Multi-talented rider epitomizes camaraderie of West Coast eventing scene.
by Kim F. Miller
Max Gerdes is an equestrian renaissance man. A long-time fixture on the Northern California eventing scene, Max brought his current mount, a previously untamed Thoroughbred named Rhythm Royal, up to Preliminary. Certified as a farrier in his native Germany, he’s been shoeing horses throughout his adult life. And, six years ago, he began serving as a fitter and rep for Devoucoux Saddles.
Max is also a self-described adrenaline junkie. The only break he’s taken from horses was two years pursuing something perhaps more thrilling than cross-county jumping: sky diving.
That’s what brought him to the United States in 1988, at the age of 23. Sky diving instruction is more prevalent here than in Germany, partly due to consistently good weather, so he made the move thinking that teaching the sport and airborn camera work would be his career. However, Max’s immigration status at the time made it tricky to get paid in that field. Plus, after a few years, he missed the horses and decided to return to farrier work.
As a husband and father to he and Lisa’s daughter, 13 year old, Madison, Max has since given up sky diving, but he hasn’t forgotten its similarities to eventing.
“When you first sit on the edge of that open door of the airplane and the wind is blowing, you think, ‘Oh shit. I’m going to die. Then they shove you out and the parachute opens and you think, ‘Oh, that wasn’t so bad’ and ‘I’m really cool, I survived!’ So you go again.
“It’s the same with eventing. There’s always at least two or three jumps that make you want to puke in the start box, and you ask ‘Why am I doing this?’ Maybe I should do show jumping, but then all goes well and when you come through the finish line, you want to do it again!”
Max’s return to the horse world did not stop at farrier work. He began competing, then added the breeding, and later, the saddle work for a life in which work and play are seamlessly blended.
Fellow amateur eventer Terry Hilst says Max epitomizes the camaraderie the West Coast eventing scene is famous for. “From our first meeting 10 years ago, at Eventful Acres, to current, Max has always been encouraging and freely sharing of his knowledge,” says Terry, a member of the organizing team at Camelot Equestrian Park in Butte Valley.
“Max is all about the ‘why not?’,” she continues. “He is creative and will find shoeing solutions to help a horse move better and can always find a way to help.”
“I credit Max for helping me reach higher with my eventing,” she continues. “I am sure I would have never gone Prelim if he hadn’t been right there pushing me forward. Max has also worked very hard to find excellent solutions for saddle issues through his work for Devoucoux. He strives to find solutions that work even if there are physical limitations to horse and/or rider.”
Max enjoys bringing his perspectives as rider, farrier and saddle fitter together for the good of the horse, be it a client’s or a friend’s. “I like the combination of knowledge and to look at the whole horse,” he says. “For instance, about 75 percent of horses with navicular also have hock problems and with that comes, usually, a sore back, and that can get into TMJ issues. You can’t address any of that just from the feet and the saddle won’t fix it all either, so I feel like I am able to do more for my customers.”
When he started shoeing in the States, Max began by volunteering for the University of California Davis Veterinary School, getting up to speed on American shoeing terminology and the language.
Techniques were not very different from what he learned becoming a state licensed farrier in Germany, but how the hooves were put to use was.
“Hunters don’t exist in Germany,” he explains. Saddlebreds, Morgans, Arabians and gaited horses, also, were “all new to me.” He was never a proponent of the shoeing techniques used in some corners of the gaited horse scene, but he did find it educational to learn about those methods.
His biggest lessons came from an ensuing four years doing remedial shoeing for the UC Davis surgery center, treating a variety of cases and enjoying the process of helping horses back to soundness.
Max maintains a full shoeing clientele, but 20 years bending over hooves has taken its toll on his back. When that began, he sought related work that would balance the physical challenge.
He’d long suffered from “Devoucoux envy,” so much so he once bought one used even though it fit neither him nor his horse. “It was a Devoucoux and so I wanted it.” (And he later traded the saddle for a mare that’s become a successful broodmare for Redbud Ranch.) Max parlayed that fixation with the French-made saddles into work fitting and representing the company, beginning in 2009.
Why Devoucoux? “First, there’s nothing like French leather,” he says in a tone that’s more personal passion than sales pitch. “It is soft as butter and grippy and offers a lot of support for your seat.” He saw his first Devoucoux in 2005, long before he could afford one, and was impressed with the “aggressive” placement of its blocks and the monoflap design he had not seen previously. Learning that 2008 Olympic individual silver medalist eventer Gina Miles was sponsored by the company sealed his enthusiasm and he’s ridden in the line’s popular cross-country model, the Chiberta, ever since.
For many years, Max campaigned the Red Bud Ranch Connemara crosses, helping to establish the line in the event community and as nice counterpart to Lisa’s success with them in dressage.
Max jokingly blames the breeding endeavor on their daughter’s entry into horses. “It seemed like the first words they were trying to teach her were ‘expensive pony’,” he laughs. “So, we looked into what expensive ponies were and saw that Connemaras topped that list. What we could afford to buy was a 7-month-old baby, and as he grew up he looked very correct and typey, so we thought maybe we can stand him as a sportpony stallion.
“You know how it goes, if you give a mouse a cookie, then he wants a glass of milk…,” he continues. “So we ended up with the stallion, Wildwych Eclipse, and two broodmares.” Red Bud Crackerjack was one of Eclipse’s first foals, and he and Lisa are very close to earning their U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. Crackerjack’s dam is the now 16 year old approved Hannoverian, Apt To Please.
The marketing aspect of successful stallion ownership was one task too many for the Gerdes at the time, so they sold Eclipse but kept rights to breed to him. Now a gelding, Eclipse is helping 12-year-old eventer Jordan Crabo, professional Barbara Crabo’s daughter, get off to a great start in eventing..
The pairing of Eclipse and Apt To Please has produced other nice offspring for Redbud Ranch, including the 2-year-old colt Redbuds Blue Moon. This year, two of Blue Moon’s babies were sold in utero and he is already booked for four breedings in the upcoming season.
Lisa and Max have different breeding priorities. Lisa prefers purebred Connemara pairings and Max likes crosses to Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods to produce a horse of suitable size for his 5’10” frame.
Out & About
Max typically competes in two events a month, usually also wearing either his saddle fitter or farrier hat. Competing has been especially complementary to his saddle work. “Being a saddle rep, I’ve found that people are sometimes almost afraid of you because they think you are always going to try to sell them something. But it’s different when they see me out there being one of them. Plus, if I’m going to be at a show all day I might as well have a little fun myself!”
His biggest successes were aboard Redbud Moon Rock, by Eclipse and out of another Hannoverian mare, named Palladia, who was since sold. “Rocky” was big as a baby and flashy in a way that breeding judges on the Connemara circuit rewarded from the get-go. At one point, Max and Rocky were ranked seventh nationally at Training Level and Max was on the top 10 list of Master riders. But the Preliminary pace was a bit too much for Rocky, so he’s now leased to a junior rider.
“Going intermediate before I die” is Max’s main riding goal now. He hopes that his current mount, Rhythm Royal, may take him there. Max found “Roy,” as a completely unbroken 4-year-old stallion. He was one of several owned by a local Thoroughbred breeder looking to reduce their herd. “He had literally never been touched, never had his feet touched, never wormed, vaccinated or had a halter on.”
Max had his pick of several horses in similar states, but Lisa picked Roy out, mostly for his picture perfect chestnut coat and three white socks -- much like his blood relation, on the sire and mare side, California Chrome. With help from dressage trainer Heather Whitney, Max started Roy in April of 2013 and, after two- and-a-half months under saddle, entered his first recognized event that June at Inavale in Oregon, then jumped up to Novice at Rebecca Farm that July.
Max had experience with Thoroughbreds but never with one who had not raced.
Coupled with a nice temperament, that’s made Roy a delight to train and a quick study. “He doesn’t grab the bit and run when you pull and he has a steady rhythm on approach to and going away from the jump.” He isn’t the most careful horse, Max continues, but rails don’t rattle him, nor does much else and that’s why it’s been easy to advance him relatively fast. “You can push him a little and he doesn’t get flustered or afraid.”
They are closing in on an Intermediate debut, but after that Max figures he’ll likely allow the horse to fulfill his potential under another rider.
Max has enjoyed seeing the West Coast eventing scene flourish in the last 15 years. When he started in 2000, the Northern California eventing circuit was the CETA (now Woodside Horse Park), Wild Horse Valley, Murietta Rancho and Ramtap (now the Fresno Horse Park) and there were no Three-Stars on the West Coast.
Today, regional eventing options are plentiful. Thriving venues like the Woodside Horse Park, the Camelot Equestrian Park and the Woodland Stallion Station are easy drives for Max, not to mention the longer, but worthwhile hauls to Twin Rivers in Paso Robles, Fresno and numerous Southern California venues.
Beyond California, Oregon, Washington and Montana have substantially beefed up the region’s circuit. The Event at Rebecca Farms, in Kalispell, MT., in particular has become “a Mecca for eventers all around the country,” Max observes. “Rebecca Farms held its first CCI3* this past summer and it filled up with 510 entries in 10 hours.”
All in all, it’s a good time to be an eventer on the West Coast and Max is making the most of that.
Max’s tip for all eventing horses is to wear pads in front. “You never know what the footing is going to be like out there on cross-country and pads provide an extra layer of protection.”
Written by Kim F. Miller
Wednesday, 30 September 2015 23:45