A few months ago, Katherine Dash was crowned the United States Equestrian Federation 2017 Grand National Champion in the Junior Hunter division. The Bellevue Club member talks about the path that got her there.
Reflections magazine: How did you get into horseback riding?
Katherine Dash: Horses have always been a part of my life. My mom rode horses at a young age, and when I was born, she picked it up again. It was always something we did together. I would ride a pony while she was doing her lesson, and it was a good bonding experience.
RM: When did you start taking it more seriously?
KD: I started taking it to the next level when I was in seventh grade. I was involved in a lot of sports—swim team, soccer, basketball—but I knew I needed to pick one, and I chose riding.
RM: Why was that the one?
KD: I love animals, and it’s a way you can make a team with an animal. When you make a connection with them, it’s super special.
RM: What did riding seriously look like for you?
KD: I started riding at a barn in Bellevue on a horse named Luck. Then I moved to a barn in Portland because that’s where the top trainer in the PNW, Shelley Campf, was. So I drove to Portland every weekend to train.
It was hard to balance because when I was home I couldn’t ride, and when I was in Portland I was only riding. It was a challenge to find balance with academics and sports.
RM: Do you have any advice for other student athletes struggling with the same thing?
KD: Spend time on your schoolwork, then give yourself a break, and then do something you love. If you do both halfway, you’ll never be satisfied. You have to give your all in both.
RM: What was the most challenging thing for you once you started competing seriously?
KD: Dealing with my nerves. I’m a perfectionist, and I always wanted to go in the ring and not mess up. But I really had to work on stepping back and relying on my instinct, trusting that I’d practiced enough.
RM: How did you improve on your focus and address your nerves?
KD: I am really into listening to music. Twenty minutes before I go into the ring, I plug in and go off by myself and think about what I need to do and visualize the course. I have a special playlist with certain songs that get me in the right state of mind.
RM: Where did you get the idea to visualize your performance?
KD: I actually started meeting with a mental skills coach. I realized I was getting distracted. When I get nervous I don’t get sweaty palms or anything, I just kind of shut down and get super relaxed. So the mental skills coach taught me what to do in certain situations, and one of the biggest things I took away was visualization. It made me plan out every single corner. It took my mind off getting nervous because it was something I could control. Having a mental skills coach was very beneficial, and I recommend it to everyone.
RM: Did you have any rituals or superstitions before getting into the ring?
KD: I’m very superstitious, and everyone always teases me about it. The biggest thing is I have a special show shirt. All show shirts are white on the outside, but the inside collar of mine has an ice-cream-cone print. On a really important day, I pull out the ice-cream-cone shirt. It’s getting pretty old by now, but I still wear it sometimes.
RM: The past few years have been very successful for you. Can you tell me about that journey?
KD: Yeah, after riding in Portland, I started riding with a trainer, Archie Cox, in Southern California. It took a really long time to convince my mom to move my horses to California; it was a major commitment. But we moved to that barn midway through my freshman year—that was four years ago now. It was an adjustment because the people in Southern California were at a higher level, and I had to bring up my skills. That was a great experience, though, and eventually I became champion at three out of four indoor horse shows [Capital Challenge Horse Show, the Pennsylvania National and the Washington International]. Going in, I never thought that was possible, I just wanted to win a ribbon. To be champion of three was super exciting.
RM: How did that feel?
KD: It felt surreal. Capital Challenge was the first one, and it felt unreal. I didn’t know what to say, it seemed almost lucky and I thought I’d never be able to repeat it. So for it to happen two more times, it was crazy. That’s only happened a few times in the sport—that one rider won three. That kind of opened more doors for me and gave me some national recognition.
RM: But your biggest accomplishment just happened recently, correct?
KD: Yes, the following year, a family sent me a sales horse named Everglow to ride. He had done some shows, but no one was picking him up. I wasn’t sure about him either at first, but the more I rode him the better we did, and by the end of the year I was the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF) 2017 Grand National Champion in the Junior Hunter division.
RM: What was special about riding Everglow?
KD: Riding him was cooler than my previous horse, Boss, because Boss was already proven with a professional. With Everglow, no one really liked him. They thought he was too difficult and didn’t possess the qualities of a winner, so to be able to prove that he is a champion felt really good.
RM: What comes after being named National Champion?
KD: Right now, I’m taking a gap year. I wanted to be able to compete in the indoor horse shows one more time, which I did, and now I have aged out of the division and am considered amateur. It’s actually a less competitive circuit, so I just purchased a young horse, Patriot, so I could bring him up through the ranks. This is a new challenge for me, to be able to practice training a horse.
RM: Are you ever going to try and become professional?
KD: No, I’m going to school in the fall, and I want to focus on that for a while. And I thought about going down the college athlete path, but a lot of my friends did it and don’t enjoy it. It’s not the same and it’s a full-time job. I want to focus on academics to be able to get a job and support myself and then maybe ride in the future like my mom did.
RM: Any other insight you have for others training to achieve goals?
KD: I keep going back to if you love it, go for it—anything you put your mind to, you can do. As a young rider in Bellevue, I never thought I’d be able to ride on that top level, but believe in yourself and really go for it. Also, it’s really nice to have people around you who support you. I had some really good teachers that encouraged me to go for it, as well as mentors and, of course, my family too.