They say to never judge a book by its cover, and eventer Leslie Chelstrom has made that her mantra. Chelstrom has a love for the Thoroughbred and a knack for picking out diamonds in the rough, taking several unconventional horses to the upper levels of eventing from scratch, including her current advanced horse, Cecelia.
While some might have seen Cecelia as just a plain bay mare with a dislike of arenas, Chelstrom saw a potential star in her.
All of her hard work came to fruition last year, when she and Cecelia finished 11th at the Dansko Fair Hill International CCI*** (Md.), and they’ve come out stronger than ever this season, most recently winning the advanced division at The Fork International Horse Trials on April 4-7 in Norwood, N.C.
While she decided not to target the Rolex Kentucky CCI**** this season, Chelstrom is still finding plenty to learn and improve upon as she looks towards a possible trip to the Blenheim Horse Trials CCI*** (England) in the fall. “Every spring she comes out a different horse and a stronger horse. She had the [jumping] ability, she just wasn’t necessarily strong enough [in the dressage,]” she said. “I feel that this year I have a pretty fantastic horse and she just keeps stepping up. I think she’s finally reached that maturity where we’re plateauing a little bit and can just continue to polish.”
A Proper Start
Chelstrom is self-funded, which usually only allows her to campaign one horse at a time. She finds most of her horses with the help of her sister, dressage rider Erinn Bieber, who lives in Bondeul, Wis. “I just enjoy the process. I feel like if you can give the horse a proper start, in most cases they will do anything for you,” she said. “It’s all about that initial beginning of working with them from the ground up that shapes their future.”
Chelstrom first saw Cecelia (Connecticut—Penny Stock) when she was an unraced 2-year-old. Her sister bought her and sent her to be sold as a hunter soon after, but when the situation didn’t work out, Chelstrom decided to buy her. “From the beginning, I needed to work with her outside of the ring. I needed to take her out and hack her down the road and in the fields and stay away from the ring,” she said.
The mare’s careful jumping style caught up to her once she got to the advanced level, so Chelstrom spent all of last season trying to improve her cross-country while letting the show jumping suffer a little. “At the advanced level when I moved her up, she wanted to be careful to the point on the cross-country of getting herself in trouble,” she explained. “I had to get after her a little bit on cross-country because she wanted to over jump and I had to say, ‘No, we’ve got to get on with it, don’t be so careful. Attack.’ ”
After several tough show jumping rounds last year, Chelstrom was able to improve Cecelia’s form. “Now I feel like she’s still brave and bold on cross-country, but she’s coming back on the last day to show jump well. It’s been a process,” she said. “She’s a little sassy and she definitely has an attitude and knows that she’s special. She loves her job and she’s nice to work with, but just has that little bit of sassy attitude that keeps you on your toes.”
Finding Her Way
Chelstrom grew up in Green Lake, Wis. and got hooked on eventing when she was 8. Her mother bred a few horses a year, and when Chelstrom was 10, she got her first project, a homebred Anglo-Arabian named Hopscotch (All She Wrote—Azar Ama). “He was tough as nails. He could go and go and go,” she remembered. “I saw him born. He was my best friend growing up.”
Although Chelstrom, 38, admitted that it was tough trying to be competitive while living nearly four hours away from the nearest competition, she was able to work with several good trainers, including Lois Hyerdahl, Ralph Hill and Anne Jennings. “[Lois] really shaped my riding career. I would ride with her every chance I got,” she said. “Ralph always had a way of making people really believe in themselves and have faith in their abilities. I don’t think there are many coaches out there that are willing and can give as much of themselves to their students from one level all the way to the upper levels as Ralph was able to.”
With Hopscotch, Chelstrom represented Area IV at the North American Young Rider Championships in 1992, ‘93 and ‘96. “It was very exciting and the biggest thing I had done at that time. Having grown up in Wisconsin, it was sort of intimidating to go into that sort of competition with all of the young riders from the East and West Coast having a bit of an advantage as far as their coaching and their skills,” she said.
Chelstrom and Hopscotch did their first advanced together soon after Young Riders. At the same time, she’d begun to take on some teaching and training at her family’s Hawthorne Ridge Farm.
After a brief stint in college, she decided that she wanted to focus on horses. “I started to become known for [starting horses] and people just started sending me their horses. I think even now it’s hard to find someone willing to start horses under saddle because it’s a little on the dangerous side,” she said.
At the same time, Hopscotch was retired due to a growth he’d developed on his soft palate.
It wasn’t long before Chelstrom found her next project, Brio. The plain bay Thoroughbred gelding was found at a “dumpy sales barn” in Wisconsin, malnourished, thin, and scruffy. Chelstrom saw something in him and paid $850 to bring him home. She put him in her lesson program, but after a few months, Brio decided he wasn’t interested in the life of a school horse. “About three months in when he started feeling a little bit better and putting on weight, he started getting a little naughty,” she said.
She started riding him and offered him for sale, but no one was interested. “By the time he was going intermediate, people were kicking themselves for not picking him up when he was going novice. He had all three phases. He could move and he could jump and he was super brave,” she said.
Brio gave Chelstrom the upper-level experience she’d craved. “He was the first really good horse that I took to the upper levels that had all the pieces,” she said. They jumped around several intermediate and advanced tracks, culminating in an eighth place finish at the Virginia Horse Trials CCI** in 2005 before suspensory problems caused Brio’s retirement from upper-level competition.
A New Leaf
In 2003, Chelstrom met eventer Paul Ebersole while competing in Florida. They started dating and that fall, Chelstrom relocated to his Champagne Wishes Farm in Bluemont, Va.
She was reluctant to leave her family and business in Wisconsin, but soon found the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains to be the ideal place to event. “It’s like night and day. I think that the Midwest has progressed since I’ve left, but I think it’s still very tough to be a competitor at the upper levels from that area. Just the access to the competitions that we have here in our backyard is amazing,” she said.
Around the same time, Chelstrom and her sister had found another off-the-track Thoroughbred in Wisconsin. The 5-year-old mare, who Chelstrom named Sara, had raced 30 times and never placed. “I paid $1,000 for her, pretty much because I felt sorry for her. She was super sweet. She was the horse that when you walked down the aisle, she would lean into the bars of the stall and want you to stop talk to her and pet her,” she said.
Chelstrom admitted that Sara (Just Infatuation—Coralorchid, Cabrini Green) wasn’t very attractive and didn’t move very well, but by the end of the day, the mare was on the trailer. “We had a four-horse trailer on that trip and we took a divider out and shoved the fifth horse in,” she joked.
“The first trip that she made [to an event] was to the Kentucky Horse Park because somebody else couldn’t go. I threw her on the trailer and she kind of got thrown into the eventing world. It was kind of sink or swim, and she stepped up to the plate right away,” she said.
While the chestnut mare’s flatwork was a challenge, Chelstrom gained valuable three-star experience on her before retiring her from the upper levels in 2008.
All About One Horse
In 2010, Chelstrom and Ebersole broke up, but Chelstrom soon found work riding eventers and foxhunters at a private family farm in Upperville, Va. She’s down to just one horse of her own now and realizes she’s at a disadvantage when trying to be competitive at the upper levels, but she’s found the extra time with Cecelia to be beneficial. “I’ve enjoyed putting all my focus and my efforts into this one horse that I think has a lot of talent,” she said. “I’ve always been the one to care for my horses. I’ve never boarded a horse, so it’s being in the barn with them all day and getting to know their personalities and working with them on the ground and under tack. I just live and breathe it.
“It’s the challenges. [Eventing] encourages you to work and go after your dreams even though you may have ups and downs. I think I’ve been lucky along the way to have some really great horses and some really great help. It’s the day-to-day training that I love the most—working with the horses at home and having a goal in mind that I’m working towards each day,” she continued.
Chelstrom’s current coach, Jimmy Wofford, has seen her through the ups and downs with Cecelia, and sees a top-level rider emerging. “She has a good feel for horses—not just in the saddle, but understanding the horse, understanding their body, their attitude and where they are in their conditioning,” he said. “There is always a barrier in a riders’ mind when they get to the upper levels. ‘Can I really do this? I have wanted to do this for so long and I’ve got a horse that I think I can probably do it.’ The only way to break through that is to just do it, and she has.”
Chelstrom admitted that Cecelia is the best horse she’s ever had, and she’s determined to impress U.S. team selectors in the future. “I think that with this particular horse, [representing the U.S. is] definitely a possibility. From the time you’re a little girl, you see the Olympic rings and think that that’s always something you’d like to do. I think that with this horse; she has the talent and the ability to be a horse that they would be interested in. I just have to keep stepping up to the plate,” she said.