In this two–part series, Dressage Today gives you a look into the amazing stories of two adult amateurs who overcame incredible challenges on their road to the U.S. Dressage Finals in Lexington, Kentucky, Nov. 6–9, 2014.
Almost a decade ago, Suzie Hallé, of Englewood, Colorado, was dreaming about the perfect dressage horse. At the time, she was a recent convert to the sport of dressage and had aspirations to move up through the levels, but she realized it would take a mount with special talent and character to be the right partner for her. Like tossing pennies in a wishing well, she wrote a list of all the qualities she felt would be ideal for that dream horse who would carry her to new heights in the arena. Then, with a murmured prayer, she folded her notes and put them in a nightstand drawer for safekeeping.
Born and raised in Princeton, New Jersey, Hallé began riding at her family’s farm retreat in Pennsylvania with her first pony, a meat–market rescue, at the age of 3. “When my father was a teenager he rode with the Montclair Mounted Troop run by retired West Point officers. He’s the one who really encouraged me in my riding when I was little,” she said. “On weekends our family would make the three-hour drive to the farm, and my dad and I would go out for wonderful long hacks together. I always cried when it was time to leave the horses to go home.” Even though life took her away from horses for a while, the love of horses never really left her. When all three of her children were in school, she and her husband decided that there would be enough time to actually have a horse. “We ended up with a Thoroughbred, and he was wonderful but really ‘goey.’ Doing flatwork helped to calm him down, so I started taking basic dressage lessons from a local event rider.”
The enthusiastic pair progressed in their training, but Hallé soon found herself looking to go farther than her Thoroughbred could carry her. “It became apparent that he had conformational limitations that would prevent us from moving very far through the levels, but I loved him so,” she explained. “So I made an impossible list of the type of horse it would take to replace him, everything from age, to temperament, to breeding and training—my dream horse. And then I put that list away because I didn’t think it could really come true.”
Not long after, one of Hallé’s dressage friends, who had asked Scott Hassler to find him a horse with an outstanding temperament, got a call about Tennyson-ISF, an enormous 18-hand Dutch Warmblood gelding (Contango x Innsbruck by Roemer). Born and raised at Iron Spring Farm in Pennsylvania, the young chestnut was just turning 7 and, though still green, showed great promise for the future. At the same time, another mount caught her friend’s eye. “He decided to purchase the other horse, who was a little farther along in his training,” Hallé said. “So he passed on Tennyson, and that left the door open for me. I loved how he looked on the DVD. I liked what Scott said about him. He was in training with Olympian Belinda Nairn-Wertman and he passed the vet check with flying colors.
“I retrieved my list of attributes of my dream horse, hidden away in my drawer, and I couldn’t believe it when I went straight down the list and could check off every single thing,” Hallé said with a smile. “That’s when I called Belinda and asked, ‘Can he go to Grand Prix?’ And she said, ‘No one can ever say for sure that a horse will make it to Grand Prix, but Tennyson doesn’t show anything to tell me he can’t.’ So I took a crazy chance and bought him, sight unseen, and just like that Tennyson was en route to our home in Colorado.”
Fast forward seven years: The inexperienced dressage rider and her new mount, who lived most of the time in the Hallé family’s backyard with two miniature horses, find themselves qualified for the U.S. Dressage Finals after winning the Great American/USDF Region 5 Adult Amateur Championship at Grand Prix in September 2014. It is an inspirational achievement. “When he first came, I was a Training Level rider and he was at Training Level, too, so we had to learn everything together,” she explained. “I do 98 percent of the riding on him myself and have been so lucky to have wonderful help from trainers along the way. But I think what made it all work is that his temperament is so willing. If I had known at the beginning everything I know now, maybe we would be at this point sooner. He puts up with me trying to learn, and I can feel him really trying to understand how to do everything right. We still have a long, long way to go, but the process of learning together has been so special, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Hallé had hoped to qualify for the inaugural finals in 2013, but it wasn’t in the cards as a minor injury sidelined Tennyson, who returned to relaxing in the backyard for five months. So she put the time off to good use. “Instead of being depressed about it, one of my friends encouraged me to go do things to improve my riding that I would never have had time to do before,” said Hallé. “I have always admired the way Steffen Peters rides, and an opportunity arose to go to his stables in California. For three days, I just sat and watched them working horses. I came home so inspired.”
A month later, the vet cleared Tennyson to walk under saddle, and that week another unexpected opportunity sprung up. “I suddenly found myself having a wonderful lesson in my own backyard with Lendon Gray, just working on my rider position at the walk,” said Hallé.
Then she embarked on an even more impressive journey: Thanks to The Dressage Foundation, Hallé applied and was approved as the first North American to travel to the famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna for special training sessions. “That was where I really learned the importance of correct classical development of the horse and rider. Chief Rider Andreas Hausberger was outstanding, and the experience was incredibly illuminating.”
Invigorated and inspired, Hallé and Tennyson attacked the 2014 show season with renewed vigor. Finally making the leap to Grand Prix, Hallé earned her USDF gold medal in just her third test attempt. Next, horse and rider made the 16-hour drive to Lexington from Region 5 for their first appearance in a national championship. “My friends and I went to the World Equestrian Games four years ago in Kentucky, and to think if someone had said then that I’d be back to ride Grand Prix in the Alltech Arena, I would have said they were crazy,” she explained. “It was a family decision that I should do this. I [had] no idea how my horse [would] handle the atmosphere of a huge stadium, but it [was] an incredible year and my goal [was] to focus on enjoying the experience. He’s healthy, I’m healthy, the timing [was] right for our family, and it [felt] like we should seize this opportunity because you never know what might happen.
“With the finals, I could easily talk myself out of it—our inexperience, the distance or whatever,” she continued. “But on my desk I keep a bookmark written by the Claire Davis Family that says, ‘Train well in all things with love and kindness. Life’s arena is large with many tests.Celebrate both your victories and losses as stepping stones.’ To me, that captures it best. The most special part of dressage and this journey, with all its twists and turns, is enjoying the breakthroughs as well as the disappointments, because our biggest growth always comes after setbacks when you dig deep to figure out how to make it better.
“I think when people try for something bigger than they feel really ready for, it can change the way they think,” Hallé concluded. “They start to believe that they can do what they would have previously thought was impossible. They have to grow into the person that can fulfill the goal they’ve set. Some people kindly suggested that I might be better off with a schoolmaster instead of trying to bring a horse up through the levels when I’d be learning everything at the same time, especially with a budget for only about two lessons a week in my own backyard. But I took that chance, and I am so glad I did. As long as Tenny’s spirit is willing, happy and wanting to perform, and we’re having fun, then I’m going to continue to accept the wonderful opportunities like the finals as they come along.”
Epilogue: Suzie Hallé rode Tennyson-ISF to a ninth-place finish in the Grand Prix Adult Amateur Championship at the 2014 U.S. Dressage Finals. “This experience was truly even more wonderful than I imagined,” said Hallé. “Everyone made it so special from the gorgeous flowers to the vendors and volunteers, all the other riders to the VIP dinner with friends and family on Saturday. We met and became friends with people from all over the country. It just couldn’t have been better in any single way, and my horse was simply amazing. I’m already hoping we’ll be lucky enough to return next year.”