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.

Jul 03, 2022 Intercollegiate

A Day in the Life with USEA Intercollegiate Member Hannah Warner

Hannah Warner wears many hats: student at the University of Kentucky, UK Eventing Team President, competitor, and head groom for Alexa Ehlers. Fitting in all of her roles and responsibilities into her day-to-day life can be a challenge, but it is a challenge that Warner finds rewarding. The college senior is working towards a business degree through UK's online business program, so Warner is able to get creative with her schedule to pursue all of her academic and eventing related goals.

Jul 02, 2022 Area Championships

Twelve Area III Champions Crowned at 2022 Area Championships

The Area III Championships kicked off the 2022 USEA Area Championship season June 24-26 at the Stable View Summer H.T. in Aiken, South Carolina. Offering 12 different championship divisions from Intermediate to Beginner Novice, the championships were highly contested as riders from all across Area III put in a gallant effort in hopes of being deemed division champion. The USEA caught up with many of the individual champions to look back on their performances in Aiken that helped them bring home the top prize.

Jul 01, 2022 Young Riders

USEA Announces Athletes for the 2022 Emerging Athlete 21 Program

The United States Eventing Association (USEA) is pleased to announce the athletes selected for the 2022 USEA Emerging Athlete 21 (EA21) Program. USEA Young Rider program members aged 21 and under are eligible for the program, which aims to creates a pipeline for potential U.S. team riders by identifying and developing young talent, improving horsemanship and riding skills, and training and improving skills and consistency.

Jul 01, 2022 AEC

Countdown to AEC: 2 Months Away! Tentative Competition, Entertainment Schedules, & More!

The USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) presented by Nutrena Feeds are just two months away. The AEC moves to the mountains this year, taking place at Rebecca Farm in Kalispell, Montana across a long Labor Day weekend.

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