Coleen Akin, 13, takes her horseback riding seriously

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:17

    WARWICK-It started out as an ordinary family vacation in the summer of 1997 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Then just six years old, Colleen Akin went horseback riding with her family. It was a defining moment in her short life. Almost instantly, horses became her passion. Not just a hobby, it truly was her passion. She began riding weekly, taking English riding lessons. Her parents, Joe and Laura Akin, saw the desire in their daughter and bought her a Pinto pony named "Chunkee Monkee." He would be the first of several horses for Akin, now 13, who turned a pony ride into a life's dream. Though she calls herself a "typical teenager," the Warwick Middle School eighth grader is anything but. Sure, she likes hanging out with her friends, going to movies, and watching her brother, Patrick, play soccer for Warwick Valley High School. What is different about Akin is her discipline and dedication to a sport that is both beautiful and physically demanding. She spends at least 15 hours a week in the saddle, working and training horses, including her four-year-old Oldenburg mare, "Duet."In addition, she is a working student for Bellvale Dressage, where she works with the owner, her trainer, Beth Sproule-Hansen. Sproule-Hansen is an accomplished rider and trainer, teaching dressage for over 15 years. She took Colleen on last summer, having had few children at her barn at all. "Colleen is the only young person at my barn," Sproule-Hansen said. "This is very much an adult sport, although people are trying to change that. It attracts adults because of the discipline and accuracy necessary for success. "Colleen is very mature and down to Earth," Sproule-Hansen continued. "And most important, she has a good attitude. That's very important." Sproule-Hansen and Akin were especially pleased last month when they finished one and two in one of the events at the prestigious Dressage at Devon competition in Pennsylvania. Say Devon to a horseperson and they know what you're talking about. It is the oldest horsegrounds in the United States. Akin decided in July to compete at Devon for the experience. There are over 1,000 horses that compete in the multi-day event. Her hope n come home with a ribbon or two but most importantly get the experience of competing with so many skilled riders and trainers. As is usually the case, Akin exceeded her goal, placing in each of the five classes she entered, including two fifth place ribbons, a fourth place, an eighth place and her red second place ribbon. "Devon made me feel good, not only as a rider but because of the training I've done with Duet," said Akin. "Riding is really fun, but training a young horse is exciting." Dressage is all about the horse and rider together. In just their first show season together, Akin and Duet have already scored a 69 and 76 percent. While 100 percent is perfect, scoring in the 60s is good, high 60s is "really good," according to Akin. The 76 was phenomenal. When she was just nine, Akin decided to move to the Dressage discipline. She was with a trainer here in Warwick who took her to dressage shows. She saw the beauty of the sport and decided that's what she wanted to do. "There is such harmony between the horse and the rider," said Akin. "It's incredible. Such a connection. I just loved dressage." She's been focused on it ever since. In the summer she trains with former Olympian Lendon Gray once each week. The rest of the time she trains with Sproule-Hansen, who Akin calls "fantastic." Ironically, even before she began training with Sproule-Hansen, Akin's family bought the mare, "Duet," who is sired by "DiVinci," a stallion at Bellvale Dressage. "Every horse can benefit from dressage," said Sproule-Hansen, "but when it comes to high level competition, it takes good, consistent training, a good horse, and a good rider. Dressage takes the discipline of martial arts and the physical function of ballet." Akin has definite short-term goals for herself, goals her trainer says are absolutely achievable for this dedicated rider. "I want to train "Duet" to go to the Junior Olympics," Akin said. "I want to go to college, and I want to be a trainer someday. I want to give young riders the opportunities I've had. The help I've gotten at my barn has been incredible." Her trainer admires her skills as well as her drive. "To me, Colleen has all the qualities to make her a good horseperson and a good professional," said Sproule-Hansen. "She'll have the background she will need from the ground up. It will be exciting to see her develop as an equestrian. She has the potential to be very, very good. She'll be a good trainer and teacher. She'll be a good pro somed