’t bother to answer your “will I be able to ride” questions, yet the crazy idea to qualify for a Championship level event pops into your head. As if my uncertain health and future weren’t enough of a challenge, combine that with a tight budget, the lack of trainer or coach, a non-eventing background (I grew up in the Hunter/Jumper/Equitation ring), and a Hunter Princess of a horse. You’ve got yourself a pretty windy and bumpy road ahead.

I purchased my horse, Luna, from her breeder in 2011 as a 2-year-old unbroken Hanoverian filly. With our limited budget, I chose to get her started under saddle myself. No one else (aside from the occasional pony ride) has ridden her. Everything she knows, we’ve learned together; everything I’ve thrown at her, we’ve tackled together. It has been the wildest and yet most rewarding ride of all! Over the years, she has won many hunter, equitation, and local hunter derby accolades, and in 2018 I thought, why not try a horse trial just for fun? Our dressage needed quite a bit of work, but the show jumping was a breeze, and even though I was almost certain I was going to puke in the start box, by the time we crossed the finish on cross-country, I knew it would not be our last trial. (Even if both the dressage judge and the cross-country starter said to me, “she looks like a hunter!”).

Viviana Dunlap and Elegance. Xpress Foto Photo

Fast forward to early 2019. I am five months pregnant, and I awake with severe pains. We rush to the ER, where the night became the beginning of a four-time hospital stay (for a total of 37 days) odyssey, filled with countless exams and doctors trying to figure out what was wrong. Medicine and procedures were mere attempts to keep symptoms under control, but nothing was getting to the root of the problem. Towards the end, during my fourth hospital visit, my body was in a state of sepsis, the pain was uncontrollable, and my fever wouldn’t break. Finally, they pinpointed the issue, and in no time, I was in the surgery room. I had developed a severe bone infection in my hip (seat bone), but because it went undetected for months, the infection had spread like wildfire in my bloodstream, and my body was losing the fight.

With great sadness and heartache, I will admit that our baby daughter also lost her fight. Swallowed in physical and emotional pain, it was certainly a very long and hard road to recovery for me. Months of IV antibiotics, unable to properly grieve, and unable to move or walk as my body had deteriorated so quickly and thoroughly, I needed anything that could make me snap out of it and give me something to work towards; a goal that could push me to quite literally put one foot in front of the other. In the midst of all the pain and darkness, with the constant support from my husband and parents, I set goals for myself: I would walk again, and I would ride again, and I would show again.

Viviana Dunlap and Elegance. Xpress Foto Photo.

Over time, and with the help of physical therapists, I brought my body back to life. And as soon as I could stand being on my feet for longer than 10 minutes at a time, I asked my husband to tack up Luna and help me attempt to swing a leg over. We both knew the pain in my seat bone would be too great for a ride longer than a few minutes, but even he knew I needed to feel my horse underneath me once again. At this point, she and I hadn’t ridden together in 10 months. Being the angel that she is, she stood calmly while my husband picked me up and positioned me in the saddle, and we walked slowly and softly for a whole five minutes before I told my husband I needed to get off or I would pass out from the pain. From that day on, every Saturday, my husband and I repeated the process, and over time my stamina, strength, muscle tone, and weight returned. In a way, it was like starting with a clean slate. We started completely over on our dressage; we furthered our technicality in jumping and worked hard on our stamina (and bravery!) in cross-country. Perhaps it was the reset button we both didn’t know we needed.

Viviana Dunlap and Elegance. Photo Courtesy of Viviana Dunlap.

In 2020, by some miracle, after much perseverance, sweat, and tears, we were once again ready for the show ring. We had worked very hard, and I was very proud of how far Luna and I had come in our eventing self-training, guided only by reading books, studying videos, and picking eventing friends’ brains. But then, hello, COVID. Regardless, once events opened up, Luna and I got back out there. That in itself was an amazing feeling, but by what seemed like yet another miracle, we attained an MER for the AEC on our very first attempt!

Our road to the AEC has been one I will never forget. While I am sure the experience at AEC itself will be wonderful, it has really been the road to get there that has driven us to put one foot/one hoof in front of the other. With my wonderful husband, family, and golden-hearted horse in tow, we cannot wait to get to the AEC. Merely hearing our names called out over the loudspeaker will be considered a win!

About the USEA American Eventing Championships

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds is the pinnacle of the sport for the national levels. Held annually, the best junior, adult amateur, and professional competitors gather to vie for national championship titles at every level from Beginner Novice to Advanced. This ultimate test of horse and rider draws hundreds of horses and riders from around the country to compete for fabulous prizes, a piece of the substantial prize money, and the chance to be named the National Champion at their respective levels. In fact, the 2019 AEC garnered over 1,000 entries and took place with 925 starters, now standing as the largest eventing competition in North American history. The 2021 USEA American Eventing Championships presented by Nutrena Feeds will be held August 31 – September 5 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to learn more about the USEA American Eventing Championships.

Jan 27, 2022 Advertise

USEA Media Kit and USEA Sponsorship Packet now Available for 2022!

Interested in tapping into the audience of three-day eventing? Consider partnering with the United States Eventing Association (USEA) in 2022! The USEA is a non-profit 501 C (3), which serves as the national association for the Olympic equestrian sport of three-day eventing.

Jan 26, 2022 Instructors

Position, Balance, and Aids: Three Core Topics Covered in the USEA Eventing Handbook by the Levels

Whether you are a rider preparing for a move-up or a trainer looking to ensure your training program is well-rounded, the soon-to-be released USEA Eventing Handbook by the Levels is the go-to guide to assist you in navigating key decisions. Lucky enough, attendees of the 2022 USEA Instructors’ Certification Program (ICP) Symposium at Barnstaple South Farm in Ocala, Florida on February 8-9 will be the first people outside of the those involved in its creation to access this passion project that the ICP Committee has put two years of research and hard work into developing.

Jan 25, 2022 Volunteers

2021 USEA Volunteer of the Year: Cynthia Smith and Her Record-Breaking Year

In 2021 Cynthia Smith recorded 536 hours and 59 minutes of volunteer time, setting the standard with the most amount of volunteer hours recorded in a single year since the creation of the USEA Volunteer Incentive Program in 2016. The record-breaking number of volunteer time earned Smith the 2021 USEA Volunteer of the Year title.

Jan 24, 2022 Leaderboard

The USEA Lady Rider of 2021 is Leading the Charge in Elevating Eventing Competition on the West Coast

Tamie Smith’s year has been nothing short of action-packed as she packed up all 25 of her competition horses and made her way to the East Coast for the first part of the year before hopping on a jet to Tokyo where she served as the U.S. team reserve for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. She then stayed overseas and competed abroad for a little while before returning home to the West Coast. While this year has been full of opportunities to show, her aspirations are bigger than just competition. The 2021 Bates USEA Lady Rider of the Year has been full steam ahead chasing goals in both her riding career as well as in her impact on the sport’s future.

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