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AYER — High school junior Kariel Swanfeldt has earned a room full of horse riding awards over the past 11 years but all of them were topped recently by her first national decoration.

The United States Dressage Federation named Swanfeldt its 2009 Youth Volunteer of the Year in late November, engraving her name on a trophy in the USDF Hall of Fame and awarding her $750 in scholarships and gift certificates.

Swanfeldt traveled to Texas to accept that award at the USDF’s annual gala. Afterwards, Swanfeldt said the award was both unexpected and very special. It comes amid a two-year period where she’s been largely absent from competitions while training a new horse, and after a summer spent largely volunteering at events as a way to stay in touch.

“It’s the fact that couldn’t show with my youngster,” explained the 16-year-old. “I still wanted to be out there and be involved.”

“I enjoy what I do,” she added, at another point. “It’s not like ‘ugh, I have to volunteer’; it’s like ‘Yay!’, I’m off to volunteer.'”

Dressage is a highly technical form of horse riding competition, which centers on the horse being put through a variety of paces and steps — all without any visible movement from the rider.

Swanfeldt said the secret is developing a strong bond between horse and rider, along with years of dressage and show training for the horse. She knows firsthand, having spent much of the past four years training her North American Spotted Draft mare, Viva Las Vegas (Vegas, for short.) Vegas was eight months old when they got her, and Swanfeldt is hoping she’ll be ready to join the “schooling” dressage circuit at some point this year, saying Vegas has a lot of potential, but is still learning the ropes.

It takes a great deal of patience to train a horse for competitive dressage, agreed Kariel’s mother, Karin, who credited her daughter with showing a lot of character through what could easily be a difficult transition. Kariel started riding at age five, and was competing in a regional youth circuit by age nine, eventually becoming the fifth highest ranked junior rider in the region and winning a year-long championship blue ribbon from the Charles River Dressage Association in 2007.

However, around that time Kariel was starting to outgrow her horse, a 21-year-old Polish Arabian mare named Fascination, who is what’s known as a “Schoolmaster” in the dressage world, meaning she’s trained and ready for competition, provided that bond with the rider is established.

Facing those circumstances, Karin said most riders on the dressage circuit would simply pay $25,000 to $100,000 for another schoolmaster horse. Instead, Kariel took the path less chosen, opting to train a new horse from the ground-up. While that’s kept her daughter away from the competitions in the past couple of years, Karin said she’s been able to find some sliver linings to that potential hurdle.

“This was difficult turn for a teenager, from all the blue ribbons and tons of accolades, to raising a baby,” said Karin. “But yet with the volunteering, she was able to stay in the circuit, and she’s made something of every opportunity she’s been given.”

The majority of Kariel’s volunteer work was an assistant to event secretaries who are responsible for putting together and hosting competitions across New York and New England. In practice, it involved everything from helping competitors register to handling money, and Kariel said it was a great learning experience.

All told, Swanfeldt was credited with over 200 hours of volunteerism by the New England Dressage Association, which lauded her work ethic and sense of duty in a release announcing the award.

“The type of work that she volunteers for is not necessarily the face in front of the crowd, or the job that will get her noticed by the clinician; however, it is critical work that needs to be done and Kariel performs it consistently with a pleasant personality and willing heart to help,” said NEDA board member Sue McKeown, who nominated Swanfeldt for the award.

At this point, Kariel is continuing to work six days a week with Vegas, and is very much looking forward to the 2010 dressage season, which begins in April. Whether it’s riding or volunteering, she plans on traveling across much of New England to part of that scene again this year.

“I basically live out of my suitcase during the summer,” she said.