Amateur Rider's Pint-Sized Project Wins Fourth Level Championship

Oct 12, 2021 - 2:57 PM

When Gretje Witt first met the Connemara-Canadian Warmblood gelding TBF Triton’s Rauri as a 3-year-old, she had no inkling that the pint-sized powerhouse would one day become her first FEI horse. His breeder, Jenny Youngblood, had brought the chestnut youngster to Betty Findley’s Liberty Grove Farm in Spokane, Washington, to be started under saddle and prepped for sale. Witt, who was horseless and eager to seize any opportunity to ride, agreed to assist Findley with Rauri’s early education. He soon won them over.

“We started him slowly, because I was working full time and riding a couple of my coach’s other horses, and he was just an addition,” Witt said. “After a few months, I said to my coach, ‘Man, I really like this guy. He has a really good head on his shoulders.’ And she said, ‘I really like him, too.’ ”

Neither woman was in the market for a horse; in fact, Findley already had a full barn, and Witt was concerned about the financial commitment of horse ownership. But Findley saw potential in the young gelding, and ultimately the women decided to purchase Rauri (Skyview’s Triton—Bacchea) together so they could spend more time developing the youngster before putting him up for sale.

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Betty Findley, foreground, and amateur rider Gretje Witt teamed up to bring along TBF Triton’s Rauri together. The pair recently won  the adult amateur fourth level championship  at the GAIA/USDF Region 6 Championships, held Sept. 23-26 in Portland, Oregon. Cortney Drake Photos

“We figured we’d hang onto him for a few years and see where it takes us,” Witt said. “Neither one of us took it too seriously.”

But all of that changed once Witt began competing Rauri as a 5-year-old at training and first levels in 2017. That fall, they finished eighth adult amateur training level class at the GAID/USDF Region 6 Championships.

“Everything was so easy for him,” Witt said. “I felt ridiculously privileged and honored to be part of a championship class, and I was the proudest person ever to have this brown ribbon, the biggest ribbon I ever won. It was his first big away show, and I was so proud of him.”

Since then, they’ve made steady progress through the levels, competed in freestyle, ranked in the USEF Halfbred Connemara Horse of the Year standings and, by 2019, were showing successfully at third level. After 18 months away from the show ring due to the pandemic, Witt and Rauri completed their first fourth level test together in May 2021. Then, at the GAIG/USDF Region 6 Championships held Sept. 23-26 at DevonWood Farm in Portland, Oregon, the pair captured the fourth level adult amateur championship with a 65.69%.

“This year was one of those dreamy years,” Witt said. “We could tell from the beginning this was going to be a successful year. Because of COVID, we had two years to make the jump from third to fourth [level], which I think was a big jump for me.”

Until riding Rauri—who, at 15.1 hands with shoes, is officially a ‘small horse’—Witt had only ever shown at the lower levels and never had the opportunity to concentrate on developing and competing one horse over the long term.

“I was always working other people’s horses, whatever opportunity came my way,” said Witt, who works as a web designer and content manager for a global technology company. “Whoever needed help with their horse or wanted some relief because they couldn’t make it out every day, that’s essentially how I’d been riding.

“When we decided to hold onto him, I thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun,’ because I get to be a little more in control of his training and how far to take him,” she said. “Especially as it is still my first time really showing consistently like this, I’m just learning, too, how the whole system works and what the holes are and how people usually approach the training of horses and bringing them up.”

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Witt, who works full time as a web designer and content manager for a global technology company, hopes to compete Connemara half-bred “Rauri” at Prix St. Georges next year.

Findley’s guidance has been instrumental in helping Witt develop Rauri’s talent, especially knowing when to push the pair as well as when to offer them support. In addition, regular clinics held at Liberty Grove with trainers like Jan Ebeling and Lindsey Anderson O’Keefe have helped provide fresh eyes and necessary perspective.

“[Findley] is the one over the years that has had the training plan in mind,” Witt said. “I am just the one that sits up there and does what she tells me. The great thing about Betty is she is one of these coaches that encourages her riders to ride with other trainers. Every time she hosts a clinic, she comes and watches all of her students ride. The clinicians know our journey. They’ve seen what we’ve worked on and give feedback on what is a good goal.”

But perhaps her most influential coach has been Rauri himself.

“He is a great teacher for me even though you would think he’s young and doesn’t know anything,” she said. “He’s always given me this schoolmaster feel. He was very clear when I was not asking him correctly. His work ethic is just impeccable. He is hilarious; he is right there, all business, all the time, ready to work. He always tries so hard.”

With the guidance of so many experienced mentors, Witt feels she is now better qualified to evaluate her rides and recognize what is required for success at each level. In particular, she’s learned that truly performing well requires more than just executing the movements correctly.

“I remember coming out of my first third level test smiling ear to ear and my coach just shook her head in disappointment,” Witt said. “I was like, ‘He did all his figures, and we did everything … What went wrong?’ And she says, ‘This is third level, you can’t just go around the ring Humpty Dumpty anymore; you have to actually present your horse.’ I had no idea. Those are all parts of learning to do this kind of stuff.”

When it came to planning the 2021 show season, well-intentioned friends urged Witt to skip fourth level and go straight to Prix St. Georges due to the similarity of the tests. But she knew Rauri’s pirouettes were still green and that the judges would be looking for a higher level of quality at Prix St. Georges than they were ready to deliver. She decided to stick with her original plan and concentrate on the details at fourth level. By mid-summer, her commitment paid off.

“I had one test in July: I have never felt such a partnership, such a back and forth communication with him throughout the entire test,” she said. “A lot of times, I’ll get so tense in a test because I want everything to go so perfect. We’re starting to get to a point where it is like, let’s show them what we got. It’s not just us riding our figures, we actually present ourselves. That was really beautiful to have that feel of that partnership.”

As Witt began to prepare Rauri for the championships, she considered entering a Prix St. Georges class during the open show, just to see how it would go. When she shared her thoughts with Findley, her coach was immediately supportive.

“It has been so great having someone there like her to guide me in the beginning but also be so supportive for you to find your own footing and start making these decisions for yourself,” Witt said. “At the regional champs, I rode my first Prix St. Georges. I think it was a success for us. I really enjoyed doing that with him.”

This winter, Witt plans to continue refining Rauri’s pirouettes and to develop more expression overall. She hopes to start her 2022 season at Prix St. Georges with the goal of tackling Intermediaire mid-season.

“Every single year when we start our competitions, we start out at the level we discussed and say, ‘Let’s see how it goes’,” she said. “If it’s a complete disaster, we will take a step back. That hasn’t happened yet. But it’s a big jump to Intermediarie, and so we will just put in our work and see what winter brings.”

Bringing Rauri up the levels has also has given Witt perspective on achieving goals in her everyday life.

“It doesn’t matter whether you accomplish something during your lesson or ride as long as you took a step forward,” Witt said. “I think a lot of times I was looking for really big changes and really big accomplishments in lessons or clinics. It would get really frustrating for me when it wasn’t working. But when I was going from second to third level, I had to learn that as long as you keep working and keep taking steps every day it means you are getting closer to your goals. It might take a long time or it might not, but you are going to get there.

“I feel like I’m just at the beginning of the journey with Rauri,” Witt continued. “We’re just starting right now to find ourselves in this sport. I’m so excited about the next year and what the future holds.”

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