December 2015 - Horse People: Elizabeth Landers
Written by Kim F. Miller
Saturday, 28 November 2015 01:41

Worldly equestrian experiences enlighten a goal of high-level success in jumping and dressage.

by Kim F. Miller

Elizabeth Landers caught our attention when we read that she and her First Level star Liberty had transitioned to dressage from show jumping. It turns out that is only the tip of the iceberg in this USDF Region 7 First Level Freestyle champion’s story.

Elizabeth with His Highness Crusador (left) and Liberty.

Before returning to her native California early this year, Elizabeth had spent two years in Haiti and one in Mexico, making strides for equestrian sports in both locations.

She went to Haiti initially to help the country recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake, then wound up significantly helping the Haitian Equestrian Federation restructure itself and gain a solid foothold in the sport. Under the umbrella of the FEI Solidarity program, Elizabeth provided coaching and secured horses for Haitian show jumping and dressage riders. In addition, she helped develop an Equine Assisted Therapy program and launched Haiti’s first Para Equestrian Dressage effort.

While in the region, she also lent a hand to equestrian efforts in the Dominican Republic, which shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola with Haiti. Later, she spent a year as Mexico’s Eventing Chef d’Equipe.

One of Haiti’s talented riders.

For much of her young adult life, Elizabeth had geared her professional path toward a paycheck big enough to support her passion: horses. As a UCLA student, she got a taste for life in other cultures by studying abroad her junior year.  After graduating, she began what became a very successful career in information technology in Paris. Consulting work took her to China for another year. All the while she managed to keep up with her riding, yet something still seemed missing in her life. “I wanted to do something different.”

So, she headed to Loyola University in Chicago, for graduate study and work in social justice, community development and pastoral studies. When the 7.0 earthquake killed 300,000-plus people in Haiti, she felt compelled to go. While she was completing graduate school, she accompanied a team of doctors and nurses to a remote part of Haiti, about six months after the earthquake.

Reviving The Sport

That volunteer mission and her ensuing months of service in Haiti led to Elizabeth being asked by the then-new Haitian president Michael Martelly’s administration to work on a study of economic growth and development. She welcomed the challenge and held the post for two years. “It was wonderful to put to use these development and social justice skills via public administration.”

Christmas in Haiti, 2012.

While there, she discovered that what had been a good tradition of show jumping in Haiti had dwindled to the point that only one viable riding club existed. She connected with the head of the Haitian Equestrian Federation, Pat Chemaly, and began working with him and others to revive the sport. Elizabeth spent a lot of time coaching riders and used her connections throughout the equestrian world to bring suitable horses into the country. A friend in the Czech Republic, for example, located some wonderful yet affordable horses.

Susie Hutchison visited Haiti in 2013 for a three day clinic.

The fruits of their labors were clear when the Haitian show jumping team won the FEI’s World Jumping Challenge, a program specifically designed to facilitate and grow the sport in developing countries.

In a country recovering from such a devastating earthquake, horses might be considered a luxury. “They are and they are not,” Elizabeth asserts. “To them, (the Haitian equestrians) it’s a passion, and it’s also a means of earning their livelihood.”

During the 2013 Haiti Equestrian Dressage Classic CDN2*, Haitian General Secretary Ximena Vidal told the media how pleased the country was with the growth of equestrian sport as a mechanism for job creation and expressed pride in how well they were doing. “I am very pleased with the rider turnout which was twice the number of riders normally entered in dressage competition in our region. The scores earned during Haiti’s first National Dressage competition were exceptional with over one third of horse and rider combinations earning scores above 70%. We are delighted with these results and will continue our efforts to promote the development of the equestrian sport in Haiti.”

Elizabeth’s experience and coaching credentials enable her to teach at the highest levels, but helping those who otherwise had little to no opportunity to pursue their passion was what drove her and provided the most gratification.

“I was able to plant a lot of seeds from which others nurtured and continued the work,” she explains. “I did a lot of work teaching riders, grooms, trainers, etc in Haiti.” Additionally, her efforts helped to educate the international equestrian community about the situation in Haiti and find way to help. Show jumper Susie Hutchison, was one of many to respond. She visited for a three-day clinic, then returned to her Southern California base and hosted an equipment drive for the Haitian riders and horses she’d met.

Haiti’s first Equine Assisted Therapy program.

The work continues. “Pat Chemaly, the President of the FEH (Haitian Equestrian Federation) has done a stellar job in continuing to push these initiatives forward and make progress all around,” Elizabeth reports. “We both put in a lot of time restructuring  the National Federation and I continue to offer support as a member of the Executive Committee of the FEH.”

Helping establish an Equine Assisted Therapy program in Port-au Prince and launching a Para Equestrian Dressage program in the country are additional points of great pride for Elizabeth.

Along with the people and horses, Elizabeth came to love the Haitian culture. “There is such a sense of community,” she shares. “Because there is so little, when people have something, they share it with the entire family and community. So many people took me in and really appreciated the fact that I was there.”

After Haiti, she participated in the FEI’s coaching program designed to spread good instruction throughout the world. Elizabeth describes the program as similar to the USHJA’s Trainer Certification Program. She was invited to present a clinic at Estado Major, which led to her being asked to coach the Mexico eventing team. She took that post on in 2014, coaching about 16 riders and managing 80 horses toward the goal of qualifying for the Central American & Caribbean Games last fall. There was work to be done. For example, riders were not in the habit of walking the show jumping course before their round. Instead, they figured out the route on the fly by searching out the next fence numbers.

Elizabeth and Liberty showcase their jumping skills.

The team qualified for the Central American & Caribbean Games and then some: earning team silver and Guillermo de Campo finished individual bronze. Along with improvements in the technical aspects of show jumping, dressage scores improved dramatically on her watch: three of the team’s scores were in the 70s at FEI level work.

Back Home With New Goals

Elizabeth had Liberty with her in Haiti, but there wasn’t much time to focus on her own riding during that stretch. Back in California since the start of this year, Elizabeth is enjoying being focused fully on that and on the development of her horses, Liberty and His Highness Crusador.

She and Liberty were First Level Freestyle Championship at the USDF Region 7 Championships in Sacramento and followed up with third and seventh in the USDF 1st Level Open Championships held in Kentucky last month. His Highness Crusador, aka “Fred,” was Reserve Champion 3rd Level Freestyle in Kentucky.

Fred is currently schooling Prix St Georges and Elizabeth believes he has plenty of international potential. When she bought him in Germany a few years ago, he’d been owned by an amateur who let him get away with a lot. “It took me about a year to put the buttons on him and he’s now become much more consistent. In a year or two, I think he’s going to be dynamite.”

Her two horses are quite different: Fred is lazy, and Liberty, who doubles as a show jumper, is lively. “She comes out of the corner going ‘Where’s the jump?’” Elizabeth’s goal is to continue the Oldenburg mare in both disciplines, ideally, at Grand Prix level in both. “I think she has the potential to do that.”

Talking course strategy with Haitian show jumpers.

Her equestrian upbringing prepared her to excel in both disciplines. Her “wonderful horsemanship education” began with Jimmy Williams and his then-assistant trainer Susie Hutchison at the Flintridge Riding Club. She did the famous jump chute, riding blindfolded and without reins and stirrups.

Elizabeth finished out her junior years under Karen Healey’s tutelage, shortly after Karen moved out to the West Coast. Along with that came frequent clinics with the master, George Morris, Karen’s mentor.  Throughout those years, she was never “officially” taught dressage yet still received a “wonderful dressage education” from these hunter/jumper legends.

Hunter/jumper trainers weren’t talking about the German Training Scale as a coaching tool, but they were talking about rhythm and elasticity and thus she’s always found common ground in the two disciplines.

She added “official” dressage training to that base later while working with 1976 Olympic bronze medalist Hilda Gurney. “That’s when I got really interested in dressage,” she reflects. “I thought I knew what dressage was, but in reality I had no idea.”

Looking ahead to her unusual goal of success at the highest levels in both show jumping and dressage, Elizabeth has no qualms about dreaming big and following her heart.

“We put so many constraints on ourselves in this day and age,” she reflects. “Follow your heart and your gut and listen to that voice inside you. As bizarre or odd as my story might seem, I’ve never gone wrong when I’ve done that.”