One-on-one with Evi Strasser

Get to know this Canadian Olympian, as she discusses factors in her success and strategies for developing young horses.
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Dressage Olympian Evi Strasser has a long list of successful young horses developed to the international level. A competitive skier, Evi immigrated from Germany to Canada in 1988 and became a Canadian citizen in December 1994. Upon arriving in Canada, Evi worked for Knight & Dawn Stables in Québec. There she found European horses for the owner to buy for her to break, train and show. 

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi Strasser and Renaissance Tyme, her 13-year-old Oldenburg gelding, are currently showing Grand Prix.

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi Strasser and Renaissance Tyme, her 13-year-old Oldenburg gelding, are currently showing Grand Prix.

Evi founded her own training facility, Good Tyme Stables, in 1994, where she continues to train top-quality young horses through all levels. She gives clinics in Québec, Ontario and the United States. She brought her Hanoverian mare, Lavinia, with her from Germany in 1988, and in 1994 they were named to the Canadian Equestrian Team. The pair later competed in the 1996 Olympic Games. In 2004, Evi and Quantum Tyme, her Oldenburg gelding, were named as alternates for the Canadian Olympic Team. The pair was also identified as the reserve horse and rider for the 2008 Canadian Olympic Team. Currently Evi is successfully competing at Grand Prix with her personally developed Oldenburg gelding, Renaissance Tyme. 

DT: What exactly motivated you, already an accomplished rider, to leave Germany in 1988 and move to Canada?

Evi: I always wanted to see the world and travel. My boyfriend was from Montreal, so it turned out to be a good decision to move there with him. 

DT: Clearly you are highly driven, having achieved Olympic (1996) athlete status within eight years. What is your strongest character trait that allows you to reach for the highest achievement?

Evi: I always was pushing myself very hard to achieve my goals. My principle is I will never give up and always will strive forward to be the best in whatever sport I have chosen. I’m mentally and physically strong, which allowed me to reach my goals. 

DT: What part of your childhood development mostly contributed to your mental strength?

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi brought her Hanoverian mare, Lavinia, with her from Germany in 1988, and in 1994 they were named to the Canadian Equestrian Team. Here they are at the 1996 Olympic Games.

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi brought her Hanoverian mare, Lavinia, with her from Germany in 1988, and in 1994 they were named to the Canadian Equestrian Team. Here they are at the 1996 Olympic Games.

Evi: I was always a very driven child, however I believe that my time on the competitive ski team in Germany really helped contribute to my mental strength. We had to all work very hard physically and mentally to be successful and even be considered to be part of the main ski teams. As a result, I developed that mental strength that I have carried through everything I have done since. That being said, I quite enjoyed skiing. As hard as it was, I appreciated the fact that everyone who I worked with pushed me to be the best that I could be and wanted to see me succeed. I also was able to understand from that why the training was sometimes so demanding. They definitely didn’t beat around the bush. If you wanted to succeed, you had to work hard, no matter who you were, and that goes for many things in life in general, I believe.

DT: You competed internationally in downhill skiing, snowboarding and wind surfing. What would you say is the most important mindset that you share with all the other athletes? 

Evi: These sports are only based on your ability to make the winning happen. You have to mentally set a high standard to push yourself to be the best and work hard at it to master the sport you’re doing. Dressage riding is a bit different. You have to be a team player to make sure you and your horse are well prepared to make it a successful partnership. I definitely think it is a lot for your mind, and you have to have a good strength level in your body and talent to do the discipline you have chosen.

DT: How do you train and condition yourself for all the different sports?

Evi: Ski racing was easy since I started as a 3-year-old. I was a pretty wild skier, so fear was not in my vocabulary. I grew up in the mountains, and we had to run up the mountains and bike many kilometers everyday beside all the gym time and regular exercises. I had to be fit but flexible to do the Slaloms or Grand Slaloms as quick and as fast as I could with good balance and strength in my body. When you are in shape for one sport then it is not difficult to do the other sports that have similar requirements. However, if you want to be a gymnast, you need to be more flexible. If you do heavy weights and long-distance running for skiing, that would not work. 

DT: How does your conditioning for these sports correlate to being both fit and flexible for dressage?

Evi: I believe the fact that I took part in many other sports at a high level allowed me to acquire a basic fitness level that I was able to find useful for dressage. Dressage riding requires a lot of core strength all while staying supple but not wiggly. I think what most people forget is that mental strength and ability to focus requires even more effort than the real physical side of the sport. It is important to stay calm and use tact when riding, and it’s the minor details that count. As a result, that requires a lot of focus that I believe people who have trained in other sports maintain easier as they develop this ability earlier on.

DT: How has being a fearless skier contributed to your success as a dressage trainer/rider?

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi reminds us that horses are not machines and you can encounter many different personality types. Here she is riding Story Tyme, a 7-year-old Oldenburg gelding.

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi reminds us that horses are not machines and you can encounter many different personality types. Here she is riding Story Tyme, a 7-year-old Oldenburg gelding.

Evi: As you know, horses are not machines and you can encounter many different personality types. Some can be more challenging than others. However, you need to figure out a way to get them on your side. The reality is they will always hit a roadblock and it is not always easy, and sometimes you need to be brave to get past those rough spots, which with some horses can be quite exuberant! That being said, you have to be fair toward what you expect from your horse. You cannot assume that they will all physically or mentally be able to be world champions and you need to be fair to them in regard to what you ask of them. Otherwise, you can enter a battle that is not worth the argument. 

DT: From a young age you would select, start under saddle, train and then compete the horses. Do you still start your competition horses? 

Evi: Yes. I mostly start them myself and ride them all the way up the levels. Some horses you can go faster and some others just take a little longer due to size or their personalities. I just love it.

DT: How does size determine the training agenda?

Evi: It all depends on the individual horse. You can have a very large horse who, from a youngster on, has a very good work ethic. He also may be very proportionate for his size, and he will be learning just as quickly as, say, a smaller horse with good conformation. You can also have a horse who may need a little more time to grow into himself as well as learn to handle the pressure and, as such, it may take longer. I don’t believe that you can have a large horse on a strict training schedule, but that can go for smaller horses as well. It all depends on how the horse learns and handles himself. You need to allow him time. If you rush, you may be stuck later on, regretting that decision, as he may have not been ready for the pressure at that point in time. Some horses will be ready to do all the Young Horse classes, then Prix St. Georges then Grand Prix in a normal schedule. Others will need more time and may possibly need to skip the Young Horse classes and start competing only once they are Prix St. Georges or Grand Prix horses. It all depends on the horse. 

DT: How was your mare Lavinia, whom you trained from the beginning and competed in the Olympics, different from any of the horses you have since trained?

Evi: I think she really was my first world-class horse and she taught me what to do or not do with all the horses I had after her. She was a very hot, powerful and temperamental horse, and she was big. I had to figure out how to have her brilliant but not hot, and that took some thinking. But we mastered it most of the time.

DT: People have different interpretations of “hot.” How do you define this term for a horse?

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi (left) bought her daughter Tanya her first pony, a 3-year-old gelding, when Tanya was 11. The pair went on to win the FEI Pony Championship at Dressage at Devon when he was 6. Today Tanya rides a 6-year-old who has shown great talent for piaffe and passage. Here is the mother–daughter duo with Story Tyme.

Credit: CealyTetley.com Evi (left) bought her daughter Tanya her first pony, a 3-year-old gelding, when Tanya was 11. The pair went on to win the FEI Pony Championship at Dressage at Devon when he was 6. Today Tanya rides a 6-year-old who has shown great talent for piaffe and passage. Here is the mother–daughter duo with Story Tyme.

Evi: Some people see hot horses as a negative. However, I believe you just need to be able to learn where to direct that energy. Often the hot horse is the one who I enjoy riding the most, as he always motors forward. However, that can also mean larger reactions when something goes wrong. 

For me a hot horse is one who is sensitive and reactive, and that can sometimes pose challenges. A hot horse still needs to be conscious of you and his surrounding environment to be worthwhile to train up the levels. There are always exceptions to the rule, however, if he is already extremely difficult when working on the basics, then he will definitely pose a bigger challenge. This might have me questioning if he will be able to handle the pressure required at the international level, where it really counts. I’ve said it numerous times, but it is extremely important that you go slow and take your time with horses like this. If you don’t, you can really fry them and it is virtually impossible to truly get a horse back on your side after that. Slow and steady win the race.

DT: What do you feel is your greatest contribution to date to the sport of dressage in Canada?

Evi: I received the Owner of the Year from Dressage Canada, which meant a lot to me. Over all these years I have contributed a lot of amazing horses that I bought at a young age and trained them up the ranks. Many of them have represented Canada in competitions such as the World Cup, Pan American Games, Olympic Games, Young Rider and Junior and Young Horse Championships. For this I think that I have helped a little with dressage in Canada. 

DT: You have also produced a talented daughter, Tanya. Have you been her trainer and coach all along?

Evi: Yes. I was her coach all along. Sometimes in Florida, when she was younger, Robert Dover would take over and help with the training. Robert is very busy now with the American team so Ashley Holzer (my good friend) is sometimes helping Tanya in Florida or at the shows in the summer. 

DT: Does Tanya also start her own horses?

Evi: Yes. When she was 11, I bought her a 3-year-old pony named Cappuccino Tyme. They won the FEI Pony Championship at Dressage at Devon when he was 6. Now Tanya has a very good 6-year-old who we got as a 3-year-old. He is already doing tempi changes and has great talent for piaffe and passage.

DT: Did you ever get nervous, before or now, about the safety of your daughter when starting young horses?

Evi: Not necessarily, as I would never let her stay on a horse who I believed was unsafe and had no care for the rider or himself. She did have young ponies (3- and 4-year-olds) whom she had to work with. They have turned into great international ponies (now 10 and 12). However, she did have her fair share of tumbles off of them. It’s not easy with young horses. They will jump around, more likely, and chances are you will fall. I think that at least with the ponies it wasn’t too far from the ground! Now that she is older, I think it helped to gain experience with the young horses somehow and it is definitely easier with the ponies.

DT: What are the greatest advantages of starting young horses and bringing them through the levels to international competition?

Evi: First, since you have trained the horses, you know everything about them. Also you know what the hardest thing was and what the easiest thing was to teach them. If you buy a horse at a really young age, you can get an international-quality horse. If you wait to see how good they are then you can’t afford to buy them anymore. The really good ones mostly are already sold or are so expensive. Besides, when you train a young horse through the levels, you get to know each other really well. It’s the best feeling in the world.

DT: What are the greatest challenges you normally face during the long years of training?

Evi: The greatest challenge is not to fry a horse’s brain or get him worried about the work. (Most of the time the problem shows in the piaffe or in the walk.) You have to be very careful and wait until the horse can really understand what you are asking him to do before you ask for perfection of the movement. Some learn it faster and some take years to get there. The most important thing is that the horse trusts you and you are not disappointing him or scaring him due to overtraining or pushing too hard. Each horse needs his time and he will tell you how long it will take to learn. I love the challenge.

DT: In a difficult moment with a young horse how do you remain calm?

Credit: SusanJStickle.com Evi often coaches Tanya, shown here riding Action Tyme. But Tanya also gets help from Canadian Olympian (and Evi’s good friend) Ashley Holzer.

Credit: SusanJStickle.com Evi often coaches Tanya, shown here riding Action Tyme. But Tanya also gets help from Canadian Olympian (and Evi’s good friend) Ashley Holzer.

Evi: If I find myself in a difficult moment with a young horse, I will make a point to take a minute and evaluate the reason as to why he is reacting the way he is. Sometimes I conclude that it may be tension or that he is overreacting to the environment. If that’s the case, I might think of getting off and longing him and attempting again once he is more settled. If he is still challenging, then I may bring him in and take him out a second time later that day. You have to remember that what we are asking of a young horse can be just as mentally draining for him to learn as it is for you to teach. As a result, a short break may help diffuse his frustration. That being said, I will never get off on a bad note. Even if I plan to take him out a second time, I will make sure that he does one positive thing before I get off. If you get off when he is misbehaving, he will quickly learn that when he challenges you, you get off. That can be a very bad thing. So never end on a bad note. Focus on looking for something he can do positively and then leave it at that.

DT: What advice can you give young riders who are coming up and wish to eventually train their own horses from beginning to Grand Prix?

Evi: Always be fair to your horse and don’t overtrain. Give him time to learn—and it does take time! Sometimes a young horse will take steps backward because you went too fast in your training. If you stay on track with the basics of dressage, you should succeed. Get help from an experienced trainer who has trained horses up the levels. It is a totally different game to train a horse from the age of 3 to 6 and then up to the Grand Prix than it is to buy a 6-year-old with a flying change. The hardest years are ages 3 to 6—this is where the most mistakes are made. 

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