Horses have been part of my life most of my life. My father rode, my mother rode. My grandfather was absolutely passionate about horses. He was the British ambassador in Honduras and was able to get heavily into polo ponies…civil service allowed you to live the grand life. He had nothing—no money, an old car. Broke his hip riding a polo pony in his 80’s. That was chips for his riding. The end.

Fiona L'Estrange and Digger before their dressage demonstration at the 2002 Belmont Stakes

Fiona L'Estrange and Digger before their dressage demonstration at the 2002 Belmont Stakes

So I came by my love of horses honestly. In the genes. Always ridden since under age 10. Rode at boarding school. We had a house in London, where I grew up, lots of friends who rode and took lessons, and I went with them. I borrowed a pony when I was 11 and then graduated to horses.

I still take lessons—you have to, even those at the Olympic level have trainers. You always need eyes on the goal, especially with a horse you’re piloting. That’s what makes riding such a difficult sport.

“Horses are extraordinary and unique. No other animal could be so misjudged, mishandled, mistreated and abused and still try to serve willingly and to the best of it’s ability.”

People are always trying to make the horse submit. They shouldn’t do that. They try to make the horse think like a human. It doesn’t work out so well. You have to learn to read the horse and have a working partnership. The best riders know how to ask a horse to be his best. It’s the only way to have a great partnership. It’s a great feeling, I think for both horse and rider, when a session goes really well.

When I was growing up and through my teens, mostly riding in woods and fields, we played hunting games, like egg and spoon, balancing while galloping, sack races (hopping alongside the horse). It took lots of skill, practice and training. We had bending poles races (you weave left and right around them), relay races, teams. It teaches you to work together. I participated in Pony Club……it was all huge fun.

When I was 19, I came to America. There was a bit of hiatus while I was getting adjusted. I lived with a race car driver who traveled to various tracks around the country, so I decided to get back into riding during these race weekends–then suddenly I was riding around the New York area during the week too.

I also hunted both in the UK and here. The staff wear pink coats so that you can clearly see them in the field. They keep the hunt together. The Master leads the entire field. The Whippers-in are responsible for the hounds. The rest of us are in black jackets and tan britches.

In my early 20’s, I did a little bit of hunting in Rhinebeck, NY and took lessons at Claremont Stables in Central Park (in Manhattan at 89th street) for about a year and a half—sadly it has since closed.

I had a full-time job then as a Production Executive. I was up at 5-6 am and rode in Central Park on a thoroughbred I’d leased from an illustrator’s representative. Then I’d be at my office job by 9 or 9:30. Did that 5-6 days a week. When that horse developed arthritis, he was retired to a place that had a horse named Melly who was headed for the slaughterhouse. I bought him. My first horse.

Fiona and Digger cantering

Fiona and Digger cantering

Even though I was traveling for consulting business then to Japan and Italy, I started competing in dressage and eventing. Eventing is a real discipline—it is dressage, cross country, then show jumping all with the same horse and rider, all in one day—a true challenge for all.

I still like to gallop and jump, but not in competition. When you jump in eventing, the heights go from about 2’6” to nearly 4’. To be competitive, you also have to be concerned with speed. In the cross country phase, you go from light to dark and dark to light. You go up and down hills, all at the same speed. There are penalties for going over the allotted time.

In my late 20’s, I evolved into just doing dressage. I am mostly teaching just dressage now. For the most part, I won’t take people’s money to teach them to jump at a higher level—other trainers do it better.

After Melly died, I bought my second horse, Julian, who was largely unbroken, but turned into a really good eventer. Then two years later I sold him to a friend and bought Digger.

Digger and I have had 21 years of loving time together. I bought him as an unbroken two year old and did all the work with him myself. We entered major competitions and won major awards. In June 2002, we were invited by an Olympic judge to demonstrate dressage at the Belmont Park track in Long Island, NY, between races and just before the Belmont Stakes. A friend of mine created an audio using Shrek music, “I’m a Believer, sung by Eddie Murphy—did you realize there is a Princess Fiona in the Shrek movies? It was fabulous and fabulous fun to ride on that track in front of apparently 6 million people, both spectating and watching on tv! Actually I’ll bet most of the tv watchers were either in the loo or at the fridge!

on the track at Belmont Park

on the track at Belmont Park

There were so many friends, travel, fun and incidences. And it was a ton of work. We did well at the Devon horse show, the biggest dressage and breeding show in the country. Four exhausting days of competition in Devon, Pennsylvania. Amateurs can compete against professionals. Once I began teaching, I couldn’t be considered an amateur. So I am competing against many Olympic riders most of which are riding horses that cost a small fortune! You can pick your classes, but not who’s in them.

In dressage classes, you compete for a score, not just 1st, 2nd, 3rd through 6th. There is no money for winning. You are competing against yourself. 100% is perfect, but no one in the history of dressage has ever reached that. The highest so far is 82%, and my best was a 71%. There are from 7-28 movements in each test, and each one is graded 1 to 10. Then it’s all totaled and converted to a percentage.

What I love about dressage is that it’s very intellectual, a thinking person’s sport. Read the rest of this entry »

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