80-year-old Goshen rider joins an elite group


CLAUDETTE LAWTON PATS her Morgan horse, UVM Finnegan, at the Salisbury stable where she boards him. The duo, ages 80 and 22, are members of The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club, which recognizes a horse and rider whose combined age is at least 100. Independent photo/Russell Jones

22-YEAR-OLD FINNEGAN HORSES around for the camera and draws a laugh from his owner, Goshen resident Claudette Lawson. The octogenarian and her horse were recognized for having a combined age of 100. Independent photo/Russell Jones
Watching them ride, they really prove that it’s not just a sport for the young. — Pam Lefave

GOSHEN — “Dressage” is a French term most commonly translated as “training.” It is a highly skilled form of horse riding where the rider shows their mastery by having the horse perform a series of movements with very subtle cues.

Dressage competitions vary in the levels from amateur all the way to the Olympic games. Each level involves more pressure for horse and rider to perform as a team.

During competitions, the horse performs an intricate routine that involves trots, canters and walks.

“It’s very similar to a dance,” said Goshen resident Claudette Lawton. “You have to be in sync with each other and one leads the other, much like in dancing.”

Lawton should know, she recently became a member of an elite group of seniors. The 80-year-old last month was inducted into The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club.

This special group of senior dressage riders and horses earn the designation when qualified riders and horses have a combined age that totals 100 years or more and who perform and pass a dressage test scored by a dressage judge.

Lawton was inducted with her 22-year-old horse, UVM Finnegan at the Central Vermont Dressage Association horse show on Sept. 8 in Woodstock.

Those accepted into the Century Club are awarded a ribbon and wall plaque. Local dressage clubs, family and friends helped Lawton make the ride into a celebratory event. 

The Century Club was formed at The Dressage Foundation in 1996, at the suggestion of noted dressage judge and instructor Dr. Max Gahwyler. Since then, the Century Club has grown into a meaningful and popular endeavor and has more than 400 national members.

The intent was to encourage older dressage riders to remain active in the sport, something that seems to be catching on.

“We have a group of retired women who are mostly over 70, some who have always dreamed of doing something like this and others who rode when they were younger and are just coming back to riding,” said Claudette’s trainer, Pam Lefave, who owns Stonegate Stable in Salisbury with her husband, Brian. “We do everything we can to minimize the risk and they enjoy it. Watching them ride, they really prove that it’s not just a sport for the young.”

There is a steep learning curve in dressage because, as Lefave describes it, the riders must learn a new language to communicate with the horse. Riders must also worry about balance.

“These are living creatures with their own movements and thoughts,” she said. “You have to be able to get in the mind of the horse to understand how to communicate with it.”

Claudette first started dressage in her 60s and after a few months training, in 2005, she decided to commit and buy her own horse, UVM Finnegan.

“He was not terribly expensive, but I probably spent more than Ben would have liked,” the 80-year-old Claudette laughed, referring to her husband, Ben Lawton, a former Brandon dentist.

Finnegan is a Morgan horse born at the Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge. The Morgan horse, which is the state animal of Vermont, was used by the U.S. Cavalry during the Civil War and is known as a very versatile horse that can do anything. Each horse, however, has his or her own personality, and each must be matched with the personality of the rider.

“Finnegan is one of the nicest tempered horses I’ve seen,” Lafave said. “He’s brave, but not bossy. He has a good work ethic and he can lead, but he will also listen and let others lead.”

After more than 15 years of lessons and training, Claudette still considers herself a novice of the sport. She attends two lessons a week that last a half an hour to 45 minutes each, but goes to the stables to work with her horses four times a week.

Some of the advantages of dressage training, according to Claudette, are the health benefits and safety.

“Being able to communicate with the horse prepares you to be able to adjust better to the horse’s movements and makes you a safer rider,” she said. “There is also the continued conditioning of riding making you healthier and more agile.”

The training of the horse is very difficult and takes a long time to accomplish. How long does it take to train a horse to be ready for a dressage competition, you may wonder.

“A lifetime,” said trainer Micky Repasi, who has trained horses and riders from the amateur level all the way to the pinnacle of dressage, the Grand Prix.

“Horses continue to mature until the age of six. It takes a solid four years to train the horse if you don’t take any shortcuts. The earliest you could start training the horse is age four, but it is not unheard of to have 19- to 22-year-old horses in the Grand Prix.”

There are no verbal cues allowed during dressage to communicate to the horses, it all relies on physical clues to tell the horse where to move next.

“It takes a lot of time working together to develop that communication between horse and rider,” Claudette said. “It’s all about using your legs or body to speak to the horse.”

Claudette said dressage intrigues her, as she is on a very large animal and they are in a partnership with each other.

“I am blessed that I can continue to enjoy and learn more about communicating with the horses,” she said. “I am still a novice, but I enjoy the challenge of communicating with him in a way he understands.”

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