Four years ago, Kate Baldino and Maria Muzzio were 17-year-old first-timers on the U.S. team at the FEI Endurance World Championships for Young Riders and Juniors. This year, they’re headed to Pisa, Italy, for the 2019 edition of the championships as good friends looking forward to their last competition as Young Riders.
In June, Kate, from Marietta, Ga., and Maria, from Clifton, Va., took part in the United States Equestrian Federation Mandatory Training and Evaluation Session for the 2019 U.S. Endurance Young Rider Team, and the U.S. Chef d’Equipe Mark Dial paired them up for the mock ride. Their mounts, Arabian geldings Traction and Landroval, were both bred by Dr. Tom Sayvetz and worked well together. “They went perfectly together,” Maria said. “Sometimes when you put horses together, there might be some ear-pinning or problems, but they went down the trail together with their ears perked, happy as could be.
“Kate and I really bonded in 2015 at the World Championships, and it’s cool that we’re doing our last Young Rider ride together,” Maria noted. “It’s fun that now we’re the two older girls, the role models for the younger ones.”
“It’s definitely emotional,” said Kate. “I’ve loved being able to represent the U.S. It’s brought me so much joy to have the privilege of doing that. I’m really excited to go and have a great day with my teammates.”
This is the first championship for both horses, who are both nine-year-old geldings. Kate is riding Traction for his owner, Melody Blittersdorf, while Maria’s mother, Natalie Muzzio, owns Landroval.
Kate, who doesn’t own a horse of her own, has a special relationship with the Blittersdorf family of Hartland, Vt. “I’m the luckiest young rider that I’ve been able to learn from them, work with them, and have them as friends,” she said. “They’re not just horse owners who let me ride their amazing horses; they’ve been friends to me in all aspects of my life. I spend most of my vacations on their farm with them and the horses. I’m able to spend time working with the horses and getting to know them so that I’m comfortable with them and I feel like I have that relationship with them.”
Blittersdorf does most of the training and conditioning work on Traction while Kate is in school at the University of Georgia, but Kate has developed a solid bond with him, as well. “What I love most about him is his work ethic and his kindness,” she said. “A lot of horses that have it in them to want to compete and win over 100 miles don’t have that softer side to them. Traction does. He loves to work really hard for us, but he also loves to be patted and scratched. That makes him really special to me.”
In addition, Kate values Traction’s intelligence while on the trail. “A lot of horses are so competitive that if you tell them that it’s time to rest for a bit and let their riding buddy lead, they get really worked up,” she explained. “But whether he’s leading out in front or working in the back and resting for a minute, Traction is equally happy. He knows that when he’s out front he’s supposed to be brave and move out and be a leader, and he knows that when he’s in the back, it’s time to settle in and take a minute to rest. That’s so important on a ride.”
Maria also has a long-distance relationship with Landroval, as her mother, Natalie, does the majority of the conditioning work with him in Virginia while Maria is in school at Colorado State University. Maria is also a committed track-and-field athlete, competing for CSU in shot put, discus, hammer throw, and weight throw. “My coach has been super supportive; he understands that track isn’t my only hobby,” Maria said. “The sports are similar, in that with track, I’m a thrower, so we compete individually, but you gain points for your team. In endurance, you compete as an individual because you’re riding by yourself, but if you finish, you contribute to your team.”
The Muzzio family has owned Landroval since he was a yearling. “He’s the one horse I’ve trained the most,” Maria said. “I’ve developed a great bond with him. He’s kind of a goofball, and I love that. I really think he’s got that special something in him. He’s only nine, so he’s got a little bit of baby brain, but once you get in competition, he is all business and he will go down that trail.”
The course in Pisa, Italy, is expected to be relatively flat with a sandy surface, while Landroval is more used to technical courses. “We just had to change up our training a bit because we’re more used to riding in the mountains on rocky terrain,” Maria said. “He’s been cantering more and working to be able to keep a long canter. He should do well. I’m going to do what I know he can do and get through it safely and finish.”
Maria is an equine science major with a minor in business administration and hopes to become a farrier after graduation next year. “I’ve done my internship with Jeff Pauley in South Carolina,” she said. “I learned so much from him, and I’ve worked with a few other farriers. I’ll keep riding, too. I don’t think there’s anything that would stop me from competing in endurance. We’ll have to see if I’ll be competing internationally as an adult, but I’ll definitely still be competing.”
Kate is studying biology and horticulture at the University of Georgia and plans to pursue a master’s degree in plant pathology after graduation in May. “I’ve spent the past few summers working for plant pathologists at different universities, and it’s a really interesting field,” she said. “You’re working hands-on with the crops, trying to make decisions about what can make things better in the future. I’m pretty passionate about that.”
While she’s continuing her studies, Kate anticipates taking a step back from international competition. “After I get my master’s and get started on my career, I can see myself competing again internationally and giving it 100 percent again,” she said.
Both Maria and Kate appreciate that the World Championships in Italy is their final competition as Young Riders. “Representing the U.S. is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, whatever sport you do,” Maria said.
To learn more about the sport of endurance, visit US Equestrian's endurance and Arabian pages. In our online Learning Center, watch an overview of endurance. Members also can learn about the history and heritage of the Arabian horse in the Learning Center.
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