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World Cup Aspirations: Sarah Tubman and First Apple

USA’s Sarah Tubman and First Apple, a 13-year-old KWPN stallion, have been partners since late 2018. They’ve come careening into the limelight and have solidified their position as one of the top 25 dressage duos in the world.

Now, Tubman and “Apple” have their sights set on the Longines FEI Dressage World Cup™ Final in Omaha, Nebraska, April 4-8. Currently sitting at third on the FEI Dressage World Cup North American League rankings, Tubman is just one CDI-W Freestyle away from punching her ticket to the Final.

Following her third place finish in the CDI-W Grand Prix Freestyle during Week 5 of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (AGDF), Tubman sat down with Dressage Today to share more about herself and Apple.

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Sarah Tubman and First Apple in the CDI-W Grand Prix at Week 5 of the 2023 Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida.
© Julia Murphy

Dressage Today: How did you come to get the ride on First Apple?

Sarah Tubman: Before First Apple, I ran one of the largest dressage businesses on the west coast—Sarah Lockman Dressage—my maiden name. I had over 50 horses in training, multiple riders and sales horses. I think at one point I took 21 horses to our regional championships between the clients and the horses I rode. It was very big business.

I got a call from a gentleman who said he had a Friesian that he wanted to put in training. Now most people, especially after the point where you have 50 horses, would say, “No, sorry, we’re full.” And to be honest, Friesians can be a little bit difficult. They’re not super competitive at the high level, but I was always an equal opportunist. So, if someone wanted to learn dressage and be part of the program, I always found a spot for them.

When the gentleman called me, he actually hadn’t bought the horse yet, and he sent me the video. He said he was in his sixties. He had ridden cutting horses and his dream was always to have a dressage horse. So I really nicely said, “Well, Friesians aren’t exactly the easiest to learn to sit the trot on, and sometimes they’re really strong and sometimes they’re very difficult to teach changes to. But why don’t you let me look at the video, and then let’s talk and maybe we can go try him.”

The next day this guy calls me and says, “I kind of lied to you, I already bought the horse.” And I was like, “Oh my gosh. Okay. Did get a vet check?” And he says, “A what?” I’m like, “Okay, don’t worry. Just ship the horse down here, and I will help you.” He just seemed like a really nice, honest man.

This gentleman ended up being Gerry IBanez. He brought the horse into training with me, and he told me, “I just want to learn everything. I want you to teach me from cleaning the stalls to picking the feet. I’ll watch you ride him, but I want to learn. Don’t even let me ride until I know everything.”

He would show up every day just like anyone else, and he would be just one of the clients. All of my clients were always super supportive of me. They all know that the reason why I worked so hard and had such a big business is because I never wanted to leave it to chance that someone would happen to give me a horse. I knew I needed to make horses, and I needed to make enough money to buy my own horses and get my own chance at making it. I had said something to [Gerry] and he said, “I’ve run many big businesses, and I have never seen anyone work as hard as you do. If you ever need help making any of your dreams come true, let me know.”

I had gone on a trip to Europe to buy sales horses and at that time I had come across a really nice Grand Prix horse. I just told myself, “Sarah, get brave. Call every single one of your 50 clients and syndicate the horse. If everybody gave $10,000, we could buy the horse.”

I got all my info together and had my speech ready. I got brave, and I called Gerry first and I said my thing. And on the other end of the line, he just says, “Okay.” And I said, “Okay?” And he says, “Yes, okay, but we don’t need anyone else to buy the horse. I’ll buy the horse for you.” The phone just dropped out of my hand because he was a very humble man that didn’t flaunt what he had or didn’t have. To be honest, I didn’t know if he had $2 to rub together.

That horse actually ended up not working out, but it started our conversation for the future. And at that point, Gerry and I joined forces. I moved on from having my large business, and I went to work full-time for Gerry. He bought Summit Farm so that we could have a private place where we could have horses of that quality and manage them correctly. We did that in order to hopefully make teams or work towards making teams.

I had actually gone horse shopping quite a few times looking specifically for Grand Prix horses now that I had started working for Gerry. I did three trips of seeing countless horses all over Denmark, Germany, Holland, and I just couldn’t find the horse. In the meantime, we had bought two younger horses. I told Gerry that we’re not just going to buy one, we’re going to wait for the right one to come around. in the meantime, I’ll just keep making young horses. That’s what I know how to do anyway. I said, “When the right one comes along, the right one comes along.”

On another trip I’d gone on just to find sales horses. I was absolutely not looking for myself. I would always tell everyone, “If you know of something special, please tell us.” And someone knew of something special, and it was Apple. He was not on the market, but I ended up going and riding him at 10 o’clock on a cold night in Holland. And the first trip around the arena, I just started crying. It was like, “This is it, this is the horse.” So the rest is history.

So then we made it happen and brought him over here. I obviously really clicked with him right from the beginning because not even quite six months after he was imported, we ended up going to the Pan-American Games.

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Sarah Tubman and First Apple in the CDI-W Grand Prix at Week 5 of the 2023 Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Florida.
© Julia Murphy

DT: What are some of your most meaningful accomplishments with First Apple?

ST: The Pan-American Games were one of the highlights for sure. That was the first time for me that I had ever ridden for my country. It was an amazing experience to actually walk around in USA gear, be part of the American team, stand up on the podium and hear the national anthem play. Once that happens, it’s a very addicting feeling, and you just want it again. So, I think that was a really special time for me.

And then, not to sound cheesy, but one of the highest accomplishments I feel is I’ve ventured outside the box and changed some of my training processes and thoughts, thanks to my husband. I’ve figured out how to make Apple a really confident Grand Prix horse. We have a long way to go. He’s nowhere near finished, but I feel super proud of being able to turn a horse that might have just turned out to be a really fabulous Small Tour horse into a Grand Prix horse. I always believed in him, but I think there were some doubts early on, especially from outsiders. Now, in our way of training, we really bring out that amazing Grand Prix horse.

I think the only other crazy huge accomplishment for me, which I personally think is like better than riding at the Olympics, was being able to ride at Aachen for the United States in 2022. It was pretty terrifying because I looked at the start list, and I was 90% sure that I was probably the only person that hadn’t gone to the Olympics. I walk into the warmup ring and there’s Isabell Werth and there’s Dorothy Schneider and Hubertus Schmidt and Steffen Peters. It was an overwhelming feeling to be there with all your like childhood idols whose Olympic rides I watched on slow motion on the VCR. Having the opportunity to ride in Europe in the same classes as complete dressage legends is just amazing.

DT: What were the training changes you made to help First Apple come so far?

ST: One of the main things that happened is actually COVID-19. When COVID happened, my now husband and I ended up spending a lot more time together. At first it was just as boyfriend and girlfriend. He’s an FEI four-star judge, a coach and a rider, but he was very specifically a boyfriend. I would say, “Hey, can you look at this video?” and he would have to ask, “Am I looking at this video as your boyfriend, as your coach, or as a judge?”

But during that COVID year, I ended up having him really be my main coach—him and Debbie McDonald. We really took the training back down to the basics and worked on really correct throughness. I have to say, his methods of finding what’s difficult in the most simple of things relates to the hardest of things. It has really made A plus B equal C for both Apple and I.

I’m so grateful for that because not only is that what has made Apple jump to being ranked in the top 25 in the world and being noticed here in the United States, but also it’s going through to my other horses. We learn this all-learning process, and the next horse I make, I’ll not make the same mistakes. Now this process that I’ve learned is being implemented with my students and my other younger horses as well.

DT: What is First Apple’s personality like?

ST: He is a total gentleman. Most people, especially when someone new comes to work with us or comes to visit, won’t even know he is stallion. He is super quiet, and he is a very well mannered. He goes out in the turnout next to other horses, sometimes even next to a mare. He’s in a normal stall where he can put his head out and touch other horses. He lives a very normal life.

He does have his favorite girls. I have a 6-year-old young horse who’s chestnut and has all the white bling, and he’s in love with her. That might be the only time that you hear him speak. But “he’s a gentleman” is really the best way of putting it. He will kind of nicker to me and he knows us and he knows me. But he’s like that distinguished gentleman. You would see with a sports coat on, smoking a cigar, sitting in the back. He’s not in your face.

He was bred by somebody over in Holland that owned an apple farm, so that’s why he’s named First Apple. Actually, all of their horses, which are mostly jumpers, are all named apple-something. When he first came over—he is a very particular eater—he would not eat carrots. He won’t eat sugar, even to this day, but he loves apples. So, I always make sure that every day he gets at least one apple. At horse shows he might get quite a few more. But, he’s a doll. He is super easy to handle. He is kind of a goof. He’ll play with you a little bit, but a real gentleman.

DT: What has the past year looked like for you with the FEI Dressage World Cup Finals in mind as a goal?

ST: We originally hadn’t had such a lofty goal. Our original plan when we started doing the freestyle was actually just to help Apple get more confident because you can make the choreography however you want. We used that along with the crowd. The horse loves the crowd. He loves an electric atmosphere and just completely comes alive for it. So, we actually went down the path of doing freestyles as a training method.

After I would compete in a freestyle, I’d go home, and he would just jump to the next level. At the next horse show, whether it was a freestyle or not, he would have remembered something from the feeling of a freestyle. So, to be honest, we did it to help with our training in a roundabout way where it would make it fun for him. Also, it’s easier because we could set up the choreography to his benefit to build his confidence. Then it just kind of took off from there.

I think the first time I ever rode a Grand Prix freestyle in my entire career was last year on a Friday night at AGDF (Adequan Global Dressage Festival) in Wellington. And that was a lot, a big ask. I’d never ridden a National Grand Prix Freestyle. I’d never ridden another horse in a Grand Prix Freestyle. I think that show we also were around 77% or 78%, which is wild. So, it just took off from there. Apple has been really consistent and really loves it.

So, it just felt natural to try for the FEI Dressage World Cup Finals. Also, again, he really thrives in that kind of atmosphere. Not all horses can handle going to a big championship like that—that’s indoors with the lights and the crowds and the music. I know if we end up having the opportunity to go, that we’re going to shine in that kind of an atmosphere.

DT: What are you doing to prepare in the months before the FEI Dressage World Cup Final?

ST: We kind of stick to the same routine. Our horses always get a couple of days off a week. We do a lot of hacking, and Apple loves the turnout. I’m a big believer in turnout. Most of what we work on in between shows—I rarely do actual test movements—is like someone training at the gym. We do a lot of gymnastic exercises to keep them strong and fit without pounding on them at all. We stay in a similar routine and stay on track. We have a phrase we use often—”Trust the process and trust the training.” So no matter what we’re doing or what the end goal is or what the week looks like, we stick with our process and our training plan. The rest normally falls into place.

Tubman and First Apple will make their final CDI-W Freestyle appearance of the season on Friday, March 3, at AGDF in hopes of securing their spot in Omaha.

Thanks to Vita Flex for our coverage leading up to the 2023 FEI Dressage World Cup Finals, including rider interviews, competition reports, photos, videos and more!⁣

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