What Sacrifices Would You Make to Compete at the Olympics?
by Ingrid Edisen

We all dream about it. Winning the Olympics. But who among us is willing to do the work and make the sacrifices necessary to increase our chances of being in the right place at the right time?

John Zopatti, who has done much of the footwork already towards such a goal, hails from Wellington, Florida, aka the West Palm Beach area, the hotbed of dressage. Several times a year he gives clinics in Austin, TX, that are organized by Grace Harris. I rode with him at the very first clinic she organized here approximately seven years ago. Recently I had the opportunity to discover how he got where he is and what it means.

Currently, Zopatti is a United States Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medallist, competing at the Grand Prix level. This means he earned enough points at shows to demonstrate he was worthy of the acclamation. The only other place he regularly gives clinics is in North Carolina and that is to USET Olympic event riders. He is a USDF “L” judge and working towards his “r” judge license. John is a very hands-on equestrian, so he does it all: rides, trains, competes, instructs, coaches and judges.

This year John’s hard work was recognized when he was awarded the Gold Coast Dressage Association’s Trainer of the Year honor. The award is given to the trainer who had a successful season training and showing and demonstrates a commitment to his students, sportsmanship, and the sport of dressage. So far John is the only trainer to win the award two times. He was also trainer of the year in 2001.

“I normally campaign anywhere from two to four horses, along with taking four to eight students to each horse show,” he explained. “I have ten horses in full training which means I’m either riding or teaching throughout the day. I teach a lot of adult amateurs from Training level to Prix St. George. Some of my students have purchased older schoolmasters,” he said. A “schoolmaster” is a dressage horse that is already trained. “Riding a schoolmaster is an excellent way for amateur riders to learn dressage.”

On a typical workday Zopatti rises at six, is at the barn by seven. “Every forty-five minutes it’s a new horse to ride or a student to teach,” he said “Usually I’m done around five or six, a ten- to twelve- hour work day is normal,” he said. To keep up with the rigorous physical demands, he works out regularly in a gym “so I can remain flexible and to be able to isolate muscles. Riding is not so much about strength but you have to be able to isolate your muscles,” he said. He also rows his single racing skull. In college he’d been on a crew team and now that he lives on a lake, he makes sure he rows at least twice a week and takes lessons in that as well during the “off show” season.

“You try to have at least a couple Grand Prix horses in your string at all times,” he said. He won his USDF gold medal on a horse named Guardian, that sponsor, Christina Hewitt, purchased a few years ago when the gelding was doing fourth level. Zopatti brought him up to Grand Prix. Zopatti has had a great deal of success on Guardian and will be competing him in the Grand Prix at Devon this year. The Dressage at Devon horse show is held every September in Pennsylvania and is considered to be one of the most prestigious horse shows hosted in the US.

“Assuming my personal horse, Mitchell, (a striking dapple gray Dutch Warmblood) comes back from a very serious accident, I will try for the USET (United States Equestrian Team) Intermediare I Championships in 2004,” Zopatti said. “Intermediare” means riding the horse at a level just under Grand Prix. Zopatti is scouting for a serious prospect for the 2008 Olympics. “Right now I have Spanish Olympic rider, Juan Matute looking for a horse for me in Europe,” Zopatti noted. “I want a horse with three good gaits, a willing partner. I’d say trainability is the main thing.”

“I try to coordinate my vacations around the big horse shows in Europe such as Aachen, the European Championships, and the World Equestrian Games. I try to make it over there about three times a year. I want to stay current and see what other top riders are doing. It helps me stay on track with my own riding and training,” he said. During his travels, John scouts for exceptional horses that he imports and markets in the U.S.

But none of his success happened overnight. In his past lifetime, Zopatti was a manager for a ready mix, sand and gravel company. It was a good job, he said. And he worked at it for three years and was prepared to make a career in that business. Zopatti earned his college degree in biology with a business management concentration. Originally, he had considered vet school but realized that his aversion to blood would make it an impossible career choice. But things changed in 1992 when the bottom fell out of the construction industry. “I suggested to my boss that I take a leave of absence in the winter to pursue my horse dream,” Zopatti said. “Sue Williams had come up to Massachusetts to teach us some lessons and she told me that if I ever wanted to get into the horse industry, I had to go to Florida. So I went as a groom. I made several connections while I was down there.” And his start as a humble groom lead him on the road to become a grand prix rider with his sights set on the Olympics.

But how did Zopatti get bitten by “the horse bug” in the first place? His parents knew nothing about horses but the family lived in Tauton, Massachusetts, and in their neighborhood, several parents got together and decided to enroll the kids in various constructive group activities. There were six kids in this informally knit group. “For about six months we were schlepped off to a barn where we did chores in the morning and got to have a lesson in the afternoon. The other kids weren’t happy about having to clean stalls for about six hours and only get about a half-hour riding lesson,” Zopatti said. Because of that, the group of kids switched to swimming lessons and actually stayed together on a city league swim team through high school. But Zopatti had always known he would ride again someday.

That day came when Zopatti was about eighteen; a friend of the family who happened to breed horses invited Zopatti to the barn. He began riding a large Connamera pony and later a Connamera/Trakehner cross. He did barn chores in exchange for riding lessons. He biked all the way to barn, until his family bought him a moped to compute on. He spent the next four years learning dressage. Once he entered college much of his riding at the barn was relegated to the summers. He bought his first horse once he was in the work world. It was an Anglo-Trakehner ex-event horse that no longer jumped but was good for the flat. He competed at training, first, second, and third levels in New England. The barn where he boarded was close to his work so he’d even spend his lunch hour there. And he took lessons three times a week.

After he moved to Florida, he worked with dressage trainer, Bent Jensen who rode for Denmark in the Barcelona Olympics. Looking at the international competition trends, Zopatti observed that Americans are a bigger threat nowadays. “It used to be usually the Germans won the gold, the Dutch the silver and we’d get the bronze. Right now Lisa Wilcox, a top American rider is living and working in Germany,” Zopatti said. “In Europe, it’s (horse riding) a way of life. There you have the state run studs and bigger breeding programs. Over there, it’s common for many school students to ask one another, ‘which riding school do you go to? Most children (in Europe) learn to ride. In the U. S. riding is reserved more for the privileged,” he said.

After discovering the kind of workdays Zopatti puts in, one is inclined to think that he is answering a calling that most of us only dream about.


Grace Harris of Austin organizes Zopatti’s Texas clinics. She can be reached at (512) 699-6718 or WaterlooDressage@attglobal.net.

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