California Riding Magazine • April, 2014

Talented youngster
Ayden Uhlir brings Nike
into the equestrian field.

by Kim F. Miller

photo by Lisa Uhlir

Ayden Uhlir would like to do for dressage what Shaun White has done for snowboarding: bring it into the mainstream in a big way. It may sound a lofty goal for an 18-year-old, but that's nothing new for Ayden.

The back-to-back North American Young Rider gold medalist chose to be home schooled starting in seventh grade in order to spend more time riding. She moved from her family's Texas home to Seattle the summer before her senior year of high school to be near her coaches. Last fall, she moved to Southern California to be better situated in the West Coast hotbed of the sport.

photo by Lisa Uhlir

photo by Lisa Uhlir

Ayden has long known that going all the way with dressage is her life's mission, but her goal of helping the sport along the way is a more recent aspiration. It was spurred by her March 17 signing with Nike as a sponsored athlete, the company's first equestrian to be so designated.

The deal resulted from gumption and a can-do attitude any parent dreams to instill in their child. "I have come to a point where I needed to reach out and find potential sponsors," Ayden explains of hitting that junction where abilities and potential in an expensive endeavor outstrip the family budget. Not to mention the fact that "I'm 18 and I know I should have a job, but that's hard if I want to continue my riding education the way I do. I know I want to be in dressage for the rest of my life and I needed to find a way to do it."

photo by Dr. Julie Harrelson Stephens

So she sent "sponsor books" to "everybody and their mother who could possibly sponsor me," she recounts. She got a little advice from her father, who works in sports marketing, but mostly, "I just winged it." In words and pictures, the books told her story with horses so far, her future dreams and her plans for fulfilling them.

Two months passed with no encouraging responses. Then one day a La Jolla-based Nike representative called to say she'd be out to meet Ayden in two hours. "I was freaking out," Ayden laughs. "It's a good thing I'd worn a nice outfit and I had some make-up lying around. I cleaned everything in sight." Her "whole spiel" when the rep arrived included meeting Sjapoer, the 15-year-old Cantango son Ayden has developed and campaigned for four years.

She was originally told that Nike "wanted to help me out" but would not be sponsoring her because the sports giant didn't make equestrian apparel. Ayden was grateful at the prospect of Nike gear for cross training and breathable shirts to wear for schooling. Most of all, she was thrilled to get such a big bite on her sponsorship pitch.
A week later she got word that Nike did indeed want to sign her as a sponsored athlete. That was last fall and it's taken a few months for the contract to be finalized. There are some details Ayden is not free to discuss and, moreover, it's new territory for her and for Nike, so it's hard to say where things will go. A financial incentive for winning medals is part of the agreement and certainly there will be swooshes galore.

photo by Lisa Uhlir

Nike directed Ayden to several sports agents and she hit it off best with New York-based Sheryl Shade, who represents several Olympic athletes through Shade Global. Ayden's appeal is beyond that of equestrian, Sheryl states. "She's an accomplished athlete and an extraordinary young woman and I think that's what caught Nike's eye. They try to go after the full athlete, so it's not just about what they do on the playing field. She's vibrant, intelligent and she's giving her all for her sport." Ayden also takes her fitness seriously, incorporating yoga and Pilates into her fitness routine. And it doesn't hurt that she's a very attractive young woman.

photo by Lisa Uhlir

Although Nike's sponsorship is not of the horse ownership nature familiar in high performance equestrian sports, Sheryl is confident it will open many doors for Ayden and significantly defray the cost of campaigning at the highest levels. Perhaps not immediately, but it may not take too long. "In many people's eyes, Nike epitomizes the pinnacle of any sports association. Having an affiliation with them is to be seen as the best at what you do, and also outside of your competition arena and what you do in your daily life."

Sheryl cautioned Ayden that she is taking on a lot as a role model and an ambassador for a sport that's relatively new to mainstream sponsors. "It's a lot to put on her shoulders, but if she does a good job I think it will open doors for many that come behind her."

Ayden would love to help the sport. She'd love to represent the States in the Olympics. But what's most appealing about Ayden, for Nike and other potential sponsors, is that "she loves the riding and the horses," Sheryl asserts.

New California Girl

Ayden moved to San Diego last fall. She'd been working in Kirkland, WA, with USEF Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg, who relocated to Southern California at the same time.

Not surprisingly, she's loving the weather. "It's so beautiful and sunny!" She's training with Christine Traurig at Albert Court in Rancho Santa Fe, where she makes the most of watching Christine and stablemate Guenter Siedel work with their horses.

photo by Lisa Uhlir

Last fall, Ayden was targeting Sjapeor for the Brentina Cup and perhaps the 2015 Pan Am Games, but she's decided that may not be in the cards for him. The latest plan is to continue improving her own riding skills so that she'll be best able to progress with her next prospect, whoever that horse may be and wherever he comes from.

College is on the agenda, too. "My mom is a college professor, so there's no way I'm not going to school!" she notes. Visualization is a key part of Ayden's training routine thanks to productive work with sports psychologist Dr. Jenny Susser. It's a field Ayden considers a viable career path and one she could manage along with her equestrian ambitions. She'll most likely start toward her college degree in the fall.

Getting back to Ayden's Shaun White hopes, it's not arrogance, but excitement that spurs her to think and dream big. "This is not just about me. Look what he did for snowboarding. He caused other sponsors to put his sport under that microscope and ask, 'Why don't we sponsor some of these riders?'

"That's what dressage needs is attention."