When 17-year-old dressage rider Lina Uzunhasan showed in March at the famed Indoor Brabant horse show in ‘s-Hertogenbosch, the Netherlands, she felt the flutter of butterflies in her stomach before she and her nine-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare Donna Ray entered the ring. But the butterflies weren’t because they were about to compete, she later explained.
“That had nothing to do with competition stress but was all about the excitement and happiness I had for competing for the U.S.,” said Uzunhasan, who grew up in Istanbul, Turkey, but was born in Houston, Texas, where her father Ali studied and lived for 13 years. The 2017 Indoor Brabant marked Uzunhasan’s international debut representing the United States.
“The U.S. is where my heart belongs,” she said. “I’ve always dreamed of the Stars and Stripes and just know that it is my country. It’s difficult to describe it exactly in words, but everything just falls in place perfectly!
“We still have a house [in the U.S.], but shortly after my birth we moved to Turkey, where I grew up in Istanbul and started riding.”
Uzunhasan got her first pony when she was seven. The mare was a nice pony, but also a typical mare and pretty stubborn, Uzunhasan recalls with a smile.
“She actually made me never want to have another mare again!” she said. “Dressage slowly but surely became a part of my life as I started training my own horses. The feeling of finally teaching a horse to do a flying change or to do a simple leg-yield was and is fantastic. It requires a great deal of connection with your horse, and the perfectionism in dressage is perfect for the excellence-seeking me. Gradually, dressage became my passion and it went really well, which I enjoyed, as I am competitive by nature.”
At the age of 14, Lina knew she wanted to be a professional dressage rider. “We agreed that we should broaden our horizons outside Turkey, go to Europe and find a real top horse for me,” Uzunhasan said, becoming emotional. “But all of a sudden my dad had been diagnosed with cancer. I was completely devastated and said to my dad, ‘Let’s forget about the horse. I don’t care. Your health is much more important.’ But my dad insisted: ‘This horse will come. I want you to live your own life and keep chasing your dreams!’”
Ali Uzunhasan had an operation and received experimental chemotherapy in an American hospital in Turkey. The treatment worked.
“He was extremely motivated to get better,” she recalled. “He wanted to come to watch me at the FEI European Dressage Championships for Young Riders & Juniors in Arezzo (Italy). And he did!”
In Arezzo, Lina rode Donna Ray, the horse she had been looking for and finally found.
“We rode over 10,000 kilometers and tried over 60 horses in Germany, Belgium, and Holland,” she explained. “None of these was a mare ‘til somebody showed me Donna. At first, I was not interested. No mares, I had promised myself. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try. Once I sat on her and had ridden one round I said to my mum, ‘Could you please call dad? This is the horse I want!’”
A year later, Uzunhasan approached famed dressage rider and trainer Anky van Grunsven.
“We knew Anky had a fantastic track record as a trainer,” Uzunhasan said. “In July 2015, Donna moved to Anky’s stables, and, after that, I moved to the Netherlands with my parents. The emigration was a complicated process, but we’re happy we did it.”
They left behind a country that has seen growing political turmoil.
“For sure, we are happier here than in Turkey,” said Lina’s mother, Pelin. “We already had plans to move to the U.S., so for us it’s no sacrifice. We support Lina and follow her dream.”
So far, that dream is progressing well. At the 2016 FEI European Dressage Championships for Young Riders, Juniors & Children in Oliva, Spain, Uzunhasan and Donna Ray earned good reviews—and scores—to finish with a team silver medal and a fourth individually.
On the recommendation of the German judge Katrina Wüst, Uzunhasan received an invitation to a clinic at the Global Dressage Forum in Hagen, Germany.
At the end of 2016, she made her debut at the Young Rider level a winning one by finishing first at CDI Den Goubergh – Roosendaal in the CDIY Young Riders Team Test in Roosendaal, the Netherlands. This year also has started well under her new national flag.
Uzunhasan, the youngest competitor in the international field at ‘s-Hertogenbosch, achieved a top-10 finish and also introduced her new freestyle at Intermediate I level, earning praise from Tineke Bartels, former team youth trainer of the Netherlands and co-commentator during the show.
“I really enjoyed this—all this from a rider who is so young compared with these experienced senior riders!” she said.
Uzunhasan may be a teenager, but she has huge ambitions. This year, she will not only be focusing on her studies and her sport, but also on her own stables. Construction will start this year, and in the future these stables might also make a nice base for American riders who want to compete in Europe. In the meantime, she’s already achiever one major ambition—to ride for the U.S.
“It was always the plan to start riding for the United States,” Uzunhasan said. “I feel more American than Turkish but may not have taken the easiest path. As a Turkish rider, it would be easier to fulfill my dream: competing at the Olympic Games. Nevertheless, I don’t want to be at the Games just to participate. I now get the opportunity to compete against top-class competitors and thankfully seize this opportunity.”