Lexington, KY - This is Mike Suchanek's first year competing in dressage, but you wouldn't know it from the results he's been achieving. At the US Dressage Finals Nov. 6-9, he showed he's just as comfortable going down centerline as any of his fellow competitors with decades more experience in the sport. Suchanek made the 16-hour trek from Minnesota to Lexington, Kentucky, to compete at the Finals with two young horses owned by Doug and Louise Leatherdale of Leatherdale Farms, and he certainly made an impression in his biggest show to date. He rode Fleur de Lis L, a 5-year-old Hanoverian mare (First Dance-EM De La Rosa, De Niro), to reserve championship honors in the Training Level Open division as well as the High Score Breed Award for an American Hanoverian competing at the national levels in the Open division. With Hero L, a 7-year-old Hanoverian gelding (His Highness-Waterlily L, Wolkenstein II), he took fourth place in the First Level Open Championship.
"The competition was hard, but it was fun," Suchanek, who has just 14 months of formal lessons under his belt, said of his experience at the US Dressage Finals. "I enjoyed competing against these professionals and showing off the horses for the Leatherdales. It was great to see everyone congratulating and supporting each other. I really enjoyed the camaraderie."
Putting on tall boots and a show coat to compete in dressage at the national championships might not have been in Suchanek's thoughts when he sent his resume to the Leatherdales four years ago: at that time, he had never ridden in anything but a Western saddle. But his hard work and natural talent have put him on the fast track.
He has rapidly learned the fundamentals of the sport, guided first by the Minnesota farm's performance horse manager, Jessi Lash, and then by international dressage trainer Alison Sader Larson. At the US Dressage Finals, Suchanek was rewarded with several collective marks of 8 for the rider's position and seat as well as correct and effective aids. At other shows this year, including the Great American/USDF Region 4 Championships, he and the Leatherdale horses racked up four perfect scores of 10 for leg yields and a halt.
"Mike is like a machine," Larson said. "If you tell him to do A, he does A. If you tell him B, he does B. It's like you type it into a computer and hit enter. It's that easy because of the feel and the horsemanship that you can't teach." Larson has taught countless riders, but she feels Suchanek stands out for his incredible aptitude and ability to immediately apply what she's explained to him. "I taught him how to do walk pirouettes on one horse one day, and I came back a week later, and all three of them had it," Larson said. "It's that easy. It's really hard to find any rider who can pick up on something like that."
Suchanek, whose mother teaches centered riding, grew up on a farm in southern Minnesota. He learned to ride on horses around the farm, and according to his mother, he was so comfortable in the saddle as a child that he would fall asleep while mounted. By age 15, he began buying horses and training them to resell. From the beginning, he focused on starting young horses under saddle and producing balanced, confident, uncomplicated mounts.
While Suchanek's work at Leatherdale Farms has taken him beyond the trail riding and small local shows he'd done before, his strong basics and natural ability made for a successful transition. He rides a couple of schoolmasters so that he can get to know the feel of the different movements and pass on that knowledge to the young horses he brings along.
"I always had a centered base of riding, so I think the transition from my plain old riding to a dressage purpose has been fairly simple for me," Suchanek said. "It's been amazing to have these types of horses to ride every day and learn from and teach them what they need to know to show. Having Alison as my coach has been great - she has kept the work fun and interesting, and I look forward to my lessons every week."
He is grateful for the chance to learn a new discipline and ride some of the most promising young horses in the country while doing so.
"I want to thank Doug and Louise Leatherdale for giving me this opportunity and trusting the team of us with the care of the horses," Suchanek said. "I'm very proud of the horses and very thankful to have Alison on our team."