Stable partners: KU student taking horse to worldwide equestrian competition

Emily Wagner, a 22-year-old Kansas University senior, will compete with Wake Up, shown above, in the 2010 FEI World Breeding Championships.

What little hope Emily Wagner had for qualifying for the 2010 FEI World Breeding Championships for dressage horses seemed dashed at the end of day one at the selection trials.

It was a Saturday in mid-May, and the Kansas University student had traveled all the way from La Cygne to Chicago with her horse, Wake Up, thinking she might have a chance to qualify — a slim chance.

In order to do so, the pair would have to earn from the judges a score of 8.2 on a scale of 10 for two days of competition. They’d earned an 8.3 at a competition in Missouri in March, so Wagner knew they were capable of doing it.

But these would be different judges — tougher ones, guardians of one of the ultimate prizes in equestrian competition. So she thought it was probably more likely that an 8.2 was out of reach.

On the first day, though, she and Wake Up scored 8.04.

“When I went to bed that night, I thought, ‘We’re not going to make it, and that’s OK,'” says Wagner, 22.

“But then when I woke up I thought, ‘You know what, I’m gonna show them what a great horse this is,'” she adds. “I had nothing to lose.”

Going into day two, she knew they’d need to score an 8.346 to bring her two-day average up over 8.2.

After finishing their routine, the judges revealed their scores to her. Knowing they’d have be averaged and double-checked, Wagner took Wake Up to the barn, took his saddle off and gave him a bath before heading back to the arena for the awards ceremony.

Just as she arrived, the head coach of the United States team came up to her and said, “I guess we need to talk.”

“I didn’t think we’d won,” Wagner says. “I thought maybe he wanted to buy our horse.”

But then it was official — the judges announced her second-day score over the PA system: 8.36. That gave her an 8.23 for the weekend.

“When we heard we won we were jumping out of our skin,” she says of herself and her family. “My mom was jumping up and down and screaming.”

Her mom even ran over and hugged the U.S. coach.

“He’s a pretty stoic guy,” Wagner says. “So that was pretty funny to see him react to that.”

Wake Up was the only 5-year-old horse in the United States to score an 8.2 this year. He and Wagner will be the only American team at the championships in Verden, Germany.

It was the biggest victory in Wagner’s life.

“I’ve been riding since before I could walk,” she says, adding that she started when she was 3 years old. “In fact, my mom rode when she was pregnant with me, so we joke that I was riding before I was born.”

Wake Up has been her partner for two years now; they broke him when he was 3, as is customary. He stays in La Cygne and, during the school year, Wagner commutes back and forth from Lawrence every day to get in at least a half-hour of work with him.

Asked if her partner is excited about the win as she is, Wagner laughs.

“No,” she says. “He’s a breeding stud. Like most guys, he’s only worried about when he’ll get his next mare.

“I think he thinks I’m kind of a drag sometimes,” she adds. “I’m always making him work, and he thinks he should just be able to be a guy, drink his beer and watch Sports Center.”

In early July, Wagner and Wake Up will embark on the long journey to Germany. To get there, they have to drive to Kentucky, where they’ll meet up with a professional shipper who’ll haul him to New York. There, he’ll be loaded onto a plane and flown to Amsterdam, and then he’ll ride another truck to Germany.

“I’m a little nervous about it,” Wagner says. “You hear horror stories about horses freaking out.”

But she’ll be traveling with him.

“I think that’ll help, because Wake Up knows me very well,” she says.

After the championships, which take place Aug. 5, Wagner plans to finish her degree in biology and pre-med and continue her career as a rider.

Asked where it might take her, she says, “Of course, the Olympics is something you dream about. It’s been a dream of mine since childhood. It’s very feasible.”