By Britney Grover
Portraits by Barbara Bower
After earning team gold and individual bronze at the CCI* FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships in 2016, then-18-year-old Cornelia Dorr decided to take a gap year between high school and college to determine if she had what it took to make a career out of eventing. Now the gap year has turned into two, and with good reason — Cornelia has erupted into the eventing world and is turning heads as she quickly scales the ranks, already competing with top eventers all around the country.
In 2017, Cornelia participated in the USEF Emerging Athlete Eventing Program as one of only two riders “talent-spotted” — selected to participate without having previously competed in a CCI2* event. Later that year at the Jersey Fresh International, Cornelia not only competed in her first CCI2* but took home the blue ribbon — edging seasoned veteran Boyd Martin out for the win. Now just 20 years old, Cornelia is competing in CCI3* events with her two horses and will by all accounts be participating in the likes of the Kentucky CCI4* Three-Day Event perhaps as early as next year.
Ready to Run
Cornelia is quick to admit she was one of those girls that never outgrew the ‘I want a pony’ phase. “I lived in Rye, New York, until I was 8 and was lucky that my parents found a barn for me to take lessons at on Saturday mornings, but that was the extent of it until I moved to Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 2006,” Cornelia said. “Originally, I rode with Robin Petersen at Back Bay Farm, just down the street from my house. She taught me how to ride with a proper hunt seat.”
Cornelia participated in rated shows, including the Myopia Horse Show, before she began riding across the street with Lisa Eaton because a friend wanted Cornelia to ride together and help exercise her pony. “I rode with Lisa for a bit and her program was just what I wanted and needed!” Cornelia said. “We rode with the Myopia Hunt a few times a year, and did some hunter trials, which were great fun. We would take out our ponies and gallop around the fields, and in the winter we would ride our ponies bareback in their blankets in the snow.”
At just 9 years old, Cornelia found the passion that led her to eventing. “I loved the feeling of galloping in a field, just me and my horse,” she said. “It felt so natural to me, and I knew I wanted to spend my life doing it.”
At 10, Cornelia wanted to compete and began riding with Babette Lenna. Babette and Cornelia formed a strong relationship that has lasted nine years and counting — Cornelia still calls Babette weekly for advice and just to catch up.
It was Babette who put Cornelia in contact with Sharon White when Cornelia was looking to spend a summer working in a barn at 16. Through boarding school in Maryland, Cornelia spent every weekend riding and working at Sharon’s barn. She returned home to Babette’s tutelage during the summers as well as during winters showing in Aiken, South Carolina. Though it might have been unconventional, the training schedule set Cornelia on the path to success — the training, her innate talent and a very special horse.
At the time, Sir Patico MH, aka Hugo, was a rising 6-year-old Warmblood/Thoroughbred cross and Cornelia was 13. “We bought him because we knew he would be a safe horse for 13-year-old me to ride; no one knew he would accomplish what he has!” Cornelia said. Despite only having competed in a few events, Cornelia and Babette were drawn to his brave, carefree personality and his big heart. The pair started out in beginner novice seven years ago, and this year they’re competing in CIC3* together.
“Hugo means more to me than I could ever put into words,” Cornelia shared. “Moving up the levels together has created a level of trust that we both appreciate immensely. He can read my mind, and having that out on cross-country is a really cool feeling.”
Things really got serious for Cornelia and Hugo after the 2017 NAJYRC, when they helped score team gold and took home individual bronze. Having just finished high school, Cornelia was preparing for college — but success at Young Riders made her rethink her plans. “Babette had mentioned that a gap year between high school and college might be useful for me to see if I wanted to pursue this as my career,” she said. “I knew that I wanted to go back to Sharon if I ever had the opportunity. I took the gap year and decided to work full-time for her.”
The decision to take a gap year began to pay off almost immediately. In January 2017, Cornelia’s talent was recognized as she was selected for the 2017 Emerging Athlete Program despite not yet having met the 2* competition requirement — a stipulation soon remedied when she not just competed in but won the Jersey Fresh International CCI2* in May of that year.
“The Emerging Athlete Program has helped me feel a part of something bigger than just me,” Cornelia said, having now participated in the Eventing 25 section of the program for two years in a row. “The network it’s created is probably the biggest gain for me, linking me to other riders my age in similar situations. We know that moving from the age of being a young rider to the professional stage is one of the hardest competition steps and doing it with a fabulous group of people my age makes it easier.”
It’s a transition Cornelia is making with flying colors. She was named the USEA’s 2017 Young Rider of the Year and is already competitive with older professionals. “I’m honored to be in divisions with the seasoned veterans of eventing,” she said. “There are many riders I look up to, but the few I have in my corner for help at any time are Sharon White, Buck Davidson, Leslie Law and Babette Lena. I still call Babette weekly after my nine years of riding with her. I ride full time with Sharon and she’s amazing — I learn at least 10 new things every day just being in the barn with her.”
A Strong Setup
Working with Sharon keeps Cornelia busy from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. six days a week with barn chores, riding her own three horses and another three or four of Sharon’s. Cornelia’s talent and hard work couldn’t go very far without her horses: Hugo, Louis M and Royal Sempatica. Now 11 years old, Hugo competed his first Advanced division in February and Cornelia plans to ride him in the Jersey Fresh CCI3* in May with the end goal to compete in the Fair Hill CCI3* in October.
Part of Cornelia’s early success is thanks to Louis M, or Louis. Cornelia acquired Louis over the summer in 2016 as an 11-year-old Rhineland Pfalz-Saar from his breeder, Pia Münker, in Germany. His experience has been just what Cornelia needed. “Louis is the goofiest horse in the world,” she said affectionately. “He makes me laugh a lot. When I’m riding him, I love how he teaches me; he’s the perfect professor. He doesn’t make it easy, but he makes it so worth it when I get it right. Louis is teaching me a lot about being correct with my riding.”
Royal Sempatica, aka Tika, is Hugo’s sister. “I’ve had her since she was 8 months old,” Cornelia said. “My mom loved Hugo so much, she wanted another one of him!” It seems a good match for Cornelia’s first experience starting a horse: Tika and Hugo share a compact build, bold Paint pattern and sensible brain thanks to their sire, Sempatico M. “They’re both very even-tempered, eager to please and to learn. I was so excited to learn the process of starting a horse. I love the bond you create with the horse, and the idea of a completely clean slate. It also brings pressure to train them well and correctly from the start, but you can teach the horse anything!”
In the rare time she’s not around horses, Cornelia loves to be outdoors, hike, ski or play tennis. She also loves to draw, though she admits she doesn’t do it very often. And while her life may not resemble that of an ordinary teenager, it’s certainly successful — and right where she wants to be, which is what counts. Her immediate goals are to ride in the Kentucky 4* and Brahman 3* events. Long term, Cornelia hopes to create a successful business of her own in the event world and produce a string of good horses — and to have a family someday.
With her experience snowballing and the accolades already piling up, Cornelia is well on track for her goals and has made herself one to watch in eventing. When asked about what it meant to her to be named Young Rider of the Year, her response summed up not just the award but her recipe for success. “It was a goal I set a year before, and to have achieved it was a great feeling — knowing I can put my mind to something and make it happen. I am so grateful to my horses for being such amazing partners — I wouldn’t have achieved it without them!”
Photos by Barbara Bower, www.BarbarasVisions.com, unless noted otherwise