Freshman Virginia Woodcock takes dressage by the reins


High Time Photography

Freshman Virginia Woodcock and her horse ‘The Safari Party’ during the 2022 dressage national championships.

Carolyn Harty

Freshman Virginia Woodcock has been captivated by horses since she was just three years old. Buying her first horse at age four sparked an interest in something that turned what was once a hobby into a lifestyle for Woodcock. 

Woodcock began riding horses at the age of five and started competing in dressage, an artistic branch of horseback riding that incorporates balance, flexibility, and even mathematics. 

“Ever since I was young, I had always been really into horses, and as I continued, my passion grew, and the more I learned, the more I was taught and competed, I continued to fall in love with it,” Woodcock said. 

Elizabeth Woodcock, mother of Virginia, reminisces about their search for Woodcock’s first horse at a young age. 

“Even when she was a baby, she would always gravitate towards horse toys, and when she was three, she started making us start to explore horses,” Woodcock said. “We put our name on a waiting list when she was four, so this has been her dream for so many years.” 

Woodcock trains six days a week. She competes in six regular season competitions a year with multiple United States dressage federations, including the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) and the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (IFES). Woodcock won the training-level Junior Young Rider award in 2020, the reserve championship for first-level Junior Young Riders in 2021, and the championship for second-level Junior riders this year.

“During my competitions, you have a pattern or a test, and it’s usually five to eight minutes depending on the test you’re doing,” Woodcock said. “There’s usually about 30 movements that the rider has to memorize and then I take my horse through the test and do ground work. I like to  describe it as looking like the horses are dancing. You go through the movements and get scored by two judges on every movement then that gets added up with scores on your position and the riders scores themselves.” 

Liz Malloy, a mentor of Woodcock, met her when she was an equitation judge at the horse show and has a letterman jacket program at her club. After seeing Woodcock ride, she asked her parents to sign up for her program and sold her ‘The Safari Party,’ Woodcock’s horse. 

“[Woodcock] is incredibly hard working, self motivated, and driven,” Malloy said. “She applies the same ethic to riding horses to her school work and any other work that she does.” 

Malloy acknowledges Woodcock’s natural ability to ride, a talent overlooked by many. 

“[Woodcock] just has a very natural sense of balance on a horse, and I always joke that balance is the boring word that comes with a 40 page definition; she’s a natural,” Malloy said. “Especially in the last three years with her height growing, she’s been able to accommodate that well and ride very athletically on a horse that’s supple, so going straight is very hard for [the horse] sometimes.”

Woodcock played competitive travel soccer at Inter Atlanta before committing full-time to dressage.

“Soccer is very much a team sport but in dressage, it’s you and your horse and only one of you wants to win when you come into the ring and that’s a huge difference from soccer,” Elizabeth Woodcock said. “You have control over your own body and over your own athleticism in soccer, but in dressage it’s you and your partner and your partner is a 2,000 pound beast. It’s been really interesting because you have to have such strength mentally because sometimes your partner is on medicine or you’ll have situations where your horse has gone a few days without its medicine and your partner is just not at full strength.” 

Despite not growing up around horses, Elizabeth Woodcock describes the joy she feels watching and supporting Virginia throughout her dressage journey.  

“I think the pride that she takes in achieving has been really fun to watch,” Woodcock said. “The sport requires a tremendous amount of precision and is actually very mathematical because the way you ring the horse around the ring, you use geometry and the precision is incredibly important so it’s fun to see her achieve that level of precision.” 

Malloy emphasizes the importance of mastering the smaller, more tactical skills in which Woodcock excels, making her distinctly talented. 

“In dressage, we ride a pattern to letters in an arena so the geometry has to be incredibly accurate and when you ride it home, even though the letters are in the same place, when you actually get to the show you have to adjust,” Malloy said. “You’ll start going down and working into the arena and you have to gauge how to make a perfectly round circle within a space that may be a little bigger than you are used to at home, so you have to remain extremely adjustable and accurate which is tricky.” 

Freshman and long-time friend Eva Isakov admires the time and effort put into Woodcock, in and out of dressage. 

“[Woodcock] is really good at balancing school and sports especially because she does a lot,” Isakov said. “I have a lot of respect for her as well because [dressage] is a super intricate sport and it takes a lot of time and commitment that she handles well.” 

Freshman Nina Giordano, a friend of Woodcock, enjoys hearing about her dressage competitions and experiences. 

“It’s impressive because I don’t know a lot of people that ride horses so it’s cool to get an insight on what someone in dressage or a rider does, like scheduling and what they do to keep their horses healthy,” Giordano said. “She has to feed her horse every day and I like listening to what she has to say about it because it’s different from volleyball or football or something common like that.” 

Living in Atlanta, Woodcock has a unique experience compared to others who participate in the sport because of her lack of access to many dressage elements that others her age have. 

“We have no context for the horse world which does make things challenging because a majority of the youth who participate in this sport live in barns because their parents are either caregivers, trainers or owners, so it’s another reason why Virginia is so impressive, doing this without that inside access to the horse world,” Elizabeth Woodcock said.

Along with the challenges of her location, Woodcock, with the help of her trainer, trained her own horse rather than buying one that had previously been trained. The Safari Party placed second in the Dressage Horse of The Year according the the USDF

“Most of the young don’t train their own horses, most horses are purchased and they’ve already been trained, but Virginia trained the horse,” Elizabeth Woodcock said. “She’s the only one at that national level, and she and her trainer trained her horse. When we bought him, he was in a field, and she spent three years training him. Now he’s the number two horse of the year for olympians, professionals, and kids; he’s the second in the whole country.”

During the winter season, Woodcock travels to Florida and participates in a clinic with Olympic coaches to stay engaged and learn more about dressage. Woodcock continues to admire the opportunities and learning experiences she’s acquired throughout her dressage process.  

“My favorite part would be just that there’s never an end to how much you can learn,” Woodcock said. “The sport never ends. There’s always another level of training and another level of expertise you can reach because it’s a sport of precision, which I’ve always enjoyed.”