Loxahatchee, Fla. – Dec. 10, 2020 – Inspirational success stories typically follow a similar pattern consisting of an ordinary beginning, a struggle and an ending with an unprecedented triumph. This seems to hold true even in the highly stereotyped lavish equestrian world. But, rather than taking this path alone, an unsuspecting pair of young dressage riders are rewriting the next chapter of their stories together. Beatrice de Lavalette and Shayna Simon found themselves on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean until a life-altering attack brought de Lavalette to the United States, right to Simon’s doorstep. Together the west-coast coach-student pair have made a splash together in the para-dressage ring, but they both have big dreams to stand atop international podiums. Their most recent step in their careers involved setting up a business in Loxahatchee, Florida, in order to be centered in the winter dressage capital.
Like many others, Shayna Simon, now a USDF gold medalist, began taking dressage lessons at a young age and on the weekends would study top riders in the CDIs in Rancho Murieta, California. Growing up in Southern California, Simon was surrounded by dressage with Olympic clinicians hosting sessions in the area and high-quality shows at her doorstep. But, when her mother’s job relocation from dressage haven California to western-dominated Montana meant giving dressage up, Simon at the age of just thirteen, decided to stay behind to train and live at DG Bar Ranch.
At sixteen, Simon was accepted into a training internship with Klaus Balkenhol and adopted his training philosophies and work ethic. While working for the German Olympic team gold medalist, Simon slowly, but surely began to climb the ladder and in 2017 she reached a new rung of her riding career by qualifying for the U.S. Festival of Champions in the Intermediate division. Simon planned to compete aboard Harley Davidson, her personal mount she purchased as a budget-buy at 3-years-old. Reality set in when Simon realized she had to turn down the opportunity because she could not afford the trip from her home in California to New Jersey.
5,652 miles away, Beatrice de Lavalette was just starting to explore the equestrian world. Now a U.S. Para-Dressage athlete and 2021-Paralympic hopeful, de Lavalette did not always have her dreams set on an international riding career. Growing up in the saddle much like Simon, she showed her beloved mare, Delegada X, as an able-bodied rider up until she suffered near-fatal injuries during the 2016 terrorist attack at the Brussels’ Zaventem International Airport. As a red-tagged survivor, nobody believed that she would survive, let alone get back in the saddle only five months after having both legs amputated and suffering a severe spinal cord injury.
Simon and de Lavalette were two equestrians, worlds away, whose stories took unexpected turns only to be brought together in San Diego at Steffen Peters’ San Diego facility, Arroyo Del Mar, where they first met. Simon, who had never taught a para-rider, and de Lavalette who had just recently gotten back in the saddle following her extensive recovery, formed a unique relationship not only as teacher and pupil, but also as friends, and now as business partners.
“I remember when I first met Béa because she was popping wheelies in her wheelchair and I was like ‘I have got to know that girl!’” Simon laughed. “We started talking about horses and she said she wanted to move here to San Diego and her horse was in Belgium at the moment. Our concepts aligned so well.”
“I could tell that I was the first para-rider she had ever had as a student, but that did not scare me off,” de Lavalette said. “It actually made me want to stay with her as my trainer even more because I could see that just by talking to her that she would learn my way of riding, but also teach me how to ride even better.”
The pair formed an instant connection. Their mutual understanding and unwavering determination solidified a training style at the very beginning of their relationship that has enabled de Lavalette and Simon alike to grow as riders.
“It’s a great relationship between the two of us because there is so much communication between Béa and I, especially with the candidness about what she can and can’t do, what the horses understand and don’t understand and being open about what works and what may not work,” Simon explained.
“Shayna is very calm which I’ve found is rare in a coach and in a teacher,” de Lavalette said. “Every time I ride we focus on something different and that for me was new. I was used to doing the same thing almost every time so doing something new every time gave me an even better understanding of the horse. One of Shayna’s go-to’s for me is: ‘Keep your hands in front of the saddle,’ which is always a good reminder. We have gotten to the point now where she can tell me something and compared to when I used to just say, ‘Yeah, okay.’ Now I actually listen and understand when she explains it. It was a big growing up part on my end as a student and as a person. It has helped me a lot as a rider and competitor.”
After breaking through their early days of trial and error, de Lavalette and Simon settled into a training routine that proved successful. With Béa’s eyes on Tokyo as a U.S. Para-Dressage athlete, any coach would be proud of their student for making it to such an elite level of riding in only a few years, but Simon and de Lavalette have a different outlook on what it means to win.
“Whenever Béa does something for the first time since her accident and she gets so excited to achieve a goal of hers, that is what shines through for me as her coach. I feel like I achieved that goal as well,” Simon said. “When she started cantering DeeDee for the first time following her accident that was really exciting because she wasn’t sure whether she could do it. I watched this girl roll in popping wheelies flying down a hill and I was certain she could do it!”
The young Paralympic hopeful will be the first to say she owes much of her success to Simon and her coaching, but de Lavalette herself played a teaching role to the seasoned professional who knew little about para-dressage.
“I think with anything, when you teach you become better at riding because you are vocalizing everything so you really have to believe in it when you teach it to another individual. Béa has helped me in many different ways in realizing what aids are really important and that horses don’t need super strong aids to do it,” said Simon, a now certified USEF silver para-equestrian trainer. Many dressage riders get in the habit of using excessive force to get the job done and I think para riders like Béa show us that they don’t need excessive force. Horses need clear aids and they want to please. They need education and correct riding to understand the basics and the biomechanics of dressage training.”
Though the pair attributes much of their training philosophy to good old-fashioned hard work and focus, the nature of their relationship spans beyond just time spent in the saddle. Simon (30) and de Lavalette (21) make sure to find the time to sit back and enjoy the journey amidst their tireless efforts to make it to Tokyo.
“We are both young women, so there is often giggling involved in the barn. But, we are also very focused and with that, I think that we are both excited for the time that we can relax and have other things in life to enjoy. But right now it is the grit!”
Simon and de Lavalette, who not only love to show their own horses but also sit ring-side analyzing the competition, fell under the spell of Wellington. With top international competition happening every week, the world’s best dressage athletes riding and training close by, and the budding para-dressage community, the west-coast based pair originally only planned on staying in Wellington for Paralympic qualifiers. With de Lavalette racking up multiple Grade-2 wins with scores up to 73% and Simon campaigning a handful of young horses to blue ribbons, their summer plans for 2020 were falling into place.
However, the Covid-19 pandemic rewrote their next move as it did the entire industry. With another year to prepare for the Paralympics in Tokyo and a foothold in Florida, the pair boldly decided to commit to the east coast permanently and on June 1st they purchased their farm in Loxahatchee, Florida to launch Equidae Dressage Stables.
“At the moment we have been working our butts off all summer and fall to get everything going,” Simon said. “We are putting the facility together and we have huge goals for our independent businesses as well as Equidae together.”
“When Covid hit, we made the decision to stay here and buy our farm,” de Lavalette added. “From the beginning we knew we didn’t just want to be a regular dressage farm. We wanted to do something even bigger, so our future plan is to turn Equidae into a USEF Center Of Excellence for para-dressage where we can have clinics. We’d like to have high-quality horses that we can loan to para-riders who can’t afford to have their own or if it is their first year involved in the sport and want to give it a try. I am trying to be what others were for me [a mentor].”
2020 was a challenging year for the equestrian industry due to the unpredictability of the Covid-19 pandemic, but the duo chose to look at it in a positive light and take advantage of the extra time they found on their journey to the top.
“You live in the moment and are grateful for each ride that is given to you,” Simon concluded. “For me, the postponement of Tokyo was a disappointment but I just looked at it as – we have another year of living this dream. The moment of being there is short and the journey is long. We have the opportunity to live that journey another year and work for the same goals so it is hard, but in other ways, it is exciting because we are going to do what we want to do for a whole other year and hopefully at the end of that we achieve our goal.”