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. The ability to ride is necessary before you even start learning dressage. It becomes a quest for perfection that you’ll never reach…and you don’t mind. The satisfaction of a good ride or a good lesson or something the horse has learned well that day is magic. And it’s what we keep coming back for. The unity—when you and the horse flow—it really and truly is magic.

I don’t know why, but this sport appeals mostly to women. You can’t use your strength against the horse, and a lot of men try to. Many of the men at the upper levels are gay. You have to be extra sensitive and gentle. Dressage is very, very much a dance.

People say riding horses is dangerous. I fell off horses all the time after I started, but I was never seriously hurt. Just one injury. In ‘68, I broke my wrist when a borrowed horse bucked me off. I have a friend with two girls who do gymnastics who have a lot more injuries than I’ve had in 50 years.

Fi takes a lesson from an Olympic trainer

Fi takes a lesson from an Olympic trainer

But I can read horses. I take the time to learn about the horses and am always present when I’m around them. I teach and see people all the time who are just grooming horses, but are talking to others about shopping and are distracted and get stepped on or kicked. It’s because the horse is scared or surprised and the handler hasn’t noticed the warning signs.

Horses do warn you—they tighten the muscles in their bodies and move their ears. You can read their body language. So you better pay attention.

I took a lot of lessons and training to become a teacher, but turning my avocation into my business was not my first choice. Teaching can take the soul out of riding. It’s very difficult to teach people in America. Here it’s a hodge-podge. There’s no licensing. Anyone can hang up a shingle. People hire a teacher because “I like her and had a drink with her, so I will let her teach me.” There is no system here as there is in Europe.

Over there, there’s a set of rules. Everyone teaches the same way. You have to get your license and have horse insurance. You can’t get insurance without the license—here in the US you can. The age old training system is why the Europeans usually beat the Americans in international competitions and in the Olympics. All our riding squads are sent to Europe to prepare for international competition.

My mentor, Richard Uhlmann was a perfectionist. He learned and honed his craft at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. He would come here from Europe for six months each year. He just died a few weeks ago.

I took years of training with him being stern with me. I put my heart and soul into it. He pushed me to places I didn’t think I could go. I cried. Dragged my ass off the ground. I’ve been shut out and worn out. The agony of defeat, but it worked. He never lost his sense of humour with me, he really knew I could do it. I loved him for that.

And then it started to come. You have to really want it to get it. That’s what it takes in any sport. Most people don’t want it that much…and I don’t blame them, whether it’s tennis, swimming or other sports. Of course you have to have a certain amount of talent.

But didn’t FDR say he’d take a hard-working person over a talented one who didn’t bother as much?

I read in the New York Times that John Irving taught English. He was asked why his writing improved from one book to the next. He said, “I was teaching and only able to write just 2-3 hours a day. Then I stopped teaching and wrote 10 hours a day. It was that practice that made all the difference.” Honing your skill is everything. It’s a life lesson. Riding, competing, taking care of your horse teaches compassion. It’s all about life. It’s very good for the soul. No time to lie around and be depressed. You have to get off the couch and take care of your horses first.

In 2000 I was the HorseMaster for the Sydney paralympic team tryouts. My job for the week was to help match strange horses and new challenged riders in order for them to compete to see who would make the US Paralympic Team. That led to quite a bit of teaching in a therapeutic riding program on Long Island for many years—another challenge, working with some amazing people.

I’ve had this farm in New Jersey for six years now. I have four horses here—two boarders and two of mine: Digger, who’s now retired, and my daughter Ava’s pony, Whinnie the Pooh. I plan to return to London, where Ava is in school. If I did get into teaching there, I’d renew my license. But I’d never own a farm again, have so much physical work and be so tied down. It’s time for me to move on and hopefully go back to dressage as an Amateur again.