Jillian Santi and her Haflinger prove you don’t need a warmblood to compete at Prix St. Georges.
Jillian Santi lives for a challenge, so when she decided to try dressage with her Haflinger gelding Starwars TOF, she never thought they’d be limited to the lower levels. Her positive attitude and hard work paid off this year with a win in the amateur Prix St. Georges at the Great American/USDF Region 6 Championships.
Santi originally purchased “Star” (Stars ‘N Stripes TOF—Abella TOF) as a 5-year-old to do local hunter/jumper shows and trail ride, but when she headed off to college, she didn’t have time to keep him fit for jumping.
“In 2002, I started taking lessons with Lisa Boyer and went to the first regional championships in 2003. I think that’s when I started doing clinics with Jeremy [Steinberg] too. I did a level each year, and it was just slow progress,” said Santi.
Some judges didn’t like Star because he was an “off breed,” and one told Santi he’d never go above second level.
But she persevered, and Star proved his critics wrong by coming out at Prix St. Georges this year, earning Santi her U.S. Dressage Federation silver medal and winning a regional championship with a 63.75 percent in Nampa, Idaho, Oct. 3-5.
Santi said Star is the first Haflinger in the United States to compete at the Fédération Equestre Internationale levels in USDF shows.
“When I started doing dressage shows there were 12 Haflingers registered with the USDF. Now there are 60 or 70,” she said. “As long as he can keep going, I’m going to keep pushing. If he can make it to Grand Prix, I’ll try it.”
Although Santi knows it might be easier to compete a more traditionally bred dressage horse, she’s more interested in proving her horse has what it takes.
“There are tons of warmbloods doing FEI levels, and in the USDF there’s only Star doing Prix St. Georges,” said Santi. “When he succeeds, it’s amazing. I’ve always been really competitive. The idea of quitting at second or third level wasn’t an option as long as Star showed that he was willing to keep going.”
But Santi’s relationship with Star is about more than reaching a certain level in dressage.
“I’ve continued with Star because I absolutely love him,” she said. “Star is my partner. I’ve got a really close relationship with him that I’ve built up over the years. I used to do 10-mile trail rides a few times a week.”
The 14.1-hand gelding has had his share of adventures with Santi outside the ring.
“Once we were out trail riding, and we got lost and went down a steep surveyor’s trail,” she recalled. “We got to the bottom, and I was leading him back up when I tripped and fell. I grabbed his tail, and he pulled me up the rest of the trail. I can stand on his back. I’ve had kids ride him double and walk underneath him. What makes him so special to me is that he does FEI-level dressage, and I can take him out for a trail ride the next day.”
Star, 11, has never worn shoes and lives at home with Santi in Whidbey Island, Wash. Santi, 23, is working toward her master’s degree in criminal justice.
“If I’ve got a break, I run out and throw a bareback pad on Star and then get back to work. I look out my bedroom window, and there he is,” she said.
Love At First Sight
Not only did Santi celebrate her own win at the regional championships, but her trainers, Boyer and Steinberg, also came away with blue ribbons. Boyer won the third level freestyle championship with Quebranto (73.43%), and Steinberg won the open Prix St. Georges championship with Elisienne (70.62%).
Steinberg has ridden Jessica Lyman’s 9-year-old Oldenburg (Donatelli—Eskara) since the mare was imported as a 3-year-old.
“She was the last horse we looked at,” recalled Steinberg. “We’d given up hope, but then it was love at first sight when I found her. I saw her tied to a brick wall and said, ‘That’s the horse I want.’ ”
Steinberg laughed when he admitted that it was her doe’s eye and stunning liver chestnut color that initially attracted him, but he also appreciated her steady rhythm and elegant balance.
“It was an instant connection and an emotional bond,” he said. “She has her people, the people she likes and the people she doesn’t. ‘Lily’ is a mother hen. If she puts you under her wing, that’s it. She’ll do anything for you.”
Although Steinberg’s adoration of Lily never wavered, the pair didn’t step into the show ring right away.
“The championships were her fourth show. I kept saying that I just wanted to wait and give her a little more time,” he said. “She’s had a start and stop career. We’d get her going and then there’d be a little bump in the road.”
This year Lyman, who also owns Traumhof, Steinberg’s training facility in Carnation, Wash., encouraged Steinberg to stop striving for perfection at home and start competing.
“I’m not a good Prix St. Georges rider because I keep wanting to push for the Grand Prix stuff,” he said. “It’s been an adjustment for me to take a deep breath and not do the ones every day and settle into a Prix St. Georges groove. It obviously worked out well for the championships, but I’m relieved to have that over. I know what we can do with her over the winter, and I’m hoping we can bring her out Grand Prix next year.”
Despite the 33-year-old’s misgivings about slowing Lily’s training, he was overjoyed with their results in the show ring.
“It was like all the pieces of every single thing came together over this weekend,” he said. “It was the best feeling she gave me. She was the most rideable. Her gaits felt the best. I could really go for it in the extensions, and she came back for the collection. It was absolutely the best ride of the year.
“She’s a real show off, which is part of what makes her so special,” he added. “She’ll always go into the arena and work 10 times harder than she would at home. After the last halt in the championship class, I dropped the reins to give her a pat. She stood like a statue and turned her head to look at everyone clapping. I couldn’t get her to budge for a few minutes.”
A Perfect 10
And when Steinberg wasn’t appreciating his own accomplishments, he was cheering on working student, Taryn Briones, who won the junior/young rider first level championship with Valianie (70.78%) and girlfriend Shauntel Bryant who received an outstanding score of 76.42 percent with F.D.F. Nestle Quick to win the open second level championship.
Bryant has ridden the 6-year-old Holsteiner mare (Newton—Calypso) for breeder Sue Wilson for the past three years. Wilson sends homebreds to Bryant to train and sell, but “Nestle” won’t be for sale anytime soon.
“The owner wants me to take her up the levels. I feel very lucky,” said Bryant, 31. “She’s a one-person horse. It took
her a while to trust. With her sensitive personality, I don’t think she would do well with somebody who wasn’t quiet
and patient. She’s a flamboyant, amazing mover, but her brain was definitely slow.”
Bryant is originally from southern Oregon, but six months ago she moved her life to Washington to work with Steinberg.
“I decided that living down there wasn’t going to get me where I needed to be,” said Bryant. “I was lucky to get help a couple of times a year. So I took the leap and went for it. [Wilson] has five other horses in training with me. She made it possible for me to come up here.”
Nestle won all three classes she contested at the show, but the regional championship was the highlight.
“That was the best test I’ve ever done with her, and the only test I didn’t have videoed,” said Bryant. “It was so easy and lovely to ride. She was on the money with really sloppy, icky footing.”
Nestle even received a 10 for one of her simple changes from FEI I-rated judge Liselotte Fore. “Lilo gave me 78
percent,” said Bryant. “I couldn’t believe the amount of 9s.”
Because Nestle has matured slowly, Bryant decided not to contest the FEI 5- and 6-year-old classes. However, she’s aiming for the developing horse Prix St. Georges classes in the next two years.