Washington State's Mallih Ataee a Standout Athlete for U.S. Dressage Junior/Young Riders
Written by Betsy LaBelle - In Dressage - Monday, June 26, 2017
Riding all of her life with two years explicitly focusing on Dressage for U.S. competition, sixteen-year-old Mallih Ataee of Medina, Washington has been steadily achieving her goals. Structure is important to Mallih and her mentor Sheila Buchanan as they have put in place a strategy and succeeded in giving Mallih’s 11-year-old Westphalian gelding Sir Pegasus (Siberian Express x Nora) aka “Peanut Butter” the time to develop the correct fitness, strength and confidence for the tasks ahead.
Now preparing to compete in her first international competition at the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC) taking place July 18-23, 2017 in Saugerties, New York, Mallih will be part of a four-person team flying their horses across the country to take part in the Junior Division competing for USDF Region 6. “The girls on our team have been so supportive of each other. We’ve already made lifelong friendships.”
A Logical Training Program
Riding 4 to 5 days each week, Mallih drives the forty-five minutes from Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, to the stable in Snohomish to work with Sheila, a busy full-time working professional who also continues to maintain her standings both as a mentor to Mallih and an amateur rider who competes two of her own horses.
Sheila said, “When we started with Sir Pegasus last November, I put a plan together for him. Mallih and I agreed that his fitness has to be the most important, more important than making the test movements perfect and we needed to work on the way he traveled in all three gaits.”
“It’s really the partnership between horse and rider that ends up being the winning combination." Clarifying, she said, "If it’s not about the partnership in the competition, it all becomes very mechanical and then ever so slightly the beauty of it is lost. But, when the horse understands and performs for you, the beauty of the partnership is there. And that’s the relationship Mallih is learning to develop with her horse. Now, they’re doing the equivalent of between third and fourth level in the Junior level.”
Mallih appreciatively affirmed, “Sheila is an incredible mentor. Her guidance has been extraordinary.”
Sir Pegasus, a talented horse at 17.1 hands bay sporting two socks on his hind legs and a star on his forehead that at five years old relocated to the U.S. from Germany, Mallih beamed, “he’s so willing to learn something new. I’ve never had a horse with such expressive and easy gaits. When I do the extended trot, I just put my legs on and he goes. He’ll go right into his lateral work. It’s been so awesome to be able to ride like that.”
Sheila says with a broad smile, “It’s so fun working with Mallih. She came to me about two years ago when she was just turning 15. Her mom couldn’t always be at the stable so I promised to make sure that Mallih would wear a helmet and ride only when an adult is around. The first year, she just powered through the training and the next year, this year, she had to decide if she wanted to do the Junior Division program and go for the Region 6 Junior Division Team for the North American Junior/Young Rider Championships. I spoke with her parents and suggested, ‘let’s try it and see what happens.’ We’ve been rolling along ever since.”
Sheila currently owns an insurance company in Bellevue, manages a construction company handling resales and rentals, breeds Golden Retrievers, and is also the primary caregiver for her 92-year-old mother. Humbly, she said, “I’m not a full-time coach. I am an amateur who has a full-time job and who rides after work. Mallih and I really hit it off and started working together. Over the past two years, we’ve really blossomed together. Now I feel like family and I think that’s why we work so great together.”
“When I work on an exercise,” Mallih began, “whether or not in a lesson, I try to imagine what the horse is doing under me. For example, if I’m riding a 10-meter circle I think about his hind legs bending and stepping directly on to the centerline and him bending through his entire body. I imagine him doing it perfectly the first time for a 10 and, of course, like most, we have our mistakes. This idea of reaching for a 10 is what keeps me focused and working.”
She clarified, “My structure for working Peanut Butter at this point in our career is to first make his cadence correct and then working on movements. So let’s say that I’m working our half passes. First, I develop the trot I want under me based on what I’m feeling in my hand and my body, making him supple to my aids, moving his hind legs under him, softening through his entire body and moving forward into my hand. After I have the movement under me that I want, I’d start the half pass.”
Mallih also takes part in some clinics given by dressage coach, trainer and mentor Christophe Theallet who coached USA Olympian Kasey Perry-Glass. He acts as an outside source to affirm they are on the correct path, “Christophe gives me homework and I also send him videos and we go over them. It’s been a wonderful opportunity.” Mallih has attended Christophe’s clinics at Jennifer Schrader-William’s Summervale Premier Dressage horse sales facility, “I’m so very grateful to Jennifer,” and at Wendi Montgomery’s Sky Equestrian Center in Sultan, “I get to collect amazing exercises and different ways of working through a movement.”
Another outside source for Mallih and Sheila is Linda Grandia and Laura Rising who own Hilltop Stable with riding instruction from Linda Grandia. Sheila acknowledges, “Her experience and dedication makes her a perfect match for our training and she keeps us on track.”
“In the final few weeks before leaving for New York,” Sheila explained, “we began refining our training to have everything as clean and tight as possible. We started with such a short timeline to train this horse, but he and Mallih both have risen to the task. Mallih’s family has been wonderfully supportive in this quest. Her mom Schanon and father Tony, along with her two brothers have all made tremendous sacrifices. There have been many cold nights watching Mallih’s training and many times Schanon has simultaneously worked with Mallih’s younger brother Keyon on his homework. This kind of dedication from family is an amazing asset to the pair."
“The schedule for training will remain the same at about 5 days per week of work for Peanut Butter,” she continued. “What will change is what takes place in the work. Until now, the focus has been on strengthening the horse and developing soft elevated gaits. Now we’ll move into shorter spurts of much more collected work where the requirements for the movements will be quite precise. This requires much more focus and determination. To have a fun day for the horse is important, too, and working with the freestyle is always fun for the rider and for the horse.”
Mallih added, “I concentrate more about Peanut Butter keeping a correct way of going than I do about the movement itself. I believe Sheila and Christophe that he’s more than capable of doing a movement correctly and to go back and do it until we get it right. I focus not so much on the movements themselves but each individual step leading up to the movement, throughout the movement and ending the movement into the next portion of our work or the test.”
With a pleasant smile, Mallih then shared, “We do have a freestyle and I’m absolutely in love with it. It was done by Karen Robinson from Applause Dressage. Our entire test is choreographed to George Michael songs. The walk music is “Careless Whisper,” our trot music is “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” and our canter music is “Faith.” Karen did a wonderful job and I’m so excited to compete it.”
Mallih Growing up
The Ataee family still owns the Hackney pony that Mallih learned how to ride when she was just four years old. The pony, named Sunny Boy, is thought to be about 37 years old and is still in perfect health. Their veterinarian recently visited and predicted that he will live long enough for Mallih’s own children to learn how to ride on him. Thanks to the very special Caryn Darmer, an accomplished dressage rider in her own right who would ride Sunny Boy when Mallih could not and helped to pique Mallih’s interested in Dressage.
Next year, Mallih will be applying to colleges and she hopes to go to the University of Washington Foster School of Business or possibly Stanford. She has been determined to go to the Juniors across the United States and has a can-do attitude of creating a plan and sticking to it.
“I have faith,” Sheila declared, “that Sir Pegasus/Peanut Butter is going to take Mallih through a successful trip to New York and we’ll continue working to get to the U25 Grand Prix."
Looking forward to New York and the North American Junior/Young Riders Championships
Sheila shared, “We would not be where we are without everyone’s continued love and enthusiasm through the hard times and the good times. In my opinion, the journey doesn’t get much better than this. No matter where we finish in the international competition, our tribe will be beaming with pride of the accomplishments that have been made.”