West Coast Dressage Trainer and Rider Alyssa Pitts Rises to the Top Through Talent and Determination
By Lauren R. Giannini
Alyssa Pitts set a goal to ride her first Grand Prix in competition by the time she was 30, but horses and life tend to modify the best-made plans. She couldn’t afford a Grand Prix schoolmaster and had to train her own. When she met her goal in 2012, it was extremely memorable: Wrazzamatazz, a re-train project, was her first Grand Prix horse, and Alyssa was pregnant with her first son.
“It was such a breakthrough for me, because I’d worked so long and hard to get into the ring at Grand Prix,” said Alyssa. “Once I rode the test, I realized it was just another test and another level, but the biggest realization is that the riding doesn’t suddenly get magical and easy just because your horse is doing Grand Prix. I missed my mark by two years, but it was such a huge feeling of accomplishment, and what I learned really helped me to go back and train the next horses better. I decided I wanted to start all my horses myself, because that early training is the most important thing in a horse’s life.”
After 13 years in California where Alyssa discovered that she had a knack for passage while training several horses to FEI levels, she moved back to Washington in 2010. Her home base, Cedar Meadow Farm, is located in Snohomish between Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains, midway between Seattle and Vancouver, Canada. The scenic, remote area boasts a thriving equestrian community.
“I love to train and I love to compete,” said Alyssa. “I have a horse that’s pretty amazing and I’d love to see how far we can go, but sometimes there isn’t enough time for everything I love to do: train; compete; raise my sons, 1 and 3. My husband is wonderful — and I want to be the very best I can with all of it.”
Given Alyssa’s work ethic, it’s a matter of when, not if. Born without the proverbial silver spoon, her parents encouraged her to follow her dreams. It wasn’t easy, but she paid her dues. Everything she attempts is fueled by dedicated determination.
Athletics were big in her family. When Alyssa was 16, she earned her B rating in Pony Club and knew that ultimately she didn’t want to do Advanced eventing. She took a break from competing her horses to focus on varsity basketball, soccer and track. She helped her high school basketball team win the state championship and also finished second in the 800-meter race at the state track meet.
At Stanford University, California, Alyssa ran track and cross-country, but halfway to earning her Bachelor of Arts in English, she couldn’t stand being horseless anymore. She joined the Polo Club and practiced dressage on the horses she exercised. By the end of junior year, after saving enough to buy a Thoroughbred mare, she started out at the bottom. The only way was up.
Dedicated to Dressage and Horses
Alyssa evented during her years in Pony Club, because that’s what kids did where she lived. Dressage was part of eventing, a necessary chore before jumping cross-country. In those days, there weren’t many dressage enthusiasts, but times have changed.
“I loved dressage from a very early age and, growing up in Pony Club, I always practiced my dressage quite a lot, but my jumping not that much,” said Alyssa. “At the lower levels of eventing, it allowed me to be at or near the top after the dressage and helped me to have more control jumping. I would’ve specialized in dressage much sooner if I’d had exposure to ‘real’ dressage and serious dressage riders as a kid. By the time I was 12, I knew I was a dressage rider. It took until I was 22 or 23 to give up jumping completely.”
Today, Alyssa has several promising horses, great students and clients. She works with green to grand prix horses and riders and keeps an open mind about breed, discipline and training philosophy. Dedicated to learning, she has worked with some of the best in the world.
One of her favorite mentors is Randy Leighton, a lifelong horse trainer based in Stevinson, California, whose mission is to provide young horses with a versatile and sound foundation so they can move forward in any discipline. Randy trained with brothers Tom and Bill Dorrance, and with Ray Hunt, considered Tom Dorrance’s best-known student.
“Randy’s ideas and help absolutely made me into the rider and trainer that I am today. He’s the real deal when it comes to being trained in the system based on timing and feel,” said Alyssa. “He taught me to really feel and listen to the horses that I ride. I learned to get a lot done with not a lot of drilling for the horse. I’ve been able to train up a few horses quickly, not by pushing them hard, but by doing the exact opposite. By listening to the horse and rewarding the horse’s efforts, I can teach the horse a lot without drilling him.”
Alyssa and Randy exhibit a “think outside the box” mentality when it comes to training and discipline. They also share a healthy respect for each other in terms of knowledge and expertise.
“I consider it a privilege to work with Alyssa and her horses,” said Randy. “It’s not often that talented of a rider comes along. Alyssa’s timing and feel are exceptional, which helps her to get along with horses that others may have trouble with. Often, the more talented horses are also more sensitive and ‘alive’ and Alyssa’s timing and feel allow her to excel on this type of horse.”
Training With Top Riders
Alyssa has trained with top dressage riders, including Steffen Peters, Anne Gribbons and Charlotte Dujardin. “Of this group, I worked with Steffen first,” she said. “His style and methods are similar to Randy Leighton’s, so it was a nice, natural fit. Steffen helped me learn about better contact, better balance and how to ask my horses for more expression, especially in the trot.”
Anne Gribbons offers knowledge gleaned from her experiences both as Grand Prix rider and FEI five-star judge. It requires extra effort for them to get together, because Ocala, Florida, where Anne lives, is a long way from Snohomish, but they make it work.
“Anne has an excellent, quick eye and she’s able to connect the training to what judges are hoping to see,” said Alyssa, who has worked with Anne for almost three years. “She’s also insightful and really enjoys the psychology of each individual horse. That’s really important because horses, just like people, are motivated in different ways.”
As often as she can, Alyssa rides with the highest-rated judges in her area, as she values their feedback. Her passion for self-improvement is remarkable. She also evaluates her videos from competitions and schooling at home as if she were teaching one of her students.
“Alyssa’s amazing — she has done really well with young horses and with some she retrained that weren’t so lovely, and I think she’s competent, brave and talented,” said Anne Gribbons. “She isn’t tall or big, but she’s very effective as a rider, and very clear about what she wants from the horse. She’s totally focused. It’s not so easy to take lessons on a difficult horse, but she has worked them through their problems and learned patience from the horses and her two small children. She knows exactly what she can accomplish.
“Most of the time people who hadn’t had the best horses and worked their way up, learning — in the end, they seem to mature better and eventually become the best trainers. Alyssa has that potential,” continued Anne. “Alyssa now has some wonderful horses, including three very good ones. Quin (Quintessential Hit) is really suitable for her in every way, and he’s also my favorite. Horses are your best teachers — the more horses you train, the more you learn from them.”
As for Charlotte Dujardin, who teaches as well as she rides, Alyssa said: “Her style suits me extremely well. She loves the training process and developing young horses, and that’s what I love, too. Charlotte has helped me immensely with every aspect of my riding. Possibly the biggest things are the canter and overall balance. One thing I love the most about Charlotte is that there are no silver bullets — the training is systematic, clear and incredibly precise.”
Charlotte’s success, most notably with Valegro, is a result of her great passion for the training process itself. Granted, the current world champion is described as a “natural” talent, which still demands dedication and hard work in order to triumph on the world stage.
“I was first drawn to Alyssa when she took part in my clinic in Vancouver in May,” said Charlotte. “I was impressed from the outset with the way she handles her horses on the ground and then the connection she has with them when she’s riding. She’s a lovely rider and clearly has a great partnership with her horses.”
In terms of what Alyssa has to offer as a trainer and coach — to people and horses, whatever their level of proficiency — Charlotte said, “She takes her time, something I’ve always been an advocate of and is thorough with her training. She doesn’t cut corners and the horses trust her, which is the foundation of it all. I think people will learn a lot through being trained by Alyssa.”
Important elements that Charlotte has shared with Alyssa include: “to continue to take her time with the horses, to always be brave, and if things don’t go as planned in a session, find another way to ask what you want to get the desired result.”
Alyssa is a self-made rider. She didn’t have access to advanced instructors; when possible, she took clinics with great instructors. She earned her U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medals. After graduating with distinction from the USDF “L” judge program, she’s eligible for “R” judge certification by the U.S. Equestrian Federation. She’s participated in the USEF Talent Search and USEF Elite Rider clinics.
Horse and Rider
“I see every horse and rider as individuals, and my students have been very successful because we team up to understand their goals so that I can help them work toward what they want, not what I want,” said Alyssa. “I think my strength with horses and riders is that we build a solid basic foundation so that, later on, the ‘tricks” come easily. Without basics, riders can’t do the harder movements, and I don’t think that the horses can either. It helps that I’ve made all of my horses, except for Finckenburgh, my very first FEI horse and my first important teacher.”
It all goes back to feel and listening to the horse, helping them to learn without being drilled — Randy Leighton’s approach. In fact, Alyssa sends all her young horses for at least two months to Randy at his Running Horse LLC Equine Training and Wellness Center in California. He starts them and then introduces the horses to a variety of situations that help them to build their confidence from within.
Alyssa adjusts her training to suit each horse’s individual needs. She’s turned difficult and problem horses into successful, competitive show horses. She’s known for producing horses with a high degree of rideability.
“One of my success stories was Jil Sander, a fabulous imported horse who struggled to live up to expectations,” said Alyssa. “I bought her when she was 6, and she hadn’t shown, she couldn’t handle Training Level, but I trained her up through the ranks for five years and, ultimately, she became a very successful Grand Prix horse — in 2011, she was fifth at USEF Developing Horse Prix St. Georges Championships and was invited to the USEF pre-Olympic Games clinic. She showed Grand Prix in 2013 and scored 69.8 percent, winning the regional championship, our last show together. We ended up with a great understanding and I rode her until the very end of my first pregnancy.”
Jil Sander suffered from PSSM (Polysaccharide Myopathy Storage), a muscle condition aggravated by ingested sugar and starch, and gastric ulcers. “She taught me that, often, if a horse is struggling or performing poorly, there’s an underlying physical problem,” said Alyssa. “Her issues were mainly physical ones that we had to understand and sort out along the way.”
Another success story is Romischer Prinz, a promising young horse that fell on hard times for several years. “When I got him, he was 8 and had been bucking people off and doing very poorly,” said Alyssa. “I sent him to Randy Leighton, who took two months to let him be a horse and ride with cows, on the track, etc. Rommie has a very generous temperament, so the big struggle was sorting out his poor training baggage. I had him four years and showed him Intermediaire-II before he sold. He went from poor Training to ready to show Grand Prix.”
In 2015, two of Alyssa’s horses won USDF Horse of the Year awards: Selestial R for First Level, and Quintessential Hit for Third Level, both with a 77+ percent median. In 2011, Furst Fiorano, co-owned by Melissa Mulchahey and Alyssa, won the USEF 4-year-old National Championship. Melissa had purchased the horse initially and allowed Alyssa to earn half-ownership over time. Melissa’s ownership goals changed, and Alyssa bought out her half in 2013 and, as a heartfelt thank you, gave Melissa 1 percent interest so she could continue to be involved. In 2014, Furst Fiorano was the USDF number 10 in the nation at Prix St. Georges.
“Without a doubt, my most amazing horse is Quintessential Hit — the horse of a lifetime,” said Alyssa. “I plan to show Quin and Furst Fiorano at Prix St. Georges and/or Intermediaire I this year, possibly doing the Developing Horse Grand Prix with Furst Fiorano. The Festival of Champions in California in 2016 gives me something to shoot for.”
Home Sweet Farm
During their time in California, Alyssa and Colvin Pitts, her husband, wanted to buy an equestrian property, but land was prohibitively expensive. They turned to Washington and, five years ago, settled into Cedar Meadow Farm. It offers an outdoor all-weather arena with lights, covered arena with mirrors, 12×12 box stalls with 36-foot attached run and mud-free footing, large pastures for turnout and 32 stalls. Footing specialist Mark Rowley designed and installed the footing in the riding arenas.
Situated in Echo Lake between Snohomish and Woodinville, Cedar Meadow Farm is an easy commute, even with a horse trailer, from the greater Seattle area and nearby towns, but quite far from major show venues. Stopping only to refuel and hit restrooms, it takes at least 31 hours to drive to Chicago, 24 to San Diego, 16 to Sacramento, California, 36 to Kentucky Horse Park, 42 to Dressage at Devon or Dressage Finals at Gladstone, New Jersey, and 47 hours to Wellington, Florida.
“I love where we are, but I think driving long distances across all those mountains is really hard on the horses,” said Alyssa. “So, we don’t travel very far very often. We’re competitive with the rest of the country, because this area produces some really good horses and riders. I keep up with my lessons with Charlotte via video, and both Anne and Charlotte have come to the farm to teach me.
“It will mean major changes in our lives if Quintessential Hit lives up to his promise, but that’s a few years away,” continued Alyssa. “I have several young horses in training that are athletic and talented — time will tell how far they can go. Two young trainers, whom I have coached from the beginning to where one is showing at Grand Prix and the other is almost there, teach several students and train horses at my farm. My horses and my riders are doing so well. It has been a long, hard road to get here. It’s everything I want and it’s really exciting.”
About the writer: Lauren R. Giannini is an award-winning journalist and avid photographer, specializing in stories about the equestrian world, wildlife and conservation. Lauren lives in the heart of Horse Country Virginia, watched over by her CEO (canine executive officer), a rescue who sums up perfectly the term “hybrid vigor.” Lauren’s pleasures and pastimes include horses, travel, especially to Kenya, and writing about wildlife, conservation and eco-tourism. Books are next on her to-do list.