Shelly Francis started off her season with a bang at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival, Jan. 11-13 in Wellington, Florida.
With Patricia Stempel’s Doktor, a 15-year-old Oldenburg gelding (Diamond Hit—Gurena, Renoir I), Francis won the CDI*** Grand Prix (72.54%) and Grand Prix Special (70.40%).
With Stempel’s Danilo, a 14-year-old Hanoverian gelding (De Niro—Annabelle, Andiamo), Francis finished second in the CDI-W Grand Prix (72.65%) and second in the CDI-W Grand Prix freestyle (77.72%), earning Danilo’s highest freestyle score ever.
We caught up with Francis to find out what she’s been up to since both horses finished a strong European tour last summer.
COTH: You must be thrilled to start the season off so strong. How did they both feel?
Francis: I was really happy with them. I’ve been working with Danilo through the summer trying to get him more consistent with responding to my leg and doing that for the piaffe and passage—staying a little more active and through and more powerful. It’s been a work in progress. I started with him when he was a little bit older to bring him along to Grand Prix because he was my owner’s horse to ride first. He’s now kind of coming into himself this year. He’s turning 14, and he just feels like he’s getting better and better.
I had a really good time with him. I had a few things here and there—we always want a greater, bigger score. With him I need to maybe show the judges that he’s going to perform for me more consistently because he’s been slightly inconsistent at times over the past two years of competing, but he’s really coming into himself now. I think he’s on a roll towards becoming a little superstar for me.
The freestyle was just amazing. When I was hearing the individual scores coming up and one gave me an 80 percent, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to cry!’ It was the highest score I’ve ever gotten. I’ve been riding for years and years, and I kind of have a pretty stoic attitude, because I just love training the horses, and competing is like the little cherry on top of things. It was nice to get the recognition for him doing better. That was really rewarding. It was a nice first show for the season.
COTH: What do you think made the freestyle so special?
Francis: I think [Danilo] really loves the music. Marlene Whitaker does my freestyles for me, and she and I work out the choreography and the music. She’s a total artist. He really enjoys it, and I made sure the choreography was a little bit tough, but it was something he could do. I love doing the freestyles. I’ve never done a World Cup, and maybe I’ll do one this year. I’ve always loved doing the freestyles because it’s a place where you can be really artistic and show off your horse. Making the freestyle be more of a cheery show-off thing, my horses really get into it.
I think Danilo is starting to trust me more. He’s kind of a funny horse. People look at him and think he’s kind of quiet, but inside he’s very hot and nervous. His reaction to getting nervous is to kind of ‘dumb up’ a little bit. He shuts himself down and becomes a little bit less reactive in a funny way, but he really tries hard. He’s getting smarter, he knows his job and understands it more, so we’re really improving.
COTH: Tell me about Doktor’s tests.
Francis: [Francis had an error in the Special.] Now that they’ve changed the rules, it’s painful to go off course! My issue has always been that because I love training; when I’m riding, even competing, I’m always training. I get concentrated on getting the horse to do just that, and I’m like, ‘OK, wait a minute, what was I doing? I’m supposed to do twos. Oh no, I was supposed to do that.’
It isn’t that I don’t know the test, it’s that I have a moment like, ‘Oh, I’m making an extra half-halt here, now I do the twos. Oh, nope!’ It’s something I have to work on.
COTH: Doktor’s known to be very sensitive, especially in awards presentations. How do you cope with that?
Francis: [Doktor’s] not spooky; he gets afraid. He doesn’t generally spook that much, but he does get influenced by the sound and the movement when he looks into the crowd, so I try to keep him looking down at the ground.
He gets afraid in those moments, and he has this runaway bone in him that he’s had since he was younger, and it will never go away because it’s a fear thing. When he’s concentrating and working, he’s with me and tries super hard, but when I let him down and we’re leaving the arena, and they’re clapping, he gets really afraid.
It’s the first horse in my career that’s been like that. I’ve had horses that get excited, but he has this little run away in a panic thing. He’s not trying to be mean, it’s just a fear thing. I’m always hesitant about awards ceremonies, and often times I’ll use the other horse instead. If I have some time to go back to the stables I’ll put ear plugs in. If I don’t have time for ear plugs he’s very volatile because he gets very afraid.
COTH: Having known him for so long, how do you keep things fresh with Doktor at home?
Francis: He gets turned out everyday and gets to roll in the dirt. Even when I’m Europe I try to turn him out a little bit. I don’t work my horses day in and day out super hard. They get a couple of days a week of good, firm hard work, and then there’s always a couple of days of lighter work, then they get one whole complete day off a week.
I try to preserve my horses mentally and physically, get them fit enough to do the job and this way I feel they stay happy. Sometimes they go out for a hack, even if it’s only walking around the farm, or where I am here in Florida I can take them to a friend’s field and jog them around so they get a day or so to just walk around.
I train them, I teach them what they need to know, I get them nicely conditioned, then once they know their job I try not to overwork them. I would like to have them last longer and be happier while they’re physically lasting longer. It works for me in that they’re pretty cheery about their job most of the time.
COTH: Both horses last competed in Europe in the summer. What have they been up to since?
Francis: I came back at the end of July and they a couple of weeks in the paddock, then they get sat on a couple of days really light or lightly worked in the round pen where I put them in side reins and free lunge them and some work in hand just to keep them from getting completely unfit.
Then I started riding them a little more consistently four or five days a week and gently getting them fitter.
They’re both quite fit right now because they didn’t lose all their fitness.
COTH: You mentioned you’d lost some weight recently. What have you changed in your lifestyle?
Francis: The last time I [lost weight] was about six years ago. Unfortunately I’m not so young, and my metabolism isn’t what it used to be. I have to work at keeping my weight under control. I’m only 5’2”, so I’m a short person and when I get chubby it packs all around the middle of me like a little Humpty Dumpty.
I still function and ride and do and train, but I knew that I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet at 59. I needed to lose a few pounds, so I kicked off 40 pounds. I just do normal activity. I do a tiny bit of yoga stretching morning and night, and I got myself a Pilates bar. Mainly I was just careful with the type of food I ate and the volume of it, and steadily decided, I gotta lose this weight.
I feel good. I’m not a skinny minnie, and I never will be, but I’m in good, fit condition and able to get out there and make the whole picture nicer. It doesn’t ever look good for someone to be too heavy. I don’t think I was some humongous chubby, but I need to lose some weight. For me it’s about being healthier, and I want to continue to compete my horses. They’re really nice horses, and I wanted to give myself every advantage to do the best I could with them.
It’s hard when we’re older and we go up and down. I’ll gain weight and lose weight, it’s just going to be part of my life. I’ve been trying to maintain, and it’s always a project. I don’t sit here and say it’s easy, but I’ll say it’s definitely doable.
COTH: With FEI World Equestrian Games (North Carolina) in mind, what are your goals for this season?
Francis: I’m kind of leaning towards trying for the World Cup [Final] with Danilo because I really love that music and freestyle. I could do it with either one, but I’m going to try more with him than the other.
The World Cup would be fun, but I’m really working to get myself in the top eight [for WEG.] I was in the top eight for [the 2014 WEG] and for [the 2016 Rio Olympics.] I’m going for what I can get, and if I make the team, that’s awesome. If I do the alternate again for the third Games in a row, I’ll do the alternate and be happy!
COTH: Your last WEG appearance was 20 years ago with Pikant. What would it mean to be selected this year?
Francis: I’d be really happy for my owner, [Patricia Stempel], who has helped me tremendously. For me, it’s just another feather in my cap. I won’t turn it down by any means, and I won’t turn an alternate position down either!
COTH: Do you have any up-and-coming horses in the barn?
Francis: I did a little small tour with [Stempel’s 12-year-old Westphalian gelding Rubinio (Roh Magic—Patrizia, Philipo)] a couple of years ago, and I’m bringing him along. He’s been a little bit on the back burner, but I think that in February he’ll be nearly ready to try his first Grand Prix. He does everything, but he’s had some time off with all my traveling with the other two.
I have a coming 6-year-old that’s a brother to Danilo (De Niro—Annabelle, Andiamo), [Dance Every Dance, or] Dante, who’s really lovely. He’s coming along. I’m not ready to throw in the towel yet!
He is the last foal from Danilo’s mother. He’s by Danone, who is by De Niro.
COTH: What’s your immediate competition plan for the season?
Francis: I’m planning on doing the next CDI-W where I’ll show Danilo again to do a second World Cup qualifier, then the CDI***** where they also run the CDI***. I’ll ride both horses there. I’d prefer to ride Doktor in the five-star and do his freestyle that night and do a Special with Danilo.
They’re fitter and going better than ever. They’ve made a lot of improvements over the year. I’ve been schooling them carefully and giving them a little time off. I’m just ready to go out there and do the best I can and show the world that even if you get to be an old lady you can still go out there and swing the bat!