April 2019 - Horse People: Claire Manhard
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Friday, 29 March 2019 02:04
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San Diego up-and-comer makes steady progress toward international goals.

by Kim F. Miller

This is Claire Manhard’s final year of eligibility for Brentina Cup U25 dressage competition and she is poised to make the most of it. Since graduating college in December of 2017, the San Diegan has been making her mark on the upper level dressage scene. She and 15 year old Danish Warmblood, Wilfonia, began 2018 at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Florida, competing at Intermediare II. By August, they had qualified for their first USEF Young Adult Brentina Cup Dressage National Championships in the Chicago area, where they finished fourth overall and third in the U25 Grand Prix.

Closer to home, Claire and Wilfonia, and youngster Carolo, had strong outings at the San Diego CDS Championships and Spooktacular. Most recently, Claire and Wilfonia won the U25 Grand Prix at Week III of the Adequan West Coast Dressage Festival in early March.

She’s juggling her pursuit of a return to the Brentina Cup National Championhips with working nearly full time and applying to graduate school. Armed with a degree in biology and a writing minor, Claire works for a biotechnology company in San Diego. She explained her dedication to riding during the job interview and is grateful for the chance to ride in the early mornings regularly before going to work. In training with Guenter Seidel and Sarah Christy at Wildflower Farm in Encinitas, Claire rides Wilfonia and 6 year old Carolo daily and appreciates the chance to be fully committed to one sport.

Before starting college at Northeastern University in Boston, she rode as seriously as she could while also playing high school volleyball at an elite level. The time commitment required to become a recruited Division 1 NCAA player left only a few days a week for riding. Initially, she pursued the idea of continuing riding during college, but decided it was not realistic to juggle it with what is typically the equivalent of a part-time job as an NCAA student athlete.

Two shoulder surgeries changed all that going into Claire’s junior year. She retired from volleyball and resumed riding during her last two years of college.

An Athlete’s Perspective

She started riding at about 6 and zeroed in on dressage at an unusually young age when her non-horsey mother decided it was safer than jumping and other disciplines. The fact that her trainer had a suitably-sized dressage horse for the now 5’11” rider also influenced that decision. Unlike some young riders, she never found dressage boring or unappealing, but she recalls wishing there were more kids doing it along with her.

With riding playing second fiddle to volleyball through high school, Claire was dedicated to her horses but not super serious about show results or very aware of her potential in the sport. Years later in Boston, Jane Karol helped Claire realize her potential in the sport and Claire’s nature as a focused, serious athlete helped her maximize it.

While riding and volleyball don’t have much in common physically, the experience of being a collegiate athlete carries into the dressage court. “I consider riding as a serious sport,” Claire reflects. “I work out almost every day to strengthen my body for riding and I take care of my horses the same way you take care of a human athlete.”

Along with exercises to strengthen her scapula in the wake of shoulder injuries, Claire prioritizes core strength in her work-outs. BOSU Ball Balance work, plus the cardio of running with her dog, are work-out foundations, she says. For her horses, ultrasound, massage and ice therapy are part of both horses’ regular routines.

An out-going, easy-going nature balances Claire’s serious approach to riding, reports her coach Guenter. He didn’t know her well when they embarked on the European horse shopping trip that resulted in buying Wilfonia and recalls “being a little worried about silences in the car and other potentially awkward moments on a trip like that.” Those were wasted worries. “She’s a really fun person to be with, and very smart with a great sense of humor.”

Long legs are among the traits that comprise Claire’s natural ability as a rider. They are supported by her diligence and belief in the importance of establishing good basics, Guenter notes. “You could torture her for an hour-and-a-half and she would never complain!” She has lofty goals, but understands that continuing education and experience are essential to reaching them.

Learning & Bonding

Thrilled to be chosen to ride in the Isabell Werth clinic last October, Claire made the most of the opportunity in a setting that was a tad intimidating for herself and Wilfonia.

“I’d never ridden with more than one person watching me at a clinic!” she notes of the clinic at Ad Astra Stables in Encinitas, where the dressage court was surrounded with sold-out spectator seating. She found Isabell not as intimidating as many thought she might be and loved the focus on basics over flashy movements. “You can’t do the movements without suppleness, impulsion, and other basic things.”

Much of what Isabell instructed was very similar to what Claire hears from Guenter, but hearing the concepts expressed differently and attempting to execute what Isabell asked in a tense environment were constructive challenges.

“My mare is not spooky, but she does get anxious and when she does, it manifests as her being heavy and not listening to my leg,” Claire explains. “It was cool to work through that in a lesson setting.”

She was well prepared from riding with Guenter. He’s a tough task master with riders, like Isabell, and is an expert at “finessing around a horse’s hard spots without making them angry or upset. He is very understanding of the horse’s abilities and weaknesses and gets the best out of both horse and rider.”

Guenter was impressed with how well Claire handled riding in front of perennial #1 ranked dressage star, but not surprised. “She’s a very cool cucumber.”

Claire believes part of her bond with Wilfonia began during a nearly year-long injury rehab that began shortly after the mare was purchased in Holland in late 2016. Wilfonia had been shown through Grand Prix in Holland by Miriam Hollander, but she and Claire were just getting acquainted when an injury occurred. Claire handled most of the time-consuming rehab herself: hand-walking and cold-hosing her legs, plus simply spending time with her in the stall.

“She’s an anxious horse sometimes and I don’t really think she trusted me before that,” Claire says. While getting healthy, the mare also learned a few tricks: to speak, give kisses, and lift her right or left hoof on command. Early in the rehab process, Claire said “speak” every time Wilfonia neighed. Eventually, it began to work the other way around. “She is the sweetest horse ever and she’s really smart!”

Wilfonia’s stablemate Carolo, aka “Carlos,” is also a sweetheart, and a 17hh “puppy dog.” The 6-year-old Holsteiner is giving Claire her first experience bringing a young horse along and the learning curve is steep in a wonderful way, she says. “It’s harder than I realized, but it’s also really fun when he gets something right. It’s a rewarding experience.”

Carlos is by Catoo, the first Holsteiner to win 4-year-old stallion riding horse champion honors at the Bundeschampionat. His dam is by Clearway, a well-known Holsteiner jumper sire. He accompanied Wilfonia to Wellington last winter and has so far taken in each new show situation with remarkable aplomb for a youngster. At the West Coast Dressage Festival, Claire was thrilled with Carlos’ near 66% score in their first Second Level, Test 3, outing.

Another exciting horse development is the expected arrival of a foal in July. It will be out of Heiress L, aka “Luna,” a Hanoverian produced by two horses from Leatherdale Farm: the dam Ms. Welthana II and the renowned breeding program’s late stallion, His Highness. Luna was formerly ridden by Claire’s 16-year-old sister, Maggie, who recently opted to follow the volleyball-only path a little earlier than Claire did. Luna is in foal to KWPN sire Vitalis. All involved are excited about the results.

This month, Claire’s plans include Week IV of the Adequan West Coast Dressage Festival at Galway Downs in Temecula, then the Del Mar National. She hopes that a European tour and a return to the Brentina Cup Finals will pan out in the summer. As for graduate school, UC San Diego and San Diego State University cap her wish list as either would enable continuity in her dedicated approach to dressage and to representing the United States at the sport’s highest levels.