The Pays de la Loire is undoubtedly a region in France which breathes and lives horses, grazing wherever you go. The Loire valley recall many first of the small town of Saumur where the National Riding School is located and where some renowned trainers have their yards. However, a jewel of the very special kind is to be found when you move towards the Atlantic. Not far from the region's capital Nantes, but seemingly in the middle of nowhere is the horses' paradise Haras de Hus, which has opened its impressive stone-walled doors for Eurodressage.
Who enters this extensive 120 hectare estate near the little village of Petit Mars can hardly believe that merely ten years ago there was nothing more than a few old stone buildings and a castle-like mansion. Today more than 250 horses, from breeding stallions, broodmares and their foals, to young talents and dressage and jumping Olympians call Haras de Hus their home.
The history of the stud and one of its most faithful riders, Jessica Michel, are closely connected. Michel has been France's leading dressage rider of the past years and was the woman of De Hus' first hours. Eurodressage met her a day before the French team's departure to the final training camp in Le Mans for the 2014 World Equestrian Games.
Strength Lies in Calmness
Yards of this size, the more so when consisting of many different stable units housing horses split by age and breeding direction, are naturally well organized. Often it is exactly the size leading to a lack of charm and hectic busyness. When you arrive at Haras de Hus and you walk from the parking next to the small administrative house over to the first stables, the one with the broodmares and foals to the left and those of the dressage horses opposite give a first feeling of calmness and peace.
Foals come to the stable doors to greet you, other horses are relaxing in the well-fenced paddocks in front of the stalls, enjoying the early morning timid sunshine and even the stallions do nothing else than watch passers-by with an interested, but friendly attitude. Everything is so peaceful one get the impression nobody is working her. This is far from the truth.
Seven girls are responsible for the dressage barn and the horses of main trainer Jessica Michel and her assistant Guillaume Recoing.
The same calmness can be found in the huge indoor arena which is located at one short side of the huge outdoor and is used by both by jumping and dressage riders. The first thing catching the onlooker's eye when going inside is the unique design of this place. Just like the stables the architecture is dominated by wood, but used in a way that creates a warm, bright atmosphere. The huge chandeliers hanging in several rows from the high ceiling contrast in a pleasing way with the wood.
“You should see the indoor when it is dark,” Jessica remarks, “it looks wonderful.”
The long legged 32-year-old sits on Hermes de Hus, a 6-year-old Hanoverian stallion whose face is a look-alike to his sire Hotline. As baby-ish this grandson of Rohdiamant looks, he is on his way to become a matured dressage horse. Finishing seventh in the final of the 5-year-olds at the 2013 World Young Horse Championships in Verden, Hermes was qualified again this year, “but I couldn't travel to Verden and start him because I had to stay home preparing Riwera for the WEG. If I were to have gone to Verden, she would have been out of serious work for one week and this is much too much to a championship.”
Jessica, whose adorable 3-year-old Jack-Russell bitch is called Hoya after the place where her German trainer Hans-Heinrich Meyer zu Strohen resides, admits that she regretted her absence in Verden much. “Verden is a wonderful show. I absolutely love it there. The atmosphere, the organization, everything. And there are so many good memories for me there.” Memories which are closely connected to another black beauty: Noble Dream. The now 12-year-old Oldenburger mare by Caprimond was the horse that made Jessica a name in 2007 when they won bronze in the final of the 5-year-olds at the World championships in Verden. In 2009 Jessica lost the ride to Marc Boblet who is on this year's French team for WEG with this mare. “Noble Dream was one of the first horses I rode for Haras de Hus, but she was sold to the Dallara family who still owns her. Noble was a wonderful mare, affectionate, easy to handle and train.”
Back to the present. Haras de Hus' dressage head rider finishes the training session with given reins to which the black stallion reacts beautifully by stretching forwards-downwards and with a totally swinging, relaxed back. The mind of this youngster is as relaxed as his whole body. He strolls out of the indoor into the sunshine after days of torrential downpours and unusually high winds in the area. After a short walk around the courtyard where tall palm-trees create a touch of Mediterrean atmosphere and after a few minutes to take a breather, Hermes passionately tries to stuff as much grass in his mouth as possible when Jessica checks her iPhone.
The usual hustle-bustle of a professional yard is nowhere to be spotted today and it is reflected on the horses. While Typhaine, who is Jessica's travelling-groom since the autumn of 2012, takes Hermes to the solarium to give him a good brushing, Ninon already walks Dimension de Hus outside with a cooler on his loins. Although the sun makes it look warm, for an early morning in August the temperatures are almost autumn-like. “I had to blanket Riwera with a thicker blanket overnight now or she would have grown more coat which we don't want now, of course,” Jessica remarked, adding “all my horses are usually hand walked before their daily training in the morning, because I am not a fan of horse walkers. Only sometimes when I have an overweight horse, I might use it as additional exercise. Whenever I find the time I walk my horses myself as this is something I enjoy doing.”
One reason why all Haras de Hus' horses in the dressage stable are so even tempered is undoubtedly the atmosphere in which they are handled and worked. The other is surely the fact that they come out of the stable a few times a day. They are hand-walked, ridden, hand-grazed and go into the paddock. Jessica points towards the first paddock next to the entrance where a brown horse “sleeps”: “This is Socrates de Hus. The only horse which we don't allow to go out on her own is Riwera. When she is on her own in the field she easily pulls off her shoes and with them parts of her hooves, which are rather small for such a huge horse. We have to be careful with that. But instead she goes walking or hacking. All horses go on hacks in the forest at least once a week. We have a wonderful trail for that.”
For keeping and exercising horses in such a sophisticated way a certain number of staff is essential: “Our stable manager is Marion Bastin, who is on holiday at the moment. She is entrusted with all stable duties like feeding, mucking out and putting the horses in the paddock or fields and she takes them in again. This is lots of work. Then there's Ninon Gautier, she is my home-groom and takes care of all the horses here, in particular when I am away on shows. My show-groom is Typhaine Meunier who accompanies me and the horses to all shows. Pauline Delaunay helps me with exercising my horses. She is a student of mine and rides the youngsters. When I am away she is also allowed to exercise my best horses in trot or lunge them. She also competes on a few occasions each year. Guillaume has a groom of his own, Mylene Didiot,” said Jessica, introducing all her busy bees while standing in front of Riwera's box. The undisputed queen of the stable knows that it is not her turn yet. Living in a spacious double-box, Riwera greets her rider with pricked ears and alert eyes, but then turns again to her full hay-net to pick some more breakfast.
Jessica has several horses lined up that could follow in the mare's foot-steps. One of them is Dimension de Hus (by Desperados x Bolero). Admittedly the bay is no eye-catcher at first looks, but that changes when he starts working. Jessica begins in a way that strongly reminds of Ingrid Klimke's style for warming up horses: Trotting and cantering with totally given reins. Dimension stretches himself as beautifully as Hermes did, relaxed from the first step on and he let himself fall into the rhythm of his strides. “I think this is very very important for the horses, for their body as well as for their mind. Warming-up properly helps the legs to stay sound and the horses to feel comfortable and relaxed before I ask them to work,” says Jessica about what looks a bit like yoga for horses.
Taking up the reins Dimension shows what's hidden behind his first looks: A smooth mover with exceptional hind-leg activity. Jessica asks him repeatedly to shorten his canter strides until the son of Kristina Sprehe's WEG-mount almost does a “terre à terre”. Where many horses struggle at one point holding the balance, the Hanoverian plays with this preparation for canter pirouettes. With a great sense for the horse his rider alternates between collecting work and sending him forwards to take a breather. “He is confirmed in the Prix St Georges and now we are working towards Grand Prix. The collected movements are rather easy for him as he is able to really take weight with his hind-legs,” said Jessica patting the diligent gelding.
The Way Old Friends Do
Meanwhile a huge white truck drives up in front of the jumping stable. Two small looking horses disembark. They are none less than the Spanish dressage team's horses Norte and Grandioso. The two PRE stallions are real pros: Taking one good look around and then immediately putting their heads down to graze. They move in their quiet boxes at the end of the stable corridor and it requires some persuasion of Jessica to animate Norte to look over the stable door for a shot while Grandioso is more curious.
Outside Riri, as Riwera is affectionately nick-named by his long-time rider, is hand-walked by Typhaine. There is an atmosphere of complacency between the massive Oldenburger mare by Welt Hit II x Noble Roi xx and the 23-year-old, seeing them walk side by side. The horse that enabled her rider to become an internationally known and respected rider, seems to deeply rest in herself when Typhaine stops her and begins to stretch the front-legs. Eyes half closed the 13-year-old who started her remarkable career in the Brillantring of Rastede at the Oldenburg Elite Mare Show dozes while Typhaine continues the stretching programme.
“I got the ride when Riri was five and I know her inside out. She is very quiet and relaxed, but believe me, she has character. She is my friend,” Jessica remarks while mounting her from a small block which stands in front of the stable. Riri wears the double bridle, even though Jessica admits “Riri prefers being ridden with a snaffle-bit and I usually train her in a snaffle. But yesterday our national coach Jan Bemelmans was here and told me that now I have to go back to the double bridle for the WEG. I think that a double bridle is something dispensable. If the horse can do all in a snaffle why do I need all these bits in the horse's mouth? I would support the idea that riders should be given a choice."
This training session is the last before horse and rider depart for the French training camp in Le Mans and Jessica structures it just the same way like with the other horses: a stretching phase, then more serious work. The flying changes, the canter-pirouettes and the zig-zags are the focal point today, “as I mainly practise piaffe and passage with Jan the days before," Jessica explained. The mare has a peculiar way of executing pirouettes, as if in slow-motion and with very well flexed hocks.
This season France's top duo of 2012 has not been out to shows very much. Jessica explains that “during the training camp for the last European championships Jan Bemelmans told me that the reason why Riri struggled with piaffe was the passage. She didn't come towards the centre of gravity with her hind-legs. So the clear aim was to improve the passage. Jan explained a new way to get a better passage. When I had the feeling Riwera was coming more under we decided to start competing at Barcelona in March to see if she can implement that newly learnt method the same way in competition. As it turned out she wasn't, so we continued training at home. For me it is a personal goal to prove at WEG that our training has done the trick.”
On this day Riwera braves Murphy's law and demonstrates that she has learnt the lesson, bringing her hind legs under once she picks up the rhythm in passage.Jessica drops the reins and hugs the mare, who marches on with ears pricked. After a not too intensive training session Riri knows her way out and strides purposefully to the green outside. Even with the double bridle still on, she finds her ways to the tasty grass.
Jessica laughs and shows me how loose the noseband and chin chain are to make the double bridle as comfortable as possible for her star horse, "as she doesn't like pressure." Back to the stables, Typhaine takes over Riwera and puts her under the solarium. Standing on a block, she begins to massage the muscles sensitively with a flat currycomb. “My vet has taught Typhaine how to do this. And she knows all my horses so well that she exactly feels their muscles and knows where to work on. Riwera enjoys this wellness treatment tremendously!”
Having thoroughly enjoyed her well deserved luxury treatment, Riwera waits patiently for Jessica to jump back on her mare. Bare-back with just a knot-headcollar on both go for a stroll around the block with a few grazing-breaks in between. The vision of childhood days, a girl and her beloved horse, appears here. At least one can see that there's a deep bond between the two. “Riwera completely trusts me and I trust her. I can do the same with Don Juan, even though he is a stallion. The decisive factor is that first you have to trust the horse and then they will begin to trust you, they respond to the faith we put in them.”
The Sky is the Limit
It speaks volumes for the character and good manners of the young breeding stallion Don Juan de Hus to which Riwera gets tied next to in the grooming-box. The 6-year-old KWPN stallion does not even bat an eye-lid with Riwera next to him. Only when he patiently waits next to the mounting block outside he gives one loud “Hello” so that everyone knows who is entering centre-stage. But the only ones replying is the little group of geese and grey ducks waddling between the stable building and the old round tower behind. There some of the staffers live on site just like Jessica does, who needs less than 30 seconds to get to her horses.
Much had been said and written about Don Juan, a leggy liver-chestnut horse who on paper is a born champion: sired by one of the world leadings dressage sires, Jazz, and out of a dam by Anky van Grunsven's 2002 WEG team horse Krack C. There is no question that this horse owns a talent rarely witnessed. The swinging ground covering trot,which fortunately lacks that exaggerated Dutch front-leg action, is equally impressiove as the canter. Only the sky is the limit of that uphill gait.
Don Juan appears to be a stallion that rests totally in himself and who visibly loves to please the rider and co-operate with her all the time. Jessica trots and canters him with the longest reins possible for her typical warming-up phase and he searches for the contact and swings with his whole supple body. Apparently this is as much fun for the horse as for his rider as Jessica is all smiles and at one long side drops the reins completely and rides with her arms in the air.
Asked what kind of feeling it is to sit on such a horse, she just smiles again and replies: “He's huge, but you know, the best feeling for me is that he always wants to do his best. He is always asking what he can learn or do next and that is the greatest thing about him.” As if to prove his rider's words, the stallion, who is licensed for the Westfalian, Hanoverian, Oldenburg, Selle Francais and Z studbook, turns around to Jessica to get a cuddle.
“I know that people were asking what Don Juan is doing as we didn't start him very much recently. That's why we did the video of his training in May 2014 and put it on Youtube. I only started him once this year and he was just wonderful. He stays calm at shows and so I see no need that he does too many shows at that age. I prefer him to learn and develop at home because the long-term goal is the Grand Prix. Also until last summer he was available via fresh semen which we changed now. Don Juan is now available via frozen semen which is of very good quality.”
It is also interesting to analyse the movements of this horse. Although bred from one of the best Dutch blood lines, he doesn't look typical Dutch in his movements.
Extensive gymnastics, a few flying changes and the work is done for today. Ninon takes over Don Juan for his after-work toilette and Jessica has done her riding job for today which had started 7 in the morning.
The Past, the Present and the Future
The Jack Russell Hoya is happy her boss is back on the ground and wags her tail enthusiasticly as Jessica steps into the office. The silky dog is Jessica's permanent companion during the day, may it be in the stables, in the indoor arena or while hacking, but you hardly ever notice her as she belongs to the group of quiet terriers who only beg for cuddles more than anything else. Her grand-mother Verden, named after Jessica's favourite town in Germany, preferred to stay in the house that day.
Having a job most riders can only dream of, Jessica is well aware that luck had played a great part in her riding career, maybe more than with others. “As a child and teenager I had a riding pony with whom I evented and also did some dressage. When I grew out of ponies I sold the pony to the Dallara family for their daughter and with the money bought myself a 7-year-old eventing prospect. With that horse I moved to Saumur to the National Riding School to begin my courses becoming a riding instructor," she reminisced.
Jessica was 18 then and as destiny would have it, the only horse she had didn't stand the rigours of three-day-eventing and couldn't be ridden anymore. “So that was that. My parents couldn't afford buying me another horse and there I was at Saumur without a real horse to ride. Then Laurence Sautet, a Cadre Noir, team rider was kind enough to offer me one of her horses and I jumped at the chance. Well, she supported me and gave me lessons as did Philippe Limousin and I switched from eventing to dressage. To be honest: It was also the right decision in terms of the discipline. I loved eventing, but across country I tended to control too much the horse instead of riding positively forwards,” Jessica explained.
After she graduated from the ENE as a 22-year-old she moved to the South of France. In 2005 her life changed without her completely realizing it at first. “I was a young rider without any notable experience back then, but when Mr. Marie, the owner of Haras de Hus, went to the Cadre Noir and asked for a recommendation, they named me.” While one would expect Jessica to jump at the chance, she hesitated at first. “I had a boyfriend and loved living in the south of France. I didn't know Mr. Marie and back then there was almost nothing here at the stud: the old already existing buildings, the mansion and portable stables for the horses, which were only young at the time. I said I cannot come because I was not prepared to give up my life for an unpredictable future here. But Mr. Marie did not find the candidate he would liked to have and so again turned to me a bit later. In the end we came to terms that he sends me three young horses to train and in 2006 I came to the stud for the summer and lived 6 months here to see how it worked. Finally, in the spring of 2007 I moved to the stud permanently as the building had finished. I know that I am blessed to be given the opportunity to work with such fantastic horses on such a beautiful stud and with such a great team.”
While the other horses are still developing into future stars, Riwera remains what she always has been, Jessica's number one. At age 13 there is no need to think about retirement, but only about improvement. With the WEG in her home country being imminent, Jessica is looking forward to her first World championships. “We are very happy to have this important event in France this year. I am really looking forward riding in front of my home crowd. However, I think for French dressage itself it might come a bit too early in the sense that we are not yet ready to ride for a team medal. This makes us a bit sad as at such an event in the country of your origin you of course would prefer to win one," Jessica assesses the current situation. As for her own person “I would love making it to the Special like at the Olympic Games in London. But this year it will be difficult, there are so many starters. These will be my first WEG and I want to enjoy them.”
Text and Photos © Silke Rottermann for Eurodressage