April 2017 - Craig Stanley: Wrong Saddle, Right Stuff

Australian musters his way into national dressage spotlight with natural knack and special gifts with young horses.

by Kim F. Miller

For his first entry into a competitive dressage court, Craig Stanley wore tan-colored jeans, cowboy boots and the coat in which he was married. He didn’t have the right stuff in a sartorial sense, but he had oodles of the more important kind.

“He had that analytical dressage brain, incredible feel and wonderful timing,” recalls Melissa Creswick, a Grand Prix dressage rider, trainer and judge. “He just didn’t have the right saddle.”

Craig Stanley and Habanero CWS on their way to 4-Year-Old domination at the Markel/USEF FEI Young Horse Dressage National Championships in Chicago last year. Photo: Susan Stickle

Craig and Caliente DG.

That was her assessment of the Australian cowboy a friend recommended when hip replacement surgery left Melissa unable to start her 4-year-old Friesian/Thoroughbred mare Graceful Times.

At that first show, Craig rode Graceful Times to a 76 score in a walk/trot test. Today, Craig’s median score with Young Horses is 79.2, according to www.centerlinescores.com. And he’s parlayed his gift with young horses to remarkable successes these last few years.

Riding the mare he purchased as a 2-year-old, Caliente DG, Craig earned his USDF Silver Medal in 2015 and was the Federation’s Intermediare I Reserve National Champion in 2016. He racked up even more titles on Caliente’s first baby, Habanero CWS, by Idocus. Habanero was the Markel/USEF FEI Young Horse Dressage National Four-Year-Old Champion, USDF Four Year Old Horse of the Year and California Dressage Society Four Year Old Futurity Champion, Cal Bred Futurity and Opening Training Champion.

Melissa is proud to have mentored Craig throughout the last decade. “For the first three to five years, I did coach him, but when you have that kind of talent, you really don’t teach somebody; you guide them.”

Australian Upbringing

“Mustering cattle” was Craig’s main form of riding growing up mostly in Queensland, in the northeast of Australia. “I did learn how to stay on, pull to turn and chase a cow, but nothing like riding for the show ring,” he explains. At one point he bought a “supposedly well-bred” Appaloosa, with whom he did well in reined cow horse competition and even dabbled in english riding through “a little bit of Pony Club.”

Australian horseman Ian Francis, also from Queensland, was an important mentor to Craig as he pursued western riding and “camp drafting,” a popular family event in Australia. Somewhat similar to American cow horse competition, it involves working a cow through a set course in a huge arena and preventing the cow’s escape from the ring.

Although he employed his mentor’s teaching in the context of western disciplines then, Craig sees Ian’s horsemanship as broadly applicable. “He was way in front of his time and a very good thinker,” Craig says of Ian, who also influenced popular natural horseman Clinton Anderson. One lasting lesson for the future dressage star was that “nobody is inventing anything” when it comes to horsemanship. Rather, it’s a matter of learning how horsemen have accomplished things in the past and, often as he progresses further in the sport, being open to relearning things that may have been forgotten.

Craig’s first trip to the States came at the invitation of an American woman visiting the stable where he kept his horse. She lived and owned Arabians in the Central Valley’s Madera, so that’s where Craig headed in the early 1990s to try his hand as a professional horseman. “It was a big leap of faith in myself,” he laughs in retrospect. “It was a big learning curve once you start working with multiple horses. I was winging it.” He stayed for one year before returning to Australia, but made friends and contacts that set the stage for getting work with horses during later visits and, eventually, his permanent return in 1999.

“I didn’t plan on doing horses full time,” says Craig, whose previous trade was plumbing. “But I had a little bit of a reputation and once people heard that I was here, I was able to earn money doing it. As time went on, I tended to get more competition-minded clients and better-bred horses. Nothing happened overnight. I kept working to improve myself and it just kind of snowballed.”

By then Craig had met and married Brenda Linman, DVM, whose practice in Madera serves horses of all breeds and backgrounds. She’s also an amateur dressage rider and a fulltime enthusiast. That helped spread the word about his work, as did his success with Melissa’s Graceful Times and Fumiko Yamazaki’s Utmost. He started both and took them to Second Level. Melissa continued her mare’s career up to Grand Prix, where they debuted in 2012.

CWS Breeding Brand

By the early 2000s, Craig appreciated the opportunities Melissa and many others had given him with their horses – in dressage and western disciplines. He also realized that he wanted at least one horse he could hope to keep the ride on. That meant purchasing a prospect.

“I wonder if there was a bit of luck that led me to Cali (Caliente),” he says. He mulled over many pedigrees and horses, but hadn’t got much past deciding that it should be young and a mare. He came across Cali in a back pasture at the renowned Dutch Warmblood breeding program, DG Bar Ranch, in nearby Hanford.

Craig and his wife, Brenda Linman, DVM, with a friend at Yosemite.

“She was not the most attractive horse,” he confesses of the 007/Cantango mare. “But I looked at her videos and bloodlines and I liked the way she moved. She was not extravagant, just really good.” It took Craig six weeks to decide to buy her, with help from knowing nudges from his wife and Melissa once they saw the mare and her breeding.

“It was nerve wracking,” he recalls of investing in the mare with whom he is now on track for a Grand Prix debut. “You’re taking a big chance. The horse hasn’t gone under saddle yet and a lot of things can change when that happens.” Once he could ride her, Cali’s quality was unmistakable. “There were people who saw it in her long before I knew and their predictions came true, but I didn’t realize early on what she was going to be.”

The national titles earned with Caliente and Habanero have helped put Craig’s name on the map, but they weren’t the result of laser-focused goals at the outset of each season. “The original goal is for them to go as good as they can go,” he says. “Which is not to say you don’t try to kick yourself when it becomes possible!” As reserve champ, Cali was just a .2 points off the USDF I1 HOY title in 2016.

Habanero has younger half siblings out of Cali, all carrying on their mother’s “hot streak” in the naming department, along with Craig’s initials, per common breeders’ practice. There’s Infinity CWS, by Wynton and named after the hottest chili pepper in the world, and Kayenne CWS, by Negro; 4- and 2-year-olds, respectively. A 2014 foal, Jalisco CWS, also by Negro, was named after the location where hot sauce originated, but sadly passed as a yearling.

Infinity CWS, by Wynton and out of Caliente DG.

Along with Habanero, the young horses are for sale, but if a youngster stays with the program, Craig will be happy to campaign them up through the ranks.

What Comes Naturally

The stream of outside horses coming into Craig’s program in Central California’s Madera is steadily increasing, as are requests for clinics. “It’s not like the phone is ringing off the hook, but it’s all been positive,” says the modest horseman.

He’s enjoyed the clinics he’s given so far, but finds he’s more at ease with ground-based clinics than with riding instruction. The need to articulate techniques in an under-saddle clinic have led him to “ask certain people a lot of questions to understand some of the things I seem to do by muscle memory,” he explains. “But you have to ask the right people. It’s not about having people tell me how well I’m doing something, it’s having them tell me what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.”

Groundwork is much easier to explain because it’s a foundation of the horsemanship Craig learned from Ian Francis. It’s all predicated on the idea that when a horse respects its handler from the ground, that respect and responsiveness translate to under saddle work. He is sometimes surprised to see that many riders in the english disciplines haven’t made that connection. “Half of Clinton Anderson’s message is about what happens before you ever get in the saddle,” he says.

“But in the english world, that’s not the case.”

His early days chasing cattle through the hills gave him “a basic core of staying on” that translates well to sticking with the many youngsters he’s started. It wasn’t so helpful for the posture sought in the dressage court, though. “Having the same posture for both is not safe or comfortable. You’ve got to adapt, which can be a hard thing. Over time, you learn to sit according to how it feels. It’s been a little bit harder for me to learn to sit up, but I’d rather be an effective rider than a pretty rider. Everybody knows I’ll never be the prettiest rider anyway!”

Effectiveness should take him far. “He is super talented and a lot of the FEI judges would like to see him do the CDIs,” says Melissa. Whether he does that or not, Craig will likely keep gaining friends and fans in ever-wider dressage circles. “In addition to being a fantastic talent, he has the ability to learn and to listen and that’s what makes everybody like him so much,” the judge concludes.