Monday, May. 20, 2024

Heather Blitz Isn’t Afraid To Take A Chance


She’s basing herself in Europe to make the most of her budding partnership with Otto.

Heather Blitz knew she could have returned to her former base in Folsom, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during the summer of 2005. There was no major flooding in the area, and no horses were hurt.
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She’s basing herself in Europe to make the most of her budding partnership with Otto.

Heather Blitz knew she could have returned to her former base in Folsom, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during the summer of 2005. There was no major flooding in the area, and no horses were hurt.

While Oak Hill Ranch, located an hour north of Lake Pontchartrain, had a lot of fence and roof damage, the community was functioning again five or six weeks after one of the nation’s greatest disasters.

“But I’d been there over a decade, and it was depressing to see the landscape change,” said Blitz. “The trees were leveled like a bomb went off, and there were constant reminders everywhere you went. It still took three hours to get to the grocery store and back.”

In addition, many of Blitz’ friends and clients were relocating. “It wasn’t impossible to go back, but it was an excuse to make a change in my life and career,” she said. “I’d always been interested in training in Europe, and I took the chance.”

That chance occurred just as a tempest was brewing in Blitz’ personal life. Right before the hurricane, she had separated from her husband. And the next spring she qualified as the alternate for the World Equestrian Games by finishing fifth at the Collecting Gaits Farm/USEF National Grand Prix Championship aboard Arabella, an 11-year-old Danish Warmblood (Rambo—April, Lando), owned by Denise Arroyo.

That placing earned her the right to train with the U.S. team in Germany in the summer of 2006, and when the training session ended, Blitz never went home.

“It just worked,” she said of her bold move across the ocean. “It was right.”

The relocation not only allowed her to train and compete in Europe, it also allowed her to keep Otto, an 11-year-old Danish Warmblood she’d been working with and hoping to retain in her stable. Blitz started training him when he was 8, and he started competing at Grand Prix this year, with a lot of promise.

“When we started he was a lot of raw talent, and he needed guidance and education, but he was highly athletic,” she said. “You can’t just ask for a little with that horse because you’re going to get a lot. He’s completely made of rubber, and as long as you sit on his back he will work. He just has that something special that you can’t put words to. His piaffe and passage will make him rise to the top—he’s exceptional.”

While horse hunting three years earlier, Blitz had met Ove Mortenson in Denmark. Blitz tried Mortenson’s Don Juan, a 6-year-old by Donnerhall, and Mortenson had wanted her to train his horses since that day. So they entered into a partnership in 2006, in which Blitz would train Mortenson’s horses, including Don Juan, and Mortenson would purchase Otto for Blitz.

“I’d had Otto for sale for a while, and I was really trying to figure out a way to stay on that horse because he really suits me,” she said.

So Blitz moved to Esbjerg, Denmark, with Otto and Arabella and her Whippets, Reflex and Else, and the partnership with Mortenson has gone well, especially considering that Blitz is just learning Danish and Mortenson doesn’t speak English.

“I understand about half of what’s said around me,” said Blitz with a laugh.

Full Of Promise

Blitz first came across Otto while training at Oak Hill Ranch, which specializes in breeding Danish Warmbloods and stands the stallion Rambo, who is also the sire  of Otto.

“A woman there had Otto, and he was a bit too hot and sensitive for her,” Blitz said. “He had some dramatic reactions to things, but even if he was overly dramatic—like when he was starting his changes he could leap from one end of the ring to the other—it was never in a bad way. He offers so much, and she just didn’t know what to do with it.”

The spring’s CDIs went well, most especially the competition in Balve, Germany, where she finished fourth in the Grand Prix Special with a 68.36 percent in just their fifth Grand Prix start and second Grand Prix Special.

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“Balve was pretty big for me, a big breakthrough,” said Blitz. “I also liked my ride at Lingen and thought it was at least the same quality as Balve.”

But Blitz didn’t get the scores she’d hoped for at Lingen, Germany (64.95% in the Grand Prix and 65.90% in the Grand Prix Special), so she revised her plans for competing at the CDIO at Aachen (Germany). The U.S. Equestrian Federation also decided not to send a team, so Blitz didn’t make the trip.

“I wasn’t interested in going [to Aachen] if I was going to come up with a score below 67,” she said.

Instead, she prepared for the Falsterbo CDI (Sweden), where she finished an impressive ninth in the Grand Prix Special (65.08%). “I’ll do whatever I can to be one of the contenders [for the Olympics],” she said. “I know I have to get out in front of the European judges so they know me and trust me and know what I’m capable of.”

Blitz said her pirouettes need the most work. “They need to be a little more climbing and expressive,” she said. “There are co-efficients for the pirouettes, so those scores have to come up more.”

But her tempi changes are very reliable. “They’re really straight. He’s so eager that they can get quick, but everything is settling down and maturing, and I can make up a lot with his piaffe and passage.”

A Different Path

Unlike most of her peers, Blitz didn’t start riding dressage until she was 18, and then it was just as a hobby. “I grew up in Kansas and didn’t know if there was a single English saddle in the state,” she said with a laugh.

She competed as a child in barrel racing and pole bending. “I had an absolute ball, and I loved showing and competing,” she said. “It was pretty relaxed.”

At Colorado State University, where she majored in equine science, she discovered dressage. “I gave it a try and loved it, but it was still just a hobby,” she said.

She got her first “real dressage horse” then, her first mount that wasn’t a western Quarter Horse. With the 6-year-old, Westphalian gelding, she moved with her husband to Louisiana, where he had a job at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. Blitz soon started teaching in the area.

“I became pretty successful because there was a big void in the area, and each year my business doubled,” she said. “I finally realized I was a professional trainer.”

She credited her Westphalian for much of her early success. “He was big and black and had a lot of suspension. He stood out in the area, and because of him, people thought I knew what I was doing,” she said. “The more I learned, the more I loved it, and I realized [becoming a trainer] happened because it was supposed to.”

Blitz took clinics whenever she could and also trained—and continues to train—with Mary Wanless, author of Ride With Your Mind.

“She is a super technician, and she’s filled me in on a lot that other riders don’t get in terms of the biomechanics of the horse and rider,” said Blitz. “She has given me an edge in my riding.”

Blitz believes Wanless’ innovative strategies of body awareness have enabled her to reach degrees of collection that she wouldn’t have otherwise.

“She had a great body and a great brain for learning those skills; the quality of her muscles is naturally very good. She can easily sit in neutral spine and stabilize the mid-part of her back,” said Wanless.

“She also works out and has tremendous core strength. Many riders have a good work ethic (can’t get to the top without it!) but they tend to keep repeating the same mistakes, and if you always do what you always did you always get what you always got,” added Wanless. “Heather thinks out of the box, learns on the job, and has a great connection between feelings and words. So she can think about it, talk about it, play with it and improvise to learn new ways of operating.”

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One of the most influential parts of Blitz’ education, however, has been the horses themselves, in all varieties. “I rode everything—saddle seat, race horses, Arabians, Quarter Horses—it’s given me a whole lot of depth that you don’t get if you’re given something that’s made right away. I rode whatever came my way, and it taught me a ton.”

But she currently learns the most by watching the riders around her.

“At every show, I watch what the other trainers do and how the other trainers go,” she said. “There is a wealth of information to be had just by chatting with your peers and seeing what they do—the mistakes they make and the successes they have.”

Most of all, Blitz isn’t afraid to try something, no matter the risks or sacrifices involved. “I’ve learned from showing, failing miserably, and learning from my mistakes,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of failures, and I’ve made a ton of mistakes. It’s just my personality—I love a challenge, maybe too much. If there’s something someone thinks I can’t do, I will find a way to do it. I have a fair amount of courage to give it a try. I know no one’s perfect, and I won’t be either. But I’ve never been afraid of making mistakes.”

Worth It

Of course, living abroad has entailed plenty of sacrifices. “Danish is not an easy language to learn, and there are a lot of challenges in a country where you don’t speak the language,” she said. “There is a lot of stress, and not everything is good about doing it, but it’s really worth it.”

The move was especially difficult for Blitz’ mother, Karen Anderson. “She hated to see me go, but she encouraged me to do it. One day we’ll be closer again, but now is the time to be here,” said Blitz.

Another disadvantage of living in Denmark as a trainer is that the Danish government takes 48 percent of your salary in taxes, said Blitz. “And I can’t charge as much for lessons as in the States, but that’s the cost of being here.”

Blitz still returns to the United States at least twice a year to give clinics. Sue Roberto, who taught Blitz in the 1980s, now hosts Blitz for clinics at her Rolling Rock Stables in Palm City, Fla., and the clinics are always oversubscribed. Roberto recalled Blitz arriving at her farm in Massachusetts more than 20 years ago and riding a big Draught Horse named Walnut.

“He had no dressage skills, and she tried to bring out his best,” recalled Roberto with a laugh. “She’s not a breed snob—she will try her best to maximize a horse’s talents without the horse ever feeling upset. She will find a way to get the most out of a horse without jamming and cramming.”

As a teacher, Roberto said Blitz is clear, articulate and fun. “She has an excellent rapport with students and with horses,” said Roberto.

Roberto said she never knew 20 years ago that Blitz had the aspirations to do what she’s done now. “She just loved horses and went about the process of learning. She was humble and just did her job,” she said.
Roberto sees those same traits in her now. “She has her eyes set on the goal, but it’s not just winning but becoming a very good dressage rider and trainer, and that makes her special,” she said. “She’s also willing to make sacrifices. She’s home-sick in Europe. Her family and friends are not  there, but she knows it’s an opportunity.”

“I hugely admire how she is living her life and riding her horses in the face of the pressure of competing at this level and trying out for a team,” added Wanless. “It is so impressive. She is quietly tenacious and determined but in a much more flexible way than most people.”

As she adjusts to the European environment, Blitz has sought wisdom and friendship from Catherine Haddad, a U.S. rider who has been based in Germany for years. “She’s willing to give me any advice, and she’s been on the scene for 15 years, so she’s a wealth of information,” said Blitz.

But still, Blitz has found that there’s really no way to learn except by doing. “There’s not a handbook—you have to jump in,” she said. “You can’t go into a show and expect the warm-up to be perfect. There’s a lot more the horse has to put up with here than in the United States, and you can’t complain a lot. There’s more to contend with, but you have to go and do it and jump in like everyone else, be a little tough and go with it. At U.S. shows, the horses are more protected, and people complain more. Here, people just get in and ride.”

Whatever the challenges, Blitz knows her work is paying off. “I have to check in with reality now and then and remember I’m having this opportunity that most people don’t get,” she said. “It’s huge and unique, and it’s what it’s all about for my career.”

Beth Rasin

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