Early in my professional career in the mid-70s, I had the chance to compete at the York Pennsylvania dressage show. I was aware that it was one of the oldest shows in the country but I had no idea that it was the first recognized dressage show in the United States. Today, when you go to Lamplight or you go to NEDA at Saugerties, or you go to Burbank, or if you go to Global in Florida, it's hard to believe that there was a time when there were no dressage shows in the U.S. Not only were there no dressage shows, but there were no rules and there were no tests. Someone had to start that. And that someone was Lilian Roye. The USDF is proud to give recognition to one of the true pioneers of dressage in this country. Lilian had that wonderful combination of drive and vision to introduce America to dressage competition.
A fascinating woman, Lilian was native of Denmark, immigrating in 1949 on a visa allowing her to work as a performer in "show business". She had already been a "featured artist" with her dressage horses in England when she signed a one year contract with Ringling Brothers. She logged 20,000 miles traveling with the circus and performing with her horses in the coveted center ring. For Lilian, working for the circus was like being on a paid vacation. Lilian was the All-Danish national jumping and dressage champion for six consecutive years. During her amateur career, she amassed the formidable total of six hundred trophies, among which was the challenge trophy for the most difficult jumping event in all Europe, The Grand Prix De Lucerne.
Lilian's mother ran a riding school in her native Copenhagen. At a very early age, she helped her mother pick out ponies for the school as they came off the boats at the dock. At the age of 6, she showed that she had a way with horses. Her favorite pony was unmanageable for nearly everyone else, yet very good for her. She often said that suited her just fine. Lilian was one of the most accomplished riders of the last century. At the tender age of 13, she won what is the Scandinavian equivalent of our Pan American games in tournament jumping. Until Lilian, Denmark had been placed last at every game. This accomplishment made her very famous in Denmark, to say the least.
At the age of 16, she went all by herself to Brussels and entered the open jumping competition there. The officials tried to dissuade her from competing. "Little girl, you cannot possible compete against all of these officers from different nations. Please withdraw." Lilian refused while the French army was already congratulating itself on winning the competition. However, Lilian surprised them all and won the class. At the awards dinner that night, the gallant French officers presented her with a beautiful bouquet of yellow roses and carried her around the hall in her chair.
After her circus career, Lilian settled in York, PA. There, she built the area's first indoor arena, opened her riding school, Bri-Mar Stables, and began teaching dressage. She remained at Bri-Mar until the winter of 1995, when the collapse of her indoor arena forced her to move her horse. She was 75 years old.
When she was told "Nobody wants a dressage show", the same spunk she showed in Brussels, drove her to put on her own show in 1955 at Bri-Mar. It was groundbreaking. It was the first American Horse Shows Association recognized dressage show held in the US. Riders came from as far away as Canada and Michigan. She hand-wrote all of the tests, which she translated from Danish, and, she judged the show herself. In February of 1958, Lillian founded the International Equestrian Organization (IEO); USDF's oldest established and charter Group Member Organization. In 1976, the club produced another milestone: the first FEI sanctioned dressage competition in the US. This time, the show was held at the York Fairgrounds.
She continued riding until she was forced to stop when she lost her horse to colic. Lilian Roye passed away at her home in York, Pennsylvania on July 12, 2001 at age 81.
USDF Historical Recognition Committee Chair Bettina Longaker says, "Every now and then a gem is found, Lilian Wittmack Roye is one. She held dressage shows in the 1950s, when the civilians were just starting to take over the sport and not many people knew what the word meant, much less how to hold a formal dressage show. Lilian is truly one of our founding mothers."
The current success of dressage competition in the US is a direct result of Lilian's efforts in growing the sport. It is an honor to have her inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame."