This California rider and mother will realize her life-long dream when she competes on the U.S. dressage team at the Pan American Games.
Marisa Festerling has a quick smile and kind demeanor that immediately put people and horses at ease. A petite blonde, this native Californian possesses an elegance and tactfulness that seem to encourage the best from her mounts.
But what you don’t see at first glance is the steely determination that lies below the surface of the 34-year-old’s bubbly, cheerful exterior.
From childhood she’s dreamed of representing the United States in an international team championship, and she’s methodically and patiently developed her own young horse until he blossomed into a high performance dressage competitor.
This year, her hard work and patience paid off as she’s arrived in Guadalajara, Mexico, to compete for Team USA in the Pan American Games.
Just Another Horse-Crazy Kid
Growing up as “just another horse-crazy girl” in Camarillo, Calif., Festerling was riding her grandparents' Quarter Horses before she could walk. “I had the typical room with Breyer horses and Black Stallion posters, and I knew the name of every Kentucky Derby winner,” she said. “I wanted to take lessons so badly. I even tried to enroll myself at a jockey school in Indiana when I was 14, but they wouldn't let me come because I was too young!”
After realizing she’d be too big for a career as a jockey, Festerling re-focused her passion. “I saw pictures in magazines of English riders and decided that I wanted to do whatever it was that they were doing,” she said with a laugh. When she did finally get those longed-for lessons at a local barn, she dabbled in dressage but admitted she was pretty clueless.
Enter Marie Meyers, a member of the U.S. team at the 1990 World Equestrian Games and an alternate for the 1988 Seoul Olympic Games. Meyers not only took Festerling under her wing as a working student, but also became her friend and mentor.
“When I came to Marie, I knew nothing,” said Festerling. “The first horse I had was a Thoroughbred, and right after I started with Marie we were showing in a few tests at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, where he jumped out of the ring in one class and then for the others got two 45-percent scores. It was horrible. Charlotte Bredahl-Baker was sitting in the stands near Marie, and said, ‘That poor girl needs a trainer.’ Then Marie said, ‘I am her trainer.’ Today we remember this all the time and get such a kick out of it because it’s all come full circle. Charlotte has become one of my biggest supporters.”
Being the only horse-crazy child in the family, Festerling wrestled with pressures to pursue higher education and a “normal” career path. After high school, she attended and graduated from California Lutheran University with a degree in English, but throughout her studies she continued to focus on riding.
“One of the reasons I even chose my college was because it was close to the barn! I knew that it was important, and I’m glad I did it, but I rode all through school, and I honestly never considered any other career path,” Festerling said. “Of course, there was a time when I finished college and was on my own, when I had a little bit of an, ‘Oh my God what am I going to do now? I don't have a real job’ moment, but thank goodness I had been riding with Marie for five years by then, and she gave me an opportunity to make this my career. I think that the hardest part of being a professional in this business is the actual act of getting started.”
A “Big Tyme” Horse
As a budding young professional and official assistant trainer at Marie Meyers Dressage in Moorpark, Calif., Festerling proved she had a knack for working with young horses, including Jetsetter, who went on to compete through the Prix St. Georges level, and Remy Martin, who carried her onto the national stage by winning the reserve championship at the 2003 USA Equestrian Young Horse National Championships in Allentown, N.J.
But it was a barely-broken 4-year-old that would change Festerling's life. In 2004, Meyers saw a flashy gelding in Belgium while she was on a horse-shopping excursion. She showed a video to her husband Frank, who promptly remarked, “Wow, honey, that’s a big-time horse.” After purchasing and importing the newly-christened Big Tyme or “Frankie,” Meyers gave the mount to Festerling to ride and prepare for re-sale.
But Frankie never left the barn. “I didn’t have my own horse at the time, and when I started riding him, I really clicked with him so well. When Marie put him on the market, I was able to buy him with gracious support from Dave and Ann Marie Walter,” said Festerling.
Festerling and Frankie got their first international experience together when they traveled to Verden, Germany, for the 5-year-old division at the 2006 FEI World Breeding Championships. “Going to Verden was great experience for both of us. As a rider, it was a really good avenue for exposure, and getting that chance to ride for the U.S. proved that we could handle the trip and pressure, produce results and represent the country well,” said Festerling.