Natalie Pai and Unlimited at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (Photo courtesy of Susan J Stickle)
Natalie Pai, age 20, and her dressage trainer Kevin Kohmann, a trainer at Diamante Farms in Wellington, Florida, have a lot in common. They have both broken the industry norm to achieve impressive accomplishments in the sport they love at a young age.
Last month, Pai won the Reserve Championship in the Brentina Cup at the 2017 Dutta Corp. U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in Gladstone, New Jersey aboard Unlimited, a 16-year-old KWPN gelding (Jazz x Clairudith, Winckenburgh) that she is leasing from P. J. Rizvi and Peacock Ridge, LLC. She also competed on Fritz San Tino, a 15-year-old Hanoverian gelding owned by her mother Melanie Pai.
Natalie Pai is the youngest competitor in history to bring two horses to compete at the Festival of Champions, and the youngest to qualify for and compete a horse in the Intermediate I division of the Festival of Champions. Like his protégé, trainer Kevin Kohmann started racking up successes at a young age. He is the youngest in history to pass the Bereiter in Germany at the age of 18, the youngest to earn the title of Master Bereiter, and to earn his German gold medal.
Kohmann said that he and his fellow trainer at Diamante Farms – Devon Kane, who owns Diamante Farms alongside her mother, Terri Kane – can easily relate to young, driven riders. Riders who have such a strong love for dressage that they are determined to achieve momentous success even at a young age especially resonate with Kohmann and Kane. After all, the Diamante Farms trainers themselves were highly successful in the Under 25 division not so many years ago. Kohmann and Kane are also able to offer a variety of methods to teach their riders. “We use many teaching methods,” Kohmann said. “We stick to classical methods, but we also acknowledge that all roads lead to Rome. That’s how Devon and I train everyone – we understand that every horse and rider has a different learning style, and we try different approaches to achieve goals.”
Pai, who has been serious about the sport of dressage for the past five years, has been working with Kohmann for four years. She followed him to Diamante Farms when he moved there three years ago.
“The best thing about Kevin is that he is such a good rider and a good coach,” she said, adding that since she is a visual learner, it’s helpful for her to watch him ride so that she can copy him. “Sometimes, when I don’t understand something, it’s really important for the way I learn for someone to show me how to do it rather than tell me how to do it.” Pai’s mother, Melanie Pai, is also a dressage rider who grew up in the show ring. She agreed that her daughter clicks with Kohmann’s teaching style.
“He’s really good with Natalie,” she said. “He’s a perfect match for her personality. He’s funny, and Natalie is a prankster and hysterically funny, so they can really ham it up together. Because he’s young, everything is very fresh with him. He has a lot of ways of explaining things. He keeps coming up with a different approach.”
The younger Pai said that her mother was probably even more excited than she was when she clinched the Reserve Championship at Gladstone. She doesn’t plan to change trainers any time soon – although recently Devon Kane gave Pai some lessons while Kohmann was competing, and Pai found her time with Kane invaluable. Both Kane and Pai are petite, and the trainer gave the younger rider some valuable tips on how to adjust her technique for her size.
“I think it was really helpful for me to train with someone who understands my body mechanisms,” she said. “She helped me with technique, especially with my seat. For example, in the pirouettes I used to sit back a little bit, and she told me to hinge my shoulders forward a little bit. That really helped. She also said that rather than using your strength to take the outside rein, push him more into the outside rein. That was helpful because I am smaller, so by pushing him into it, I don’t have to use quite as much strength. I made a lot of improvements with her.”
The Pais keep five horses at Diamante Farms in Wellington, Florida, and Natalie rides three of them. She keeps busy with her six-day-a-week riding schedule with Kohmann, while also attending Palm Beach Atlantic University, where she is majoring in Business Management.
“I think it’s quite incredible what she has accomplished with Unlimited in the short amount of time she has been riding him,” Kohmann said, explaining that she had only leased the gelding for five months before she had her major win at Gladstone. “Going from riding Prix St. Georges in Young Riders to the Grand Prix is a huge jump. I remember this well, as it’s not so long ago that I made that jump myself. There’s a lot more going on in the Grand Prix. It’s a complete game changer from Prix St. Georges – a different sport. She has learned a lot in a very short time.”
Pai counts herself lucky that she has such a great support system in her parents, Kohmann, and Kane. In fact, she had a fan club watching her at Gladstone, including Kohmann, her mother, father, aunt, and groom Emilija Anderson, as well as friends watching through the live stream.
“It’s really nice to be able to talk about dressage with my mom,” Pai said. “I think that’s really important. My mom can give a lot of pointers and I think she enjoys it. When I won the 2015 North American Young Rider Individual Gold medal at the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC) [aboard Fritz San Tino (Falkenstern 11 x Wanessa, Wanderbursch 11)], she was sobbing.”
Melanie Pai said her main advice to her daughter is to do her best but to enjoy it. “I always tell her to smile and have fun,” she said. “If it’s not fun, why are we doing this? Natalie has learned so much. She has the ability to feel and fix things. It’s been fun to watch her growth in becoming a real, professional rider.”
She credits Kohmann and the atmosphere at Diamante Farms for helping her daughter excel in dressage. “I enjoy the Kanes,” she said, adding that she has known the facility’s owners from when they all lived in Texas years ago. “They run a top-notch, professional barn. It’s a very calm, relaxed atmosphere. We are good friends. They move the horses along at their own pace; nobody is pushing them. It’s a great atmosphere to work in.”
She was thrilled when her daughter won the Reserve Championship at the Festival of Champions. “It was a proud moment,” she said. “It’s amazing to see your own child achieving such great results. Obviously you are on cloud nine; you are over the moon. To come out and achieve Reserve Champion the first year is phenomenal.”
The younger Pai hopes to return to the November U.S. Dressage Finals in Kentucky and to compete in the Brentina Cup again. “I have five years left in the U25 division,” she said. “And, I’d like to do Young Riders again. NAJYRC is a great experience.”
Her long-term goals include the Olympic Games, the World Equestrian Games, and the Reem Acra World Cup of Dressage. And through it all, she plans to stick with Kohmann and Diamante Farms. “Devon and Kevin inspire me,” she said. “To be able to watch Devon and Kevin excel in competition and in business from such a young age is amazing.”
Many who follow the sport of dressage have heard U.S. Olympic icons Robert Dover and Debbie McDonald refer to the “pipeline of dressage” as the future of the sport in America. Riders like Natalie Pai and trainers like Kevin Kohmann and Devon Kane are not only part of that pipeline, but are also encouraging other young equestrians who dream of competing at high levels to ride along with them.