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Wed, 2017-11-22 15:21

Now on Course: From the Cross-Country Course to the Sandbox

Authored By: Sandra Holden
Sandra Holden and Cano Cristales strutting their stuff in the sandbox. Sharon Packer Photo.

The USEA is made up of over 12,000 members, each with their own special horses and experiences. Now on Course highlights the many unique stories of our membership. Do you and your horse have a tale to tell? Do you know someone who deserves recognition? Submit your story to Jessica Duffy.

I have been obsessed with horses ever since I can remember. My family couldn't afford a horse and I was determined to have one, so I began working at a vegetable farm in the summers when I was 12 to save money. After three years I had saved up $800 and bought my first horse - an Anglo Arabian named Themma El Ajzaa, or "Ham" for short. A good friend of mine had a farm and offered me a barter arrangement. Basically, I helped them hay their fields in exchange for free board. We were all trail riders at her barn and we just liked to have fun with our horses. We rode bareback with halters and lead ropes, we would have races in the big field, and camp overnight with the horses in the summer. I had to sell my horse when I went to college, but I knew that horses would be forever in my life in the future.

Ten years later I bought my next horse sight unseen from the internet. I was living in Manhattan, nine months pregnant and on bedrest! “Clipper” was a 4-year-old Arabian stallion located in Idaho, and I fell in love with his video and had to have him. I had him gelded and shipped to a barn in Bedford, New York, a town well know for its extensive trail system. Although he was a bit of a handful, he was safe, and I rode him on the trails every weekend for the next 12 years.

I was introduced to eventing through Pony Club. Around this time, someone at my barn asked if my young daughters would be interested in joining. I had never heard of Pony Club, but was excited to involve the girls in my passion. I purchased a pony for my oldest daughter, who was eight years old at the time, and joined the Honey Hollow Pony Club in South Salem, New York. I went to every meeting with her and it was through the club that I learned about eventing. My daughter took lessons every week in preparation for Pony Club rallies, which were mini events. They looked liked so much fun, I wanted to do it! But I needed training. I had never had a lesson, i just rode on the trails. I learned that dressage was the base component to every riding discipline, so I searched for the best dressage instructor to learn how to ride “properly”.


Sandra Holden and Cano Cristales on cross-country at the 2017 USEA American Eventing Championships. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

I am forever inspired by and grateful to Lendon Gray, who laid down the foundation of dressage for me. It wasn’t easy. I was working in Manhattan at the time and scheduling was tough. Lendon came in at 7:00 a.m. so that I could take lessons and still get to work on time. I took lessons on my now 16-year-old Arabian, who was a trail horse had never been ridden on contact. What a challenge - neither one of us had the slightest clue what contact was. After eight months of going nowhere (and torture for Lendon), I decided to buy a horse with a solid base in dressage so that I could begin to understand what dressage was.

I asked my children's Pony Club Eventing instructor, Kate Strankowski, a former four-star eventer from New Zealand, to help me find a suitable horse. I fell in love with a horse listed on warmbloodsforsale.com. His name was Cano Cristales. He was at Rocking M Stables in Dallas, Texas, owned by Mike Mayes and trained by Yvonne Kusserow. 

Kate agreed to fly down and try him with me, and the rest is...history. Cristales was the first and last horse I looked at. He was competing Second Level dressage but had no jumping experience. After riding him in the arena, Kate gave me two thumbs up and asked if we could take him off property for some stadium and cross-country jumping. Mike said, “Sure!” and off we went. Kate started with a stadium course, and when that went well, she took Cristales onto the cross-country course. She went over benches, logs, up and down banks, through water, and for the final pièce de résistance, she jumped a Training level table. He took every single obstacle in stride and never hesitated. I didn’t find out until after I bought him that Yvonne had never jumped him and he had never seen a cross-country course! That is a testament to the heart, character, and willingness of this incredible athlete. He has the most generous and honest soul you can imagine — he’s what I call “the marrying kind." 

I purchased Cristales in August 2010 and one month later we entered our first Beginner Novice event at Town Hill - and WON! In 2011 we qualified for the USEA American Eventing Championships (AEC) and traveled to Chattahoochee Hills in Fairborn, Georgia and won there too! It was only our fifth event. Since then we have qualified every year for the AEC and attended all but one. Our AEC Highlights include placing first at Beginner Novice, sixth at Novice, and third at Training level. My personal eventing highlight came this year when I did my first Preliminary event on Cristales at Fitch’s Corner and placed second.


Sandra and Cano Cristales show jumping to their third place finish in the Training Amateur Championship division at the 2017 AEC. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

I began showing pure dressage in 2012 at First Level, in tandem with eventing. I hoped it would make me a better rider - to have better communication with my horse and overall perform better in all three phases of eventing. Every day I think, "I want to be a better rider - how do I do that?" and I believe that dressage is the answer. The partnership and communication you achieve through dressage directly translates to and improves the show jumping and cross-country phases. It is so challenging, and humbling. I was also TERRIFIED of competing and thought that getting as much show ring experience as possible would help overcome this fear, so I actively competed in both. 

I was the Reserve Champion at First Level at Regional Championships that first year. In 2013, I moved my horse to North Salem where I met and began training with Lisa Postleb Kaptein for dressage and Mikki Kuchta for eventing. Mikki was the Young Rider team coach at the time. I made my greatest breakthrough in dressage with Lisa. She has this incredible gift of somehow being able to ride your horse through you and get your body to do things you never thought possible. It is an incredible experience and I was able to ride in a way I could not have imagined. 

I progressed to Second Level in 2013 and placed third at Regional Championships that year. We qualified for the US Dressage Finals and I made my first trip to Kentucky, where we placed fifth overall. In 2014, we qualified and went to the US Dressage Finals at Third Level but did not place. This year, 2017, we qualified for the Finals at Fourth Level and made our third trip to Kentucky where we placed ninth overall with a score of 65.296.

I brought my young horse, a 4-year-old named Bretton Beuaty, to Kentucky as a companion for Cristales. I competed him in the open show at Training Level, which is roughly equivalent to Beginner Novice dressage in eventing. The main emphasis in this test is to demonstrate working trot and canter, medium walk, free walk, proper change of bend through shallow loop and 20-meter circles. There is also a required stretchy circle at the end. The patterns and movements in the Training Level test are relatively easy compared to the Fourth Level Test! 

At Fourth Level, you must demonstrate collected, medium, and extended trot and canter, collected and extended walk, shoulder-in to half-pass at trot, half-pass zig-zag in canter, halt/rein back series, 10-meter half circles in counter canter, half pirouette at canter (3 meters in diameter), three fllying changes of leg every fourth stride, and three flying changes of leg every third stride. There are flying changes everywhere! It is a hard test, and even harder to remember. It is above the four-star FEI Eventing Dressage test.


Sandra and Cano Cristales at the 2017 US Dressage Finals. Photo courtesy of Sandra Holden.

We also entered a Prix St. George class in the open show, where we placed first with a score of 65.263. The Prix St. Georges test, although a level above Fourth Level, is more straightforward and easier to remember.   New at this level are shoulder-in to 8-meter circle to half-pass at trot, half pirouette at the walk, five flying changes of leg every fourth stride, and five flying changes of leg every third stride.

The biggest challenge at Kentucky this year was the weather! It was 22 degrees for my Prix St. Georges test. BRRRRRR!

I find that competing in pure dressage is NO different than eventing dressage. Other than the reverse presentation of the scores (a 30 in eventing dressage is a 70 in pure dressage), it is exactly the same. I get the same comments from judges in eventing as I do in pure dressage and the scoring is very similar.

My goal every day is to be a more effective rider and to one day be satisfied with a ride. I enjoy competing at the AEC and US Dressage Finals because they are tangible ways for me to chart my progress. I’m competitive by nature and I enjoy the challenge of competing with the best of the best.  It is inspiring!

In my opinion, dressage is the hardest thing you can do on horseback. When you watch an accomplished dressage rider, they make everything look so easy. It is NOT! My goal is to one day have a ride that feels as effortless to perform as it looks when done correctly. I don’t know if that is possible, but it is my goal. What I love most about dressage is that it is a never-ending journey of learning and partnership with your horse. I have found every horse I’ve ridden to be different and require a unique application of the aids. Figuring this out and making this happen is what I love most about dressage.

Eventing, on the other hand, is the MOST FUN (and most dangerous) thing you can do on horseback. There is nothing on this planet like the feeling of going cross-country - it is like eating dessert - a big reward for getting through the Dressage phase (he he)! I feel closer with my horse in the cross-country phase than in any other phase. We truly need to be one to survive. I believe that Cristales would try to jump the Grand Canyon if I asked him to.


Sandra and Cano Cristales posing with their third place ribbon in the George Morris Arena at the Tryon International Equestrian Center. USEA/Leslie Mintz Photo.

In 2012, I took my first eventing clinic with Boyd Martin. He nicknamed Cristales “Mr. Perfect” because he did absolutely everything asked the first time. Truer words could not be spoken. He is the most perfect horse I can imagine. How many horses are actively competing at the Preliminary level in eventing and Prix St. Georges level in dressage at the same time - and are successful at both? Cristales is the horse of a lifetime and I am forever grateful and thankful to have him in my life.

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