The End of an Era. Thank You Steffen Peters.

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Don Joseph ridden by Ilse Schwarz at the USDF trainers' conference in Florida. © 2014 Sharon Packer
Don Joseph ridden by Ilse Schwarz at the USDF trainers’ conference in Florida. © 2014 Sharon Packer

Editor’s Note: Ilse Schwarz is an Australian FEI rider who moved to the United States in 1998 to marry an American (this editor). She brought with her an Australian Thoroughbred mare she was riding dressage and bred her to Contango. Ilse has trained the progeny to Grand Prix. She also bought an unridden three-year-old that she is preparing for competition at FEI levels. Ilse recently imported one of the first Floriscount offspring that she bought as a foal and left in Germany for three years to grow up to be a horse.

By ILSE SCHWHARZ

I write this as the euphoria and satisfaction of a truly wonderful two days of learning, riding and education settle as a comfortable warm glow through my body… was it cold today? I didn’t notice! I had the opportunity to show my horse, seven-year-old Don Joseph–actually, he is owned by Gaye and Joe Scarpa–to a knowledgeable crowd of trainers and judges, and the experience was both truly wonderful and bittersweet.

Yes, I am talking about the 2014 Succeed USDF Trainers Conference. Anybody who scrolled through Facebook posts will already know that I was a rider. Most people are also aware that I have worked with Steffen Peters in clinic situations for about eight years. Steffen has come to Wellington from three to seven times each winter “season” during this time and I am happy to say that I have ridden in every single clinic, also arranging them for the last five years.

At the risk of making more of something that was essentially a training opportunity more than it really is, this conference encompassed a great deal more to me than just working with Steffen and Scott Hassler. In late 2013, Steffen made the decision to finish traveling and giving his regular clinics in Wellington and on the East Coast. I have had time to come to terms with this, and all credit goes to Steffen that I am confident to train with his system, even without regular reminders from him. Hence, this was an opportunity to show what can happen when you truly dedicate yourself to working with a training system you believe in. Steffen has been integral in my development of DJ, probably more with this horse than any other.

When I was warming up for the first day DJ and I started my routine of half passes in the walk, testing the forwards and sideways aids, how these aids affected the contact, tempo and frame. He felt great so I moved to a long side of trot. The horse was so ready to work, so attentive that I went back to walk, smiled, took a breath and relaxed. As I entered the arena, the first time this young horse has ever experienced so many people at such close proximity, I felt DJ almost puff with pride that so many people were there to watch him. Then he saw Steffen and I swear that horse almost smiled. Suffice to say the next 30 minutes were magic. DJ has never been so on the aids and I know he had presence. He felt athletic, gymnastic, odedient and powerful. He rose to every task Steffen asked and I was able to sit quietly and effectively. Yes, we made mistakes, but he let me train them.

At the end of the session Steffen was generous in his compliments, as was Scott Hassler, who had never seen the horse before. I swear I was blushing and the smile on my face was more like a Cheshire cat grin. Steffen made the comment, “I really like what you have done with the canter pirouettes. That’s a really nice improvement. I still remember when I saw this a couple of years ago, it was tricky. My compliments. Everyone can do it on a super talented horse, but the ones that don’t seem so talented, those really show what the rider is all about.” PLEASE don’t tell Steffen, but at this point I started to tear up.

The second day tested DJ and myself even further and again he simply rose to the occasion and demonstrated so successfully how you can take a horse with less than perfect conformation, who is a little (!!) lazy but has that “something” that makes you want to continue and turn them into future FEI stars. I have no doubt he will be one.

This story really isn’t complete without some knowledge of the history Steffen, DJ and I share, so bear with me over the next few paragraphs.

Steffen first saw DJ as a five-year-old. I was trying to get ready for the five-year-old FEI young horse test but the counter canter required in the test was WAY beyond our skill level and I figured it wouldn’t hurt for Steffen to have a look at him.

I showed Steffen his basic gaits, pretty happy that I finally had decent control in the canter. It turns out that everything is relative. As a four-year-old we would canter the long side in a minimum of 11 strides, and I couldn’t turn at the end. In fact, I think we may have spent as much time out of the arena as in. I always loved riding the horse, although I suspected that there were many times that I hadn’t gone as fast or been that out of control since my eventing days.

After Steffen had watched us school a little he asked, “have you started changes?” I think my eyebrows hit my helmet in surprise. “Ummmm no, Steffen. I only just start to feel I have some control of the canter”

“You know he should have started by now…right?” said Steffen. I think my witty reply was dead silence. What I desperately wanted to say was “yes, but….”, however I know that excuses are just that.

Steffen then leapt aboard my gangly five-year-old and proceeded to show myself and owner, Gaye Scarpa, that DJ was a VERY interesting horse and that I had, perhaps, been a little reticent in taking control over the length of stride in his canter. Needless to say, we qualified and were invited to the five-year-old championships.

Don Joseph being ridden by Ilse Schwarz at Third Level in Wellington. © Ken Braddick/dressge-news.com
Don Joseph being ridden by Ilse Schwarz at Third Level in Wellington. © Ken Braddick/dressge-news.com

Fast forward two years. Steffen saw DJ one more time as a six-year-old and then in January, 2013, right before the trainers conference I had the opportunity to work with him for several consecutive days. I normally pride myself on my ability to teach horses their changes, in my mind confirmed changes before they are six years old. DJ was proving to be a challenge. His trot had developed great expression, the canter was adjustable, we continued to be unbeatable in the show ring with scores well into the 70s but I simply could not get the consistent idea of a change in each direction to sink in, and DJ was coming into his seventh year. Needless to say I was starting to get just a little worried.

Again, Steffen watched us and trained for some minutes and then we started the changes. I managed one nicely in our “good” direction, but the other direction was just a farce. Steffen hopped on and that ride is one that is burned in my memory. DJ leapt and bounded, had a few 17-hand indignant tantrums and then got to work. And I mean he just developed in front of my eyes. All of those tantalizing moments that I had seen over the months were being transformed into every stride. Needless to say by the end of the ride Steffen had a clean change in each direction and I was doing cartwheels of joy.

Three days later I was doing four-tempis on him. It was all hidden in there–it just took Steffen to help me make him truly honest off the leg and manage the shoulders in his difficult direction. Honestly he never looked back and it was a total LIGHT BULB training moment for me. Actually it was more like a glaring mega-watt spotlight moment. All my horses changed both their carriage and attentiveness to the leg and the reins from that day on.

Anyway, Steffen finished his ride on DJ that day, a huge smile on his face and said to Gaye and myself “this is a really good horse….really good.” Gaye, who had also been riding him through the week had a conversation with Steffen about the horse’s future prospects and promptly took herself out of the saddle and gave me the ride. I am tremendously lucky to have such wonderful owners in Gaye and Joe Scarpa. Steffen then said to me that DJ would be a perfect horse for the trainers conference, but of course it was way too late to apply. When I found out that Steffen and Scott were to do the 2014 trainers conference my application to ride was prompt!

DJ and I went on to average about 74 per cent at Third level in 2013, usually achieving eights for our changes, and finishing in the top 15 in the USDF Horse of the Year. We currently need to finish the canter pirouettes but expect to see us in a Prix St Georges test in Wellington soon.