Sunday, May. 26, 2024

Jennifer Hewitt Is Spreading A Love Of Dressage In Minnesota

Just four years ago, FEI-level trainer Jennifer Hewitt relocated to Minnesota, leaving behind a successful horse career in Pennsylvania to return to her roots. She had no job in the upper Midwest, only a persistent dream and local connections from a childhood of riding and showing in the area. Her vision to become an FEI-level competitor and make a career out of sharing her love for dressage is a fairytale come true.
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Just four years ago, FEI-level trainer Jennifer Hewitt relocated to Minnesota, leaving behind a successful horse career in Pennsylvania to return to her roots. She had no job in the upper Midwest, only a persistent dream and local connections from a childhood of riding and showing in the area. Her vision to become an FEI-level competitor and make a career out of sharing her love for dressage is a fairytale come true.

Last year she won a U.S. Arab Sport Horse National Championship, helped a student earn her U.S. Dressage Federation silver medal, moved her business to a brand-new facility in Rochester, Minn.—and discovered she was expecting her first child.

Hewitt’s riding career began when she was just a child, at age 5, with hunt seat lessons. “My parents made me a deal that they thought was impossible,” recalled the Rochester native. “They said if I saved up enough money for a horse and could pay some of the board, I could have one.”

Before her 11th birthday, Hewitt had saved $1,000 by walking dogs, babysitting and mowing lawns. She sampled 4-H, western pleasure and eventing, then competed in the children’s hunters and children’s/adult jumper divisions in high school.

When she began her freshman year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison on a sports medicine track, she was already realizing that she loved dressage.

“I planned to go to medical school, but it never quite felt right,” she said. “[I finally quit trying] to put myself into this mold that just didn’t fit. I finally accepted that my dream was to work with horses. Then I had to figure out how to do that.”

Seeking Out Opportunities

Hewitt decided to attend Delaware Valley College (Pa.), located in a densely populated horse area, only 90 minutes from Devon (Pa.) and Gladstone (N.J.).

“The focus on riding there came from a dressage base and was more a balanced seat than a hunter seat program, though we had hunter/jumper, combined training and driving,” Hewitt explained.

Hewitt chose to pursue a bachelor’s degree in animal science with an equine business emphasis, as opposed to a training emphasis.

“I was already learning so much about training through my riding and the externships that to sacrifice the business courses and those skills didn’t make sense,” she said. “Over and over people told me that trainers tend to fail because of lacking the business skills.”

An externship took the college junior to Greenlands Farm in Pipersville, Pa., where Helen Erickson trains and competes FEI-level horses. Hewitt did barn chores and groomed for lessons until one day when Erickson offered her a ride on Animation, her own Hanoverian gelding who had recently retired from FEI-level competition.

“Once I found the canter button, we tried some flying changes, which were new to me,” recalled Hewitt. “Then Helen said we should try some tempi changes, and I said, ‘What are those?’ I’d never done them before but figured it out quickly and I loved them.”

Immediately recognizing Hewitt’s potential, Erickson took Animation out of retirement. Less than one year later, in 1998, Hewitt rode the gelding to the junior/young rider Prix St. Georges title at the ABIG/USDF Region 1 Championships.

“I recognized pretty quickly that Jen had a lot of talent,” said Erickson. “Before that, she’d never shown above first level because she’d never had the opportunity or the horse, but I started her out at fourth level. When you showed her something, she had it. You didn’t have to say it many times because she absorbed it like a sponge.”

Erickson said Hewitt’s intelligence and focus told her that this was going to be her career. “She either won all the classes or was in the top three,” said Erickson. “At the end of [the second show] that first season, I said, ‘Call your mom and dad and tell them to buy you a shadbelly, because you’re going to do Prix St. Georges.’ ”

Six months after her first ride on Animation, Hewitt competed at Prix St. Georges. She qualified for Dressage at Devon (Pa.) her first year riding with Erickson.

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“My college classmates came out to cheer me on,” she recalled. “To get to ride there was quite an honor, being from Minnesota and never having ridden at that level.”

Hewitt appreciated the stiff competition on the East Coast. “There are so many trainers, riders, horses and shows there, you have to work hard to do well, or even to get a job,” she recalled. “It kept my bar high.”

Hewitt rode in lessons and clinics with Michael Poulin, Nicole Uphoff, Lee Tubman, Bert Rutten, Ed Borresson and Susan Blinks. She worked her way up to assistant trainer at Greenlands Farm and freelanced in the area. In 2000, she became head trainer and manager for Rollingstone Farm at their Hanoverian breeding facility in Slatington, Pa.

“I got tons of hands-on experience with breeding, including AI, breeding mares with frozen semen, collecting stallions, and foaling,” Hewitt explained. “I also rode the young horses, competed the older horses, and prepared the mares for their performance tests. I was involved in every aspect of the business.”

Lee Tubman, 1998 Canadian Grand Prix champion and U.S. Equestrian Federation s-rated judge, taught Hewitt during this period. “She was really working a two-person job at that farm, but she managed to pull it off,” he recalled. “The thing that impressed me most was her great attitude. She was willing to try anything I asked her to do.”

By 2003, Hewitt had earned her USDF silver medal and enjoyed numerous wins through Intermediaire I.

Bringing Her Education Back Home

Hewitt loved her Pennsylvania life, but working at a breeding farm, she missed interacting with people.
She and husband Matt had been high school sweethearts in Minnesota. He had happily followed her east after completing his schooling six years earlier but eventually felt the pull of family ties back in the Midwest.

“Matt said he would go wherever I wanted to go,” explained Jennifer. “He also loved it out east, but we both knew at some point in time that we wanted to come back here.”

Jennifer found herself with a new goal: to bring back her experience and knowledge to the Midwest and spark some interest in dressage in a region where it often sounds like a foreign term, even to equestrians.
In June 2003, the Hewitts spent 10 days in Minnesota. “On the 10th day, Matt got a job offer, so we decided to return,” Jennifer recalled.

In Rochester, she established JLH Dressage Inc., a one-woman teaching and training operation that she ran out of her truck.

“I put out three ads and some flyers that first summer, and after that it was all word of mouth,” she recalled. In those early days, most clients were “people who had an interest in dressage, but also those who had always ridden western but were curious about dressage.”

Jennifer realized that dressage could be intimidating to many, “so I tried to make it inviting, make people realize that they can do this. My mission was to show that any horse and any rider could do this sport.”
Within five months, she was teaching and training full time. “It meant 12-hour days, six or seven days a week,” she said. “I might travel to five barns a day, plus teach riders at home, on private farms.”

Holly Beach, a USDF silver medalist who competes a Shagya Arab gelding, enjoyed having Jennifer in town. “This area is so lucky to have her,” she said. “She helped me progress from third level to Prix St. Georges on one horse, and she’s not breed prejudiced.”

Beach moved to Madison, Wis., two years ago but continues to trailer her Intermediaire I partner and a young horse back to Rochester for monthly sessions with Jennifer.

“That was the worst part of my move, leaving Jennifer,” she admitted. “She keeps me on program. Even over the phone, she can coach me through problems. She has an ability to know what the horse is thinking, to get inside his head.”

Jennifer quickly began winning titles in her new location. At the 2004 Central States Dressage and Eventing Association Dressage Festival, she posted her all-time highest score, 80.80 percent, earning the open training level championship and a new Thornhill saddle. That year she also rode Jill Frieders’ Ima Victor to the Arabian Horse Association Region 10 title at second level, while Frieders rode her gelding to the first level reserve title. Ima Victor also became an AHA Horse of the Year for Region 10.

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In 2005, Ima Victor finished second in the nation for the USDF Purebred Arabian all-breed awards at second level with Jennifer aboard. Miss Babs, also owned by Frieders, won the 2006 open training level title at the Arab Sport Horse Nationals.

A Dream Come True

Despite the growth of her one-woman business, Jennifer found herself frustrated by trying to do dressage in a part of the country where western horses dominate and showing is largely a summertime pursuit.

Jennifer had to work around the schedules of five or six different barns each week, with multiple disciplines sharing arena time, and Minnesota weather also brings its own challenges.

“In order to keep horses in training through the winter, you have to be willing to work through very harsh conditions,” she said. Extremely cold temperatures, snowstorms, high winds, snow sliding off the roof of the indoor arena and days that are simply too frigid to exercise a horse all take their toll on a training schedule.

In spite of such issues, her students were willing to work around the challenges. Her clients all stay in the upper Midwest throughout the winter, tending to families and jobs.

As she started to search for a way to open her own place, Jennifer was thrilled to meet Katie Minter-Dykhouse, a BHS-certified instructor working at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester. “Katie and I quickly realized that we shared the same vision. We wanted to bring to this area a top-notch dressage and sport horse facility unlike anything that’s ever been here before.”

Katie and husband Brian Nowak bought land in Byron, Minn., and JLH Dressage, Inc., became a partner in Priestfield West, LLC. The two young couples worked for more than a year to make their dream come true, doing as much labor as possible themselves, though it meant leaving their full-time jobs at 5 p.m. and working on the farm until midnight.

“The entire facility is designed for training in primarily dressage, but also jumping and eventing, which Katie also trains and teaches,” said Jennifer of the indoor and outdoor arenas, heated barn and multiple pastures on a 35-acre spread.

According to Jennifer, the most exciting part of being back in Minnesota is opening this facility. “It really is a dream come true,” she said.

Her students run the gamut from novice to FEI level, and she invests herself in each one equally. “I feel like I get just as much out of training someone who has no intention of showing as someone who competes at a very high level,” she stated.

“She never settles for less than your best effort,” said Frieders. “She’s very competitive herself and demanding of her students but in a very nurturing way. I never feel drilled.”

Jennifer’s training program is based on correct basics, using the training pyramid for dressage and focusing on the horse’s well-being. “One of my main goals is producing happy, confident horses that enjoy and understand their jobs,” she explained. “To achieve that, you have to be fair, consistent and
flexible.”

She also focuses on increasing people’s exposure to dressage. “You have to be very open minded and be willing to encourage anyone to get excited about the sport, despite the suitability of the horse or other factors,” she said. “We hear about how much this sport is growing—well, that’s how it grows, that’s how we make it grow, by getting new people into it.”

In fact, Jennifer may be one step ahead of a regional growth trend in the sport. “I hear more and more about dressage in the Midwest than ever before,” said Erickson. “I told her, ‘You will be the groundbreaker and have the opportunity to establish yourself and get something going out there.’ ”

Although Jennifer trains and competes her clients’ horses, she does not currently own a horse. But the desire to develop her own champion is there.

“It’s hard to make it all come full circle,” said Tubman. “To get the education, have the facility, develop the students and clientele to support it, and then be lucky enough to make it all work. If Jennifer had a really good caliber horse, she could really go far in this sport. I’d like to see that happen for her.”

In the meantime, Jennifer is working hard as a new mom to Ryan James, born March 31, 2007. She is also planning the next show season, and focusing on her students. “Regardless of ability level, each student is going after the same thing,” she said. “They want to have that relationship with the horse.”

Pam Whitfield

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