Two years to the date Holly Jacobson, rider and journalist attended the Para Equestrian World Equestrian Games qualifiers at the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois the Massachusetts based equestrian and aspiring para competitor rode in her first Dressage outing at the Gathering Farm Schooling show in Hamilton, MA on her co-leased Dutch Warmblood Nazar owned by Michele Doucette, and scored a 79.5% in her first dressage competition in the intro test. There is no doubt that her previous week spent in Maine at a USPEA organized clinic at Carlisle Academy Integrated Therapy and Sports at Spring Creek Farm with Dutch O Judge Hanneke Gerritson on the donated Lippizaner gelding Tito added to her conversion from hunter seat to dressage seat which has been her focus with Nazar and trainer Alix Szepesi. Read Holly’s account of her journey into the world of Dressage, about her clinic and Tito, and how she got there.
Borrowed Lippizaner Brings Rider Holly Jacobson From Jumping to Dressage
A borrowed mount proves intriguing at a two-day clinic with FEI “O” Judge Hanneke Gerritson from Holland organized by the USPEA www.USPEA.org and hosted by Carlisle Academy Integrated Therapy and Sports at Spring Creek Farm at Spring Creek Farm in Lyman, ME that attracted para riders from Michigan, Minn. Nebraska, Delaware, Mass. and Maine.
As an aspiring Para Dressage rider, I’m learning a lesson that rather than the limited route I expected, my efforts often inspire other people to help, offering their expertise, time, money or, most crucially, horses. The difficulty of tracking down horses to learn on and fancy enough to show, with the right mind and movement is a hard combination to find, much less afford.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d ever ride an actual flesh-and-blood Lipizzaner. These are fabled Austrian horses, not horses you find in real life, not in backyards in New Hampshire.
At age 23, a car fire resulted in the amputation of my right arm above the elbow and all the fingers on my left hand. Nerve damage weakened my right leg leaving my balance unsteady. Severe facial scarring left my confidence shattered. As a child, I rode hunt seat through my teen years, at local shows and hunter paces. I groomed on the A-circuit for top trainer Judy Richter in NY for several summers. After a few depressing attempts to ride again with a prosthetic hook after my accident, I shelved the idea of riding for 14 years.
When my sister moved to Prague in early 1990s, I quickly calculated it was a mere 100 miles from Prague to Vienna by train. Sacher Torte and the high alter of classical dressage where the famed white stallions danced in a Baroque Hall beneath chandeliers to strains of Mozart had always been on my must-do list.
Picking up tickets at the palace via an intercom in an imposing, arched wooden door, my sister remarked, “This feels like Oz.” In awe of the hallowed tradition of training handed down for 400 years, the purity of the breed, the setting, we watched early morning schooling with horses in all shades of gray.
In the formal evening performance, the buffed stallions’ synchronicity defined grace and precision. The concentration of the horses looked intense. Looking down from the balcony onto the broad white backs as they passed by gave us almost a rider’s perspective, a fleeting close-up from the saddle of their strength and beauty. Together with the in-hand levitating “airs above the ground,” the polished spectacle lived up to its fantastical, historical billing.
In 2000, I decided, now or never, to ride again. It took six months to post the trot in balance. With a patient, generous trainer, I returned to jumping and even showing. First on a wonderful lesson mare, Smooth As Silk, then by leasing a veteran Thoroughbred, North Atlantic, and finally, purchasing a Quarter Horse, Follow My Shadow. All three learned to neck rein easily. All were forgiving; well-trained steeds that brought me back to life.
My dressage awakening came in 2009 at the Para-Equestrian National Championships. Para means parallel to able-bodied riders not paralyzed riders although some are. The spectrum of disabilities astounded me, illness, accident, genetic defects, war injuries but it was the quality and standard of riding that truly impressed me.
Watching the dominate Europeans at the 2010 WEG only reinforced the belief that no matter how dire your physical circumstance might appear, horses transformed and elevated their riders. Para dressage creates a place to showcase the abilities of dedicated competitors. To witness the generous quality of the horses willing to partner with impaired riders is very moving. Achieving that unspoken bond of harmony is the reason we all ride.
Lippizaner on Loan
When I met Cyndy West, an instructor and program director at Carlisle Academy at a prior clinic, she mentioned her Lippizaner, named Tito, that she kept at home in Nottingham, NH as a possible mount for the upcoming para clinic. It sounded far-fetched but I needed to find an appropriate mount. Geo, the lovely dressage horse, owned by Shirley Benson, I have been privileged to lesson on for the past year with Anne-Marie Heilbron at Capstone Farm in Madbury, NH did not travel well. “Only after meeting Holly at the last para clinic did I think about sharing him and all the hard work to develop him into a solid citizen!” says West.
West bought Neapolitano Pecska, aka Tito, as a 9-year-old from owner/breeder Patrice Veilleux. She described him as “an explosive dramatic Training Level project that needed a lot of patience and trust.”
“He has come so far in his training and confidence since then. I have put a bajillion hours into hanging out with him, taking him every where, including Florida for a winter, trail riding, grocery shopping and the Dunkin Donuts drive-thru in order for him to gain nonchalance in his day to day life, and to earn his loyalty and trust.” West also owns younger sister Captiva, who with luck is on a journey toward becoming a lovely upper level dressage horse.
Tito had had the winter off and we only had one month until the clinic. With the rainy April weather and busy schedules, I fit in one quick 20-minute intro ride in West’s still wet outdoor ring. Trying to knot rubber reins for my one-armed riding habit was less than ideal. The now 15-year-old gelding had a big kind eye and felt willing. His Third Level training surpassed mine. My transition from hunt seat to dressage position feels so drastic, I feel like I’m learning to ride all over again.
I kept an open mind and trusted Cyndy’s judgment as a certified therapeutic instructor (NARHA) and knowing her horse. She would trailer him to Maine and school him around the facility. I liked that her background included Pony Club and event riding. She had also trained in England for her British teaching certification (BHSAI), and then trained in Switzerland where she got hooked on dressage. She currently trains with USDF Gold Medalist Jackie Smith.
Tito definitely sensed the energy the first day in the warm-up area. As soon as I mounted, Tito’s neck arched and he came round trying to please. Very alert, he took note of the sunspots at the end of the indoor but acted fine with the assembled chairs and people, a video screen and microphone.
Hanneke Gerritson wanted to observe how I ride with a simple knot in the rein and suggested fashioning a small leather bar, even a horseshoe shape to improve stability and control of my inside and outside rein.
Tito’s ears flicked back and forward, as we practiced neck rein and contact. He was listening and I could feel him thinking, waiting for me to signal or ask. We talked through the seat, weight and rein. He responded well to vocal praise too.
“Always think forward, with eyes forward you sit more straight and that translates to confidence,” instructed Gerritson. “Even on a long rein, walk forward, no holidays.”
Gerritson noted that it takes time for any horse to learn your lighter aids. That is one advantage para riders might have is that a weaker aid may translate as more subtle and work better from the horse’s point of view.
“Like a clock, every horse has a rhythm,” chimed Gerritson. “Feel when it’s not correct. Keep the rhythm in your head and think about it so you can correct it. Off balance leads to irregular steps.” Each day, our communication improved. We even impressed the judge with a fairly fluent one-handed shoulder-in.
“I’m surprised you could do it,” she said. “With more time together, you could really be in sync.”
As a testament to West’s training and his intuitive nature, Tito doubled as a clinic mount for Ellie Brimmer, from Minn., who has cerebral palsy that affects her left arm and leg. She described Tito as a true gentleman. “He was easy to get on bit, ready to work and do his job pleasantly, especially with a new person.” West couldn’t be prouder or more pleased.
I know now that Lippizaners can appear out of the New England woods but it still sounds like a fairy tale. I never wanted the prince on the white horse, I just wanted the horse. I’m grateful to Cyndy West for her generosity and matchmaking. There are plans for more Tito time, possible schooling shows and who knows, a potential long term relationship.
Holly Jacobson joined Dressagedaily after we met in 2010 at the Lamplight Para Equestrian Championships where she attended as a journalist. In addition to reporting on Para news, Jacobson is also a major contributor to our Who's Who profiles and other assignments. Stay tuned for Holly's progress and more of her features. MPH