From The Magazine: Dan Kreitl Demonstrates Patience, Positivity And Perseverance

Sep 21, 2021 - 3:01 PM

Dan Kreitl contested the Plantation Field International CCI3*-S over the weekend, finishing fifth on Carmango and 18th on Horales, both owned by Kay Dixon. Read on to learn more about this Indiana-based eventer who is finding success at the upper levels of the sport:

You might not notice Dan Kreitl at a competition, despite his 6’4″ stature. He’s quiet, unassuming, and he tends to keep busy taking care of his small string of horses.

But this year the 34-year-old from the Midwest is making his name known in the small pool of advanced U.S. eventing riders, debuting at the level at the Rocking Horse Winter II Horse Trials (Florida) in February with three clear cross-country jumping rounds on horses he’s brought along himself. He may have placed middle of the pack with Kay Dixon’s Horales, Carmango and Eezy Cruise Lad, but the weekend was the result of years of hard work as he looks toward a five-star in the future.

Dan Kreitl and Carmango finished second at the 2021 Jersey Fresh CCI3*-S after completing their first advanced earlier in the year. Lindsay Berreth Photo

“It was a lot of fun,” he said. “We’re just quiet and do our own thing. We’re not in a big eventing area here in Indiana. That seemed to get us a lot of attention. That was different. I just wanted to get the horses around the course, and we had a good time.”

Anyone who’s ever met Kreitl will tell you he’s the most positive person they know. That outlook comes in handy while training horses, and he’s needed it this year as he and his wife Alyssa Kreitl welcomed a new child, born premature due to Alyssa’s battle with a rare form of cancer.

“He has such optimism,” said Sharon White, Dan’s coach for the last two years. “I think optimism can get you anywhere, and it will get him through what for anyone else would be a very tough period of time right at this moment in his life.”

Getting His Start

When Dan was growing up in Indianapolis, his parents were hopeful their ninth of 10 children would outgrow his obsession with horses, but he was desperate to spend time with them. When he was 12, he got a job working at a Bashkir Curly breeding farm since it was the closest place to be around horses.

He thought he might do rodeos and western riding, but the owner of the farm told him he’d have to learn dressage, which he’d never heard of.

During a gap year between high school and college he went to Colorado to work for former eventer-turned-dressage-rider Grant Schneidman. There, Dan got his first taste of a real competition barn and high-level dressage.

“The barn where I worked in Indiana was a total hole- n-the-wall, kind of rundown backyard operation, and when I interviewed with Grant I had to ride, and he was like, ‘Wow, you’re really rough around the edges, but you have natural talent,’ ” he said. “Now looking back I realize how little I knew. I learned a lot on the horse management and the level of commitment and the time it takes day in and day out, and really learned to ride dressage there. I had a rough idea of it, but I learned a lot more there.”

He competed at the CN FEI North American Junior and Young Rider Championships (Colorado) in 2008 on a borrowed horse, Fruhlich, and watched some of the cross-country for the first time. An eventer friend convinced him to try it, and he was hooked.

“As soon as I saw it, I thought, ‘Wow, that looks a lot more my style and a lot of fun,’ ” he remembered. He hadn’t even realized that Schneidman had been an eventer until he saw a poster of him on the tack room wall from the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

“At the time I didn’t really fully appreciate what he had done because I didn’t know anything about eventing,” he said. “I knew it existed, but I didn’t know anything of the sport. I would have been even more impressed had I realized how difficult that was to achieve and that he was quite good.”

Dan returned to Indiana to attend Ball State University in Muncie and to get started with Spartagon (Spartacus— Notorious), a 2-year-old Curly-Holsteiner cross stallion he’d bought while working at the breeding farm.

Before he could back him though, he needed a place to board a stallion.

Persistence Pays Off

While in town for freshman orientation in 2007, Dan connected with Dixon, who was president of the Indiana Dressage Society and had suggestions for places to board. Unfortunately, none of them took stallions, and neither did she at her small, private farm near the university.

But Dan begged. He sent multiple emails asking Dixon if she’d take “Sparty.” After consulting with her insurance company, Dixon decided Dan could work off his board.

“He was very unfair because he brought both his parents with him, who are the world’s nicest people,” she remembered. “How can you say no to Mom and Dad? We agreed to give it a try, and the rest is history. I fell in love with his horse. Dan’s been like another son to me. I would be devastated if he weren’t in my life. My husband [Steve Dixon] likes and admires Dan too.”

Kay, 73, picked up riding when she was 50 and evented to preliminary on a half-Arabian, and she also enjoys dressage.

“I was thrilled because I had no money anyways to pay for it,” said Dan. “It was a totally lucky scenario for me. Kay and her husband are the most modest, down-to-earth people you’ve ever met. I wouldn’t have thought they had the ability to own these nice horses that we do now that they imported. That evolved over the years of being there.”

Kay was impressed watching Dan bring Sparty along.

“He was so kind and competent with a young horse,” she said. “I had never seen him ride. He’s just kind and lovely with the horses.”

Dan started getting dressage help from Bonna McCuiston and eventing help from Lee Ann Zobbe. He and Sparty made it to intermediate, but Sparty wasn’t a talented show jumper. Working on a college budget, Dan had taught himself and Sparty to jump.

“I didn’t think jumping would be that hard, so I put the jumps up, and quickly got Sparty the idea to get over them,” he said. “My first beginner novice I had a 20-point lead going into show jumping, and there were nine jumps, and I knocked down seven of the nine jumps. That was when I was like, ‘Wow, this might be a problem!’

“I made a whole lot of mistakes,” he admitted. “If I could start over training him again he could have been an even better horse, but his heart was huge. He loved cross-country and never had a cross-country penalty in all the years from beginner novice through intermediate. He was a fun horse. Not a very good show jumper, and show jumping has always been my weakest phase, so together we were not very good in that phase!”

Dan Kreitl, pictured on Kay Dixon’s Horales, has been balancing his eventing schedule with a full-time job, a new baby and his wife’s cancer diagnosis. Lindsay Berreth Photo

As Dan was competing he was also studying entrepreneurship. He was looking for a way to pay for his housing, and real estate seemed “somewhat affordable,” so he took out a loan for a five-bedroom house and rented it to four of his friends and lived there. He started his student housing business, The Campus Edge, while he was in school. Today, his business owns 60 houses and seven apartment buildings within a half a block of the Ball State campus.

“I like remodeling houses and construction, and that’s how we’ve done well with our business—buying and rehabbing properties and keeping them as high-end college rentals,” said Dan, who also earned his MBA in finance.

Meanwhile he was teaching beginner lessons, and he trained a few young horses to help pay his tuition.

“I learned a ton about the horses from Grant, but it also gave me a good taste of what that life looks like, and it was a hard life I realized, especially as a working student. You work your butt off and don’t get paid much at all,” he said. “I was working tons of hours and had a second job in the evenings so I could make ends meet, and I was like, ‘You know what? I might need to make money some other way.’ I knew I always loved horses. From a passion standpoint I think I wanted to train horses for a living, but from a business sense I thought I should pursue something else.”

Finding The Right Fit

Dan knew he would need a more talented horse to reach his eventing goals, and that’s when he and Kay got an idea.

“I like owning nice horses, and he likes riding nice horses,” said Kay.

They started by importing a warmblood with Zobbe’s help that they eventually sold as a dressage horse. Then she connected them with Lesley Grant Law, who helped them find “Eezy” from Ireland and Carmango (“Fritz”) and Horales (“Atticus”) from Germany. All three were under the age of 6 and started at beginner novice and novice.

“They’re all totally different rides,” said Dan. “That was an adjustment for me. Fritz is probably my favorite to ride. He has the best mind and gives you 100 percent every day and is very consistent. On the opposite end of the spectrum is our Trakehner, Horales. He is a lot more temperamental. He’s a really good horse, but he’s much harder mentally to ride. He’s just been a harder horse to develop, but he may be our most talented. He’s coming along, so I’m excited about him. I think his future will be quite bright.”

He says Eezy, a 10-year-old Irish Sport Horse gelding (Carrick Diamond Lad—Toome Eezy Cruise, Cruising) is a powerful jumper with a huge heart, and while not fancy on the flat, he tries hard.

Dan had never competed in a Fédération Equestre Internationale event before this year, and he’s had to play catch up to get his qualifications. He believes all of the horses are ready for the four-star level, but he’s had to tick off the boxes. He’s hoping to get them all to a CCI3*-L this fall.

He’s spent the last two winters in Florida with White and credits his dressage success to McCuiston, with whom he’s worked for 12 years. Dan admits he was a bit starstruck and felt a little out of his league at first in Florida.

“Truthfully I’ve always said I’d rather be last against the best than first in an easier group of competition,” he said. “But it’s where I wanted to be—getting pushed. I’m serious about my goals of trying to do the five-star level, so I’m anxious to have the help to get there. That was a really good experience.”

His best FEI finish so far this year was second place at the Jersey Fresh CCI3*-S (New Jersey) with Carmango, an 8-year-old Westphalian gelding (Chirivell— Taramanga, Templer GL XX). Most recently he competed Horales and Carmango in the MARS Great Meadow International CCI3*-S (Virginia), where they finished 15th and 11th, respectively.

White believes Dan and his horses have what it takes to succeed at the top level. Known as a positive person herself, she’s enjoyed watching Dan grow.

“I really think Dan’s a great example of how a positive intention can get you really far with a horse,” she said. “It was his first time ever going advanced [at Rocking Horse], and his horses’ first time, and there’s so much to learn, but his positive intention is getting him so many wonderful places. He doesn’t complicate things. He just keeps it simple. That’s an art unto itself! He did his first advanced with one saddle and two bridles. It’s just so wonderful that he doesn’t make a big deal out of things. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”

Photo with Dixons_editweb
With the support of Steve (left) and Kay Dixon, Dan Kreitl has been able to compete at the advanced level. Photo Courtesy of Dan Kreitl

For both Kay and Dan, Kentucky with any or all of the horses would be the ultimate goal.

“It is a dream [to watch him bring them along]. It’s exciting,” said Kay. “I don’t even care that much about the winning. I just like to watch the horses do well; I like to watch him do well. It’s so exciting every day to talk about how the horses are doing and their personalities and who needs what and what the plans are.”

The Perfect Storm

While in college, Dan met Alyssa, who was teaching sign language. She’s not a horse person, but she’s been supportive throughout Dan’s career.

“When she’s there at the shows she definitely will braid the horses and help a little bit if needed,” he said. “She’s certainly listened to me talk about [horses] for hundreds of hours!”

In March, while undergoing a minor surgery during her second pregnancy, Alyssa, 33, was diagnosed with stage 4 pseudomyxoma peritonei, a cancer of the appendix.

Their daughter, Magnolia, was born premature in June when her heart rate dropped during a surgery to remove mucus caused by the cancer from Alyssa’s abdomen. Despite weighing less than 3 pounds and spending two months in the NICU, Magnolia, who joins her 4-year-old brother Oliver, is expected to be fine. While Magnolia was in the NICU, Alyssa prepared for a major surgery in Pennsylvania at the end of July to remove the cancer and several affected organs.

“She’s handled this better than I think anyone possibly could,” Dan Kreitl said of his wife Alyssa Kreitl. “She’s incredible.” Photo Courtesy of Dan Kreitl

Dan called it “the perfect storm” and said his wife is weathering it as well as can be expected.

“Some days are much tougher than others, but what people have said is to take it one day at a time and one problem at a time. The baby added a whole new element,” he said.

Dan said he’s trying to be positive and start living the new normal.

“We’re forcing ourselves to be positive and just keep going, and somehow, it’s been not easy at all, but we’re just waiting and hoping it’s all going to work out well.”

The surgery in July was successful, but the long-term prognosis is more complicated. “With it being stage IV cancer, they said there is no cure for it, and we knew that going into the surgery, but unfortunately it’s an all or nothing treatment,” he said. “The only treatment is the surgery, and then they do nothing until the next surgery. The good news is that once you’re done with it, it’s not like we have to keep doing all these follow-up chemos. It’s one and done. The bad news is, it’s stage IV, so it will come back at some point in the future, and she’ll have to go through this again, but they’re giving her an optimistic prognosis to live life.”

Dan says Alyssa is tougher than he’d ever imagined.

“She’s handled this better than I think anyone possibly could,” he said. “She’s incredible. But it is a lot mentally, having a premature baby and not being able to be with her and having to go to Pennsylvania while the baby’s stuck in Indiana. It’s definitely been really hard on her.”

Also this year, Kay was diagnosed with breast cancer. In July she underwent a double mastectomy with reconstruction, which was a success.

“It was like the wheels fell off in certain directions,” Kay said. “We’re all just hoping and praying that next year this is just going to be a bad dream in the past.

“He is just Mr. Positive,” she added about Dan. “I’ve never known anyone who could be more positive when the world is kind of falling apart. I guess the only one stronger is his wife, and she is just an amazingly strong, positive woman. He called me from the hospital when she was in the first surgery when they discovered the cancer, and she was still not even conscious yet. And he was like, ‘I can’t even understand this, and I’m going to have to tell her.’ What an awful thing to be facing your wife who doesn’t even know it, and you know this terrible thing. But they faced it together, and they’re determined to beat it.”

Dan’s hopeful to get to a few competitions and a CCI3*-L with his horses this fall, but for now, his first priority is his family and the busy end-of-summer season at his job.

Through it all, he’s had Kay, and she’s had him to lean on. “She’s the most generous person I’ve met—totally humble and so modest,” said Dan. “She’s tough as nails.”

“We’re just hoping he gets to move forward and realize his dreams,” said Kay. “Dan’s wife and my husband have supported this crazy plan. My husband financially and emotionally, his wife completely emotionally, all along. That makes it special. It feels like a dual family effort.”

This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our Sept. 6 &13, 2021 issue.

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