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February 29, 2012

Road To The Olympics: Heather Blitz, Part 1

"I think one of the reasons [Paragon has] come along so quickly is because nobody was telling me it had to. I bought him as a resale project, and no one’s put pressure on me—nobody but myself. Photo by Lisa Slade.

In this series, the Chronicle follows seven riders as they seek to fulfill their Olympic dreams in London in 2012.

You could say I knew Paragon before he was born because I was training his mother, Pari Lord, to get her ready for her under saddle grading when she was just a 3-year-old. I was breaking a lot of horses for Oak Hill Ranch in Folsom, La., at that point, and she stood out to me as an incredibly rideable one. I just liked her, and I liked her temperament.

I asked them to breed her to Don Schufro, so I sort of custom ordered Paragon. I didn’t put in the order for 18 hands and chestnut, but I’m really glad I got that too. I was there the night he was born, so I’ve known him ever since.

I thought he would be a horse I could train and sell, but seeing him trot around when he was a 3-month-old, that was pretty stunning. There were a couple of glimpses when he was a coming 5-year-old that he could really be something, and I kind of thought, “Oh, maybe I have a nicer horse than I thought I did.”

Between just coming 5 and coming 6, I was pretty sure he had the talent to do the Olympics. Of course there are a lot of other factors, but at least I knew then he was a talented enough horse to do that.

I guess I’ve been thinking for about a year that London could really be something I should have as a goal in front of me, just in case it happened. We all have hopes, and we all have what we predict, and what we think we know, but at the World Dressage Masters Palm Beach [held Jan. 26-29 in Florida, where Paragon placed second in the CDI**** Olympic Grand Prix Special with a 72.04 percent], I really thought, “This could happen.”

But there are still so many unknowns. Everyone is concerned, as I am, that he’s so young. There’s a lot of strength to build. He’s still just a gangly teenager, but sure enough, he just keeps rising to the occasion.

After the Masters, I totally believe in him now, even though I know I have some glitches I have to work on. We still have five months, and at the rate he’s progressing, I’m very confident. Even weekly, he’s progressing in leaps and bounds.

Watch Paragon's Grand Prix Special performance at the World Dressage Masters. (Video courtesy of HorseJunkiesUnited.com.)

2011: A Year To Remember

Last year was a great year. When we started out the small tour, the first time I really showed Paragon he scored over 70 percent and was the high score of the show. He started off in the very beginning like that, and he hasn’t let me down yet. So last year building all the way up to the Pan American Games (Mexico), it was just super.

Paragon got to Mexico before I did because the grooms went with the horses, and the riders had to go through Houston, Texas. I got messages from my groom, Hannah Michaels, that as soon as he got there, people started taking pictures of him. He already had quite a following on YouTube and on his Facebook fan page, and there was already buzz about him before the Games even started. People were really interested in seeing him in person. I loved that.

He’s a low-stress horse for me. He doesn’t have a lot of unknowns, and he’s predictable. So I didn’t have a lot of stress about being there. I wasn’t nervous. It was all just really fun, and I felt so lucky the whole time to be able to do something like that in my life. It doesn’t happen to many people, and I was really glad it was happening to me.

One of the best parts of the Pan Ams was feeling like I was part of a team, because it doesn’t happen often in our sport. We were all gunning for each other. To be there with a horse I designed and trained, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

Bringing Along A Prodigy

Paragon has a lot of natural talent, so even now my riding focuses on very, very basic things. I just keep making sure he’s reactive—doesn’t matter to what necessarily, but he has to react—and then my No. 1 priority is balance. I always keep him in his body, so I don’t push him a lot from behind, and I don’t pull him in in the neck. I just make his body really balanced.

I’ve let his frame come along slowly, and I didn’t make that an issue in the beginning, even though he was really high in his neck. I didn’t press a frame on him early. I just let that develop over time, and in retrospect I’m really glad I did that. I’ve just focused on balance, letting him bring out his talent. I’ve taught him some things, but I’ve basically just tried to stay out of his way and show him what his body can do, and he’s given it to me.

I was concerned when he was 3 and 4 that he wasn’t hot enough to be an FEI horse. I didn’t know if he had it in him to be sharp. He’s kind of a slow-twitch horse. I could touch him with a whip on his leg 20 times, and it’s like he never felt it. He’s not a touch horse; he’s a mental horse.

I taught him in the beginning that all he had to do was care about what was happening. Once he got to the mental level of concern, then the switches turned on. But in the beginning he was pretty quiet. It made it nice, because he was never dangerous!

I think one of the reasons it’s come along so quickly is because nobody was telling me it had to. I bought him as a resale project, and no one’s put pressure on me—nobody but myself. I haven’t had to follow anyone’s schedule as far as moving quickly or slowly.

I haven’t had to meet anyone’s expectations. Paragon keeps exceeding my own expectations, and that’s another reason why there’s been success. When you buy them as a foal, you don’t have to pay that much money. When you don’t have to pay that much money, you don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to make the horse do certain things at certain times.

Making The Move To Grand Prix

As far as the movements go, the half-passes were the last to come along. The half-pass and pirouettes were the things we had to work on the most. But once he gets a concept, he definitely gets it.

The transitions out of piaffe are fine, but getting into the piaffe is still a little tricky. I know this will come. I just need a little time. It’s that walk to the piaffe transition where he isn’t certain yet if it’s going to be a canter or a halt and reinback. But once he gets into the piaffe, I’m very happy with where it is. The passage into piaffe transitions and the transitions out into passage are right on. He doesn’t miss a beat, and the tempo stays really regular.

Because he’s 18 hands, the half-passes in the Grand Prix are pretty tight for him. The canter zigzag has never been hard to fit in. He has a lot of impulsion in the hind legs, so I can shorten the canter stride pretty easily, but the trot zigzag half-pass is tight for him. I don’t get to show that many strides of extended canter; he takes such a big stride, I can usually only get 12 strides in. The pirouettes are coming along, and the tempis are really strong.

I feel super confident about a lot of the test. I have a beautiful Grand Prix freestyle in the works. I’m going to use the same music as his small tour freestyle, still from “Cirque du Soleil.” I feel like it’s music written for him. It just brings out what he is in sound. I do have the choreography written, and the music is almost tweaked to where we want it.

Getting Qualified, Getting The Funds

The scores I got at the Masters will probably be pretty good ones to help me qualify for the trials [scheduled for June 8-10 and 13-17 in Gladstone, N.J.]. 

I think that Paragon learned a lot in the weeks between the Masters and the [Florida Dressage Classic, held in Wellington, Fla., Feb. 16-19] CDI-W. We got some confidence from the Masters, performing under pressure like that. The second show he felt more confident, and he knew more about the piaffe, and I was really happy with him for both tests. He was fantastic in the Grand Prix Special [placing third with a 70.75 percent.]

It’s just getting miles on him now. The scores from the Florida Dressage Classic put me in a good position to stay in the top 15 to qualify, so I could be finished trying to qualify. But he’s still only done two CDIs, so I’d like to have a few more under our belts, and they’re all literally just around the corner from us. There’s no travel involved, so we’re probably going to do three more CDIs and try to get the kinks out and the miles done. That way we can be as ready as we can for the trials.

Fundraising is a big concern of mine, because if I take him to the trials and the Games, it’ll take me away from home for three months. It’s hard to keep covering expenses when you’re not home for three months. They’ve accumulated quite a bit of prize money at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington, Fla., and I’m going to try and grab some of that to help me get there.

I own Paragon myself. I have some contributors, but I try to do some fundraising and get as much support as I can. Oak Hill Ranch, his breeder, helps me out a little every month, and I have a few other private contributors. I need to focus a lot on fundraising.

I’m really relieved that he not only did a CDI where I knew that the pressure was on, but it was also the Masters. He loved the atmosphere in Guadalajara, the more color and sound, the better for him. If there are more people, he kind of digs that. I wasn’t thinking, “Oh, he’s going to go in that arena and freak out.” That’s not in his nature. I don’t have to be concerned about environments I put him in because he’s not reactive. He and I are very similar in that way. We internalize, we think a few seconds, and then we do something. I love that about him.

A lot of people say we match in many ways, and somehow I just got lucky to have him come into my life.

Fast Facts About Heather Blitz

Age: 43

Hometown: Wellington, Fla.

Horse: Paragon, a 9-year-old Danish Warmblood gelding (Blue Hors Don Schufro—Pari Lord, Loran), owned by Blitz and bred by Blitz and Oak Hill Farm.

  • Team gold, Pan American Games (Mexico) (2011)
  • Individual silver, Pan American Games (Mexico)  (2011)
  • 1st place Prix St. Georges, Dressage At Devon CDI (Pa.) (2010)
  • 1st place Intermediaire I, Dressage At Devon CDI (Pa.) (2010)
  • 1st place Prix St. Georges, Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI (Fla.) (2011)
  • 1st place Intermediaire I, Palm Beach Dressage Derby CDI (Fla.) (2011)
  • 2nd place Intermediaire I Championship, Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF National Dressage Festival Of Champions (N.J.) (2011)
  • 2nd place Olympic Grand Prix Special, World Dressage Masters Palm Beach CDI**** (Fla.) (2012)
  • 3rd place Olympic Grand Prix Special, Florida Dressage Classic CDI-W (2012)

 

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