2003 USET Grand Prix Championships Contenders: Shelly Francis and Gala

Shelly Francis And Gala – The Best Piaffe

After her win with Gala in the Grand Prix at the ZADA Enterprises LLC WEF Dressage Classic, March 13-16 in Wellington, Florida, Shelly Francis of Woodstock, Vermont, announced that she not only intends to qualify for the USET Grand Prix Championships this year, but she is also aiming for the 2004 Athens Olympics. Proving her point, the next day, the duo went on to win the Grand Prix Special.

Shelly acknowledges that many people have told her that Gala has one of the best piaffes in competition right now. “It’s pretty. He’s got a very good piaffe. It was one of those things that he just took to,” Shelly noted. But though Gala has been performing a near-perfect piaffe since he was eight years old, Shelly did not rush him to the Grand Prix bring – the Rhinelander gelding is now 12 and has been competing at this level for a year. “I took a lot of time just to say, ‘Well, I’ve got time’. I know I’m 44, but I can take another year. I knew he was very talented and he is a very talented horse.”

Patricia Stempel of Oxford, Michigan, owns Gala, who was sired by Goldstrand and is out of Fabel by Foxtrot. The flashy bay with white stockings is 16.1 hands, and as Shelly points out, “I’m five feet one and a quarter, so he’s perfect for me.” Shelly has been riding Gala since he was three years old, but even as well as she knows his forté for piaffe, she can still underestimate the ease with which he can perform it and his sensitivity. In the Grand Prix in the Zada/WEF CDI, Gala had a bobble down the final centerline and Shelly took all the blame. “If I get after him too much with the leg instead of waiting a stride to see if he’s responding, then he tries to do too much and gets a little nervous, and that’s what happened at the end. I pushed him too much when I came back from that extended trot and then he got too anxious, and so that’s why he got a little bit funny with the last piaffe and passage at the end. I pushed at him too much instead of sitting there and relaxing another stride, because he does it all by himself,” she said, and added with a grin, “He’s kind of a funny horse.” Even with the mistake the pair earned 67.58% for the blue. They topped that in the Special the following day, taking the win with 68.08%.

Gala – Lighting a Firecracker

Shelly admits that she’s never had a horse quite like Gala, and that she learned a lot from her previous Grand Prix partner Pikant that has helped her adjust her training methods for this somewhat volatile partner. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes with how I approached the piaffe and passage in the past and with this one I tried to back off and just took my time. It took almost two years to make him a decent Grand Prix horse because he was so hot and eager that he would try to do too much. I would ride through those tests and just let him creep in the piaffe. I would never make him stay on the spot so that he’d be comfortable with it and casual. He’s very hot and he comes alive – like really snappy – so I had to try to keep him on the casual side.” Even in the warm-up she rarely practices changes, piaffe or passage because “he wakes up to it all by himself.”

Shelly started teaching Gala to piaffe when he was about five years old, doing a little work in hand, asking for only four or five half steps at a time, but did not start seriously training the movement until he was almost eight. And while the piaffe and passage came naturally to this horse blessed with effortless high knee action, the flying changes were a different story. “When we got to the twos and the ones, that was like lighting a firecracker,” Shelly laughed. “He was just a total nut.”

While Shelly was competing at the top levels with Pikant and earned grants to train in Europe with Johann Hinneman, Gala went along too and over a few years, the young horse also received help from the well-known master, “but mostly just normal working him through,” explained Shelly. “We did work with the changes a little bit, did tiny little bits with half steps, but he was very hot then so I had the impression that Johann wanted me to tone it down. So I just waited a little. It was worth the wait because he’s a blast to ride. You do have to fasten your seat belt. He goes a little ballistic here and there, but in the test, he’s so honest.”

Gala's Uniqueness

Gala is such an honest competitor now that according to Shelly, he scored a Grand Prix victory at this year’s Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI in Loxahatchee, Florida, despite her riding under less than optimal condition – she had a severe migraine and nausea and almost scratched. “He just carried me through that test. He could have totally taken advantage because I was really nauseous; I had a pounding headache. He was very good about doing everything.” The pair also won the Special that weekend.

The extravagant knee and hock action that Gala exhibits makes for an interesting picture in the pirouettes. “He wants to try to make the canter a little faster, and so now I’ve gotten him doing it a little bit slower and even when I’m riding it I feel like I’m doing something in slow motion,” explained Shelly. “It is cantering – he makes canter, it’s just that he really picks his front legs up and he does really bend his knees.”

Also unique to Gala is his body-builder type ‘cut’ appearance – his abundant muscles are visibly ‘pumped’ when he’s competing. “He’s very Thoroughbred-y,” noted Shelly. “I fork the food right to him, as much as he wants to eat, but he’s just a harder keeper than some and he gets a little leaner traveling even though he eats OK, and he drinks a lot of water. He’s just a high metabolism horse with a lot of energy. He looks quiet, but he’s a very alive horse, very alive.”

Future Destination: Europe - Athens

After Gladstone this year, Shelly would like to take Gala to Europe to train and compete, not only for his sake, but also for her own. “I would like to do a few horse shows over there and get a little bit more help for two or three months because I don’t get enough help on my own,” she said. “It always tunes me up and it lasts me a good year when I go and really concentrate on my own riding instead of working. I have to really work to earn a living and when I go to Europe and train, it’s to concentrate on me and my riding. There’s no way I don’t just get a lot better and I always come back much improved.” She has trained with USET Dressage Coach Klaus Balkenhol when he was in the States and would like to train with him in Europe. The trip would also give Gala further exposure to the European judges. “Only some of the European judges know him here now and I think they really like him because he shows a lot of talent,” said Shelly, who has been competing Gala in CDIs presided over by international panels, but feels that though he showed talent before, “it’s starting to come together now.”

In competition, Gala has not spent a lot of time out of the FEI ring – Shelly showed him only briefly at the lower levels. “I did a tiny bit of Third Level at one horse show with him, I did a little bit of Fourth Level with him when he was younger, and then I did a little bit of St. Georges/I-I and we made it into Gladstone that year by the skin of our teeth. He was really green and a little nervous with the changes still, but he was good; he came up tenth.” She waited a year before she brought him out at Grand Prix, then after only three or four competitions, they were one of the 12 pairs qualified for the 2002 Grand Prix Championship at Gladstone – which also happened to be the last US Selection Trial for the World Equestrian Games in Jerez, Spain. However, on the first weekend, Gala was injured and Shelly had to scratch. “He was too green to make a team horse that year but it was nice that he got to go there. I always like that.”

Shelly believes that by 2004, Gala will be ready for the Athens Olympics. Born and raised in Bar Harbor, Maine, she still has a bit of the true northeasterner’s accent and attitude and candidly states her determination, “Yes. It would be kind of nice, I mean, I’m going to try – what the heck, you know? That’s also why I’d like to go to Europe, so that I could get a little more tuned up, so that I could get a better shot at trying to do the Olympic thing.” The road to the Olympics is never a straight path, but each step of the way is an achievement, and on this day, Shelly is all smiles – “Everybody likes to win.”

Mary Hilton for DressageDaily.com