Wellington, Part 2: rubbing elbows with dressage elite
The major reason I was brought to Wellington was to interview some of the riders who are sponsored by The Horse of Course. My boss told me about a week before I left that Betsy Steiner, Shelly Francis, and Lars Petersen had agreed to meet with me. The content of the interviews was left entirely up to me.
Now, here’s the thing: I don’t have any kind of background in writing. In college, I received credit for Composition I & II because my ACT reading and English scores were very high. I took a technical writing class that I didn’t take seriously- I accrued the maximum number of absences before midterm and regularly showed up to class very hungover or still slightly drunk. That’s the extent of my writing education. Post-collegiate employment hasn’t required a lot of writing, and while I’ve been blogging here at Hand Gallop for five years, it’s not exactly a professional gig.
I don’t know how to interview anyone. What kind of questions do you ask? What questions yield answers that make for interesting reading?
I spent some time reading interviews in equine publications. I pored over each rider’s competition history, previous interviews, and any articles mentioning their name. And I thought about the things I like to read. I don’t want to read an interview that’s basically an advertisement or that’s full of trite questions that have been covered in a dozen other places. So I jotted down some questions for each rider and hoped I wouldn’t sound like an idiot.
I met with Betsy Steiner at White Fences on Sunday; she’s a petite and graceful woman who somehow looked completely put together despite having spent all day at a dressage show riding and coaching. Betsy is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist who represented the US at the 1990 World Equestrian Games. I chatted with her about Equilates, the pilates-based program she developed for equestrian athletes. Betsy talked about how she was introduced into cross-training early, participating in dance lessons while training as a young rider. She found Tai Chi a few years later and enjoyed the mental and spiritual benefits of the practice, but it wasn’t until she took a pilates class that she felt she’d found the perfect training activity for riders. She developed Equilates to help riders have a better connection with their horses, better body awareness, and more strength and flexibility. Betsy’s advice to riders looking to get started with a new fitness routine? “Take a beginner pilates mat class. For a base, I think pilates is the best; when you get the concept of pilates- working from your core- everything you do starts there.”
After bidding Betsy farewell, I headed up the road to Shelly Francis‘s farm. Shelly has been quietly climbing the ranks of the USEF High Performance Dressage Olympic list; currently, she’s ranked 5th with her horse Doktor. She’s had a lot of success with both Doktor and the slightly younger Danilo, and is currently bringing a couple of other horses up the levels. From the moment I stepped into her immaculate barn, it was obvious how much she cares for her horses. She introduced me to each horse, patting them fondly as they poked their heads out of their stalls and smiling as she recounted their quirks. Danilo waited for a quick acknowledgement before he went back to munching on hay. Rubinio nibbled on my scarf. Doktor was much shorter and rounder in person than I imagined- Shelly laughed, “He really puffs up in the ring!” Dante, Danilo’s young half-brother, hung his enormous head out of the stall to snuggle with Shelly as she gave him a hug. It was clear that she loves her horses and likes to be very involved in their day-to-day care. I asked her about her training philosophy and was interested to hear that she regularly hacks out on trails or in empty fields as part of her interval training system. The horses get a couple of light days a week, then a couple of harder days, and they always get a whole day off. She firmly believes in bringing horses along gradually in a low-stress way and wants her horses to enjoy their job. When I asked her about what she looks for in a dressage prospect, she replied, “Good gaits. Good canters and good walks and a trot that’s clean that has a little lengthen in there. I also like a calmness in the temperament that’s trainable.” Shelly was a joy to talk to (and her horses were all very cute)!
My final interview was with Danish Olympian Lars Petersen, who’s also based in Loxahatchee at Legacy Farms. I’ll admit I was a little intimidated to talk with him- he’s an incredibly successful rider. He’s competed at the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games, the World Cup Finals, and the European Continental Championships. I needn’t have worried, though! Lars was funny and kind, and even invited me to have a beer after our interview. I was very interested to hear his thoughts about differences in European and American showing, training, and riding methods; he admitted it’s much easier to show at high levels in Europe, since there’s a show on the scale of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival nearly every weekend. I was also curious about what he had to say regarding his horse Mariett; she’s 18 and just seems to get better with age. Lars’s secret? “My dad always said, ‘Learn from the people whose horses get old.’ What you do in the ring every day is the most important. Having a good team, too- blacksmith, vet, saddler.” (Unrelated to the interview, Lars referred to himself and his team as “the swamp people” of Wellington, which made me spit out my beer.)
Every one of the people I interviewed was gracious, extremely pleasant, and seemed genuinely happy to talk to me. I know I was happy to talk to them!