Competing a Friesian horse at a more serious level can be an experience similar to fighting windmills. Several respected trainers from Germany have witnessed on this account.
"I am only interested in extraordinary horses. If the character and quality are right, I don't care about the breed. When I started competing the Boenniger ponies over a decade ago, the judges were flabbergasted, just like they are now when they see a Friesian horse.Well, they'll have to get used to it," said Stefanie Meyer-Biss, the seasoned trainer behind the successes of pony champions like Dornik B and Deinhard B.
"If you take a Friesian to a competition, everything has to be 'top'. You just have to shock the judges," Sabine Schut Kery agreed – and unlike Meyer-Biss, who has trained various Friesians over the years but never shown one, she does ride several Friesians successfully at Advanced and Grand Prix level, far away in the U.S.A. But over here in Europe, when a Friesian enters the dressage arena, the comments running through the crowd – and the judges' boxes are invariably the same. From "a horse like that doesn't belong in a dressage competition" to "well, they are lovely cart horses." The range of the prejudices is as narrow-(minded) as it is firmly planted into the heads.
Fortunately, the young German rider Jessica Suess and her Friesian Zorro keep doing fighting the windmills and are doing it with great style. Furthermore, they've just been rewarded. It may have been a small step for the dressage world, but a big one for those who stubbornly insist on sticking to their "Black Pearls,“ when Jessica Suess and her 7-year-old Zorro (by Brandus x Pike) won the M class (Fourth level) at the regional show in Krefeld Huels near Düsseldorf last weekend, scoring a 7,7.
Although you do see the odd Friesian in beginners' classes, their numbers peter out at L level (third level), and beyond that, it's a true rarity to see one competing, leave alone competing successfully. Which is, in part, the fault of those who own them – and often don't take their training seriously enough.
"Many people approach these horses in a far too naive fashion," said Sabine Schut. "You can't expect such a heavy horse to react like a Porsche. But when a Friesian does start dancing, it is the greatest feeling ever."
But in part, it is also the judges who have to take the blame. "I never know what to expect when I enter the arena," said the 21-year-old Suess, whose Zorro leaves mouths agape and spectators rethinking their preconceptions wherever he appears.
"I can walk away with a five, and I can just as well walk away with an eight. Either the judges love Zorro, or they hate him. The only thing I never get are so-so grades with a six before the comma."
Like Schut-Kery, Jessica Suess has a lot of show experience but loves the challenge of competing with talented „outsiders“. Born into a circus family, she spent her childhood touring Europe with the Zirkus Busch-Roland and the Moscow State Circus. When her family joined Günther Froehlich's horse musical „Der Zauberwald“ nine years ago, Jessica started taking riding lessons.
At age fourteen, she got her first show horse, an Andalusian stallion named Mescalero. Three years at a boarding school in Warendorf also sparked her competing ambitions, and when „Der Zauberwald“ closed its doors in 2004, she started an apprenticeship with Heiner Schiergen.
Until early this year, she shared Zorro's training with former „Zauberwald“ colleague Thorsten Huesken, but since the horse started competing at M level, she rides him alone, mostly during her lunch breaks or, sometimes, under Schiergen's now open-minded, appreciating supervision.
In March, the pair premiered at the renowned „Turnier der Jungen Pferde," winning a third place in a Young Horses' M, scoring a 7.0 – the class was won by Heiner Schiergen on Lord of Loxley. A second attempt in a similar test left them with a 5.9 four weeks later – but then followed by their triumph in their first double-bridle class last weekend.
This victory leads right back to judge Jutta Held's refreshingly brave way of judging in fact "what-she -saw," totally disregarding the local favorites, serial winners and other kinds of common dressage politics. She rewarded a ride that was a lesson in harmony, elegance and verve and encouraged a talented rider to keep furthering her young horse's considerable potential. Even though that horse just happened to be a Friesian.
Text and Photos (c) Barbara Schnell