From the Dressage Ring to the Judges Box

Joan Darnell, based in Georgetown, TX, just north of Austin, is a United States Dressage Federation “R” judge.  She came to riding relatively late in life as she began taking lessons at age 27.  She started her dressage education in the right place--she was living at the time in a part of California where Lilo Fore taught.  Back then, Fore was based at a barn called “The Oceans” in the Bay Area and her lessons served as a valuable foundation to Joan.  This would be akin to starting golf lessons with Tiger Woods or skating lessons with Michelle Kwan.  Prior to her horse interest, Joan did sports such as track and girls’ athletic interscholastic sports.

Another big influence in her riding life was Janet Foy of Colorado who, like Fore, is an internationally ranked dressage judge.  Both Fore and Foy showed her the importance of following the training scale.  While working with Fore, she was shown how the training scale helped even an older horse (which is what she had at the time) develop.  On the other hand, Foy explained to her the importance of logically taking a youngster through the scale and taking the time to train him to get to upper levels.

She also was able to attend the impressive ’84 Olympics in Los Angeles and fan the flames for her new interest in dressage there.  She attended all the equestrian events and got to see Dr. Reiner Klimke ride Ahlerich in the dressage portion.  The vast spectacle of the show made a big impression on her.  Later, she attended the 1996 Olympics, dressage portion only, in Atlanta but by then she’d been showing a while and the entire process had become more familiar to her.  So, even though it was the Olympics, it reminded her of just a really big horse show.  She ventured into horse ownership by leasing one and then eventually buying that horse.  In 1986, she purchased an unbroken three-year-old youngster named Scotty and trained him up to Grand Prix.  Scotty is alive and well and living with her and her family.  In 2002, her daughter, Claire, rode him to the Prix St. Georges level, when they competed in the North American Young Rider’s Championships.

Along the way, she also tried her hand at breeding. Trakehner was one breed she liked. “Babies are hard, though,” she noted.

Fast forward to today, and you find that not only has she honed her skills to being an FEI rider who handles and trains her own upper level horses but that she has been accepted into the USDF “S” program.  Once she completes the arduous requirements for the “S” ranking which will take an additional two years, she’ll be able to judge all levels, green as grass through Grand Prix, at any dressage show in the nation.  Currently, as an “R” she can judge up through Fourth level at dressage shows.

Over the years, Joan, who had trained originally to be a registered nurse, traded in her uniform to do horses fulltime.  She and her family operate as their own pit crew.  They own a ten-acre facility with a five-stall barn and sand arena.  Greg, Joan’s husband, cares for their horses whenever she and Claire are away competing.  Joan also travels frequently to judge various shows.   In September of this year they attended the Young Horse championships in Lexington and received a 9th place finish with the 4-year-old horse Calimar and an 8th place finish with the 6-year-old horse Carnegie.  Claire, who attends Baylor University in Waco, will turn 20 in October and is still eligible to ride in the Young Riders programs until she becomes 21.

Joan has served as her daughter’s primary coach since Claire began riding at age two, although the younger Darnell has also attended various clinics to further her dressage education.  Claire hopes one day to be a sports agent for professional sports and probably to also train dressage horses.  “She may want to judge,” said her mother, “as she has an awfully good eye.”  Under normal conditions, Joan works three horses five days a week.  When Claire ventures home from college, though, she assists her mother and they split up the training time.

Carnegie is a 6-year-old Oldenburg gelding that finished eleventh in the nation in the Five Year Old Division Young Horse competition in Lexington, Kentucky last year.  Next year they hope Claire will be able to ride him at Prix St. Georges.  Joan also owns his full brother Calimar (nicknamed Mark) who is four who ranked number one in the nation of the Young Horse Championships for four year olds.   Walking Leopard, a 14-year-old Hannoverian, is coming back from an injury and both mother and daughter ride him.  Up to speed, Walking Leopard does Intermediaire 1 level work.

Joan explained that she often aims for the Young Horse Championships because it is there that you find many of the “sub-Olympic” guys.  Folks such as Scott Hassler often take their horses to this format.  First an owner/rider must get their youngster qualifed to even attend the competition in Kentucky and then only the top twenty horses in the nation are allowed to enter the show.  She found, for instance, that she needed additional help with Mark, so she shipped him off for three months to David Blake in California whom she’d met and watched at the Kentucky show last year.  Blake had impressed her with his diplomacy and tact in handling horses.  And Mark needed reform school as the large horse had tried to buck her off a couple of times in his training at home.

As an observer of lots of dressage shows in this area and beyond, Joan said that she sees here we have the same situation as exists over the rest of the country.  There are some really good horses and riders and then you have the more average sets.  Texas is just like the rest of the U.S., she explained.   She said she hears that sometimes others call Texas “the wasteland of dressage,” which is not the case, she countered. The reason it is sometimes called “the wasteland” is because some of the judges who travel here don’t get to see as much of the quality as they might observe in other regions.  “But I also see a lot as I also travel to other regions,” she explained.  “We have the really top riders and horses here and then there are a lot of average ones but that is just  how it is all over the country.  We need more shows, though,” she lamented.  Joan counted off quickly the larger, recognized shows that are still left standing in Texas as several have dried up recently.  And she is keenly aware that Central Texas could use an infusion of better show facilities.  

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