This freshman won’t just be horsing around

August 23, 2016 / by / 0 Comment

Lexi Donaldson, a top U.S. competitor in dressage, will miss her family -- and her two horses.

Lexi Donaldson, a top U.S. junior competitor in dressage, will miss her family — and her two horses.

By Karen Fernau
GCU News Bureau

Colorado freshman Alexis Donaldson expects to miss her family during her first few months at Grand Canyon University.

But, unlike other new students, she’ll be homesick for more than her parents and two brothers.

Her heart will ache for her two dressage horses, too.

“I know I will be busy at school, but it will be really hard to be away from them,” said Alexis, who goes by Lexi.

Lexi with her dressage horse, Power Play

Lexi with her dressage horse, Power Play

That is, until Family Weekend in early October when her parents, Paul and Jen Donaldson, drive the two horses to their new home in Cave Creek.

Once they are safe in their stalls, Lexi will resume her dressage training with Power Play, a 19-year-old Oldenburg, a breed known for its excellent gait and agility. The second horse, a 20-year-old former dressage competitor named Justice, is moving to Arizona to keep Power Play, nicknamed Player, company.

“They are best friends. We bring Justice to keep Player happy,” said Donaldson, who recently won a bronze medal at the 2016 North American Junior/Young Rider Championships in Colorado.

Donaldson began dressage, the equestrian version of ballet, at age 9 after a nagging back injury ended her promising gymnastics career.

Family friends in Michigan placed her on one of their dressage horses, and she has devoted her life to the sport ever since.

“Yes,” she said, “it was love at first sight.”

Donaldson’s goals are ambitious. She’s aiming to win the gold medal next year at the junior rider championships and eventually medal in the Olympics.

While attending GCU, Donaldson will continue the rigorous training schedule the sport mandates.  She’ll ride an hour a day at least five times a week and spend another hour or more taking care of the horses, whose “dorm” will be Bellissima Farms in Cave Creek.

Donaldson, who moved into her campus residence hall on Tuesday, suspects she will be the only dressage rider at GCU, a university she selected for its Christian values, compact campus, warm weather and bachelor’s degree in athletic training.

“I’ll start out majoring in athletic training, but if I decide to change, I’ll probably major in criminology,” said Donaldson, a well-rounded athlete who also played soccer in high school.

While living on campus, she expects to become an informal ambassador for dressage, educating those who know little about the Olympic sport.

Dressage is a precise and intricate equestrian sport traced back 2,000 years to the ancient Greeks. The International Equestrian Federation describes dressage as “the highest expression of horse training,” one in which the horse and rider perform a series of predetermined movements requiring a synchronized collaboration between horse and rider.

As Donaldson explained, the rider must perform a multitude of tasks using fingers, wrists, knees, posture and many other nuanced signals while appearing relaxed. In junior competition, the horse and rider must complete up to 27 movements in perfect harmony.

“The hard part is that you are doing so much at once, a million different things,” she said, “but must try to make it look like you are just enjoying the ride.”

Along with changing stables, Donaldson also will change trainers, replacing her longtime Colorado trainer with Bobbie Lynn McKee from Bellissima.

Donaldson has never been away from Player and Justice for more than two weeks. She’s now facing a two-month separation.

The family is staggering the move-in dates of Donaldson and the horses to avoid the extreme heat, believing it’s best for the horses to move from the mountains to the desert in cooler weather.

Although Donaldson won’t be able to ride her horses, their stalls are equipped with wireless video, so thankfully she’ll be able to watch them on her computer.

She’ll watch Justice comfort Player. And she’ll watch Player, a natural performer with an easygoing personality, beg for treats. His favorites? Watermelon and banana.

“They’re incredible horses, and they are family,” she said. “I’ll be glad when they are here.”

Contact Karen Fernau at (602) 639-8344 or

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