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Culver and horse, Florian Culver sits proudly atop her award-winning horse, Florian.

Dancing with the Stars

Danielle Culver Hits Her Stride in the Dressage Ring

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The beautiful bay horse and its rider pranced into the ring to a musical composition of “Nightwish” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Known as a freestyle or “Kur,” they were competing in an age-old sport known as dressage where riderand horse present movements of beauty and grace as a team.

In the saddle was 18-year-old Danielle Culver, who is taking this specialized world in stride as she pursues studies at Sonoma State University in Studio Art. For the past 12 years, this Colorado native worked consistently with her dancing “team” — horses Florian and Gandalf — to pursue her love of this classic equestrian sport that is sometimes described as “horse ballet.”

Culver is the top rider in her region and made the team for the 2007 North American Junior/ Young Rider Championships in Lexington, Virginia. She was the 2007 3rd level Champion and 3rd level Freestyle Champion for the United State Dressage Federation (USDF) and the 2005 USDF 1st level Freestyle Champion.

Created hundreds of years ago by the aristocracies of Europe, dressage is the art of training a horse in obedience and precision of movement so that it is able to execute a series of complex maneuvers guided only by slight movements of the rider. Practitioners of this specialized art in the United States are equestrians whose trainers are most often found in California and Florida. Culver can be found every day in the hills north of the campus where her two horses are now boarded. She is studying and perfecting her art at Fairwind Farm on Crane Canyon Road in Santa Rosa. It is owned by lifelong friends of the Culver family, Sue Curry Shaffer and Dyke Shaffer. Fairwind Farm hosts international caliber riders and trainers.

Culver and Florian Culver has a very close relationship with Florian - as musch as she has to any member of her family

Sue Curry Shaffer has been a registered United States Equestrian Foundation dressage judge since 1977. For the past three decades she has specialized in training young riders resulting in much success. “I think Danielle has the ability and certainly the drive to become one of the best. She is dedicated and hard-working which is a must for this rigorous sport,” Shaffer says.

Culver feels that the equestrian spirit runs in her blood. Her mother, Jan Culver, competed in barrel-racing, a Western-style of show competition. It was her influence that led the SSU freshman began riding at the age of six.

This year, she is working with Florian, a handsome bay Westphalian (German Sport Horse), trying to build his muscles and strength so they can move up to the next level of competition. Culver is in training as well, learning how to develop a strong relationship with the horse so both will perform better. This is the heart of dressage.

“Gandalf and Florian are not just horses. They are family members and all of my family respects that,” says Culver. “It takes a daily effort to get my horse and me in tandem for the requirements of performance. It is a relationship of trust and faith. I not only feed, train, and care for their health, I shower them with TLC. It’s the best.” Gandalf, a black Friesian, was injured in May 2006, just before the upcoming season. She thought he would recover soon, but it was not to be. She still continues to ride Gandalf, even though he is no longer training for competition.

During the 2006 show season, while Gandalf was recovering, Culver was invited to be a working student in Sweden. It was there that she trained with Kristian Von Konsternia, a member of the Swedish Equestrian Team. He urged her to continue her dream, so she returned to Sweden a year ago and imported Florian for competition. He stands 17.2 hands high. With Danielle, who is 5’10, they are an impressive team.

GandalfAlthough no longer able to compete, Gandalf still maintains his elegance as he gallops through a field.

Culver has set many goals for herself. She hopes to become a professional trainer, as well as reach the Olympics and other high-level competitions, including the World Cup. “I want to be well known in the world of dressage,” she says.

Her next goal is to continue her studies at SSU, moving toward graduation and to qualify for the 2008 North American Junior Young rider championships in Parker, Colorado.