Very few Grand Prix riders can say they’re cantering down centerline on a horse they not only trained, but also bred. Catherine Haddad Staller can. For a bit more than a year now, she’s been contesting CDI Grand Prix classes with Frankie, a 12-year-old Hanoverian mare that Staller bred in Germany.
A seasoned Nations Cup competitor, Staller lived in Germany for almost 20 years, and during that time she rode in two FEI World Cup Finals and was twice named the alternate for the U.S. dressage team for the FEI World Equestrian Games. She married veterinarian Greg Staller and moved back to the United States in 2012, setting up training bases in New Jersey and Florida.
Catherine competed Frankie (Florencio—Aronja, A Jungle Prince) during Week 7 of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, Feb. 24-28, in the CDI5* in Wellington, Florida, and the pair finished seventh and eighth in the Grand Prix Special and the Grand Prix, respectively. We were curious as to how Frankie popped up as her big tour ride and sat down with Catherine to get the scoop.
I understand you bred Frankie in Germany, but you didn’t start showing her personally until 2019. Where has she been until now?
I brought her to this country when she was 2 years old because I wanted to avoid quarantining her as a mare. So even before I moved back to the States, I sent her to grow up at my husband’s vet clinic. He raised her there for a couple of years, and I think that’s where she established her deep and abiding fear of veterinarians. My husband is the last person she wants to see come into the barn. She starts snorting when his truck pulls up.
I started training her when she was 4, but I never really trained her for myself; she was a school horse for my students. I had kind of a mini bereiter program in my stable, and everybody who came to train as a professional needed to ride either the sales horses or some of the clients’ horses or my own. Frankie was successful with three or four different people.
Anna Stovall took over the ride when Frankie was 7, and, with Anna, Frankie won the 2017 USEF Developing Prix St. Georges national championship in Chicago [at Lamplight]. Of course, I had coached them very carefully. Frankie has never been a jaw-dropping mover, but she’s always been a very balanced, very kind, very focused horse. So, if you could teach her all the tricks, she would be happy to do them, and she put out a perfect test in that Prix St. Georges competition.
I was riding some very interesting horses at the time, and every time I sat on Frankie, I was like, well, she feels like a school horse because, of course, she was. It came to pass that in 2018 I had no Grand Prix horse to ride. Anna [had] moved on to a job in Germany. So finally I just said, all right, I’ll ride Frankie. She was 9 at the time, just coming 10. And it took me, I would say, six months to get her feeling like a horse of mine that is quick underneath me, through the neck and coming to the bit.
And I did a couple of Developing Grands Prix with her that winter, and she was really good. Then, in her 11-year-old year, I started doing some national Grands Prix with her and had some really good results, but I was still riding with the whip, and I thought now I have to take the time to graduate from riding with the whip to being able to go international. [Whips aren’t allowed in Grand Prix CDI competition.]
So I went [to California] to train with Johann Hinnemann. I knew I was getting really close to going international, so I went out to him and to really put some things together. And we went to Thermal [California] together. He coached me through two national tests to really prepare us. And when we went down the centerline at that Thermal in the international [Grand Prix, where they placed third behind Steffen Peters on Suppenkasper and Sabine Schut-Kery on Sanceo in November of 2020], I never felt better prepared.
I have a lot of Grand Prix experience, and this time when I went down the centerline at Thermal, even though I knew I was on a green Grand Prix horse, I was ready, really ready, to do the test fully prepared. It was like a Rubik’s cube clicked into place. We got to do the ribbon ceremony right next to Suppenkasper, which made me giggle because Suppenkasper is huge. Frankie is tiny compared to him. I think she actually sticks at 16.2. She’s so confident in herself. She’s so comfortable in her own skin that you can put her in a ribbon ceremony next to Suppenkasper, and she’s just like, “Hey, big guy.” It doesn’t even faze her.
What’s she like to ride?
I think it’s unusual to find a horse doing international Grand Prix that is also completely rideable by anybody who sits in the saddle. You can change riders on this mare, and she will try her best for everybody. She has no underlying tension. She is focused on whoever is in the driver’s seat, and she’s ready to go.
I never really expected her to rise to the occasion like she’s doing now. She moves with more power, energy and balance than I ever expected from her. She’s really offering me the world as my oyster. For me, dressage is very much a gymnastic sport. If you look at the gymnasts in this country, like Simone Biles, over the years that they compete, they become stronger, faster and much more able; horses are the same.
It takes years to develop them. From 10 to 12 [years old] is when you sort of really get the balance and the correctness to do the whole test, but from 12 to 14 is the time that you make the horse stronger and much more able to offer the elasticity and thoroughness needed to express themselves in the arena. And that’s the phase that Frankie’s at, so it’s very exciting for me.
At what does she excel?
I think she’s exceptional at half-passes, and she’s so gymnastic and elastic that going sideways is super easy for her. So anything in trot or canter that goes sideways, you can just bet your booty that she’s going to do it with some flare. This is a little known fact about Frankie, but I was an internet or Facebook sensation last year during the pandemic; I can do zigzags one-handed on her. I really just sit in the middle of her and put the reins in one hand, and I can bend her with two legs and straighten her with my seat, make a flying change and bend her with two legs over again. She’s amazing; it’s one of her easiest movements.
She has an exceptional walk and an exceptional extension and collected walk. She’s very balanced in all of the canter work. So, while she’s not a horse who will make people go, “Wow,” she is a horse who will do a really, really correct Grand Prix test for you. She’ll bring you home on the centerline every single time; her reliability is a very strong point for her.
Tell me about the other mare you are competing in the small tour, Celine, a 12-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare (Sandro Hit—Cava).
She actually is trained through the Grand Prix, and I have her doing the whole Grand Prix now, but she’s a hot horse and a very eager, very forward-going horse that is super ambitious and almost always overdrives. And because of this, she can lose her balance easily in a test. So I decided to put her in the small tour this winter. If I keep her in the small tour for a little bit of time, I hope the two of us will come together as a pair, and then it should make doing the Grand Prix easy. Celine is a horse with tremendous quality, and she’s an eye-catcher.
Do you love mares?
I do have a proclivity for them. The first really great mare I had was Semper Fidelis. She was just a world-class horse. I have mares because they’re very particular, and they want a fair rider. They don’t want to be dictated to; they want to have a voice in the discussion. And if they’re a hundred percent with you, girlfriend, they have your back. They’re going to do it for you. It doesn’t mean I reject geldings; I actually also really like geldings. I’ve never been a huge fan of riding stallions because I find stallions, like most men, are often distracted in the moment when you need them to be focused.
When did you start training with Johann Hinnemann?
I started training with Johann in 2017 when I was riding Semper Fidelis, who, to date, is my most successful Grand Prix horse that I trained. Training with him was like coming home because I was so many years in Germany, and I was so used to being trained by really top German professionals. Everything that he said to me just made sense; he only needed to look at me, and I rode better. So it was a very good fit. It was like putting on an old glove between him and me. Two years in a row, I put my horses on a plane and flew out to California to train with him for a month to six weeks. I did that in 2019, and I did it at the end of 2020 because September, October and November are kind of a dead zone as far as showing.
Whom do you train with in Wellington?
When I got back from California, I asked [U.S. Dressage Technical Advisor] Debbie [McDonald] to help me because Hinnemann couldn’t come here due to the pandemic, and remote training wasn’t an option. Debbie has the eye of an eagle. She has really, really helped me with the connection on the horse and creating the presentation that I want for the show ring and getting the trot more through and bigger and more expressive. And then she got really busy when all the California horses came in, and I talked to Steffen [Peters], and he agreed to come help me. So I was really, really pleased that he was gracious enough to come to me. Between Debbie and Steffen I feel really supported by the team. And it’s been really nice to have a couple of really good trainers behind me as well.