Bio on Alexa Derr:
Horse: Just Livingston
Owner: Caroline Stearns
Leasee: Alexa Derr
After riding low-level hunters for 5 years, Alexa decided she wanted to mix up her riding and try something different. When she made the switch to dressage her passion for the sport emerged to a whole new level. Alexa is a USDF Silver Medalist and was one of the 15 inaugural members of the Dressage4Kids’ Winter Intensive Training Program run by Lendon Gray. While in Florida for the WIT Program, Alexa learned the intricacies of the FEI levels, high performance horse management, and all around life skills that have made her more confident in her abilities. She was named the Florida Youth Championship’s FEI Young Rider Champion while riding Just Livingston, a Hanoverian Thoroughbred bred, trained, and owned by Caroline Stearns from Cochranville, PA.
Alexa and Just Livingston represented Region 1 as a Young Rider at NAJYRC in 2013 and were selected to ride in the Courtney King Dye Horse Mastership Clinic. The pair is still together and train regularly with Caroline Stearns and, when time and proximity permits, with Lendon Gray and George Williams.
Alexa is from Reinholds, PA. She trains out of Vue de Lou Stables, a private facility at their home. She has achieved her United States Pony Club HB and C2 Flat certifications. Alexa completed her first year at Albright College where she majors in Business and Marketing with aspirations to compete in the U25 Grand Prix and Brentina Cup.
Our Interview with Alexa:
1. When did you first start riding Dressage?
My love of horses began at age six but my love of dressage started when I was 13. I used to ride low level hunters with my pony, but after a jumping fall, I lost my confidence over fences and wanted to focus on the flat … that’s when I realized how exciting it is to be connected with your mount.
2. What is your daily routine for riding, do you get up early to ride or do you ride after school?
My day begins around 7am. I get ready for college, feed the horses and prepare them for turnout. When I get home from class around 3, I sometimes clean stalls and always ride. Luckily, I have supportive parents who help tremendously with barn work so I have enough time to complete my homework, train, and trailer about an hour and a half away every Monday for a lesson.
3. Who was your first trainer and who are you currently training with?
The trainer that started me from day one was Jocelyn Gardner. My true dressage riding began with Ange Bean. After nearly five years with Ange, I spent the winter of 2013 in Florida with Lendon Gray in her inaugural Winter Intensive Training Program (VERY COOL, I might add). I currently train with Caroline Stearns (owner and breeder of my current leased mount, Just Livingston). I attend clinics/lessons with Lendon Gray and George Williams when they are in the region, and join other clinicians when possible.
4. What training advice has been the most influential in your riding and why?
I am strong in my arms and shoulders and do not always realize my strength. The most influential advice was to recognize my strength and know that it takes two to pull. And since I am 10 times lighter than most horses, I clearly will never win. Somehow, most of the horses I ride love to be heavy in the hand which makes it easy for them to hang. I constantly remind myself to use my entire body to influence the horse to do what I aided and teach the horse to hold himself.
5. Tell us how you warm-up your horse before you ride and your cool down after you ride?
My warm-up routine consists of a 15 minute walk session that includes leg yields and making sure my horse is listening to my seat aids. I then move into a working trot in a low frame changing the bend regularly with 10-15 meter serpentines and 10 meter circles down the long side. At the canter, I continue to keep things on the slower side focusing on the suppleness of my horse’s body and his response to the half halt. Livingston, for example, has no problem going forward which is why everything in our warmup revolves around a quick response to a light half halt, as well as staying a touch slower speed wise and very supple. As a reward at the end of the ride, I trot or canter a few circles “on the buckle” and let them really stretch out their backs.
6. Do you follow the Pyramid of Training scale in your daily riding?
I focus on all aspects of the training scale when I ride. Depending on the horse I am riding will depend which parts of the training scale I focus on the most. For Livingston, a forward moving and tenser horse, I focus a lot on the rhythm and suppleness during my warm up. I never have to “put him on the bit” but rather have to be sure I vary the length of his neck and that he does not curl. While I work on straightness, it is not the highest on my list because Liv is naturally straight. Once warmed up, I focus on collection and cadence while maintaing suppleness and rhythm. So do I follow the pyramid of training? In a way… for me it is more of training topics that get carried out at different moments of my ride. Every horse is different and will come out of the stall a little different each day so it is important for the rider to ride the horse they have under them, not the horse they had yesterday or the day before.
7. How often do you include rest breaks in your training sessions?
I do not like to drill a specific movement because Livingston gets bored easily and I tend to get obsessive. Therefore, we work until I am happy with a series of movements or exercises. If that takes 5 minutes then we take a very short walk break but Livingston must stay connected to me. The walk break is not a leisure walk around the park. If the lesson takes 15 to 20 minutes then he gets a true leisure walk to clear his mind.
8. How often do you clean your tack and what is your favorite cleaner/conditioner you use?
I clean my bits and wipe off my saddle after every ride. My tack gets cleaned thoroughly every week with Essex Leather Balm and Lexol Leather Cleaner. I also use a dab of vinegar on a cloth to easily remove any soiling or leather jockeys on my boots, reins, and bridle.
9. How often do you show?
My show season usually begins in April or May and I average 1-3 shows a month until July. August is usually spent working on any training issues. Then I compete at Dressage at Devon in September followed by either BLMs, GAIG, or Festival of Champions.
10. Do you braid your own horse’s mane?
I absolutely love to braid and will get up at any time in the morning to do so. It is a chance for me to get centered, for my horse to relax, and for both of us to partner.
11. Who grooms for you at your shows?
I love bonding with the horses and I am a bit of a perfectionist so I have no problem being in charge of grooming!
12. Are your parents you’re “Grooms” at the shows for you?
My dad helps with hand-walking and tacking up since Livingston is 17 hands and a bit of a red head at times. My mom takes care of my mental health and takes amazing pictures and video while I ride. She also likes to muck the stalls and keep the tack room organized. If my dad isn’t able to attend a show, then my trainer takes on his role. I am so lucky to have parents who do what they can to help create the ultimate experience at a horse show. My dad adds levity and my mom has a sixth sense so when something isn’t right she helps me figure out how to deal with it
13. Do you trail ride and how often?
We have trails around our house that I ride on, but I actually prefer riding in the fields.
14. What are your goals for you and your horse?
My goals for this year is to focus on improvement of the quality of presentation in the ring. Two years ago I went from riding my training level OTTB to riding an FEI schoolmaster at 3rd level in two months. It was quite the learning leap. For nine months I leased a Warmblood mare and got a glimpse of the upper levels. Then in October of 2012, I began leasing Just Livingston and two months later packed up and went to Florida. After another huge learning jump, I rode my first Prix St. George test in February of 2013. Last year was amazing as I experienced NAJYRC and Festival of Champions for the first time. I cannot be more grateful for these countless opportunities.
15. What is your favorite Dressage music freestyle performed?
I love Charlotte Dujardin’s London Olympics Freestyle with Valegro, but I must say, I love my freestyle too. It’s a “She’s Country” freestyle including music from Jason Aldean, Brooks & Dunn, and Tim McGraw.
16. Who is your favorite horse and rider?
My favorite combo I must say is Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro. Not only is she a phenomenal rider, but she knows how to balance all her endeavors really well. I also look up to two American riders: JJ Tate and George Williams. JJ is a passionate rider/trainer and I love how she approaches her training sessions. Off the horse she is a blast to be around; full of energy and inspiration. George is a calm rider no matter what and I love seeing how he is able to take hot horses and give them the confidence to go down centerline in their best light. I have been fortunate to spend time with both professionals, and every minute I spend discussing training theory with them makes me want to immediately implement their ideas (which coincidentally, make my problems go away, haha).
17. What can you tell other junior riders about reaching their goals in dressage?
It is hard to find a balance between school, riding, and a social life. While I do not need a crazy social life, I need to hang with my friends in order to stay balanced. College is not easy nor is dressage, so my suggestion is to find something healthy to do outside of school and horses in order to keep your mental sanity. My “thing” is going to C.J. Hummels for country line dancing every Thursday night. Not only is it fun to be with my friends, but it is a way to get exercise by dancing the night away.
18. What is your horse’s personality like and what is the funniest thing he/she does?
Just Livingston (Livingston, Liv, Livvers, Goobs) is an ’02 big-bodied, 17h, red-headed, Hanoverian Thoroughbred (Just Wonda x Loerke). His personality is rather entertaining. He enjoys posing for selfies, looking at himself in mirrors, and exercising his right to spook at cows. His all-time favorite treat is ginger snap cookies. Livingston always knows how to put a smile on my face and I absolutely love working with him.
19. Please tell us who you would like to Thank for being your best supporters:
I would love to thank Lendon Gray and everyone who dedicated their time to the Winter Intensive Training Program. WIT was a pivotal time in my riding. Also, Caroline Stearns, George Williams, my parents Dawn and David Derr, Premier Equine Veterinary Associates – Dr. Jake Clements and Adrianne Johnson, Livingston’s farrier Kirk Groves, Dr. Megan Smith The University of New Bolton’s for acupuncture, and my family and friends who support of my passion.
20. What is your favorite quote that you love and want to share with others?
“If you stumble, make it part of the dance.”
“Short reins win gold medals” -Charlotte Dujardin