From The Magazine: Lehua Custer Enters The Major Leagues

Mar 4, 2020 - 8:00 AM

Lehua Custer just received The Dressage Foundation’s 2020 $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize after also winning it last year. The Chronicle published this article about Custer in June of 2019 after she won the award the first time. Since then, Custer has made her Grand Prix debut with F.J. Ramzes, scoring 65.65% in their first outing at the level in February.

At a U.S. Equestrian Federation observation event in 2018, Debbie McDonald and Charlotte Bredahl asked Lehua Custer about her goals. The Hawaii-born, Los Angeles-based dressage trainer had been attracting attention with Wendy Sasser’s powerful Dutch Warmblood gelding F.J. Ramzes ever since he was a young horse. After mulling over the question, Custer plucked up her courage and said she’d like to work with McDonald, who was the USEF development coach at the time.

And then Custer’s life turned upside down.

Within a matter of months, she and Ramzes had not only been named to the USEF Dressage Development Program list, but McDonald had also invited them to Florida for a month of training. And when things seemingly couldn’t get any better, Custer and Ramzes received The Dressage Foundation’s $25,000 Carol Lavell Advanced Dressage Prize.

They’ve now been training with McDonald for six months, and there have been discussions about the pair traveling to Europe this summer to continue their work together. Writing to her clients back home in California, she summed up her astonishment: “It’s like going from playing softball in the backyard to being drafted by the major leagues.”

Opportunity Of A Lifetime

Custer, 40, is still wrapping her head around the events .

“It seemed crazy to think I could leave a barn full of horses and wonderful clients and a fantastic show series in California to go to Florida,” she says. “But being invited to work with Debbie—you don’t say no to that. And to get the training grant was life-changing for us.”

The move to Wellington was an exhilarating experience, capped off by Betsy Juliano inviting Custer to stable Ramzes at Havensafe Farm so she could work with McDonald three or four times a week. When the Havensafe team headed to Juliano’s farm in Ohio for the summer, Custer was invited to come along. It was an invitation she couldn’t refuse. “I feel like a very tiny fish in a huge pond,” Custer says. “But I came from a tiny pond in Hawaii. You have to jump into those bigger ponds to grow.”

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After years of hard work, Lehua Custer is poised to break into the big leagues with U.S.-bred superstar F.J. Ramzes. Kristin Posner Photo

The opportunity to test new waters came in April 2019, when Custer and Ramzes made an appearance at Tryon Spring Dressage 1 (North Carolina) under McDonald’s watchful eye. There the pair topped a field of 17 to win the national Prix St. Georges with a score of 70.29 percent.

“He loves the arena, and he loves a crowd,” says Custer. “Even though we know he’ll be doing so much more, this show was about Debbie seeing us in action and building and fine-tuning a program before we start doing CDIs.”

Of Ramzes (Juventus—J Rambiance, Rampal), McDonald says, “It was apparent to me from the start that he’s a very special, international-quality horse. He’s so elastic, his ability to sit is crazy good, and his passage is unbelievable. I don’t see any weaknesses. He and Lehua just have to grow together as a team.”

Working with McDonald may be a dream come true, but it also means that Custer has had to keep tabs on her training business at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center from 3,000 miles away. Her assistant, Bryce Quinto, has been overseeing things in her absence, giving lessons and seeing to the 20-odd horses in her barn. Custer stays in touch with her clients, sharing news and training insights via email. When she went to Florida, she had to leave behind her own young horse and one of her three rescue dogs (the others are traveling with her), but in May she transported both with her to Ohio.

Her willingness to put her life in California on hold has made an impression on McDonald, who succeeded Robert Dover as the U.S. dressage technical advisor in December 2018. “Lehua basically handed over her business to be here,” says McDonald. “She has a real dedication to make this happen. She really wants it.”

Falling In Love With Horses

Growing up in Maui, Hawaii, horses weren’t front and center in Custer’s life. An only child, she had a passion for reading and thought about becoming a pediatrician. Though she loved animals, the idea of riding seemed too dangerous. “I wasn’t a huge risk-taker,” Custer says. “If there was a possibility of danger, it was a bad gamble. I was happy to be in my room with a book.”

She was 10 when her mom, Diana Custer, a criminalist for the local police department and a horse lover who’d begun riding as an adult, suggested she climb aboard a small gray mare named Pancake, who’d taught scores of children how to ride. The setting was a stable in Maui’s hilly interior, with sweeping views of the island. Lehua mounted up, and despite her fears, the lesson led to a second and then a third. “The first time Lehua cantered, she cried,” Diana remembers. “But she kept coming back.”

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Diana Custer began riding as an adult in Hawaii, and she encouraged her daughter, Lehua Custer, to give the sport a try. Photo courtesy of Lehua Custer

Then a 20-something-year-old gelding named RIP arrived at the barn. His new owner had won him in a poker game and didn’t want him. Gelded late, he was muscular but small, standing 14.1, although he was 15.1 at the top of his croup.

“They told us never to put a bit in his mouth or take him into an arena,” Diana says. “He was a quarter Arabian, three-quarters Appaloosa, and a combination of athleticism and willfulness.”

Not one to back down from a challenge, Diana swapped out his hackamore for a Dr. Bristol and tried him out. “It was no steering, no brakes and lots of fun,” she says. “He could send anyone flying and jumped out of every single arena we put him in. He even jumped out of his stall until we raised the gate.”

They took to calling him Thundercloud—“Thunder” for short—and as Lehua began riding him, the timid, hesitant girl grew bolder. “He probably bucked me off, bolted or reared every single day,” she says.

The worse he behaved, the more Lehua giggled. “He was a stallion until he was 12 or 13 and had some attitude issues, but in my mind he could do no wrong,” she says.

Months after meeting him, Diana told her the horse had been sold. On what Lehua expected would be her last ride, which happened to be her 11th birthday, she went to the stable and found him wearing a big red bow.

Lehua was confused. “We didn’t have a lot of money, and I never expected to own a horse, but my mom had bought him for me,” she says.

Dressed in cutoff shorts and a bathing suit top, the tall, gangly girl (she’s now 5’11”) rode him through pineapple fields and ranches and would sometimes curl up in his stall at night. They rode in parades, jumped and did gymkhanas. Dressage was more challenging, but she was fascinated by the patterns and the idea of being judged according to a strict set of expectations.

Early on, Lehua’s enthusiasm exceeded her skills. “I had a lot of interest and was devoted, but I was the knock-kneed kid who wasn’t very good,” she admits. “The other kids were winning shows, and I was staying on part of the time.”

When she came home from shows with a green ribbon, her mom would say, “That’s first, honey!”

“She just wanted me to do my best,” Lehua explains. “I didn’t take myself too seriously. Frankly, my coaches would have forgotten who I was if I hadn’t stayed with it.”

She laughs. “Learning to stay on was one of my biggest achievements, really.”

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“He was a stallion until he was 12 or 13 and had some attitude issues, but in my mind he could do no wrong,” Lehua said of her childhood horse, Thunder. Photo courtesy of Lehua Custer

When she was 14, her mom and stepdad bought a second horse, a 4-year-old, green-broke Appaloosa-Thoroughbred cross named Moonshadow. Lehua was certain she and “Shadow” would compete at the Olympics.

“I figured we’d just show up and get a spot,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got the fancier horse now, so I’m good to go.’

“I also wanted to be president,” she adds. “I was going to be the president who went to the Olympics.”

Once she was able to drive, she’d take her mom’s truck and trailer Shadow to lessons after school. After working with Carol Adams at Mauka Lani Stables, she went on to train with Ann Lentz and Nancy Townsend and showed Shadow through first level.

Dressage was something of a revelation to Lehua. “I realized I could learn to control my own body and have an influence over such a strong animal without requiring force,” she says. “That experience really brought me out of my shell.”

A Fateful Graduation Present

Riding and competing remained a steady pursuit through high school, but when Lehua got a scholarship to study psychology at Pepperdine University in California, she put her studies first.

But she missed riding, so in her senior year she carved out time to take lessons at Foxfield in Westlake Village. Though the focus was on jumping, Lehua’s ability to keep the school horses connected on the flat landed her the chance to ride lease and sales horses.

One day, a horse she was riding aimed right at the jump standard. She bailed and landed on her feet, breaking a leg in the process.

She consoled herself with the idea that she could finally get more serious about dressage. To celebrate Lehua’s 2001 graduation from Pepperdine, Diana resolved to buy her daughter a dressage lesson. Her search for a local trainer brought her to Hilda Gurney’s busy Keenridge Farm in Moorpark.

Lehua’s first encounter with Gurney was nearly a disaster. “Hilda put me on her schoolmaster and broodmare Willa,” she says. “But I couldn’t keep the canter lead or keep her round.”

Sitting next to Gurney, Diana squirmed, sure they’d never be invited back. But halfway through the lesson, Gurney turned to her and said, “Your daughter’s a lovely rider.”

“And then,” Diana remembers, “Hilda was really firm with Lehua for the rest of the lesson.”

When they were done, Gurney said, “Great job. I’ve got some babies in the field, if you have some time.”

Lehua was floored. “My goal was to not get kicked off the property, and I basically got a job offer!”

She stayed at Keenridge for 9 ½ years. Under Gurney’s tutelage, she got a crash course in stable management, the ins and outs of breed inspections, saddle-breaking youngsters, and bringing a horse up the levels to FEI. She rode horses for clients, taught lessons when Gurney was out of town, and in keeping with Gurney’s emphasis on education, she completed the U.S. Dressage Federation L judge program with distinction.

In addition to warmbloods that Gurney had bred, Custer rode Barbara Parkening’s Arabian stallion Aleros, competing him through Prix St. Georges and winning the third level championship at the Arabian Nationals. Parkening also introduced her to a Shire-Thoroughbred cross named Gulliver, whom she trained and competed to Intermediaire II with Gurney’s help. Along the way, she earned her USDF bronze, silver and gold medals, receiving her gold on Gurney’s Oldenburg Luminence, a son of Willa’s by her Trakehner stallion Leonidas.

In the mid-2000s, Gurney gave Lehua her homebred Winter’s Star (Winterprinz—Falina, Werther). “He had big movement, and it was a little hard when he was young to get him collected and balanced in the canter,” Custer says. “I thought, ‘I’m in over my head with this one.’ ”

But with Gurney’s coaching, Lehua and “Star” went all the way to Grand Prix.

“Hilda’s a superhero in creating horses as a breeder and a trainer as well as teaching riders how to train a horse,” Lehua says. “But she also shows you things like how to put on side reins correctly or how to load a trailer to maximize space. She’s a really good role model of how to be humble and work hard.”

While spending her days at Keenridge, Lehua attended graduate school in marriage and family therapy at Pepperdine in the evenings. But before she could begin to earn clinical hours as an intern, Lehua realized she was already pursuing a career she loved.

Diana supported her daughter’s change of direction. “It was obvious to me that this was her calling,” she says. “Lehua enjoys riding horses on a level that most of us will never experience. I think deep in her heart and soul, she’s having the best time ever riding a horse. Her natural talent became really obvious when she was at Keenridge. Hilda tapped into who Lehua was and made her a dressage rider.”

Gurney praises Lehua’s talent, but waves off her role in her development. “Lehua has a knack for training horses,” she says. “And she has a wonderful feel. I always have riders coming up and becoming trainers—that’s what I do, and it’s my pleasure to do it. If they’re really into it, I open the doors, but it’s up to them to walk through them. Lehua did. She’s worked for everything she’s gotten.”

In 2010, Lehua launched her own training business. “It was a tough decision,” she says. “I loved having Hilda as a mentor and ally. This can be a difficult sport to navigate on your own, and I was a little frightened about going out on my own in a town saturated with other trainers.”

After working with horses and riders at area barns, she established Lehua Custer Dressage at the L.A. Equestrian Center. For close to five years, she put in 12-hour days, splitting her time between LAEC and El Sueno Equestrian Center some 50 miles away before settling solely at LAEC.

Off the horses, Lehua immersed herself in her business, organizing barn parties and activities for clients, their kids and dogs. “I don’t have any family in L.A., and my clients became my friends and family,” she says. “Everyone back in California has been super supportive, but the fact that I’ve known these people and their horses for 10 to 15 years has made this time away really challenging.”

Married briefly in her 20s, she doesn’t count out the idea of a relationship down the road. “I’d have to find a very understanding boyfriend or husband!” she says. “Right now, I don’t know if I could do both well.”

A Change Of Plan

Ramzes’ journey has been a surprise to Lehua as well as to owner Sasser. The two met when Sasser took lessons with Gurney, and she was instrumental in luring Lehua to LAEC to start her business.

“Ramzes wasn’t purchased for me to be a star on,” Lehua emphasizes. “Wendy had decided she wanted a young horse and thought I’d be a good trainer for that. The plan was always for Wendy to take him over.”

But as the women watched Ramzes grow from an awkward yearling into a 17.2-hand powerhouse, they were was struck by his attitude and work ethic.

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Amateur rider Wendy Sasser bought F.J. Ramzes as a weanling for herself, but now she’s committed to seeing how far he can go with trainer Lehua Custer. Kelly Sanchez Photo

Sasser took him to his Materiale class and his Dutch keuring and then asked Lehua to ride him in a few clinics. When she suggested Lehua show him at first level, Lehua wasn’t sure he’d be able to do a trot lengthening.

“I didn’t know he was going to have the ability he has,” Lehua says. “It took me trotting him in hand in a huge polo arena to get him to open up his stride. I wanted him to feel it on his own.”

Says Sasser, “At the beginning, Ramzes did not look or move like he does now. But Lehua has allowed him the space to develop and get the strength and the correct muscle to become a beautiful mover.”

Lehua, meanwhile, had begun shopping for her own young horse. “My dream was to buy an American-bred horse and train him to FEI,” she says. “I had a modest budget, so buying American made sense—I could bypass the cost of importing.”

She’d been following breeder Kendra Hansis of Runningwater Warmbloods in Frenchtown, New Jersey, on Facebook. Ten minutes after Fortunato H2O, aka “Tuna” (Floriscount—EM Raleska, Rascalino), was foaled, Hansis snapped a photo and posted it. Says Lehua, “I saw his little face, jumped off the couch and said, ‘That’s my horse!’ ”

Before Lehua had him shipped him to California, Tuna was named Premium Foal, Foal of Distinction and Stallion Prospect at his German Oldenburg Verband-North America inspection. He then went to Dressage At Devon (Pennsylvania), where he placed well. “Tuna’s 3 now, and I’d like him to do the stallion licensing when he’s mature enough,” says Lehua. “He’s showing a lot of promise as a modern-type stallion candidate.”

A Student Again

With her days focused on developing Ramzes rather than running a business, Lehua admits that having more time on her hands has been an adjustment. Life right now means sharing a cabin on Juliano’s farm, which was once a church camp, watching lessons, doing barn chores and living “really cheaply and carefully,” she says, adding that she’s supplementing her grants with savings and money earned from teaching clinics.

“I eat more mac and cheese than I used to, but I’ll do what it takes,” she adds. “You have to take risks.”

The chance to achieve her dreams also means she has the opportunity to become a student again. “Before I left California, I got coaching from both Hilda and Sabine [Schut-Kery]. I’ll tell Debbie, ‘Lay it on thick!’ I love the mental pressure.”

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“I feel like a very tiny fish in a huge pond,” says Lehua Custer of taking F.J. Ramzes to Florida. “But I came from a tiny pond in Hawaii. You have to jump into those bigger ponds to grow.” Kristin Posner Photo

Her sessions with McDonald—whether in-person or via a Pixio camera—have offered a window on how to refine her riding. She videos and analyzes every ride on Ramzes so she can track their progress and quality. “Debbie’s all about a light aid, a light hand and a happy horse,” Lehua says. “You’ve got to create a sweet spot for the horse and find a kind connection. It’s all very positive.

“Our goal is to get him to Grand Prix,” she adds. “I want to be able to produce a consistent, solid test in the show ring while channeling his incredible power and enthusiasm.”

She acknowledges that there’s an element of luck in any serious equestrian pursuit, but she’s willing to sacrifice for the chance to see how far she and Ramzes can go. “This is a huge change of direction from where I was going, and I didn’t really know what this experience would be like,” Lehua says. “To have been embraced by Debbie as well as Betsy and to get advice and support from the other riders has been incredible.

“People always ask me my plans, and I say I don’t know yet,” she continues. “Ramzes keeps taking us in new directions and on new adventures, thanks to how special he is. It’s very rare for horses to reach the stars, and there’s no guarantee that he’ll be anything other than what he is now. I’d like to represent our country one day, but for now I’m really enjoying the journey. It’s been a surprise each step of the way.”


This piece ran in the June 3 & 10, 2019  issue of The Chronicle of the Horse as part of our Readers’ Choice Issue.

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