Booker T. Washington, the early 20th century educator, once said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.”
The story of La Cara and Leah Schwendeman is a confirmation of Washington’s belief. While La Cara stands as the 2004 U.S. Equestrian Federation grand amateur-owner hunter national champion, to reach this achievement a great number of obstacles had to be cleared.
For Schwendeman, 24, the journey was more fulfilling than the rewards, because both the girl and her horse not only proved themselves against the best in the country, but, more importantly, they also proved themselves to each other.
Their story is a familiar one–but with a twist. A horse-crazy Midwest girl works hard to achieve her goals, but bad luck with difficult horses leaves her frustrated. A capable but difficult mare stands in a field in California for two years because no one had figured out her niche or the secret to riding her.
Enter the miracle worker: trainer Heidi Austin-Fish. She knew the girl and the horse, who had been trained by her childhood friend, Lumpy Kilham. La Cara had done the first and second year green divisions and then had a stint in the jumpers before being turned out. Austin-Fish remembered La Cara from her green years, had a feeling the two belonged together, and she made it happen.
“I called Leah’s dad, Dan [Schwendeman], one day and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I have this horse. You need to go with Leah one more time,’ ” Austin-Fish recalled. “It took me about five minutes to convince him. Leah’s father is incredible, and without him this wouldn’t have happened.”
Leah wasn’t overly impressed when she first saw La Cara, however. “Heidi kept telling us about this horse who was coming,” said Leah. “Then the horse got off the van. She had a long mane, was really furry, and had a grass belly. We were thinking, ‘What’s so special about this horse?’ “
Leah soon realized there was more to La Cara than met the eye. “As soon as I sat on her, I loved her,” she said. It didn’t take Leah long to figure out the mare’s likes and dislikes. “I started developing a program, getting her quiet and comfortable and happy.”
Leah described La Cara as rather opinionated. “If you weren’t doing it right, she wouldn’t hesitate to let you know,” said Leah, laughing. “Now I know exactly what she likes. There’s such a pattern. She’s the same horse every day. When I ride her, I try and stay out of her way. She doesn’t spook–she’s fearless. I’ve never seen her afraid of anything.”
When La Cara, nicknamed Jasmine, enters the ring, those who know her often stop and watch because she’s so impressive. She powers over her jumps, her knees tucked to her chin. And when she’s feeling especially relaxed, she’ll draw gasps of amazement from the spectators as she airs her fences with feet to spare. “I lost my stirrups quite a lot at the beginning,” remembered Leah. “It’s like sitting on a rocket. This first time I jumped her, Heidi said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t squeeze her when you get there!’ “
Leah said that the Pennsylvania National, where they won every over fences class in the division, was her most memorable show. “I’ve never felt her like that,” said Leah. “She just knows the big horse shows, and we both just love the pressure. I didn’t think she could jump any harder, but she did.”
In addition to carrying Leah to accolades she’d only imagined, La Cara was instrumental in Leah’s transformation from timid and sometimes defensive to open and friendly, according to Austin-Fish. “I think Leah evolved the past year,” said Austin-Fish. “I think she felt someone realized she rides well and believed in her and appreciated her. I do think the horse brought out her better side. Yes, it’s the perfect match, but the perfect match made her a better person.”
Austin-Fish sees their story as one that could and should be repeated–but isn’t often enough because sometimes dollar signs take center stage when other aspects of the sport are actually more important.”My motivation for this arrangement, well, I’m an inspirational kind of person,” said Austin-Fish. “You don’t have to have the most expensive horse. You don’t have to have come from a rich, rich family. You just have to have the talent and the desire. But it’s not all about success, either. You have to be a good person to warrant a good outcome. Most importantly, I’m so proud of Leah as a person.”
Leah’s faith in herself has also been reaffirmed, and she sees her time with La Cara has an invaluable learning experience. “La Cara taught me that you never really know what can happen,” she said. “Nobody imagined this horse would do so well. She’s never done anything great in her life. And now I realize you can never really count a horse out, or a person.
“We’re a lot alike,” Leah added. “We had our own talents, but no one had let us show that. Jasmine is such a great jumper, but so many things kept her from being great. I had a good eye, but I never had the horses. Coming together, we were able to show what we each had. It couldn’t have worked out better. It’s hard to put into words what she means to me. She’s a horse, and I ride her, but it’s so much more than that. We have a friendship. It’s like we understand each other. I have to put her in a category to herself– I can never compare her to any other horse.”
Description: 11-year-old, 16-hand, imported bay Dutch Warmblood mare (by Armstrong).
Residence: Belleville, Ill.
Family: The Schwendemans: Leah, sister Lisa, father Dan, stepmother Karen, and mother Helen. “Without the help and support of all of my family, I couldn’t do this,” said Leah.
Tack: Shows in a slow-twist snaffle and a loose martingale. At home she goes in a loose-ring snaffle.
Favorite treats: “At the horse shows we usually share our breakfast–wheat toast with butter,” said Schwendeman. “And I always feed her peppermints, and I make sure when I go to the ring I have a pocketful of something.”
Traits: “She’s very spoiled. Her stall has a half door so she can stick her head out so everyone notices her,” said Leah. “She’s never a crabby mare, except when she doesn’t get fed on time. That’s the only time I see her mad. She’s really funny too. She likes to wiggle her nose against my face or neck like she’s giving me a kiss.”
2004 Competitive highlights
U.S. Equestrian Federation National Grand Amateur-Owner Hunter Champion
USEF National Amateur-Owner, 18-35, Champion
World Champion Hunter Rider Amateur-Owner National Champion
Metropolitan National (N.Y.) ? grand amateur & amateur-owner, 18-35, champion
Washington International (D.C.) ? amateur-owner, 18-35, reserve champion
Pennsylvania National ? grand amateur & amateur-owner, 18-35, champion
Capital Challenge (Md.) ? grand amateur & amateur-owner, 18-35, champion
St. Louis National Charity (Mo.) ? amateur-owner champion
Blue Grass Festival (Ky.) ? amateur-owner, 18-35, champion
Traders Point Hunt Charity (Ind.) ? junior/amateur-owner classic winner, amateur-owner, 18-35, champion
Devon (Pa.) ? grand amateur & amateur-owner, 18-35, champion
HITS Desert Circuit (Calif.) ? amateur-owner, 18-35, circuit champion