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April 13, 2014

Heather Blitz's Path For Paragon Is Clear

Heather Blitz is taking a step back from competition goals to improve Paragon's work and connection. Photo by Susan J. Stickle

Three years ago, Heather Blitz and Paragon rocketed into the public eye. The leggy chestnut gelding and his extravagant movement created quite a buzz. Fame came fast for Paragon and Blitz, but now Blitz is taking a step back. She’s not aiming Paragon for a spot on the U.S. team for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games this summer.

After taking team gold and individual silver at the 2011 Pan American Games (Mexico) and finishing sixth in the U.S. Equestrian Federation selection trials for the London Olympic Games team and serving as the traveling reserve in just his first year at Grand Prix, Paragon was the talk of the town. He consistently scored in the low 70s in the Grand Prix, Special and freestyle.

But Blitz chose not to show Paragon from April last year until the start of this year. And now that the Florida season is complete, she’s stepping back from the show ring with him again. There’s been a lot of Internet chatter about what’s going on with Paragon, especially after he scored an uncharacteristic 60.74 percent in the Grand Prix Special at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival I in January in Wellington, Fla. They did finish the winter season with scores of 68 percent at the Palm Beach Dressage Derby in the end of February.

We caught up with Blitz and got the details of her plans with Paragon, an 11-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding (Don Schufro—Pari Lord) she owns in conjunction with Robert McKean.

Chronicle: What happened in that Grand Prix Special in January?

Blitz: The show that the Special didn’t go so well was unfortunate, but at far as what I felt the horse needed and what I needed to do to break through to another level of relationship between us, it was what needed to happen.

It was a decision of mine to more or less forgo that score and to do a little reconstruction in the ring. He was just starting to get a little bit where he thought he didn’t have to work as hard in the ring as he does in practice. It was something I had to address in the ring because the issue doesn’t come up at home or in the warm-up. It was unfortunate that it had to happen in a public setting, but that’s reality.

When you train a horse from the beginning all the way up—especially one that’s 18 hands and takes 12 strides to get across the diagonal—there are some challenges.

He’s a wonderful horse, but it’s another thing to be the one in charge of maintaining and controlling the training program with him. That was a moment in our training. I know what it was about, and he learned a good lesson from it.

I’m going to continue to practice in the ring until he’s really on my aids the same way in the ring as he is in training. I think a lot of trainers come across that particular issue. It’s just a small thing, but we have to work through it. And by the end of Florida, he had improved in that matter by far.

Was it difficult to see the public backlash about that performance?

A lot of negativity came my way this season, and one of my biggest challenges this season was to get through all the rumors and the negativity. Training Paragon is not nearly as hard as getting though that kind of stuff.

Social media has been a real challenge for me. I’m not a big fan of social media; I think that when people criticize, they forget that they’re talking about a human being, not just an image on their computer screen.

I hear many rumors that come full circle back to me that are 100 percent false. It’s shocking sometimes what people come up with, but it is very hard to hear it even if you know it’s not true.

It made me take a second look at how I react when I see my peers in the ring. It made me realize nobody can judge; it’s really hard out there. I have a lot more sensitivity for my peers just because of the negativity and the criticism that have come my way. In a way, that’s how I made something good of it. It reminded me not to just make quick judgments like ‘Why aren’t they doing this,’ or ‘Oh, that’s not as good as it should be.’ That’s because it’s impossible to be perfect and even if you get close, it only lasts a week or so and something else comes up.

So why have you decided to not try to qualify for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games team?

I took it easy with him over the summer last year because he’s been going and going since he was quite young. Last summer, my goal was to let him down.

I started training him again in the fall to get him ready for the Florida season and looking ahead to the World Games. But I realized in Florida that he just wasn’t ready yet. If I had kept going over the summer last year, I could maybe have had him strong enough and ready for the qualifiers this year and we might have gotten it done.

But it was my decision to give him a break because he’s such a big horse and he’s never had a chance to really just take a breath and develop. He’s always had something big in front of him like a tour or the Olympics.

Then I realized in January that it wasn’t realistic to think that he’d be ready in March to get the scores we’d need to go to Gladstone [for the selection trials]. If I’d had a few more months, I think that would be more fair to the horse, but because I didn’t, it was my decision to not go the route of pushing and trying to get him there, but to take this chance to do some training.

I want to just do really good work at home until we’re both 100 percent confident we can go in and do our best. The Pan American Games next year could very easily fit in with my plan, but definitely the goal is to be able to make a strong push for [the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janiero].

What impact did Paragon’s early success have on you?

We hit the ground running when we got here from Denmark in 2010 and everything went so well so fast. It was very exciting and I didn’t turn the opportunities to keep going with him down because he was going so well. But I think because it happened so fast, it was all about competing and showing and doing.

It’s different with him and me than with any other horse I’ve trained, because he’s just been such a star from the very beginning. That's just made it harder for me to be diligent and do the work at home before I show. I’ve had to mentally grow with him, too. I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve come to competitions with one that’s a top dog. I’d always been the underdog, so that’s very mental for me.

It’s not like he’s scared of environments or spooky. He doesn’t get insecure in big electric arenas. But because of the pressure of everybody wanting success and wanting him to be ‘the horse,’ I think the pressure got to both of us.

That might not be evident on the outside, but it’s a real thing on the inside. It’s a lot of pressure to contend with. I felt like I wanted to turn that off and say ‘OK, we’re not going to a show right now.’

That’s my decision and he’s my horse. If I feel it’s right, I’ll go and show. And if I feel like I want to just train until I feel in my gut that we’re really ready, then I’ll do that. And that’s what I’ve decided and done.

I think a lot of people don’t understand that because he did so well his first year out at Grand Prix. That’s great, but then the honeymoon’s over and the real stuff starts.

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently in 2012?

Now that I’m on the other side of it and it’s two years later, I can say ‘We didn’t have to do that, I was going to have him for two more years.’ But then, I didn't know that. When you’re in the moment, you think about things like, ‘What if he gets injured,’ or ‘what if somebody comes and buys him from me.’

So in hindsight, yeah, we didn’t need to [do so much], but I think it was a good experience and I think it didn’t physically over-push him. He was very happy over all of that period.

But then it’s living up to the expectations afterward. It’s confusing to some people why I’m not out there showing at every show, but I want to take very good care of him. I want him to be at his strongest and his best leading up to Rio and even another WEG and Olympics after that if I take care of him well enough.

So what’s the plan for Paragon?

We’ll go back to Cutler Farm in Medfield, Mass. I’ll spend time coaching my students at shows in that area and resume normal training and teaching and clinics this summer.

As far as Paragon, I plan to do some local shows and keep getting in the ring. Then I’ll shoot for the CDIs at Saugerties [N.Y.] and Dressage at Devon [Pa.].

What are your goals in your training of Paragon?

I want to stay more connected in the collected work. He has a really fantastic piaffe-passage tour, but he tends to get too high in his neck; that’s just his nature.

It took him quite a while, even as a young horse, to really get the coordination to do carrot stretches or to do groundwork and lower his neck while he walked and trotted in hand. It took a lot for him to develop that. He’s gotten past that now, but he really had to learn that; it’s not the way he was designed.

So, I continue to try to keep the neck low and the withers high and him really coming through the back in the collection. He’s learning it, but it’s taking the hundreds of hours of consistency and building his knowledge on how to use his body and do it consistently.

I’m very happy with the progress; it’s just not a quick fix or something I can do in a few weeks. He’s an enormous horse with such a range of motion and he loves to float over the ground. That’s all wonderful until you need him to really come together and be strong in a small package.

For him to be in a small package and take little steps is a work in progress. But the path is really clear for us now. 

 
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