Over the past few years, I have met some amazing Canadian riders who have impressed me with their accomplishments, whether reaching the highest levels of FEI competition or overcoming incredible personal challenges just to get in the saddle. I wanted to profile some of their achievements and their stories, so decided to to start a new blog series called Amateurs (Not) Like Us.
If you missed the first installment featuring Jennifer Black, check it out. Today I'm excited to introduce you to an inspirational rider named Anne Leueen. Many of you already know her and her horse Biasini from her popular HorseAddict blog. Anne is a wonderful source of information, news, training advice and really all things dressage, but she's also a highly accomplished re-rider who has found success in the FEI ring in her 70s. How does this self-described "vintage rider" do it? We asked her:
When and why did you start riding?
I started riding when I was about 7 at a dude ranch in Arizona while we were on holiday. I started to ride on a regular basis at age 10. I went after school with a friend and my parents leased a horse for me.
When and why did I start to focus on dressage?
I never imagined I would focus on dressage . As a teenager I was eventing at Pebble Beach and I thought dressage was a joke. I had a 30-year gap from age 19 to 49 when I did not ride. When my daughter started she was interested in dressage, and by then I was 50 so I thought it would be more sensible if I did not jump and tried dressage instead.
What were your initial goals?
Initially I just thought I would like to get back to competing. After a couple of years I set my sights on the Prix St-Georges. When I told my 10-year-old daughter this she burst out laughing.
How have those goals changed over the past few years?
I rode my first PSG in 2013. Then my horse got ill and had to be put down. I was heartbroken as we had come up the levels from Training to PSG together. I got another horse and within six months I lost him as well. I thought about stopping riding but realized that if i gave up horses I was going to get old quickly. That was when I got Biasini. I do not have the goal of getting to the Grand Prix. I am currently 71 and Biasini is 15, so that would be an unrealistic goal. And that's fine with me. We are currently competing at the I-1 level and I am aiming for the Century ride, where the horse and rider's ages added together equal 100. Dressage Canada does not have this award yet., so I am going to go about getting that set up for myself and other elder riders!
You have dealt with some serious health challenges; how have they affected your riding?
The year my daughter started riding I was diagnosed with Systemic Scleroderma, an autoimmune disease in the same family as Lupus and Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was pretty ill, with all my joints inflamed and skin thickened and tightened all over my body. It can also affect the lungs , kidneys and heart, but I was lucky and did not experience that.
I started back riding to share a leased horse with my daughter. The Scleroderma stopped progressing, but then I was diagnosed with colo-rectal cancer. I had a major surgery to have several working parts removed, and now have a permanent colostomy. The year after the cancer surgery my Scleroderma began to go into what the doctors described as a "dramatic" remission. Today I have only minor symptoms. I was not then and am not now on any medication that would have caused this improvement. My "miracle cure" was that I bought myself a horse! That was 20 years ago.
How do you define success at dressage for yourself?
This is a tough question. I do not measure it by my test scores. I think I measure it by achieving improvements in the things I am working on with my coach.
As an amateur what have been the biggest obstacles to success?
I have to say I have not really encountered any obstacles as an amateur rider. The USDF has awards to encourage amateurs and older riders. I have my Masters Challenge awards for riders over 60 right up to the FEI level. It is nice to have something to work towards and fun to get a nice diploma, elegant picture frame, and a medal.
What have been the most helpful tools or strategies in achieving success?
Good coaches! To me there is nothing more important than investing in good training. I am very lucky to have a very good coach in Florida, Luis Denizard ,and my home coach here in Ontario is [Canadian Olympian] Belinda Trussell. She had Biasini from the age of 4 until I bought him at 9. So I have had the benefit of a well-trained horse. He's not an easy horse to ride, but is very well-trained. Also Belinda does not treat me like a 70-year-old rider and she pushes me to do better and then even better.
What is your career highlight to date?
Last year Biasini and I were the Reserve Champions of the Adult Amateur division at Intermediare 1 in the White Fences Championship Series in Florida. This year we were Reserve Champions for the FEI Freestyle. I celebrated both of those.
Biggest setback to date?
To be honest any setbacks I have had have not been that bad. I'm not just being a social media Pollyanna about this. I am extremely fortunate and my setbacks are just first-world problems.
What's the most important advice you can give fellow amateurs?
Get the right horse for where you are now. Don't get sucked in to getting a big fancy mover when what you need is a sensible horse that you can enjoy. The horse I came up through the levels with was not a big fancy mover, but he was consistent and he gave me confidence. We learned together. I would not be able to ride a horse like Biasini if I had not had Tommie. And when you get the right horse, make sure you have access to a good coach and trainer who can help you achieve your goals. Finally, especially if you are older, it is paramount to maintain a very good level of fitness. I have to be fit to be able to ride well. We all do.
If you've been to a Toronto-area dressage show in the past few years, you've probably noticed Jennifer Black and her Clyde / Hackney cross Brixton. At 17.3, his size alone makes him hard to miss. With few amateurs competing at the FEI levels, and even fewer of them doing it on a draft cross, the pair stands out from the crowd.
I've enjoyed watching this pair with amazement (and no small amount of envy) as they moved up the levels consistently year after year, conquering a new level each year. In 2018 they made their FEI debut at PSG and Brixton was named Small Tour Horse of the Year by Equestrian Canada. Last year they moved up to the I1 level and Jennifer was EC's Reserve Small Tour Rider of the Year.
For the last two years I have had the pleasure of boarding at the same barn as Jennifer and Brixton, and watching them train in person. And now it's my pleasure to introduce them to you!
Meet Jennifer Black
Horses: Brixton (2010 Clyde x Hackney gelding), Modern Art aka Momo (2018 Hanoverian filly)
When did you start riding, and specifically focusing on dressage?
I started riding when I was 6, doing pony club, then hunters, then eventing. I started focusing on dressage in 2013 after a 10-year hiatus from riding while I was in university. I knew I wanted to show and dressage was my way to do that.
Where did you find Brixton and how long have you had him?
I bought Brixton in 2013 from his breeder (Shady Maple Farm) as 2-year-old. I chose a draft cross because I wanted an A+ temperament, meaning if I couldn’t ride for weeks, I could get on and not die.
Who do you train with?
I started Brix under saddle on my own. I was looking around the internet and saw a video of Meredith Risk competing with a Clyde / Hackney cross named Jacob in the I1. I thought why can’t I do that? So when he was almost 4 we started training with Meredith at Nobleton Dressage, and we've been there ever since.
What were your goals then and how have they changed?
My initial goals were to give Brix a good foundation and hone my own dressage skills, and maybe get out to a few schooling shows. When I evented, dressage was something you suffered through to get to cross country. I knew there had to be more to it than that.
Once we started training and competing, my goal changed to seeing how far we could go together. And level after level he kept surprising me, and I kept surprising myself. Our first show at Training Level was in 2014 when Brix was turning 4, and we made our FEI debut at PSG when he was 8. I'm very proud of that progress. My personal goals now are to do a decent Grand Prix at some point, whether it’s on Brixton, or Momo, or another horse.
What is your competitive highlight so far?
My biggest highlight was probably the Saturday I1 at Angelstone last August. I rode a pretty great test (almost clean) and could have cried when I was leaving the ring. It kind of felt like it all came together and Brix tried extra hard for me. It was pretty special.
It's quite rare for an amateur to progress up the levels this far and this quickly, let alone on an "off breed" horse. What's the secret to your success?
Success is progress. Some days that’s nothing more than bending your left elbow and some days it’s getting a clean line of twos.
The biggest factors in attaining success for me have been having an excellent, supportive trainer, and clearly defined goals. Make sure you have a trainer who repeatedly produces the results that you want to attain, both in their own horses and with other amateur clients . Do you like the way the horses go? Do you like the way the trainer rides? Do you share the same philosophy?
You also have to ride as often as you can. Just keep showing up, even when it gets hard. You won’t get to where you want to be without putting in the work.
With respect to preparing for horse shows, watch the pros ride tests in person or on YouTube, including the lower level tests. You may not have the same fancy mover but there is a lot to learn, for instance how they ride their lines, and where they start their movements. It’s a wealth of information.
What have been the biggest obstacles / setbacks for you?
As an amateur, the biggest obstacles are always time and money. Not only does it cost money to care for a horse, and to pay for good quality lessons, training show fees and more, when I am riding, I’m not billing, so I’m not getting paid.
I’ve learned that there are actually enough hours in the day if you wake up early enough. Being super organized helps as well, and planning your day/week out in advance. I also find that riding and being around horses in general gives me the energy to do a great job for my clients, and to be organized at home (although my husband would like to have me around more). Inevitably you will miss social events and get home later than you’d like.
For competing, I save most of my vacation time for the summer so I can have days off before and after the horse show, which makes it less stressful. I am lucky to have a somewhat flexible schedule, and a trainer who will accommodate me. Also if I can’t ride, I know my horse is getting a good training session in with Meredith.
I have been lucky with only a few setbacks with Brix. I had one really bad test in July last year. About 50 people were watching and I could barely keep him from barrelling through the ring. We pretty much just rode the pattern and kind of did some of the movements. I let myself cry for 5 minutes, and then gave him two days off, and then rode the test in my first lesson back. I immediately felt better.
The biggest setback is that Brix currently has an injury. He is supposed to come back 100% but it is hard to lose the season (even if there is no show season due to COVID) and it will be particularly hard getting him in shape again.
What's the best advice you can offer to other amateurs with competitive goals?
My most important advice for amateurs is to (1) work with a good trainer and (2) just ride as often as you can.
Make the time, even if it means waking up at 4:30 am to get to work early so you can make it to the barn in time for a lesson. Don’t miss an opportunity to train if you can help it. And most importantly, enjoy and spend time with your horse; they’re not machines
.Writing for a number of equestrian magazines has given me the amazing opportunity to meet, interview, and feature some of my dressage idols. Almost all the articles I write are about professionals competing at the highest levels of the sport, or rising stars working their way onto the international scene. They are incredible and inspiring athletes, but not necessarily relatable to the average amateur on a budget, with a less than fancy horse, juggling to fit lessons, training time and shows in around work, family, and other commitments.
Amateurs like us represent by far the majority of dressage riders in Canada. Many of us will never compete any higher than First Level - if we even compete at all. We do the best we can with what we have, setting goals that fit our skills, budgets, and available time. If we meet our goals - whatever they may be - then we are successful and should be proud of our accomplishments, no matter how big or how small.
But what about the amateurs who aren't like us? Over the past few years, I have met some amazing Canadian riders who have impressed me with their accomplishments, whether reaching the highest levels of FEI competition or overcoming incredible personal challenges just to get in the saddle. I wanted to profile some of their achievements and their stories, so decided to to start a new blog series called Amateurs (Not) Like Us.
The first amateur in the series has inspired and influenced me personally, so stay tuned for the first installment, featuring Jennifer Black and Brixton. And if you know an incredible Canadian amateur with a great story to share, please let me know!
About the author
I'm a middle-aged, overweight, rusty re-rider who refuses to let any of that get in the way of my passion for dressage.