May 21, 2019 I sat down with Ashley Holzer in Wellington, Florida. The following is the interview she so graciously made time for. I hope you find her insights helpful. Enjoy!!
Nancy; First I want to thank you for making time for this.
Ashley; I am happy to do it, I love helping kids too.
Nancy; It’s so fun!
Ashley; I also think this is a learning experience for me too. I recently returned from Ottawa where they do a Rising Stars Program. A program to introduce young kids to dressage, they do a dressage test, they also have group flat classes, and there is a written quiz. There are a lot of activities, things to help them have fun and build interest in the sport. They asked me who are my idols and I said, well I have had many idols, but honestly, I idolize anyone who goes down the center line. It is a vulnerable place to go, you canter down the center line with your horse and you have got these people judging you, and this is not an easy thing to do, on a daily bases, and I think all of you are brave to put yourself in this position.
Nancy: Right, to put yourself out in front of people.
Ashley: Yes, put yourself in front and be judged, it is a very strong thing you are doing, it is very powerful that you have the guts to go out and do that.
Nancy: Yes, that is a really good point.
Ashley; However, I did have one massage therapist once that asked me, “now you are going to this horse show and why are you nervous about the judges? Are they able to spook the horses?”, I said no, no they have to sit really still, and he said, ‘ so they are sitting around you, and they are sitting quietly….. and they actually have no influence over you at all!” And I said yes, you are right, they actually have no influence over me at all. This helped me to look at it from a different perspective.
Nancy; Especially when you know on the inside who it is that you want to present to them.
Nancy; And when you are strong about that then it really doesn’t matter what they think about that particular performance.
Ashley; This is so true.
Nancy; You have ridden so many horses and put yourself out there in so many different competitions, is there something that you do to prepare? Or a mentor or mindset that helps you to be brave in that situation?
Ashley; Again, I think it is people putting it in perspective. I think at the end of the day I don’t always have the best days in front of the judges. It happens that you may regret that you put your horse in a position that maybe you were not ready to go into. However, you don’t know it until you try it, because there is nothing that you can do to create the horse show at home. You can’t create the shipping to the show, put it in a strange stall, it doesn’t get turn out, it is very hard to create that whole ambiance, and some horses handle it better than others frankly. I would say, for me, what has been important is to not see it as this is my one and only time and here we go, but to think of it as a learning experience. I go in and ride my very best and pilot my horse through the test the very best that I can, that he or she finishes the test the best that they can at that time. I think it is always a great feather in your cap if you can say the end of my test was much better than the beginning, because I think it shows that you were developing more of a partnership as the test went on and showing more of a harmony as the test went on.
I also think that my father was very influential. He would say “go in and have a good time.” He did know me, because at the end of the day that is who I am. I have to go in and have a good time. One of our colleagues said to me the other day, “how about we just go in and do our job?”. And yet there is an aspect of just doing my job, but that’s not really who I am. I need to go in there and I have to have a good time. Now if my good time is wow, we got our line of ones, or OMG there was no spooking today, or what ever my good time happens to be, that’s what I have to have. Also knowing that no person can influence if you have a good time or not. I think that is the mindset I have to be in, if I am having a good time when I am enjoying my ride, and I am feeling that way because I am prepared, or at least as prepared as I can be. I have had some pretty bad rides that I had a good time because of where the horses are. I had one horse and he was really nervous and he actually got down to the judge, was it a great test, no, but comparatively to where I had been it was better and I had a good time. When I am in the ring and I don’t have a good time then I am thinking, well yea here I am and everyone is watching me not have a good time. That is not fun. And unfortunately, with facebook and cameras around you all the time there are some pretty angry people that feel they must find joy from bringing you down and taking a bad picture and putting it on the internet. You have to live with that, and I just tell my students know who you are, know that you are good to your horses, know that you ride very well, know that you train very well and yes, sometimes there is a bad picture and that is not the full picture, that is just a snap shot. And I think a lot of judges also, good judges, really are on your side, they are on your team and they want you to do well. They are judging you from a positive place and I believe if you can think there are more positive judges then there are negative judges that gives one confidence. I think as the sport grows we are getting more positive judges that understand how long it takes to train a good horse. The sport is changing, top horses are now 16 and 17 years old, because they are so athletic it takes a while to get them where they need to be. Judges are not your foe; they are often your friends. They are excited to see you progress as well, so I think that is important, stay true to yourself. Go in the ring and do the best you can do and go home and get ready and do it again. Lindsay who is my god daughter and my barn manager said to me, and it was such great advice, I had one stallion and he could be so great, and he could be so naughty, and she said to me just go in and see how it goes and if it doesn’t go well show back up in two weeks and do it again, and if that doesn’t go well show back up in two weeks and do it again until it goes well. It took the pressure off, it was not that I had to go in and be perfect the first time. It’s a journey. You have one big success and its over, it is fleeting, so if you do not like what you are doing and you do not like you, that success is done on Sunday and on Tuesday you are right back training again and no one really cares what happened last Sunday. So, you better be loving what you are doing.
Nancy; And who is the most influential person for you so far?
Ashley; I cannot say one, I have learned so much from so many people, and I keep learning to this day. Robert Dover, Sjef Jensen and Christilot Boylen have been incredible. When I was a kid, Jeannie Sinclaire was my first dressage trainer and stood out in the freezing cold teaching me. Dane Rawlins was great and came every night and taught me and pulled me out of the snow bank, you know it was cold, I was a kid, they were out there teaching me at 6:00 at night in Canada in the freezing cold and they were out there doing their best. Willi Schulteis also an incredible trainer I learned so much from him, Evi Pracht my teammate who has taught me patience and how to be positive when I get a little negative. There are so many people that I have had help from, I am so lucky to have been given part of their knowledge. Debby McDonald I have now been introduced to, she has shown me some different things, I can watch Oded Shimoni and he will tell me to try this and Jessie Werndl will tell me to try this, so many people. Patrick Kittle will say try this. I love this about our sport, when you hit a stumbling block there are so many people that are so open with their knowledge, I have never come across someone that says well I am not going to tell you what to do. I really think that I am so fortunate, Sjef went away, Anky was so busy, but she stepped in and helped me. Lindsay and PJ who watch me everyday, keeping the standards, “No that wasn’t good enough! Do that again”. There are so many people that I am a product of, and they have all influenced me in fabulous ways and I am so grateful that people are generous with their knowledge.
Nancy; One of the things I think about you, when I think of you as a rider is your flexibility to be able to ride so many types of horses, tell me how did you create this in your riding?
Ashley; There are so many different types of training. It’s a little bit like we speak English, that’s the language we speak, some people speak German, some people Italian and some people French, if you came to every horse and said I only speak English some horses might say I am German… I have no idea what your saying, I am Italian, I am Dutch. Its that flexibility to change your language to something they understand, so first it’s your ability to understand there is a language. There are many forms of language and how do you best communicate with the horse that you are riding? Because some are smarter than others, some are more elastic, some are quicker thinking, some might be smart but not quick thinking, meaning it takes them some time to grasp something but once they grasp it they have done it really well. Some are ADD some are down to business. I can give you so many “some of them’s”, but it’s really finding out what language should you use so that your horse can understand you to the best of its ability. And that is what different training styles have shown me. Some people are more set in their training methods than others, and I frankly find that old fashioned. I always say if you are not moving you are dying. So, you always need to be out there looking. The breeders are breeding better horses, the scores are going up, scores are not the same as they used to be, why, because the horses are better, the training is better, the maintenance is better. Everything is moving in a direction. And I think being open about trainers, trying to listen to different trainers, not saying “oh that method doesn’t work for me”, maybe one part of that method does work, maybe just listen and see what they have to say, don’t say “that’s not for me”. Again, I really firmly believe I have learned so much from so many people. I am grateful to all of them.
Nancy; Which horse has taught you the most?
Ashley; Poppy! Poppy for sure.
Pop Art came to me it’s a very funny story. I was rushing to a horse show with Sjef and Anky, and we stopped at this barn to see a horse along the route. It was a kind of bloodlines, I don’t want to say because I don’t want to put any breeds down, but typically I don’t like this breeding. Anyway, I get on it and I say to Sjef “ it’s kind of stiff and a bit sluggish” I don’t really like a sluggish horse, he’s like ok let’s try the next one, so out comes the next one, the exact same breeding, which I do not really love, and I say to the lady, biggest mistake I have made in my life, “I’ll just get on it first’. I am on a circle, I am rushing, I pick up the trot right away, I am not taking my time, (again know who you are, not smart) I am not taking my time. I say to Sjef, “it’s so tight on the right rein, like it is really tight”, so he says, “ put it on a circle and bend it to the right.” Well I don’t even remember it standing up, because it hit me in the head, I have Anky in the middle videoing and Sjef screaming jump off but I couldn’t because I was so dazed, Sjef is now screaming at the lady, both of us fall over backwards, the horse is running around, I am on the ground Anky is screaming, Sjef is screaming, it was a disaster…. Finally I get up, I am saying “I am ok, I am ok’ and Sjef is like we are leaving now. We walk through the barn and standing there is this little 16 if I am lying 16.1 hand chestnut and I ask the lady “does he rear?”,” no I can tell you for sure this one doesn’t rear.” And Sjef is like we are not staying we are out of here. I am saying no its ok I am fine, but you can ride him first! And that was Poppy. I remember getting him home and my husband was saying “he kind of looks like a plain brown wrapper, are you sure this thing is special?” And I assured him, he is amazing. I loved him from the first day I rode him, I loved him from the minute I got on him. So, our journey was fun because he was young, he was 6, and it was a great time. He took me around the world. He was such an incredible horse. I remember being in the Olympics in Hong Kong and Sjef asking me, “why are you wearing a helmet?” and I said “just wait a minute and you will see”, and sure enough he got one look at the jumbotron and sure enough 180 and he was gone. He was always a great spirit and fun to train and honest. He always tried for me. I would say he was by far my best horse. Now, have I had many, many other amazing horses, yes, I have, but he is the one who sticks out in my mind. He is the most cherished and he runs around the property to this day.
Nancy; As he should, is there a particular test that you have done that sticks out in your mind as being special?
Ashley; You know it’s funny the last test I did on Poppy…..I had decided at 16 to retire Poppy, I was going to let Jill ride him. He had some health issues and I did not want to push him anymore. I thought it would be nice if he did something that was less stressful. I was riding at the Royal Winter Fair and I was thinking this is so easy it should be illegal. At that time he was such a partner for me and I remember coming to the last piaffe and thinking should I really be retiring him? This is so great. But then, then I thought to myself yes, this is a great way to say this is it. It was a great test, and the last test at the WEG was incredible too, so yes, I had a memorable test on him. But, I would have to say too that I have had tests on other horses where they have really overcome a big fear or something, and they stick out in my mind. I have also had some bad ones that stick out in my mind too, but in general I have to say that last test I had with Poppy was one of the most memorable. I was also really concentrated on thinking this was my last test, this was my last test, make it happen, make it work, make it be good, so it was great.
Nancy; That is so fun. When you are bouncing from horse to horse or helping different students do you have something that you do for yourself? Something that gets you focused? Do you have any kind of mental practice?
Ashley; Actually, yes. Again, I have a bit of a routine, where an hour and a half before I get on I come to this apartment here, I watch the test that I am doing, I lie down, I visualize my test, I take 20 minutes, I put a timer on my phone, because sometimes I will fall asleep, but I just really go somewhere quiet and visually go through the test, what I need to concentrate on, and I would say that if I skip that phase that I have made mistakes that I have been unhappy with. So, I really do need to take the time before hand. I am not one of these people that likes to wait around all day long and do the test. I like to stay quite busy before I compete, but for an hour and a half before my test I like to get prepared. And, leading up to it I really try to make sure I carve out some extra time to spend with the horse that I am competing at the time, I know that sounds stupid…
Nancy; No, I think that is awesome.
Ashley; If I am competing Havana I will take her in the evening and walk her and take her for grass. I try to do this everyday anyway, but for sure before the shows. Perhaps 5 days before the show I will try to connect even more with her, feel how she is feeling and interact with her a little bit more. Just take my time to spend with them, especially if it is a big competition coming up, I get mad at myself if I do not spend enough time with my horse, because I really think that is important too. And then the other thing I would say is that I really try to be in a happy, positive state of mind. I have worked with a few sports psychologists that will tell you that you actually can make yourself happy, you can put yourself in a positive state of mind. You have to practice doing it and know things that will help you get to that state, but you really need to make sure, or I need to make sure, personally, that I am in that state, before I get on. Of course, things happen sometimes, but in general try to be thinking about your job and be well prepared so you show up for your test properly. Also, I have to care for my body, I get a massage every week, because my back is not the best, so I have to be sure that I take care of that. I also really try to take care of my sleeping, that I sleep a bit more leading up to the event. I know if it is a big event I do not sleep as well right before, but if I can have a few nights prior to that where I sleep really well that is important too. I also think about what I am eating, I think that is important too, that coming up to an important event I am not eating crap, but that I am eating the right food and in the right space with my hydration. I do a lot more walking, where I used to do a lot of running, my back does not handle that anymore, but now I do a lot of walking.
Nancy; If you could go back to your younger self and tell her something with the experience you have now what would you tell her?
Ashley; There were times when I look back and I was not proud of the way I rode, and I rode that way because I did not have the knowledge to ride better, if that makes sense. So I would caution people that when they feel in their gut they are not riding well, to reach out and try to have their coach help them more, or find someone that can help them more, or find someone that communicates better with you, or tell your coach what’s going on.
Nancy; Ask questions.
Ashley; Yes, ask questions about why is it going that way? Because knowledge really, it’s amazing, I am able to help people just by saying, “ he going to do this, and then he’s going to figure that out, and then he will be able to do it this way” and they say “ oh, this is normal? Ok, fine!” it’s not the end of the world. That knowledge is so freeing. That’s the one thing I look back on and I wish someone had just said to me “hey, don’t worry about it, it’s a phase, it changes, they all learn their flying changes, some take longer than others, don’t worry about it.’ Make sure you go out everyday and you are training properly, but training takes a while before you get results. So, patience and more education.
Nancy; We weren’t brought up to ask questions.
Ashley; And think of the tools they have now. You can go and search things on the internet, you can make a long-distance call and it does not cost $40. You can do so much more to reach out, when in the past we were told to shut up and watch. We were not told to ask questions, and delve deeper and look into things.
Nancy; But, I still think that the kids blame themselves, even though there is more information available, often times you still think you are stupid if you are asking a question.
Ashley; But, then you are asking the wrong people!
Nancy; Thank you.
Ashley; If someone makes you feel stupid for asking a question, then you are asking the wrong person. That’s my thinking.
Ashley; Anybody that is knowledgeable and generous will be loving the questions.
Nancy; As the sport moves forward and the horses are becoming more extravagant, and knowledge is becoming more available, but we hear so many bad things about where the sport is going. What can everybody do to make sure that the sport is going in a direction that benefits the horses as well as builds interest in the sport.
Ashley; I do think that as of late, with the success of Isabel and Charlotte and Carl. These are really great horse people and I am happy to see these are really happy horses going around and doing the job. The one thing I will say is that our sport now has a huge level of competition for the younger kids coming up. Meaning, we have to fight soccer, la cross, skating, skiing, and video games. I would say there is not the same availability that there was when I grew up. When I grew up there was a riding school right in the middle of the city. When I ran the riding school at Riverdale there were a lot of city kids that came after school and were able to go riding. I worry that parents hear that it’s dangerous, it’s expensive, oh this oh that, they really don’t think to even offer that to their kids, when they can do soccer or something like that. I think that is really unfortunate, I think we have to be careful not to overprice our sport to the point of making not available at all to these kids. I think when we do well we need to make a point to give back to the kids to make sure that we are bringing on board more kids and they are having fun with it. When I saw the rising stars program in Canada I was really happy to see that, they made it fun. They really made it fun, the kids interacted with the judges. The judges came and spoke to them.
Nancy; How old where they?
Ashley; 10 to 15, maybe even 8, some were really young.
Ashley; We all got to interact with them as well, they got to ask us questions, they did not all want to ask questions, so we had to ask them questions as well…… Some were jumpers that had fallen off and wanted to move to dressage, some were eventers there to improve their dressage. They were saying how much they enjoyed it. I think the friend thing is so important too, if I think to this day I have so many friends from growing up riding. We all get to do this beautiful sport together.It’s also about bonding great friendships. It can be a very isolating sport, because it is not a team sport, but on the other hand it is amazing when you come to a barn you can have a team around you. People are all enjoying the sport together there is a social aspect as well, which is fun for a lot of people. I think if we don’t keep it fun we are going to loose a little bit of our viewership and participation.
Nancy; I think it is really important how you focus on that connection side of it. Many trainers don’t promote that side of it and then the kids miss out, that is very special part about why do we do it altogether.
Ashley; Yes, it’s the most important part. Again, unfortunately when we were kids we were left to play around with the horses. And, did we fall off, oh yes, for sure. I fell off every day, sometimes twice. But we would take the ponies out to the back and race back toward the barn because they galloped faster going back to the barn. My parents thought nothing of that. Did we all have saddles? No not everyone even had a saddle, but some people did. They did not get the head start, the kids without the saddles got the head start. If you think about how dangerous it really was, but it was so fun. A little bit of that is lost these days because there is this safety aspect, and rightly so, we were probably very stupid doing what we were doing. There is a way to find a middle ground that you are playing with your horses, you are playing with your ponies. I have one student, she got on and she sent me a video of her and her sister, in their big parkas doing one time changes holding on to a snaffle bridle, and doing piaffe and passage on the horse together. As an instructor, I know it is dangerous, so is driving your car, or getting on an airplane, I wish it wasn’t. We have to make it as safe as possible, but still have a really good time and enjoy the sport for what it is. Those horses are incredible animals and they give us so much of themselves, and I think if you do not experience that part of it you are really missing out.
Nancy; One attribute? If a student came to you what is the most important thing they bring with them?
But, I would have to say they have to love their horses foremost. Because if they do not love their horses I do not want to have to deal with that type of person. I think that if someone loves their horse and loves riding you can teach them. If they really don’t love their horse and love riding at the end of the day you have to ask yourself why are they doing it? And those answers are not the answers I want to be associated with.
Nancy; Fabulous, thank you so much for all of your time!