Friday, May. 24, 2024

Ringside Chat: Endel Ots Feels Excitement, Not Pressure, Partnering With Bohemian

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Endel Ots is well known in the U.S. dressage community as a coach and producer of young horses. He’s earned several national titles and a spot on the 2019 Pan American Games (Peru) dressage team that was lost to a trailering accident, trained successful riders at all levels, but he’s never competed at the CDI Grand Prix level himself. 

Bohemian, Cathrine Laudrup-Dufour’s 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games mount and one of the only horses in the world to score 90% in the Grand Prix freestyle, is likely to change that. Heidi Humphries of Florida-based Zen Elite Equestrian Center last month purchased the horse for Ots to ride. 

Ots is a decorated small tour rider, winning national titles at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions (Illinois), including the 2022 7-year-old championship with Humphries’ King’s Pleasure and the 2020 Intermediaire I championship with Sonnenberg Farm LLC’s Sonnenberg’s Everdance.

Endel Ots and King’s Pleasure, owned by Heidi Humphries, on their way to the 7-year-old championship at the 2022 U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions. Lindsay Berreth Photo

Ots was named to the 2019 Pan American Games (Peru) team with his own Lucky Strike, a horse he’d brought along from a 3-year-old, but a trailering accident en route to the airport to Peru left the gelding with lacerations that forced their withdrawal from the team. 

Since then, Ots has continued to train students and compete on the small tour, as well as work towards finishing the Grand Prix with the Lucky Strike after the horse’s sale fell through during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With Lucky Strike back on the market this season and King’s Pleasure now under Quinn Iverson, Ots was on the hunt for his next international-quality partner, and Humphries was ready to help.

Humphries owns horses for Olympian Adrienne Lyle, as well as Ots, Iverson and 2023 Pan American Games (Chile) team gold medalist Christian Simonson. When Danish Olympian Laudrup-Dufour’s Tokyo partner Bohemian was put up for sale late in 2023, Humphries jumped at the chance to buy him for Ots as a possible 2024 Paris Olympics candidate.

With Laudrup-Dufour, Bohemian, a 14-year-old Westphalian gelding (Bordeaux 28—Sunshine, Samarant), earned individual silver in the Grand Prix freestyle at the 2021 FEI European Dressage Championships (Germany) and team bronze. That same year they were third in the Grand Prix at the Tokyo Olympics and fourth in the Grand Prix freestyle. The pair also represented Denmark on several Nations Cup teams, regularly scoring into the 80s in their freestyles and reaching 90 percent in the Herning CDI5* (Denmark) in 2022.

In 2023, the gelding was sold to Sportpferde Galleria for South Korea’s Dong Seon Kim to ride. The pair competed at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival (Florida) in three CDIs with hopes of qualifying for the Paris Olympics in 2024, but over the summer Kim announced he was retiring from competition due to professional obligations. Bohemian, along with two other Olympic hopefuls in his barn, were put up for sale.

Swedish Olympian Patrik Kittel competed Bohemian over the summer to help sell him, and they contested three CDIs before Sportpferde Galleria announced in October that all three horses would be sold at auction the following month. 

After swift backlash on social media, most notably an Instagram post from Kittel, who disagreed with the use of an auction to sell Bohemian and who’d hoped to find ownership for the horse so he could continue their partnership, the ownership group decided to sell the horses privately instead. (Sportpferde Galleria also publicly countered Kittel’s post, claiming that he’d essentially asked to keep the horse for free.)

Bohemian returned to Sportpferde Galleria to be sold privately, and Humphries purchased him in December.

We caught up with Ots to learn more about how he’s feeling taking on such a well-known and successful horse and what’s next for them.

How did you get the ride on Bohemian?

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I was going over to Europe pretty much every month looking for horses and trying out things all over. We found some, but through one way or another it just didn’t work.

I had just gotten back here, and the article [on Eurodressage.com] came out about Bohemian and the auction, and I got a message from Heidi saying, “Hey, want to go and sit on this one?” She has some contacts over there. I said, “Absolutely, 100 percent.” 

I jumped on a plane the next day and tried him and vetted him and got him over here.

When did you meet Heidi, and how did your partnership come about?

Heidi’s been really great for the sport and to sponsor a bunch of riders and get a lot of horse talent here. She just purchased a stallion for Christian [Simonson] and has two with Adrienne [Lyle]. She’s kind of stacking up the deck. She’s got a realized vision for adding to U.S. dressage sport.

I met her years ago. Johnny Robb is a friend of mine in Wellington, and everybody knows her down here. She would take lessons here and there, and she had a horse she needed to sell. Heidi came and purchased the horse. I had a feeling when I met [Heidi] that we were going to do something. I kept in touch over the years, and we would talk here and there. Then she decided to buy King’s Pleasure, and we showed and competed him for the 7-year-olds. 

We’ve just been putting stuff together. I’ve ridden a couple of horses for her. She’s got a beautiful facility in Fort Lauderdale. It’s a little bit of a drive, but I go down there first thing in the morning, do a couple there for her, then drive back to Wellington. She’s been super generous.

Heidi is a super exciting person. She’s unlike anybody you’ve ever met. She’s got her own vision for stuff, and she’s super successful in her field in business [marketing and public relations], and she’s adding that “zen positive” vibe to all the stuff with the horses. She never puts any pressure on the riders to take a horse out before it’s ready. She’s super supportive, does the best thing she can for the horses, and she loves to see them go. She’s fun to discuss plans with and what the smartest route is for different horses.

What was it like to sit on Bohemian for the first time?

I was curious on how he felt. He was such a saint of a horse. He really tried hard. Everything was very, very easy. I was just trying to feel him out. He reminded me in a certain way of Sagacious [HF], when I used to help Chase Hickock on him before he had his last super-good season when he was 19.

[Bohemian] has done a lot, so it’s not about training a bunch of things and more so just figuring out a partnership and seeing where he needs help with different things and where he’s happiest with all of it.

Endel Ots, celebrating the best Christmas gift ever with mistletoe and Bohemian, says of the horse:
“He’s got this old-soul wisdom in his eyes. When you watch him in competition you see how much power and fire he has in there and his talent, but his eyes don’t come across until you’re in the stall. His eyes are so beautiful.” Photo Courtesy Of Endel Ots

Now that he’s in the barn, are you feeling any kind of pressure from taking on the ride?

I’m just excited to get the season going—pressure, not so much. I always put a lot of pressure on myself, but Heidi’s been very positive and just wanting a positive environment and really no expectations. We have some private goals and different feelings on different things that we’re keeping more to ourselves so that no one feels pressure, so that we do the right thing at the right time and that we’re not chasing an ego kind of thing or feeling pressured into doing a show or a certain thing. We’re just feeling what feels right for the horse and hoping to make the next couple of seasons some of his best. 

Do you have any idea when he might come out this season?

We’re not 100 percent sure yet but probably sometime in the end of February. I have to sit down and plan it out. I typically like to do a national show and assess, and then do a post-mortem on the national show to see where things to get tweaked—if you need less or more warm up. Cathrine Dufour’s a friend of mine, so we’re in contact just talking about different things here and there—what he likes at shows, what he doesn’t like at shows.

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I’m also talking to her groom that she’s had for a long time, just because I think if people are willing to share that information and willing to talk about it, more information is always better. Hopefully I can replicate it and put my little spin on it.

Cathrine Laudrup-Dufour and Bohemian at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, where they finished third in the Grand Prix (81.05) and fourth in the freestyle (87.50). Lisa Slade Photo

You’re a great producer of young horses, and you’ve had a lot of success at the CDI small tour level, but you haven’t competed in a CDI Grand Prix yet. Do you think there will be any challenges taking over the ride on such a seasoned horse and coming out at that level?

[In my career] a lot of the horses I’ve gotten have had some training holes or training things, just as every horse does. When Sagacious came in with Chase, she was successful in some U-25 things, but when she tried to bring him up to Grand Prix, he had some difficulties and nervousness in the ring. I’ve helped so many people from the ground, and I get on and feel the horses. 

It’s all dressage. It’s all the basics and putting it together at a higher level. I think at the Grand Prix level things have to be very, very real because you can’t hide anything, and the tests come up so quick. Small tour you can hide a few pieces and a few things in the ring when you’re showing and make certain training things look a little bit better than they actually are, but in the Grand Prix ring it’s way harder to do a clean test. 

I’m super excited to go out there and show and compete, especially on a horse that has the capability of doing that. I’ve had horses in the past that people have competed, and they did well for where the horse is, like “Everdance.” I’m really excited to see what I can add in to Bohemian and see what I can learn from the stuff he’s done. I’m really looking forward to it.

I love coaching from the ground, and I get very nervous when my people are showing. For me when I show, I get more excited than nervous. I love that pressure like, hey, it’s all on you. You get whatever cards you have, and you try to play them the best you can. Some days it’s not your day, other days the moon and the stars line up, and your plan lines up. 

To be able to get a chance to show that in that big arena—I very much wanted to do the Friday night freestyle night [at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival], and I’ve had the opportunities to be able to do that, but I don’t like showing just to be in a class. If I enter a class, I enter it to win. It doesn’t guarantee I do, of course, but my main goal is to win. With this horse and this owner and the team that we have behind him, it’s super exciting. It’s everything that I could ask for. We’ll wait and see how it all ends up, but I’m very thankful for the opportunity.

Would Paris be the goal for this year?

I think depending on how things go. I want to hold that stuff a little bit close. I always have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C. I think once we know what it’s like in the warm-up, and what it feels like in the ring … And we’re still getting to know each other; I don’t want to put any undue pressure on him. 

If everything goes in the way that we’re thinking, absolutely. If we need to wait and let the partnership percolate a little bit more, then we’ll do that. The main goal is to do him justice and make sure we have a happy athlete and make sure the rider and trainer’s ego doesn’t get involved.

How has he been settling in?

He is such an old soul. He’s very cuddly in the stall and will nuzzle you. He’s very affectionate. His eyes are my favorite thing about him. He’s got this old-soul wisdom in his eyes. When you watch him in competition you see how much power and fire he has in there and his talent, but his eyes don’t come across until you’re in the stall. His eyes are so beautiful.

I’ll get to know him. There’s always pressure in an Olympic year, but we just want to do everything right and make sure he’s got a nice, happy environment, and that he doesn’t feel pressure, and that he enjoys his job. He has a forever home. He gets spoiled every single day—hand walks, water treadmill, treadmill, turnouts; everything he could ever want. It’s great for him.

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