In Memoriam - Alexsandra Howard - USET Dressage Team Veteran and Contributor to American Dressage

Alexsandra Howard. Photo: Tass Jones
Alexsandra Howard. Photo: Tass Jones

Leading competitors in their sports are routinely asked to give back, in thanks for the support, both financial and organizational, that has helped them achieve their goals. Sandy Howard (Alexsandra with an "s") was of the earlier generation of USET/USEF team members, the generation that helped develop the organizations, the education and the funding that now eases the path for international competitors. An early inspiration to those of us who had the privilege of watching her bring the Thoroughbred Bull Market to Grand Prix, Sandy also made sure that there were programs in place to provide education to riders, judges and trainers. She was always one step ahead. People can touch your life in many ways and it is possible to feel connected even when lives veer off into different directions.Yet when you see each other, it is as if there had been no interruption. Such a person, for me, was Sandy Howard.

We met in 1972 at Kyra Downton's Atherton estate where so many of us had our introduction to dressage, and we continued to work together through years of California Dressage Society activities and we touched bases at USDF and USEF Conventions and various horse shows. I respected Sandy in many ways, but especially for her analytical brain; you had to be brave to attempt to question any stand that she took, let alone argue. But, it was never personal. Sandy seemed to relish opportunities to exchange ideas and you always knew where you stood with her. A rare and cherished quality.

From Sandra Gardner's 1973 profile, we learned that Sandy had been riding since the age of 8, marching her way through show jumping, hunting, eventing and eventually, dressage. In later years, she added vaulting and combined driving to the resume. In the mid-60's, at a Hunter/Jumper show at Pebble Beach, she saw Kyra Downton's exhibition on Kadett. Fascinated, she approached Kyra and began riding green horses for Kyra in 1968. During this period, Sandy benefited from the instruction of Alois Podhajsky when he spent nine months in Atherton. Sandy accompanied Kyra and Kadett to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico where she saw first hand the atmosphere of international competition.

Sandy Howard and Bull Market in 1982. Photo: Sandra Gardner
Sandy Howard and Bull Market in 1982. Photo: Sandra Gardner

Sandy's own horse in those early Atherton clinics (with Liz Searle) was Bull Market, purchased as an unraced two year old. She had started him by ponying to help him develop confidence and musculature over uneven terrain. They then progressed to trail riding under saddle, cross country work, show ring, hunting and then dressage.There is a rumor that Sandy and Bully laid the drag for the Los Altos Hunt; unsubstantiated, but I can believe it. Sandy was always looking for ways to build strength, trust, confidence. This is the person who said: "I feel that a horse should accept a certain amount of responsibility for such things as watching where he is going and where he is going to place his feet." And she once shared with me that she attributed the fact that Bull Market retained his walk through the FEI levels, unlike many FEI horses of the time, to their treks up (and down) the hill behind her Woodside home. Sandy's horses lived with her, she cared for them, knew them and was always on the lookout for ways to make them happy in their lives and work.

To give you an idea of where dressage was back then, at the 1971 CDS Annual Show, Sandy and Bull Market won both the Senior Working Hunters (outside and inside), and were second to Hilda Gurney and Keen in the Senior Working Hunters, under saddle. This gave Bully the Senior Working Hunter Championship. Yes, they also were in dressage classes at this dressage show, but those classes were not going to be paying the bills.

There's a wonderful quote in the 1972 Nov/Dec Dressage Letters: "When Sandra first heard of the California Dressage Society, she said, 'just a few people doing their backyard thing.'" But, having apparently changed her mind, in 1972 she not only cleaned up at the CDS Annual Show and AHSA Dressage Finals, but also became a CDS recognized Judge.  Sandy, along with Hilda Gurney and Jim Forderer were the first graduates of that inaugural CDS Apprentice Judge program.  This program has been credited with being the precursor of the current national judge training programs. By 1973, she was a member of the CDS Board and was one of the founding attendees of USDF, as part of the CDS delegation to Lincoln, Nebraska. Her early position with USDF was no surprise; Chairman of the Education Committee. She served on the USDF L Faculty for most of the years of its existence and the Freestyle and Quadrille Committees were recipients of her energy and ideas. The interest was not simply theoretical. Sandy developed a wonderful Quadrille team, and the "horse swap in mid-test" Pas de Deux that she performed with daughter Anne was a show-stopper.

During her first term on the CDS Board, Sandy served as President of CDS in 1974; her second term on the Board was 1983-1985. When she was President, she had the grand treasury of $4,000 and a full schedule for the year: Annual Show, Annual Meeting, Judge Forum, Karl Mikolka Seminar. CDS, at the time, held Judge Forums because they were not provided nationally. The treasury was at $10,000 by mid-year, as she made certain the organization did not suffer financially with this ambitious calendar and under a thousand members.

In 1975, Sandy, daughter Anne and Bull Market drove east for a year and a half of competition and training, primarily with Bengt Ljungquist. People were not flying and vanning their horses all over the place at that time; the idea that a Mom and her eight year old daughter would do something so adventurous was news. Sandy and Bull Market went on to shine at Devon, Knoll Farms and three USEF/USET tours to Europe.This phase of the adventure, that first trip East, Sandy treated Californians to the "Diary of a Traveling Horselady." We hung on every word as driving from fairgrounds to fairgrounds (no GPS, no cell phones) with a truck that required oil changes, and had its own cases of oil and a pouring spout on board, was more than most of us were willing to consider. She did it with grace, humor and educational tidbits (that brain, ever at work), as evidenced by the "Diary."

The accomplishments after that trip were monumental. The three Team tours with Bully were two World Championships (Goodwood and Lausanne) and as reserve for the Moscow Olympics, the Olympics that did not happen. Bull Market finished eighth in the Freestyle in Lausanne. Freestyle had become a specialty as he won at Knoll Farm, Devon, and in 1979 at the CDS Annual Show, in a hotly contested class that included several US Team members.

In my mind, Sandy did more in her lifetime than one person should be able to do. Do we need to have warmbloods? Enter the Swedish stallion Pilgrim and a successful breeding program. If that is not enough, Pilgrim won national championships with the stunning "Stripper" freestyle, making us wonder if Sandy was just a natural at musical freestyles or if perhaps all those ballet lessons she had as a child had prepared her for conquering the musical world. Do we need to have better communications? Mary Wanless came to a CDS Annual Meeting in 1991 and Sandy tuned into the challenge of developing non-traditional methods of teaching, incorporating psychology and biomechanics, with a purpose to make dressage more available to all. "Now we will be able to teach and talk about how we are riding and not just about how our horses are going." The Wanless connection continued to the present.  Do we need to be better instructors? Enter Anders Lindgren and years of clinics with the very approachable Anders, his cones, and his ability to find ways to communicate with the horse. Then there was the helmet campaign. After viewing "Every Ride, Every Time", Sandy threw her intelligence and energy behind the crusade to educate riders on the importance of protecting one's head.

Ah, yes, the cross-training. The Flying Buttresses were the epitome of that concept; this was a group of Bay Area ladies who wanted to try vaulting. Sandy provided the expertise and the horse, Malibu Belle, the Buttress Bearer. It is difficult to introduce levity to an obituary but the sense of the absurd existed in Sandy, and it is important to remember that. During the rather peculiar practice sessions, she insisted that the Buttri learn to vault, but she absolutely sat down on the sand, howling with laughter, when things went wonky. A true horsewoman, she never let go of the longe line, however. One of my fondest CDS memories is the CDS Annual Meeting where the Buttresses performed and then generously offered the CDS Board Members the opportunity to vault. Hans Moeller agreed to longe, adorned with a top hat and pink bow, and Board Members Mainzer, Lert and Ryman took up the challenge. Sandy was collapsed on the sidelines with laughter, along with the rest of us.

Sandy's home base was American Sporthorse in Watsonville where she trained and taught. She also had an extensive clinic and Judging schedule, traveling throughout the United States. Sandy continued to enjoy the challenge of bringing young horses up through the levels and of helping others to achieve their goals. In recent years, she had won Grand Prix classes on Rondo and she was looking forward to bringing her young horse along. She was instrumental in the creation of the new Rider Tests and one can only wonder what would have been the next challenge. Sandy is mourned by her many students and countless colleagues, all of whom will miss the honesty and intelligence of this remarkable woman.

Over the past few weeks, I have chatted with many who are saddened and awash with memories. Judy McNames, a friend from the early days, expressed it well when she reminisced about taking care of Sandy's horses when Sandy and Bully were off to Lausanne with the Team. Judy commented that it was a privilege and honor to be asked as the responsibility included living up to the standard of care set by Sandy. Sandy's focus and concern was always for the welfare of her horses; her life was devoted to them…and to the other furry friends that graced her home.

Sandy is survived by daughter Anne, a Physical Therapist who has followed her Mom's lead in becoming a judge, teacher and trainer. Sandy once pointed out that the future of dressage will be in the hands of those who have been immersed in the sport: "My daughter Anne has, like it or not, been steeped in all aspects of our sport since birth. Once when she was about two years old and was digging in the sand by Kyra Downton's ring as I rode (a daily routine for both of us) she was asked by a visitor trying to make 'two year old' conversation with her, 'What is your Mommy doing?' This person clearly expected that such a young child would just be able to come up with the information that her mommy was riding a horse. Anne looked up from her digging, gave a cursory glance in my direction and retorted 'left half pass', and continued her digging. That is visual tradition in the sense that she probably can't remember a time when she didn't know what a Grand Prix test looked like." This comment was made in Sandy's 30 year review of dressage competition in California; I like to think that she was relieved that the future would be in good hands.

The Sandy that I knew shines through in her own farewell to Bull Market:
"From the beginning of Bully's career as an FEI dressage horse, the aspect of his talent that excited the most interest was his tremendous piaffe and passage; all who saw him were impressed and many knowledgeable European trainers confided that they had never seen better. The challenge was to get his ambitious nature quiet enough to concentrate on steady fluid changes in the same test where he was encouraged to display his fire with piaffe and passage."

"Many of the opportunities I've had to learn and compete would not have happened but for Bull Market. He has been a good friend and loyal companion. I'm grateful that his end was relatively quick and that he was in good health until the day he died. I regret the many times since his retirement that I've been too busy to get to his pasture to give him a scratch. I wish him all the 8's, 9's and 10's he should have for his piaffe and passage in that great dressage ring in the sky - and scratches too."

A lifelong love affair with horses, ended too early.May Sandy enjoy her own 10's, earned for her contributions in a lifetime of excellence.




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