Bea di Grazia Keeps Seeking A Deeper Connection To Horses

Jul 24, 2005 - 10:00 PM

Finding a horse for the FEI levels is never easy, but Bea di Grazia faces even more challenges than most riders. As a former international event rider, she just can’t seem to get the image of an event prospect out of her head.

“I’m starting in totally the wrong direction [for finding a dressage horse], because I’m going to Ireland,” she said with a laugh. “But I had to go there anyway.”

Di Grazia, of Carmel Valley, Calif., will also look at what’s available from California breeders. “But I have to watch out because I have an eye for an event horse, and I have to change that a little, look for a different package,” she said.

That package won’t be entirely different–after all, she still intends to event the horse to some extent. “I can not leave jumping behind,” she said.

But even at the height of her eventing career–which included a fourth place at the Burghley CCI**** (England) in 1980–di Grazia (nee Perkins) was known for her dressage abilities.

“It’s naturally something that I felt came easily to me. I enjoy the process and communication you get,” she said. “And I think I have quite a bit of patience. I didn’t necessarily study dressage any more than jumping, I’m just detail-oriented and knew I had to get it right.”

Disappointments in the form of lame horses and the inconvenience of traveling long distances to compete from California eventually led di Grazia away from eventing and more into dressage. She competed her last advanced horse, No Solitude, in the late 1990s.

“If I’d had a good horse, I would have pursued [eventing], but I got happy staying home and working on dressage,” said di Grazia, whose husband, Derek, is also a former international event rider and is now a respected cross-country course designer.

Bea started to scale back her competition schedule when she had her sons, Perkin (18) and Ben (21). “The family was our first priority, and if we were competing, one of us had to stay home,” she said. “We wanted to be there all the time and let them have their own lives.

“It changed our lives completely when we had children,” she added. “We didn’t want our competitive lives to come before theirs, and neither of us has any regrets about that.”

Instead, Bea appreciated the opportunity to diversify and make new circles of friends. “You also realize what each stage of life is,” she said. “Derek has gotten into course design, and I’m getting into judging credentials. We’re still very competitive, but we try to keep a lid on
that.”

In Her Blood

Growing up in a prominent equestrian family in Vermont–Bea’s parents, Essie and Read Perkins, and sister Beth were all heavily involved in a variety of horse sports–gave Bea exposure to some of the top riders of the 1970s at their Huntington Farm.

“Sally Swift was on the cutting edge at that time, and she was friends with my grandmother, and Jessica Ransehousen, Mary Bacon and Kathy Connelly–so many people passed through Huntington,” she said. “Their enthusiasm [for dressage] and the reward of being successful [in events] made me try harder and focus more on it.”

As she pursued her eventing career, Bea moved to Virginia to train with Jimmy Wofford (she met Derek there). “I would be out for two hours on one horse, and I remember Wofford being dumbfounded that I wouldn’t pack it in,” she said. “I rode a lot of hot horses and uncomfortable ones, and I had to learn how to sit because the horses weren’t going to give me anything.”

Bea recalled that the judge’s comments on dressage tests would frequently say, “tactfully ridden.”

“I had to think a lot about the psychology of the horse,” she said.

Her experience at the highest levels of eventing gave her a fresh perspective on dressage. “For me, it’s a no fear, back-to-the-wall kind of thing,” she said. “I mean, how are you going to hurt yourself? I ride very forward, and if I have to do a medium trot, I’m going to go all out for a medium trot.”

She expects the same commitment from her students. “Anyone who rides with me knows they’d better be darn fit, because they’ll get a workout, physically and mentally,” she said. “I think of it as a challenge, and the whole mentality of eventing makes you more aggressive and carefree, like, ‘Let’s go for it! What are you worried about?’ “

Not surprisingly, Bea’s dressage horses don’t spend all their time going around in circles. “I do a lot of cross-training–they get to gallop and go down the road. I’m not trying to put them in a box all the time,” she said. “I love the feeling of a horse full of joy and energy in his work.”

Bea rides with dressage trainer Ellen Eckstein, who is impressed at how Bea can influence a horse’s attitude. “Horses really like her; they seem to have a lot of trust in her,” she said. “There’s a certain confidence and calmness about her, and her horses seem to focus also. The relationship she forms with horses is very special.”

The years she spent training on the U.S. Equestrian Team with Jack Le Goff strongly influenced Bea, and she incorporates his philosophies into her teaching. “His biggest thing was working on position and seat,” she said. “I always start with the correct foundation of seat and position–a stable core, alignment, teaching the rider how to be harmonious in movement.”

Her students frequently spend considerable time on the longe line. “I work on body awareness a lot–I want body parts to be free and centered. I want people to feel strong and elastic and that they’re accomplishing their goals and enjoying what they’re doing.”

In addition to Le Goff, di Grazia has other influences from the French school of riding. She still rides with Col. Christian Card and Eric Charlemagne, as well as with David Hunt of Great Britain.

“There’s a lot more freedom in the French school–a very light, giving arm and hand, and reward is very important. There is a happiness in horses in that method. A little more personality comes out, and I love it,” she said. “I ride for the personality of the horse, and these [French] riders love the horse. They talk directly to the horse, and it’s amazing how in tune they are, with very subtle aids. It’s amazing what they can do without draw reins, whips or spurs.”

A Shared Journey

In addition to competing, Bea helps organize the Pebble Beach CDI each July. She and Derek ran the Pebble Beach Equestrian Center for many years, including organizing a three-day event, along with hunter/jumper and dressage shows. “We’ve kept the dressage show going, and now it’s in its 52nd or 53rd year,” said Bea. “We decided to bring it up to high standards and added the CDI two years ago.”

Bea puts a lot of personal time into making the show special. “It gives you a big-time feel, with huge tents and flags and great arenas,” she said. “And we make sure there are really good prizes and judges.”

Even as she strives to bring out the most from each horse, it’s the people in dressage that have held Bea’s interest. “They’re very intense and intellectual, and I appreciate people on their way to being masters. I think we haven’t quite created this generation’s master,” she said. “But everyone has such respect for the classical and what is achievable. I like that it is a life-long process and there’s always something more to learn.”

She rode on a team with future Olympians Sue Blinks, Steffen Peters and Guenter Seidel at the U.S. Olympic Festival in St. Louis in 1994. “They were all riding at that level then, and it was really fun,” she said.

Anyone who spends much time around Bea insists that she brings as much to the sport as the more high-profile names like Peters and Seidel.

“She is a bona fide natural saint,” said renowned author Jane Smiley, who has trained with Bea and Derek. “She is always good-humored, benevolent, funny and has more energy than you could possibly imagine. The best thing is how upbeat she is–she has a natural quality of exuberance.”

Bea would love to ride for a period of time in Europe, but it’s the learning there that intrigues her, not the competition. And looking back at her accomplishments in two sports, it’s not a ribbon or trophy that she most cherishes.

“As a young rider, it was very special for me to do things with the whole family,” she said. “It was a huge highlight, and it doesn’t happen to many people, that bonding through the love of the horse. It’s our life and what we loved. To be married to a guy who is the same way and have a life that is so compatible with horses–we’re all blessed to be able to share.

“The highlights, looking back, are special moments you share with people around you or a horse you get to accomplish something, to be totally confident in you. I enjoy making that horse feel special.”

Category: Dressage
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