Wednesday, May. 29, 2024

Shelly Francis Took Her Time On Her Road To The World Games

I’ve been involved in horses since my early teens, and now I’m old. I did a little bit of everything, from western gymkhana to hunter/jumper type riding. I worked with Denny Emerson and David Hopper, doing a little bit of jumping. I did a little breaking yearlings for 2-year-old training sales in Ocala, Fla., and I handled breeding stallions at Huntington Farm [Vt.] for Ann Kitchel. I always wanted to learn lots of different things about the different sports.



I’ve been involved in horses since my early teens, and now I’m old. I did a little bit of everything, from western gymkhana to hunter/jumper type riding. I worked with Denny Emerson and David Hopper, doing a little bit of jumping. I did a little breaking yearlings for 2-year-old training sales in Ocala, Fla., and I handled breeding stallions at Huntington Farm [Vt.] for Ann Kitchel. I always wanted to learn lots of different things about the different sports.

But I’ve always been very interested in dressage, and eventually I started becoming more involved. I rode horses for Henry Smith, including [Grand Prix mounts] Pikant and Gala. My big love is training horses and then teaching others to train horses to the best of my ability. I think I’ll do more teaching as I get stiffer and stiffer and older and older, but I’m going strong still.

Spooky But Coming Around

Patricia Stempel owns my horses now and has for 10 years or more. We got Doktor as a 6-year-old, and he was probably third, fourth-ish level when I got him. He could do a few more changes than some younger horses might, and he had been a little started with piaffe and passage. But he didn’t do it really engaged; that took a few years.

He was very nervous and afraid of a rider and nervous of things around him and overly sensitive. He had a bolting, runaway streak in there. I did get hurt one year when he bolted, but we’ve recovered. It happened at home. If I even just moved my arm, he would take off.


Home Base: Loxahatchee, Fla.

Age: 55

World Games Contender: 

Doktor, an 11-year-old German-bred 
(Diamont Hit—Gurena, Renoir I).

Previous World Games Experience:

Shelly Francis represented the United 
States at the 1998 World Equestrian Games 
in Rome with Pikant. 

“Pikant really started my career in the 
international Grand Prix arena,” said 
Francis. “I think there are better quality 
horses out there now than were those 
years back. As far as the whole team 
scene and the politics around it, that’s the
same as it’s ever been. You just try and  
take it all in stride, and you learn to take  
constructive criticism.” 

We kind of sacked him out very gently like a western horse, and we took our time making sure he got over being afraid. He’s still wary and very aware of everything around him and everything that comes near him. He has a self-preservation streak, and his first idea is to take off and run away if something scares him. I’m still a little cautious with him in awards ceremonies. But he’s come a long way; he’s got much more confidence.


He’s much better now if there’s a lot of applause when he comes out of the ring. But that little urge to get scared sometimes, I don’t think that ever goes away when a horse has run away a few times and panicked like that. Knock on wood, I think it’s somewhat controlled as long as I’m careful and don’t put him in a situation where he gets too freaked out. He’s really matured a lot.

A European Adventure

Competing with Doktor in Europe last year was huge. [Francis and Doktor competed at CDIs in Lingen (Germany), Arnhem (the Netherlands) and Hickstead (Great Britain) including participating on a few Nations Cup teams.] It really helped me adjust him more to being less intimidated. Even though I used Danilo for awards ceremonies a lot, I did take Doktor to a few.

I’ve always taken all my prior horses to get awards without ever having the thought in the back of my head that I could get killed. With this horse, if he ever did get really frightened, it could be hazardous to my health and his. But it was really good for him to have that exposure.

For those shows, everything is much closer—the stands are closer, and the applause is closer. Doktor traveled super well to and from shows. He’s very well adjusted; he doesn’t lose weight, and he eats and drinks. He’s a really intelligent horse, and I think he’s very special.

We worked on developing a little more swing and scope in his trot, working in extended trot to have him carry it bigger. He would go big enough, but he wouldn’t carry enough air with it. He’d be a little quick in the rhythm. We improved a lot of things like that.

He’s a very muscular horse and can hold himself a little tight, so it’s about working him through some of the tension. He’s getting so much better about it that now I’m able to make him look much more fluid in some of those forward trots and the half-passes.

In Europe I kept making mistakes in the canter half-pass zigzag, and I finally got a few tests where I didn’t have that. It was improving from 6s to 7s and then even some 8s.

He needed to also get comfortable doing all that in the test. He’s a little bit of a hot boy. I’ve tried to keep him calm, and now he’s just cocky enough he puts out a little more in a calm way. He has more relaxation instead of just getting tense. He’s really come a long way in one year. He’s intelligent enough, and I’ve been careful not to overface him.

Under Control And Ready To Roll

This year I wanted to get Doktor out to see if I had a shot for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games [France] team. In my head, I said, “He’s still young, and there are other horses out there who are older and more experienced and more consistent.” But Doktor is proving to be quite consistent. I give him a lot of time where I don’t drill him, and it’s working. I’m going to keep doing my own thing that way. You get old enough, you learn how to do things—sometimes.

The last two shows I did—the [Adequan Global Dressage Festival] five-star was the last one, and the[Adequan Global Dressage Festival] CDI-W before that—I felt like I started getting the Grand Prix test a little more under control, that I had him more rideable. I did the freestyle a few more times because I was trying to win more money in those, but he was getting more and more rideable.

He would get a little excited in that nighttime atmosphere, but he was listening to me and trying really hard. Even if there were little mistakes or little spots of tension, he was always just really trying to do everything I asked him to do. He never tried not to. If he had a little mistake, he’d get a little worried, and I’d say, “You’re all right, just keep going.” He tunes right in. I think he’s probably one of the most intelligent horses I’ve ever ridden. He learns like a dog.


I’ve gotten some help from [U.S. Dressage Chef d’Equipe] Robert Dover, and for years I’ve ridden with Jo Hinnemann a bit. At home I have a friend, Cherri Reiber, who’s been doing a lot of long-lining with my horses and teaching them very slowly a few days a week, over two or three years now, to piaffe and passage nicely and quietly in the lines. They’re not getting whipped; they’re just [learning] it day-by-day a little bit. They have a pretty good piaffe and passage now, unless I screw up. Cherri is an old friend and used to compete, and she also watches us from the ground.

Last year and this year, Debbie McDonald has also been just lovely help on the ground for me. She’s instrumental with lots of little tips, especially with both of us being short women— finding a way that’s not all strength.

I mostly do my own things with my horses though. As far as the daily training, that’s my gig. We’ll keep plugging away at it.

In about two months, I’ll head up to a friend’s place in Virginia. We’ll go about a week before the [USEF Dressage Festival Of Champions (N.J.), June 12-15]. I like to go early and let him settle because it’s a long trip, and it’s hot coming from Florida. Then we’ll drive from Virginia to New Jersey on Monday before the jog. We’ll do Gladstone and then hopefully make our way to Europe. I’m just looking to do the best we can and see where that gets us.

As you get older and wiser, you train a little more carefully and take more time. You’re not in as big of a hurry because you know they’ll learn faster if you do take your time. I’ve had a moment or two where the competing and [trying to make the team] appears stressful, but then you just have to get over it. In the end, you really do need to enjoy what you’re doing, and the competing is just the icing on the cake of being successful training the horse.

But I have a little competitive bone in me. Who doesn’t want to win? I’m still plugging away at it, and maybe I’ll make a team this year. You never know! 

Waiting In The Wings

Shelly Francis brought out younger prospect Danilo at Grand Prix earlier this year. Her original intention was to try to qualify the 10-year-old Hanoverian (De Niro—Annabelle, Andiamo) owned by Patricia Stempel for the selection trials for the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.

“I started him in his first Grand Prix classes, and he did well,” Francis said. “I thought, ‘Let’s see if I can’t get him qualified for the top 15.’ He just wasn’t ready for that little bit of pressure yet.

“But he’s super talented,” she continued. “He’s going to be incredibly awesome. I think he’ll be maybe a better horse than Doktor in some ways, but they’re both equally talented in work; it’s just one is a lot greener and younger. My plan is not to over face them when they’re that young. I backed off and didn’t finish the qualifiers with him this year, but I continued with Doktor.”

Francis also has Le Roi coming up the ranks, a 10-year-old Oldenburg gelding (L’Andiamo— Donnerpearl), as well as Rubinio, an 8-year-old Westphalian gelding (Roh Magic—Patrizia).

“I figure that’ll be the last of my competitive ground,” she said. “In about another eight to 10 years, I’ll probably be toddling along in a wheelchair.”




Follow us on


Copyright © 2024 The Chronicle of the Horse