August 2020 - The Gallop: Diversity in Dressage
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Monday, 03 August 2020 05:13


All colors, breeds and body types find their footing in an equal opportunity discipline.

by Kim F. Miller

As the equestrian industry seeks ways to increase diversity and inclusion among riders, they might be heartened by the fact that, at least with horses, it’s possible. While Warmbloods still dominate dressage, their big dramatic movements aren’t the only game in town when it comes to entering the winners circle.

At the highest levels of the sport, Baroque breeds led the way in giving Warmbloods a run for their money. Dressage trainer Allison Mathy has campaigned these breeds for many years, with a special focus on Lusitanos for the last several. In the last major dressage competition in Europe before coronavirus shut things down, “the most prominent breed was Lusitanos,” she reports.   “And the Lusitano Breed Association was ranked fifth in the world in the international dressage scene.


“In European countries, some of the top riders are competing and making international teams with Lusitanos,” she continues. “We’ve yet to have a Baroque horse make the team in the United States., but we have some really good quality horse flesh here and I think it’s going to happen in the next few years.”


As a general rule, Allison has noticed the judging of Baroque breeds at the international level “become increasingly objective.” At lower levels of competition, some prejudicial judging still exists, she shares, but nowhere near as much as in the past.

Legendario. Photo: Tupa

Arabians Are A-OK!

Susanne Lanini, DVM, heard plenty about prejudices in dressage judging over many years campaigning her recently-retired Arabian, Just In Kayce, in Open competition. Yet, she never personally experienced it. “Everybody has been so welcoming,” says the small animal veterinarian and amateur dressage rider from Rancho Cucamonga. “It’s been very uplifting.”

It may have helped that “Dr. Suzi” and Justin began their dressage track with two very open-minded trainers, Sarah Lockman and Sabine Schut-Kery. Sarah’s acceptance of a new client with a sight-unseen Friesian led to her partnership with Summit Farm’s owner Gerry Ibanez. And, Sabine launched her career in the U.S. training Proud Meadow Friesians for both exhibition work and Open dressage competition. Sarah and Sabine rode to their current fame on Warmbloods, but their enthusiasm for the idea that all horses can benefit from and fulfill their potential through correct dressage training inspires students and fans alike.

“When I work with Suzi and Justin, it reminds me and inspires me that you don’t have to have a huge budget for a fancy horse,” Sabine told Arabian Horse Life Magazine last fall. “Having ridden non-traditional dressage breeds most of my life, Suzi reminded me that any horse and any breed will benefit from the correct training of dressage and what a gift it is to be passionate about training horses.”

Sabine first met Dr. Suzi and Justin while teaching a clinic. “The two of them caught my attention because she was riding an Arabian, and it’s not like he came into the ring with this fancy, huge movements we see nowadays that everyone is attracted to. I was more impressed with how correct he was and his good quality gaits and how carefully and thoughtfully he was trained and ridden.” Top 3 Fourth Level Adult Amateur finishes at the 2018 CDS Championship was one of many highlights of Dr Suzi and Justin’s career. Those came alongside Justin being an Ambassador for the Arabian Horse Association, riding in the Rose Parade, being a breed circuit star and doing volunteer Mounted Patrol work in San Bernardino County.

Thys. Photo: Meg McGuire Photography


Even if judging prejudices and the occasional sidelong glance were non-existent for those campaigning an “unconventional” breed in dressage, there are physical and training challenges when it comes to excelling in the discipine.

Stephanie Freeland encountered those when she trained and campaigned the Norwegian Fjord horse, FMF Rivoire, aka “William.” In between working for Helgstrand Dressage in Florida and Sabine Schut-Kery in California, Stephanie spent a six-month break in her native Indiana. Her mother had leased William from a friend and Stephanie tried him out.

“Everything we did he just picked up on,” she explains. “He was an easy horse to ride and we started putting some movement and actual training on him.” With only six months of that work, he went from Training Level to getting 70s at Second Level and to contesting the National Dressage Pony Cup last summer at Lamplight Equestrian Center near Chicago.

Fjords are one of the world’s oldest breeds, originally bred for farm work and known as sturdy, tough and agile. Their good temperaments have made them popular as riding horses in more recent times, but they are rare in dressage. “Even though they are more of a driving horse, William is built for dressage at the lower levels,” Stephanie says. “His neck is pretty and he can prance around.” Physically, collected work was more of a struggle for him, but “He never said ‘no’ and that’s what told me he could go on with more training.”


Prior to coronavirus, William’s owner was planning to send him to Southern California, where Stephanie’s training business is based at El Campeon Farms in Hidden Valley. “When I last sat on him, he was doing Third Level work and we felt there could be a little Fourth Level work possible.”

Welcome was her main feeling from fellow exhibitors and judges, Stephanie shares. Scores needed to qualify for the Pony Cup year-end show were earned against Warmbloods in most cases. At First and Second Level, William earned points for “steady, solid rides,” she says. Mistakes due to spookiness were never an issue. Judges regularly complimented his consistency and “very cute” was a constant comment. Constructive criticism from the judge’s box included “make sure he stays working from behind.”

“The way his neck looks, it looks like he’s always round, but I have to make sure that it’s not fake roundness,” Stephanie explains. “I have to keep working on rhythm, tempo and connection.”

Stephanie sensed William was sometimes initially dismissed as “Oh, just some little fat pony” by fellow exhibitors, but his trot quickly dispelled that. “It’s like a Warmblood’s. It leaves you in the air trying to sit it! Everybody is super welcoming and excited to see something different. That has been great!”

Stephanie’s personal horse is a Haflinger, so she’s accustomed to standing out at gatherings where Warmbloods dominate. Her Haflinger “does a little bit of everything.” That includes Working Equitation, which shares many training principles with classical dressage.

One Fine Friesian

Cameron Wyman had zero familiarity with or interest in Friesians when shopping for a horse with upper level dressage potential five years ago.  Yet, a video of the Friesian stallion, Thys, caught her attention so strongly she made the purchase without traveling to meet him in person. They have since contested three North American Youth Championships for Region 6, including last year in the Young Rider division.

“He is an awesome representation of the breed,” says Cameron, a Cal Poly student and a working student for Allison Mathy’s Lyric Dressage in Templeton. On that video, he showed “a lot of flamboyance and seemed to have all the ability to do the upper levels. And, he was in our price range.”

Cameron was 16 at the time and had only done lower level work. They’ve been gradually progressing up the levels together. This year, they had planned to come out at Intermediare II had the show season run as normal. Now riding as a professional, Cameron is aiming for the U25 Brentina Cup tour next year.

Allison Mathy & Legendario.

Originating from the Netherlands, where they served as medieval war, farm work and cart horses, Friesians tend toward dramatic front-end knee action. Getting the hindquarter engagement needed for throughness throughout the test is a challenge, Cameron notes. “It’s common for the breed that they are powered from the front end, so the biggest challenge is the collected work.”

Now a working student for Lyric Dressage, Cameron and Allison often compare notes on the different rides needed for different breeds. “You have to work differently to get the correct throughness in their body,” Cameron says. “It’s challenging because you have to be more solid in your own body to get them to put their body in the way a Warmblood’s body more naturally goes into.”

Thys is a colorful character. “He stands out, usually in a good way,” Cameron says with a laugh. “He knows he is special and lets everybody know.” He is often one of the loudest on the show grounds, and loves saying hi to the ladies, but is overall a very manageable stallion. Exhibitors recognize him from show to show, when he is often the only Friesian or Baroque breed in attendance. At last summer’s NAYC, however, he wasn’t alone. A USDF Region 1 rider, Emma Teff, contested the Junior division on an Andalusian, Ugo JV, and Annika Tedlund of Region 4, came out on Eclipse BR, an Andalusian, in the Young Rider division.

Very outgoing and friendly around the barn, Thys is Cameron’s “heart horse.” His flamboyant presence in the ring is matched by a remarkable work ethic. “What really makes him enjoyable is that he loves to work,” she explains.

Cameron occasionally hears fellow riders say they are taking the Friesian breed more seriously after seeing Thys in action and many say they are more open minded to breeds beyond Warmbloods for dressage. She also occasionally hears people say their scores should have been higher. “I get that a lot. It doesn’t bug me, but it is noticeable.”

FMF Rivoire, aka “William” & Stephanie Freeland. Photo: John Borys Photography

Social Support

Allison Mathy credits social media with helping accelerate the Baroque breeds’ popularity in the States and elsewhere. “Twenty years ago, the information you got about these breeds came from a book or because you went to Spain or Portugal and saw them in person. Along with consistent success at the international level, there is a lot more visibility thanks to social media. Everyone is posting videos and photos and people can see them live and in action.”

Allison, too, has gone from being the only one a Baroque horse to seeing them much more frequently on the Open dressage circuit. While she continues to ride and train various breeds, she has become aligned with the Lusitanos in particular. “The Portuguese and Brazilians continue to breed for sport,” she observes. “They have great minds, strong backs and a proclivity for dressage because of their strength, agility and confident minds.”

Dr. Suzi Lanini and Just In Kayce. Photo: Nancy Albright

In her own riding, Allison is excited about debuting the approved Lusitano stallion, Vaquarius CD, at Grand Prix soon. And, a new 6-year-old stallion, Legendário dos Diamantes, is poised for the 6-Year-Old Championships at the California Dressage Society Championships in September.  

With her business partner, Brazilian rider and judge Andre Ganz, Allison enjoys seeing Lusitanos make new fans regularly. It’s good for all levels of the sport. “For amateurs, the more quality horses we have for our clients, the better. Lusitanos are lovely to ride. They are so willing.”

Especially for those who find a Warmblood’s big movements no longer enjoyable, but still want to compete at the higher levels of dressage. “It’s a different mindset,” she concludes. “Lusitanos are partners. They want to please and to do a good job.”

Moreover, the Baroque breeds may be paving the way for inclusion of different colors and body types with whom the pursuit of dressage can be fully rewarding and successful.
The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .