FORT LEE, Va. (Nov. 21, 2013) -- An Air Force instructor stationed here earned national honors when she and her horse, Mason, placed during the U.S. Dressage Finals Nov. 7-11 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.

Staff Sgt. Amanda Wille, an Air Transportation and Hazardous Material Course, Air Force Traffic Management School, ranked 10th place in the First Level during the finals.

Dressage – the French word for training – is a competitive sport where a horse and its rider perform a series of movements that demonstrate skill, concentration and extensive training.

“Dressage is similar to the first part of the calvary test, dating back centuries where they would perform for a king and queen to show they have control of their horse,” said Wille. “They would do a specific pattern to show the king and queen that they could release them to go out and fight wars.

“Today, it’s an Olympic sport,” she continued. “People refer to it as ‘dancing with horses’ online.”

Wille has been in the Air Force for eight years and has been stationed at Fort Lee since April 2011. She’s trained in dressage for nearly 18 years. She found 8-year-old Mason in England during her last tour and decided to train him once she returned from overseas.

“Mason’s breeding line has primarily been jumpers with a bit of dressage,” she said. “I was going to bring him over (back to the states) and jump him, but he loves dressage. He’s fancy, and he has a huge ego.”

After finding out about this year’s U.S. Dressage event, the first such competition in nearly 30 years, Wille set up a training plan with her coach, Debbie Rodriguez out of Williamsburg.

“I’ve been doing dressage long enough that I can do the majority of the training, but it helps to have someone on the ground,” she said. “Debbie has been my biggest support since I got here in regards to being the person who sees what I can’t see.”

To earn a spot at the finals, Wille spent all year practicing with her horse to prepare for the regional event and was awarded with a score high enough to earn nearly an instant invite to the finals.

“At regional’s, everyone was screaming ‘we’re going to Kentucky,’ because it’s a huge deal to ride in the Kentucky Horse Park,” she said. “That’s where the world games are – it’s just huge. Everyone was just thrilled.”

At the finals, more than 300 horses competed. In Mason’s First Level category, there were 23 other animals.

“There are several different levels a horse can compete at, and since Mason is still learning and is considered a young horse at 8, he was in the first level,” she said. “You compete at a level that the horse can perform. You progress though the levels based on the speed the horse can hold themselves, muscularly and mentally. Dressage is a lot of mental work for them. We ask a lot from the horses to be calm when they aren’t supposed to be calm. The wind may be blowing, flags are flying and there are people everywhere.”

Mason – a cold-intolerant horse – can be unpredictable at times, said Wille, and she wasn’t sure how he would compete during the event.

“He can’t stand the cold,” she said. “He internalizes stress – which is weird to say about a horse – and is prone to stomach ulcers, so a 9-hour trailer drive from Virginia to Lexington with a horse that’s not eating or drinking much is rough. I didn’t know what temperament I would have to deal with at the show.”

On Friday, Mason saddled nicely, she said. On Saturday, they were scheduled to ride at 8:22 a.m. and it was a cool 38 degrees out.

“I didn’t know what horse I would have once I got into the ring – he’s very unpredictable,” she said. “He was phenomenal. He went in and did his job – he performed. There were a couple of flukes here and there that cost us a better score, but he did great.”

After earning the 10th rank for their level, Wille said it didn’t really register for her until later.

“It didn’t sink in that I placed 10th in the nation until after I got home,” Wille said. “My whole support team – coach, mother, groomer – were all ecstatic.”

The status of saying her horse was ranked 10th in her level is a big deal, said Wille.

“Just getting the invite says a lot about the skill,” she said. “It’s huge just to be able to say you went there.

“Horses are so unpredictable that I don’t know if there will ever be another opportunity for me to go to another event like this,” she continued. “It’s very selective. You have the best of the best there.”

Although Wille doesn’t know what’s in the future for her and Mason, she said she’s proud of what they have accomplished so far. Currently, she’s planning to move him to the Third Level for training next year, and hopefully push further through the levels as he matures.

“I don’t think he’s Olympic-caliber, but I think he could definitely compete at the international level,” she said. “I did all the training on him. I took a horse that knew nothing, never saddled and didn’t know right to left to this stage, and that is huge. The future is endless.”