Discover or rediscover our ambassador riders through their stories. Today, we present Ilona Mezzadri, a young 17 year old rider who is doing her best to combine her studies and her passion.
“Making my horse better by getting better myself, that’s what interests me”
This is the story of a gifted rider who is also an excellent student. The story of a 17-year-old girl who doesn’t let herself get carried away by her success and wants to keep her feet on the ground. Ilona Mezzadri does not come from a horse-riding background: her father is an entrepreneur and her mother worked in communications before becoming an art teacher.
“My parents are calm and thoughtful, they taught me to question myself. When there’s a problem, it’s never the horse’s fault. They are not the kind that would say the horse doesn’t suit her, we’ll get another one! Making my horse better by getting better myself, that’s what interests me.”
Ilona enjoyed her first podium results in Shetland competitions from the age of 6. Then she became a mainstay of the French pony team, her favourite memory being the two bronze medals she won at the 2019 European Championships in Poland.With her fantastic Callas Rezidal Z, Ilona won many Grand Prix competitions over four years. But she almost prefers the Nations Cup, where she goes out in fourth and last place for France, with all the pressure of the team’s final score weighing on her shoulders.
“It is essential for me not to become confined to one environment, not to only think about horses”
Super-motivated by competitions, which take up all her free time, Ilona is still keen to pursue as normal an education as possible. A pupil at a high school in Paris with tailored timetables, she has about twenty other top-level sportsmen and women in her final year science class, all of whom are involved in very different disciplines:
“Tennis, swimming, golf, fencing, dance, ice hockey… a whole range of sports are represented, and we can compare our experiences. We talk about our upcoming events, our preparation and each other’s ways of coping with pressure. It is very instructive. I have never wanted to do distance learning, because it is essential for me not to become confined to one environment, not to only think about horses. For my psychological balance I need to keep a window open to the world.” A touch of normality in her life as a champion.
‟I think that at my age it is important to be close to your horses and manage them yourself”
The combination of studies with the daily training of five horses requires iron discipline on Ilona’s part. Up at 7am, she has an hour’s train ride from the Paris suburbs to her school in the fourteenth arrondissement. Classes start at 9 am and are very intensive.
“I have five sessions of fifty minutes in a row, without a break, until 1:30 pm. Then Ambre, my Mother, comes to pick me up by car and an hour later we get to the Clémenterie stables, in the Yvelines, where I train.”
On the way, Ilona tucks into salads and other dishes Ambre prepares, and she rides from 2.30pm or 3pm until the end of the afternoon. By the time she takes care of and covers her head horse Arcy Fou and the others, she is never home before 8:00 or 8:30 pm. “I have six horses in my stable and I don’t have a groom, except at the biggest sporting events. I think that at my age it is important to be close to your horses and manage them yourself, because it helps you learn about the animal.”
Her parents and her coach: an incredible support for Ilona
Ilona’s mother gave up her career to support her daughter’s vocation as a rider. “She manages all the administrative side of the competitions and helps me care for the horses. She’s fallen in love with it, even though she doesn’t ride. My parents and I are a proper team.” Eric Denarnaud, Ilona’s coach for the past nine years, is the other member of the “dream team”:
“We are very close, sometimes I just have to look at him to understand the information he wants to give me. Eric comes with me to all the competitions and encourages me to watch the great riders, to analyse my performances.”
He is also the architect of Ilona’s success on horseback, as the transition from the pony competition world can sometimes prove to be very tricky. ‟Eric made me ride horses as soon as I was eleven, so I wasn’t thrown when I had to make the switch.” She won the Grand Prix du CSIO Jeunes Cavaliers (Young Riders International Jumping Grand Prix) in Fontainebleau in 2020 on the graceful Arcy Fou, whose wide strip marking lends him the look of an Indian pony.
The baccalaureate is just another obstacle to be cleared
Ilona has some real challenges ahead in the 2022 season. On the sports side, the road will take her to the CSIO in Fontainebleau, and if all goes well, on to the European Championships in Oliva, Spain. As for school, this is the year of the baccalaureate. Ilona hopes to pass with honours, before going on to study economics. The young rider is approaching this milestone with the same calm and serenity as she would a show jumping event. After all, the baccalaureate is just another obstacle to be cleared!
It is with pleasure that we count Ilona among our Horse Pilot’s ambassadors & athletes and that we will accompany her in these projects. Thank you to her for sharing her experience with us.
Interview by Céline Gualde
Photos credits: Christophe Tanière