Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024

Berndl Gets Acquainted By Winning At Shady Oaks

She drives a last-minute replacement to win the FEI single horse class.

Leslie Berndl proved her skill as a whip at the Shady Oaks CAI-B event in Lodi, Calif., on Oct. 4-7, decisively winning the FEI single horse class with a borrowed horse.


She drives a last-minute replacement to win the FEI single horse class.

Leslie Berndl proved her skill as a whip at the Shady Oaks CAI-B event in Lodi, Calif., on Oct. 4-7, decisively winning the FEI single horse class with a borrowed horse.

When her own horse was unable to compete just two weeks before Shady Oaks, Berndl put in a call to Ann McClure, who dropped everything and drove 10 hours to deliver the Hackney gelding Koopman’s Lightening Rod, or “Roger,” to Berndl and said “He’s yours.”

Fortuitously, Lisa Singer was at Berndl’s doing a clinic, so they were able to take advantage of Singer’s expertise. Two years ago, driven by McClure, the gelding would barely go into the dressage arena.

“I just kept really happy thoughts with him and stayed relaxed, and once we got in there he just did everything I asked. He gave me his whole heart and was right with me,” said Berndl.

Their rapport resulted in one of the best tests of the competition, earning a score of 40.8 from the five judges who unanimously agreed, putting her first by more than 20 points.

Prior to the mara-thon, Berndl had no idea how Roger would do. “We’re just getting to know each other. I want him to have the best experience possible.” Although the duo won seven of the eight obstacles, penalties in the walk section gave the marathon win to Ronda McPherson.

Berndl and Roger amassed 15.1 penalties in the cones, but their leading margin was enough to absorb that and prevail.

Berndl would like to try for a spot on the U.S. singles team next year with her own horse Cavallier, but having Roger as a spare is not a bad idea.

Giving The West Coast Drivers A Place To Shine


Fritz and Phyllis Grupe offer the only FEI competition in the West.

Their motivation is “To improve the quality of driving on the West Coast. We’re so far from the East Coast that drivers don’t have the opportunity to go there to compete in front of some of the top European judges,” said Phyllis.

“We’re going to Shady Oaks—we’ve got to be ready,” is a sentiment shared by many drivers according to presen-tation judge David Ventura. As a result, the quality of the turnouts is high. Competitors must qualify to compete at Shady Oaks. In addition to completing a certain number of competitions, competitors must also submit their scores from those competitions, and if entries warrant, they are accepted based on these scores.

The event spanned four days, and with only 46 competitors, the atmosphere was very relaxed. Shady Oaks Ranch encompasses 1,400 acres, much of which is covered with orchards producing cherries, apples, and most recently, olives. Grapes from the vineyards as far as the eye can see are turned into wine by some of the wineries for which  this area surrounding Sacramento, Calif., are famous. Black Angus cattle are also raised on another area of the ranch.

Shady Oaks spectators can be as close to the action in the obstacles as they want to be, at not just one, but several, without more than the turn of the head. Three of the eight obstacles involve water, kept at a depth that provides a lot of splash for the fans without a lot of drag for the horses.

The organizational team, headed by Bonner Murphy, Fritz and Phyllis’ daughter, looks after all the creature comforts and provides many social opportunities. Under Murphy’s leadership and the Grupes’ commitment to improve opportunities for West Coast drivers, Shady Oaks has become a great competition.

It gives competitors who aspire to be selected for international championship competition a chance to qualify their horses and ponies and to be looked at by some of the top judges in the United States and Europe without the expense, burden and risk of a cross-country trip.

It took a preliminary driver from Oregon to do what no one else could do—drive a penalty-free cones course. Anne Hansen with Magic One PFH managed to conquer the tricky angles yet maintain the speed required to win the preliminary single horse division.

How did she do it? “I have no clue. I even got a little lost!” she said.

This is Hansen’s first year competing at the preliminary level with the 5-year-old, 15-hand, Haflinger gelding that she has had only a year.


Standing fifth after dressage, Hansen won the marathon, which put them in second place going into the final phase. The biggest challenge on the marathon was not the imposing obstacles but the flat, hard ground. Used to hills and rough terrain of northern California and Oregon, the carriage “chattered” on the hard baked surface in some of the obstacles, but her husband and navigator did a great job keeping the carriage on an even keel.

In addition to their hosting duties, Fritz and Phyllis Grupe found time to compete. Phyllis drove the handsome Welsh-like Cincinnati Shine, once a pack pony, to win the intermediate single pony class.

“Kind Shine,”’ as he is called by the many Grupe grandchildren, easily won the dressage but gave up the marathon to Denise Hinder. With 8.32 penalties in cones, Phyllis maintained her lead.

Shine has only been back in California for a few weeks, having spent much of the summer with Lisa Singer in Pennsylvania while  Fritz competed in Europe. Phyllis wasn’t sure that he was rested up enough from the two-week cross-country trip by van to be ready.

Walt Rector, Diane Kastama and Mark Schmidt gave Fritz Grupe some competition in the FEI pair horse class, but Fritz, posting one of the best dressage scores of the entire competition (40.58) had a comfortable cushion.

He gave up two obstacles in the marathon to Montana’s Schmidt, and in spite of incurring more than 18 penalties in cones, the former national pair champion captured the blue ribbon.

Two four-in-hands vied for top honors at Shady Oaks, with Arizona’s Josh Rector besting Deb Laderoute from Calgary, Alta.

Part of Rector’s team was once part of Michael Freund’s World Championship team. Another horse, Freedom, is an established competitor in ridden dressage. Rector started working with the team two years ago, with Freund driving them initially.

Spending the spring in the East, they drove at Live Oak (Fla.) and other competitions before heading back to Arizona. Rector took close to a 20-point lead over Laderoute in dressage and almost won the marathon, except for a few penalties in the walk section.

Both drivers did credible jobs on the impossible cones course, each with more than 29 penalties, with Laderoute a fraction better. So it was Rector who heard “The Star Spangled Banner” played in his honor at the conclusion of the competition.

Ann L. Pringle




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