The Equine Chronicle

Last week, we shared the exciting news that18-year-old dressage rider, Ayden Uhlir, had become the first equestrian athlete to be sponsored by sportswear superpower Nike. The news came as a surprise to many given Uhlir’s youth and  discipline of choice.

With huge names like Tiger Woods, LeBron James, and Serena Williams sporting the commercial-savvy swoosh, in sports like golf, basketball, and tennis, many wondered why Nike would choose young Uhlir to lead the charge into the world of equestrian sport.

Undoubtedly, the best person to answer that question is Uhlir herself. Luckily, the equestrienne reached out to EquineChronicle.com this week expressing an interest to share her experience with our readers!

Uhlir’s journey began at the age of five when her mother allowed a brief trip around the pen on a “very old horse” aptly named “Minimum Risk.” Like many young riders, Uhlir was hooked from that first time in the saddle.

“I fell in love with horses being in the saddle at that minute, and I haven’t looked back,” she says. “I had a pony when I was younger and took dressage lessons on my little Caspian ‘Borzoo.’ I eventually did the Arab circuit with my half-anglo Arab Paint Horse, Federalea, aka ‘Ollie.’ I had some success both regionally and nationally.”

Four years ago, Uhlir’s equestrian career received a huge boost when she was selected to participate in the first ever Robert Dover HorseMastership Week. The experience of mingling with riders and trainers like Jan Ebeling, Tina Konyot, Lendon Gray, Robert Dover, Courtney King-Dye and many others was life-changing.

“That week in Wellington, Florida showed me the world beyond Haslet, Texas,” she says. “During most of those years, I trained with Mary Mahler in Haslet and then with Bre Dorsett in Keller. I was a type of working student for both. I did a lot of barn chores and helped with barn management. I met with vets and dentists. I cleaned bird poop off ledges. I did whatever I was asked to do. I admit; I didn’t always do it right the first or even second time, but I learned!”

Three years ago, Uhlir met her equine soulmate in the form of her “dream horse,” Sjapoer. In 2012, the duo won the Junior National and North American Championship. The pair returned in 2013 and won the Young Rider National and North American Championship, a back-to-back feat never before accomplished by a young rider.

In 2012, at the age of 16, Uhlir left her home in Texas and moved to Washington State to train with USEF National Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg. In January of this year, Uhlir moved to Southern California to train with Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig. Uhlir still rides her beloved Sjapoer, but she’s also looking for a Grand Prix horse to compete with in the FEI U25 Grand Prix.

Many people wonder why Uhlir chose to approach Nike, of all companies, to obtain her first major sponsorship and how she managed to close the deal. The young rider spoke candidly about the experience.

“I really can’t speak to Nike’s motives for selecting me,” she says. “I’m going up there in April to meet the marketing teams, and I bet I will know more then.”

“I approached Nike because I love to wear their clothes! I do pilates, run, and work out in the gym. I also love their shirts to wear at riding lessons. The material works so well for the sweating we do!”

Uhlir also loves interacting with fellow riders and fans by way of her blog, The Dressage Spot, where she shares information about the sport of dressage, riding tips she’s picked up along the way, and fun accounts of her travels. Especially for our EquineChronicle.com readers, she has given her top five tips for breaking through barriers and making contacts in the horse industry.

“I have written extensively on my blog about how to obtain sponsors from my limited experience,” she says. “First, I suggest you think about your personality. What do you represent? Who are you? Then, find a unique way to contact possible sponsors that value those characteristics.”

“Then, secondly, keep contact. You would not believe how many times I have heard that people, who ask for help, don’t say thank you. They don’t follow up or keep the donor informed about what happened. I try to do this with even little things. For example, when I was raising money for the North American Junior and Young Riders Championships, we sold a lot of cupcakes. The lady at my mom’s office, who made them, was really sweet to donate the cupcakes for us to sell. I would always take time, not only to thank her, but to tell her how we did. How much money did we make from her cupcakes? How much more did we need? What did the people say about her cupcakes? I keep an address book and, I can tell you, for the rest of my life she will get Christmas cards from me thanking her.”

“Third, think outside the box. People may not know about dressage or be associated with equine sports but they may want to support your success. Be open to new ideas. Finally, apply for every scholarship and every education or travel grant you can find. All that helps to defer some of the costs and gets you to events in front of industry leaders and potential sponsors.”

Let’s recap. Although many riders in the performance horse industry are prohibited from utilizing sponsorships, Uhlir’s advice can apply to making contacts within the horse industry and developing relationships that can advance your equestrian career.

1. Think about your personality. Match your strengths with others who value the same.

2. Keep contact, even with little things.

3. Think outside the box and be open to new ideas.

4. Apply for everything.

Uhlir is the first to acknowledge that she wasn’t able to attain this level of success on her own. Like all equestrians, no matter the discipline, an important part of the team is their equine partner. The day after receiving the exciting news that she had snagged a Nike contract, Uhlir celebrated with her horse by giving him a Nike “brand” of his own.

“I was thinking of ways to let Sjapoer be a Nike athlete too,” she says. “I mean, he’s half of the team! I got some hair chalk that you use to put streaks in your hair. I like to joke that at 1,800 lbs. he is Nike’s largest athlete! The swoosh looks great moving on those big muscles! I may try the front right side too, as if he was wearing a shirt!”

“I don’t think I’ll do clip patterns, except for fun around the barn. It wouldn’t go over well in any competition. The rules state I can have the swoosh on my saddle pads, breast pocket, and head gear only!”

A big thanks goes to Uhlir for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer our questions. We wish her the best of luck in the future.

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