She's represented the United States at the Pan-American Games in Argentina, performed a Phantom of the Opera-themed Pas de Deux in Las Vegas and won the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships three years in a row, but Elizabeth Ball has never competed at Gladstone (USET Headquarters, NJ) in the National Dressage Championships. She can now add that to her list of accomplishments. The Cardiff, California-based rider is among the competitive field vying for the 2014 Tim Dutta/USEF Intermediaire I National Championship at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions in New Jersey. Riding her own 9-year-old, 16.3-hand Dutch gelding Avanti (Tuchinski x Fleur), Ball finished fourth in the Prix St Georges with a 70.947 in a field of the top 17 horses in the country, a good start for the weekend. A horse she describes as “big and powerful and elastic,” Avanti is just one horse in her growing stable whose career she is creating.
But it is not just the art of Dressage Elizabeth devotes her creative time to.
Ball loves the process of developing horses. With her American-bred Hanoverian Selten HW (Sandro Hit—High Princess, Hohenstein), whom she acquired as a 3-year-old, she made history at the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships. After Selten won the 4-year-old division with Hilltop Farm trainer Michael Bragdell in 2008, Ball took the reins and he went on to win the 5- and 6 year-old championships as well. Despite their successes, she wasn’t convinced he was the horse for her, and at the 2012 Equine Elite auction in the Netherlands, he sold for a record-breaking 500,000 euros to British team rider Fiona Bigwood.
The latest addition to her Cadence, LLC, is the 11-year-old Westfalen mare Liaison (Laomedon x Farenze), who made her Grand Prix debut with Ball earlier this year. The pair was invited to Gladstone as well, but as it’s a new partnership, Ball opted to keep her home.
She continues to grow her stable of talent with the 7-year-old, 17-hand Dutch gelding Caravaggio (Winningmood x Tanni), whom she calls “my little boy wonder. He’s so athletic.” She also owns the 7-year-old Westfalen-licensed stallion Rausing (Rock Forever x Dimension), whom she bought as a 3-year-old, just weeks before he won his stallion testing with record scores. With trainer Sandra Sterntorp, he was eighth in the 6-year-old championship at the 2013 World Young Horse Championships in Verden. For now, Ball is content to let him grow up in Sweden.
Though she was born in the heart of horse country in Lexington, Kentucky, Ball discovered her passion after she and her mother moved to northern California when she was 3. Their destination was the bohemian community of Bolinas, about an hour north of San Francisco. It was the kind of place where Ball rode bareback, racing on the beach with her friends after school. “It was the most unstructured, wonderful beginning you could have,” she remembers. Up-down lessons paved the way for eventing, and when she was 10 she became an inaugural member of the Marin County Pony Club.
Dressage lessons with a student of Lilo Fore’s led to lessons with Fore herself when Ball was 16. She went on to work with Fore for over 10 years. “Lilo was very serious about teaching me the correct basics. I was an awkward, insecure teenager, and I was amazed that she saw something in me. I credit Lilo for being by far the most influential part of my discovering dressage as a lifelong pursuit. She taught me how passionate someone could be about the importance of the basics.”
Working with Fore inspired Ball to ride dressage exclusively. It’s a path that brought her to another major influence: Guenter Seidel. In 1995 she and her horse Bolshoj were on the silver medal-winning U.S. Pan Am team in Buenos Aries. Seidel was also on the squad, and the two became close friends (their costumed Pas de Deux to music from Phantom of the Opera was a hit at the 2009 FEI World Cup Dressage Finals). In 2002, Ball relocated to southern California to train with him, and he’s still her coach. “Not only is Guenter an amazing rider and teacher, he’s a wonderful, fair and honest person,” says Ball.
Since 2008, she’s based her training business out of the Eckstein family’s farm near San Diego (Ball trained and competed their Dutch gelding Orion). In addition to riding her own horses and those she has in training, she teaches a handful of students.
Most days, she’s done by 3, but rather than heading home, several days a week she goes to an art class. “I’ve always loved art,” she says. For more than three years, in fact, she immersed herself in the arts at the California College of the Arts and Crafts in Oakland, CA. She now works with a teacher who specializes in oil painting, something she’d never done. He encouraged her to go back to the basics—taking a drawing class and even re-learning how to hold the pencil and brushes. The experience was a little like riding on a lunge line with no stirrups and no reins, she says with a laugh. “It was very, very humbling.”
Not unlike dressage. “One of my goals is to develop the highest potential of my horses through correct basics, which is not always easy to do!” she says. “I want to bring out a horse’s natural power and expression, along with suppleness and relaxation. Whether it’s riding or painting, the end result can only be as successful as the foundation is strong.”
She loves the daily process, whether it’s cleaning her tack after a ride or finding the delicate balance between power, engagement and relaxation with her horses. “That day-to-day learning and growing is so fulfilling,” she says with a smile. “But don’t get me wrong. To make another team and represent my country would be just incredible.”
In case you haven't seen it before here's the video from Phantom of the Opera the hit at the 2009 FEI World Cup Dressage Finals