Gladstone, New Jersey – When not preparing for competition in the Brentina Cup Championships in this year’s Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival of Champions, Jodie Kelly was busy helping her student prepare for the Junior Championships.
There aren’t many 23-year-olds who are successful riders, capable of training a horse to FEI level and skilled enough as a teacher to guide a student to a national championship competition. But Kelly is all that and more.
Dutch trainer Toine Hoef, with whom Kelly has trained for many years, put it best when he said “a lot of people can ride a Grand Prix horse but not many people can make one.” That makes Kelly unique among riders, but even more unique among young riders.
Kelly competed in this year’s Brentina Cup on a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding named Manhattan (Uniform out of Tasjadana) that she trained herself. The pair had a great showing, finishing third with a score of 63.689 and behind first-place finishers Elizabeth Austin and Olivier and second-place finishers Nicholia Zamora and Nimbus.
“I got Manhattan when he was just coming three and I was turning 13. I was at that point in my life where I needed another horse, something a little more than I had,” Kelly said. “I really didn’t know what I was looking for and we had a limited budget. I think that’s how most young riders end up with young horses because you only have this much to spend and our choices were having an older schoolmaster that had a little bit less quality or having one that was young and had a little more quality.”
Faced with those two choices, Kelly opted for number two. And while she could have also bought a youngster and sent it out for training, a more affordable approach was for her to train a horse herself. And so she did.
The transformation from rider to professional trainer, which Manhattan has certainly helped her achieve, has not been without its rough phases. “It’s been an interesting journey,” Kelly said.
Jodie Kelly's Journey
In many ways, the journey has taken her around the world. It started in the Netherlands where Hoefs is based. Hoefs also live in the same town, Erp, where Anky Van Grunsven has her farm. Kelly spent many summers grooming at Anky's barn, a rare opportunity for an American Junior rider. It was there, during one of her many summer training sessions with Hoefs, that she spotted Manhattan. He was barely broke and as a summer student on the farm, Kelley was given the job of showing him to potential buyers.
“Some people came to look at Manhattan. He was amazing the first day and they loved him and came back a second day,” Kelly said. “I was showing him to the people because I had ridden him the most even though I had only ridden him ten times. He bucked me off so high and so high that when the people came the second day it scared them and he ended up not buying him. And that was the day that I bought him. I felt it was just meant to be when that happened.”
That wasn’t the only time the horse has put Kelly in the dirt. She’s been there many times since.
“I can’t say that it’s been smooth sailing the whole time. He’s bucked me off a lot. He’s been a very difficult horse but the most unique horse I’ve ever, ever had. He’s hot and he’s very busy and he has a lot of ideas. But he’s never mean and he’s never evil and he never has any bad thoughts,” Kelly said. “But he can be ten different horses. One day you come out and he’s quiet and he cruises along. Then one day you come out and he’s really hot and one day you come out and he’s really different than that.”
She credits Manhattan with helping to form her career. She may only be 23, but Kelly is already a professional riding instructor and trainer, thanks much to the experience of training Manhattan herself.
I’m not just a rider, I’m a trainer now. And, absolutely he’s been the best thing for me. I’ve just learned so much on him and I think that if nothing else ever comes from him, it’s made me the rider that I am,” Kelly said.
A Young Rider Develops a Career
It’s also made her a trainer – and a good one. Althoughs Hoef has been guiding her along the way, even he says the credit as trainer goes to Kelly. “She did it all herself and that’s very good. A lot of people buy a school horse and ride that, but she bought this one at three year’s old, barely broke, and did the work herself and that’s a very great thing to do, especially at her age.”
He’s not the only one who’s proud. So too is Kelly’s mom, Laurie Kelly, who describes her daughter as relentless and diligent when it comes to her career. “She’s always wanted to do this since she was a little girl. She has worked really hard, day after day after day,” her mom said.
At her tender age, Kelly also knows what it’s like to be a proud teacher because along with being a successful trainer, she’s also a successful teacher. So successful, in fact, that one of her students joined her at Gladstone and was a competitor in the National Junior Dressage Championship.
That young rider, Lora Kay Witterstaeter, 17, is riding Kelly’s former young rider mount Weltkaar. “Laura has taken lessons with me since she was five. I’m so proud of her. My young rider horse was not an easy horse and she’s doing a great job with him. It’s really fun to have a student here competing,” Kelly said.
That kept Kelly busy at Gladstone as she split her time between schooling her own horse in the Brentina Cup race and coaching her student. But, like her daily life back home on the family’s farm – Southern Cross Equestrian Center in Destin, Florida – it’s not work to Kelly. “I’m 23 years old and I don’t feel like I’ve ever worked a day in my life because I just love it.”
Even though she sometimes works with as many as 14 horses a day, Kelly doesn’t care and is still amazed at the life she has created for herself. “My life is more than I could have ever imagined. It’s going wonderfully and I love it. It’s hard work and long hours, but I love it. I wake up in the morning and go to the barn and at the end of the month when I send out my bills it’s like, I get paid for this?”
Lora Kay: Following in Her Teacher’s Footsteps
Ask Lora Kay Witterstaeter what it’s like having Kelly as a teacher and the junior rider, who finished fourth in the Junior Championships with Weltkaar, has nothing but good things to say about the teacher who is only a few years older than her.
“Working with Jodie is a lot of fun. She’s like my big sister and really great. She helps me with everything,” Witterstaeter said. The junior rider has Kelly’s former young rider horse and she said Kelly has provided her with a lot of help with a horse that Kelly herself said could be difficult. “She knows everything about him, like all his quirks. It makes it a lot easier for me.”
Weltkaar is no easy ride, mostly because of the size difference between the two. “He’s 18.2 and I’m five-foot nothing,”Witterstaeter said. “He’s a lot of horse and he’s very big to move around. But he’s so much fun. He’s like a big Teddy Bear.
He’s very sensitive and you wouldn’t think it. You’d think he’s very powerful. He’s hard to keep energetic. He starts getting a little long and a little slow and that can be hard for me because I don’t have a whole lot of body strength. But he listens. He doesn’t take advantage of me. He’s very sweet about it.”
Witterstaeter, of Fort Walton Beach, Florida, has been riding since she was three, having started out with hunter/jumper ponies. She also started dressage young because her mother made her take dressage lessons with the ponies. Witterstaeter said she’s rather fallen into dressage because she couldn’t find a good hunter/jumper trainer in her area. But she loves riding with Kelly and since Kelly’s focus is dressage, Witterstaeter has followed suit.
But Witterstaeter admits she’s beginning to like dressage more and more. “The dressage flat work also helps with my jumping a lot. But I’m starting to like the dressage a little bit better. Since I got into the juniors and am doing more challenging things, it’s more of an accomplishment and so now it’s more interesting.”
The young rider is also honest enough to admit that she’s a tad lazy and that may be why she didn’t take to dressage as quickly as jumping. “I have a younger horse that’s really bratty and she doesn’t like to do dressage because it’s harder and I’d agree and think, ‘ugh, too much work.’ So, we’d go off and jump and that was easier for us.” Witterstaeter is a good student who mostly gets “As and Bs,” but said she could do better. “My mom would like me to do better, but I’m a little lazy.”
The young rider also has a bit of a disability, but one would never know it. She has a hearing disability and as a result, often can’t hear the bell or whistle to enter the ring during competition. “I’m always looking around. We have people all around the ring and when it rings, they tell me. Otherwise, I don’t hear it and just wander around.”
Witterstaeter jokingly said that at clinics, clinicians are advised to “just yell at me, because I can’t hear. With teachers, a lot of times I don’t hear them and they say, ‘she’s ignoring me,’ which is not true. I just don’t hear them.”
But the disability doesn’t bother Witterstaeter and it doesn’t bother Kelly. Both “are used to it.” And Witterstaeter said that thus far, she’s never missed her entry in competition. “Usually somebody starts yelling at me fast enough and I get in there.”
Young Riders Have Their Time to Shine at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival of Champions
Austin Repeats in Brentina Cup
Elisabeth Austin and Olivier left no question that they were dominant in the Brentina Cup division scoring straight 7s and 8s throughout the test barring the pirouettes where the marks dropped off slightly. The 11-year-old KWPN stallion followed in his father's (Idocus – who won the Grand Prix Freestyle on Saturday) footsteps and put in another stellar performance. Overall their score of 69.3% was much the best of the division and they were the champions for the second year in a row.
"I really wanted to do the Grand Prix here," said Austin. "But at the first qualifier he didn't feel totally secure. He felt a little tentative. The thing about him is that if he's confident I know he can answer any question."
The decision paid off and Austin rode her mother's horse confidently on Sunday.
"I wanted to ride well," she said. "I didn't ride well on Friday. I watched the video to see where I was giving away points. The piaffe and passage on him is the most fun thing I've ever ridden."
Austin was fortunate to travel to Germany last year after her Brentina Cup win and train with the US Team Coach Klaus Balkenhol. She hopes to repeat the experience this year. She plans on returning to the Grand Prix with an eye on the World Cup qualifier at the Saugerties CDI. "I know he's special," said Austin about Olivier. "He will be as good as I can make him."
Nicholia Zamora and Nimbus put in another expressive performance going last in the Brentina Cup and maintained their overall second place standing despite a third place finish in the second round. The 12-year-old KWPN gelding picked up lots of 7s throughout his test, performed very solid pirouettes and a good piaffe early in the test. Nimbus made a mistake in the one tempi changes and in the final centerline to keep his marks down from the standard of day one. He and Zamora ended on 63.949% on Sunday for a two day score 64.9%.
"So many things had to go right in order to get here and so many generous people helped me to raise the money," said Zamora. "It cost $4900 each way to fly him."
Zamora, from Irvine, CA had a fundraiser sponsored by Ketel One Vodka and a silent auction to help fund the trip for her owner Diane Morey. They were both determined to make it happen and Zamora made the trip worthwhile. "I'm so honored to be here," said Zamora of her owner. "I'm very grateful to have her generosity behind me."
Jodie Kelly and Manhattan remained third overall despite splitting the top two on the day. Mostly picking up 6s and 7s, they improved their score by more than a point from Friday. Overall their score of 63.6% was good enough to hold their spot.
Young Riders Have Their Time to Shine at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF Dressage Festival of Champions
Bonnie Efird and Maggie Noir Stays on Top in Juniors
In the Junior Individual Test, serving as the second half of the Junior Championship, 17-year-old Bonnie Efird and Magie Noir and Taryn Briones with Ghita firmly held their top two positions from the first day ending on scores of 68.85% and 64.65% respectively.
Efird's test featured good half-pass and flying changes representing the polish that garnered them good scores on Friday. Magie Noir, a 13-year-old KWPN mare, demonstrated good paces and good composure throughout the test. Overall her score of 67.125% was more than enough to win the entire division.
"I thought my ride was much better than Friday's," said Efird. "I fixed my mistakes – most of them. My mare was had more spunk today and I think that helped up my score. I'm really thankful this has been my goal for along time. There is so much positive energy here."
17-year-old Briones solid performance held her ground with Magie Noir. Having traveled all the way from Snohomish, WA the pair made the trip worthwhile – capitalizing on very good work in all three paces. The 9-year-old Hanoverian mare kept her composure and put in good flying changes. They were third to Meagan Davis and Cachet in Sunday's test, Davis picked up a score of 64.95%
"I was happy with my test," said Briones. "I was a little shaky in the reinback on the centerline but overall I was happy with it." Both Briones and Efird hope to return to the North American Junior Young Rider Championships.
Davis and Cachet hung on for third place driven by their dynamic second place performance in the individual test. Cachet, another 9-year-old Hanoverian mare made it a clean sweep for the mares in the Junior Championships.