Shelly Francis and the Development of the International Dressage Horse through Trust, Character and Communication

Wednesday, March 13, 2013
Posted by Betsy LaBelle for DressageDaily


There are few international riders in the United States who train their horses as youngsters all the way up to the Grand Prix International level. Shelly Francis is the real deal. At the age of thirteen, growing up in Bar Harbor, Maine, Shelly’s aunt presented her with a forever cherished book called, “Dressage” by Henry Wynmalen. She read that book until it was weathered, tattered, torn, and beat up in her room, read and reread, all through her teenage years. Growing up on her family’s thirty acre farm, her family owned a small barn stabling her mom’s horse, her aunt’s horse and her own pony. On that large island off of Maine, Shelly knew she wanted to figure out how to achieve the things in that book. She examined each chapter furiously trying to find the way to rebalance her pony for the flying changes to score a win at the local gymkhana and poll bending competitions. Fascination and obsession with the ways to rebalance a horse at an early age helped motivate Shelly to build a successful career.For the last twenty years, Shelly has quietly achieved a top twelve ranking in the United States Festival of Champions many of years with a horse either in the Prix St George (Small Tour) or the Grand Prix (Large Tour). At the age of 54, this 5’2 dressage professional has skill and know-how she built through ingenuity and invention over the years. In 1996, with Pikant, she was second alternate for the Olympic team. In 1997 they won the USDF Grand Prix Champion Horse of the Year, and went on to compete at the 1998 World Equestrian Games in Rome. In 2005, she competed Dominion to the top six in the US team rankings when he had an unfortunate accident.

It’s taken Shelly more than four years to get four of her newest horses to the international level. She enjoys the training most of all, showing to her being just a smiley plus.

Shelly Francis enters the CDI arena with an ambitious agenda for 2013. She is currently campaigning two horses and has plans for four horses. The four Horses to look for are: Doktor (Diamond Hit x Gurena) a 10 yrs old now competing in the International Grand Prix arena, Danilo (De Niro x Annebella) a 9yrs old now competing in the Prix St George, Rubinio (Roh Magic x Patrizia) a 7yrs old Shelly plans to compete In the Small Tour next year, and Le Roi (L’Andiamo x Donnerpearl) a 9 yrs, bred by Ann Kitchel at Huntington Farm, she plans to compete in small tour next year.

Francis said, “I find my horses as youngsters and trains them up the ladder to international competition. I train my own horses. It’s a team effort.” Together with Pat Stempel , Shelly Francis can not only make an impact on the horses for international competition, but help others to achieve their goals. The winning team has a wonderful system for success. Pat, who hails from Michigan, rides several upper level horses each day always seeking the clear communication that the horse thrives on to be a happy athlete. Shelly said, “I could not be any luckier, absolutely, than to have Pat as an owner.” Three of the four horses Shelly competes are owned by Pat. One of them, Danilo, was to be Pat’s next horse, but Shelly swiped him somewhere along the way. Together these two have achieved a dream like no other, and continue to build an outstanding base in their stable located in Loxahatchee, Florida.

“I am looking forward bringing out these four horses. Over the years, you learn from your mistakes and I have four clean slates with these boys. I am happy enough with the way Doktor is coming out in the competition arena, which makes me happy.”

How does she train her horses? The four or five days she does ride in the ring, depending on the horse, she said, “To me it’s important that my horses are happy, that the show is exciting for them. I do not want to drill my horses to the dressage tests in the arena. They need to be normal horses with lots of hacks during the week and have a proper roll in the dirt every day. The days in the ring are about communication, about using simple figures to exercise the horse, to improve the horse.” She continued, “Each horse is different in how they learn. The exercises I use helps them in their learning, especially the lateral exercises. One horse may work for 20 minutes in the arena, while another may work an hour. If the horse understands what we are working on, for instance, the flying changes, and they are up, through and easy, then we are done. I want my horses to understand the work and I have come up with a way to communicate where I know each one understands what is being asked.” Shelly gives the horse a chance to figure out the exercise without meanness or unhealthy demands, “I let my horses go long and low for the first 10-20 minutes, then they let me know when they are ready to work and then I work them in an uphill frame. I train my horses so they are communicating with me personally, and not ridden to the tests only. I may do a piece here and there to prepare, but never will I allow the test to be more important than the communication with me. If they communicate better doing a lower level figure, then we work there.” Shelly continued, “I do not ride the test in their entirety until I am at the show. I train my horses to be really good riding horses. When they are good riding horses, then they can go compete.”

Shelly shares one of the biggest life lessons: She said, “Several years ago I had a grant to go to Europe. I went to Johann Hinneman’s farm in Germany, and quickly I realized he trained the horses classical, like that book I read to tatters as a teenager. My horse, Pikant wasn’t the most talented, but had a huge heart to try. He put out more effort than his talent. He made my career. One of the biggest life lessons, for me, happened while we were working in the piaffe. I was kicking, spurring and spanking with the stick. Jo says, “Stop! I am going to tell you this once and I want you to not forget it. You have got to pay attention and learn to feel what you are doing here because when your horse is trying but making mistakes, you are punishing him for trying not for the mistake. So you must learn the difference between when he is making a mistake and when he is deliberately not trying for you. Most of the time, he is only trying and you are punishing him for his trying.’ That was huge for me. That night I cried because I had been punishing him all along, so many times, and he still kept trying. That for me was life changing. I totally changed how I train my horses. I have a bigger understanding about how they must not be drilled, but treated in a more special clear manner.”

With ability, finesse, inventiveness, and skill, Shelly Francis is one to watch in the sport of Dressage.


All Photos: Betsy LaBelle