By Nancy Jaffer
November 16, 2017
“I’m still smiling,” said Maia Barnes, days after winning the Fourth Level Adult Amateur Championship at the U.S. Dressage Finals presented by Adequan.
Maia, who rode Benvica to a score of 69.889 percent at the Kentucky Horse Park, had little in the way of major mileage before finishing as Fourth Level reserve champion in a combined open/amateur competition at Dressage at Devon, six weeks prior to the Nov. 9-12 Finals .
With 351 entries from all over the country, the Finals can be intimidating for first-timers, especially someone who had only been doing dressage for two years.
“Show experience wasn’t really there for me,” said Maia, who is based at Back Brook Farm in Ringoes.
Before she even started competing, she said, “I was actually nervous, because I didn’t know if I was going to be able to handle the pressure.”
But the Finals victory with her 11-year-old Dutchbred gelding (Sandreo x Renieta by Jazz) gave 24-year-old Maia a boost, and may have started her on a new course in life.
At Temple University, she switched her major several times before graduating with a psychology degree, but now it looks as if she has found her focus.
“This will definitely help with the confidence aspect I’ll probably change my status soon to open and hopefully people will feel comfortable paying me to ride their horses or helping them,” said Maia, who trains with Stephan Cheret and hopes to become a professional.
In exchange for lessons, she is cleaning stalls and turning out horses at Back Brook, but has dreams of being an assistant trainer and moving up the levels some more.
“Next year, I would like to keep my horse and do I-1. I was watching the freestyles at nationals and I want to do that. Full pirouettes might be hard, but if we work over the winter, I think we can do it.
“I’m thinking to take him as far as I can and let him give me this awesome show experience, which obviously is going really well.”
Her trainer, the 1994 French national champion, notes how fast she has progressed, from a novice in 2015 to training at Prix St. Georges this year.
“She’s extremely serious, very hard on herself. She’s also very competitive. She has the right attitude to be a very great show rider,” he believes.
“She is a talented rider for competition because she really focuses and does her thing and does it well.” Of the horse, Stephan said, he was green in the changes and the lateral work when he was imported.
“He was a little bit of a handful to begin with,” the trainer continued.
“He’s a lot better now because of the showing and the experience he’s getting. She really loves him. They really have a good connection and work together well.”
Maia noted that going to “huge competitions is so exciting and so much fun. Just being there, you learn so much and get to meet so many great people. I would love to take my riding as far as I can and one day be in a Grand Prix ring.”
Starting out as a jumping and eventing rider on borrowed mounts, Maia participated in one eventing competition, but chuckles now as she recalled that the horse would only walk around the cross-country course.
“It was a disaster. I couldn’t get him to move,” she explained.
Even so, she had thought at one point she’d get back to jumping, “that was fun for me. Then I started doing dressage. I got on a horse and piaffed for the first time and did an amazing pirouette for the first time. To me, it felt so much more exciting, even though it’s on the ground. You sit on a horse that can do these amazing movements and for me, that totally trumped jumping any day.”
Her father, David Barnes, is helping his daughter achieve her ambition and saw the purchase of Benvica as “an investment in my future and went for it,” she said, noting Dad has developed an eye for dressage.
When she bought Benvica off a video, “It was like the ultimate blind date,” Maia observed. “It was a huge gamble.”
Luckily, the gamble paid off. Maia started at Training Level when the horse arrived from the Netherlands in July 2015.
“I had never ridden him. He was very wildly crazy,” said Maia, who wondered at the time, “What did I get myself into?”
She started lessons with Stephan’s wife, Caroline, then moved on to Stephan because her schedule didn’t mesh with Caroline’s.
Having Stephan ride the horse in training sessions improved his collection and made his flying changes more expressive. He even had “an inkling of a pirouette,” she commented.
Being able to do well at shows is a huge bonus.
“The excitement of it all makes me ride better than I do at home,” she said.
“The more I get out there and the more I see myself doing well, the more I feel like, `Okay, I can do this and I could have a lot of fun with this.’”