Follow the journey of a horse from the USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum to the US Dressage Finals
By Stacy Durham
Reprinted from May 2018 USDF Connection
In 2014, California-based dressage pro Lehua Custer was selected to ride in the USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum. Her partner: the then four-year-old Dutch Warmblood gelding F.J. Ramzes (Juventus x Rampal), owned by her student Wendy Sasser.
Three short years later, Custer and F.J. Ramzes had already begun making their mark on the American dressage scene, capping consecutive Regional Championships titles with the Third Level Open tricolor at the 2017 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®.
The talented pair has a promising future, and Custer says she’s grateful for the solid foundation the USDF forum helped her give the horse. As we look forward to the 2018 forum with presenters Scott Hassler and Michael Bragdell, USDF Connection asked Custer to talk about her journey with F.J. Ramzes.
Sasser, an amateur dressage rider from southern California, bought “Ramzes”—who was bred by Cornell University’s (NY) Equine Park program—as a yearling through an online sale. Hoping that the youngster would mature into her dream dressage horse, Sasser decided to send him to Keenridge, Olympian Hilda Gurney’s Moorpark, CA, facility, to grow up, where he would have access to turnout. Keenridge-based trainer Tracey Young started Ramzes under saddle, and when he was three he returned to Sasser. Custer, who trains with Gurney, picked Ramzes’ training back up when the gelding was four.
The women’s original plan was for Custer to do much of Ramzes’ early training and competition so that Sasser could successfully take over the ride later on—a goal that’s since been revised as Ramzes’ high-performance talents have emerged. Custer was impressed by the gelding’s talent and work ethic; but she knew that Ramzes, like all young horses, would benefit from exposure to new venues and situations.
“We saw that the USDF Sport Horse Prospect Development Forum would be held at the prestigious KWPN breeding farm DG Bar Ranch [in Hanford, CA],” says Custer, “so we applied on a whim.” She and Ramzes were accepted to ride as one of the event’s demonstration pairs.
“This was our first big event together, and I was quite nervous,” Custer recalls. “The riders and horses at DG Bar are top-class, so we knew we’d have to really step up our game. I remember telling Wendy that I didn’t want to be the bad example!”
Each rider in the forum works mainly with one of the two clinicians. Custer found herself paired with sport-horse expert Scott Hassler, whom she calls “such a sympathetic teacher.”
In the forum, Custer says, “The number-one thing I learned was to help the horse find peace and confidence in the work. [Hassler] repeated to every rider [that the role of the rider is] to be the horse’s coach. I loved that way of thinking. We must help our horses to understand the demands.”
Custer learned things from Hassler that she still uses in her riding and training, she says. For instance, “Scott had us work in the canter on a circle, and we worked on bigger and smaller steps. Eventually you are riding a very collected canter without the horse getting slow behind or stalling out. I use it every single day. I learned to ‘grow’ a canter instead of run, [which has resulted in] higher scores in the mediums and extensions.”
An Exciting Career Trajectory
Encouraged by Hassler’s admiration of Ramzes, trainer and owner were “excited to go to a few shows the following season,” says Custer. They ended a “wonderful season” at First Level by claiming the California Dressage Society’s First Level Open Horse of the Year title.
From there, it’s been onward and upward. With Custer in the irons, Ramzes won the Second Level Open championship at the 2016 Great American/USDF Region 7 Championships. They kicked off the 2017 season by serving as a demonstration pair for another high-profile educational event: an April symposium with British Olympian Carl Hester in Del Mar, CA.
“Carl liked him so much and said that he will be a Grand Prix horse one day!” Custer says.
Training trumped showing for the first part of 2017. Custer explains: “I wanted to focus on training, as we hadn’t ever really taken many lessons with my coach, Hilda, the previous seasons.”
Even though Custer and Ramzes got a late start to the show season, they quickly made up for lost time. At the 2017 Great American/USDF Region 7 Championships, they won the Third Level Open title, and Ramzes was the show’s KWPN high-point champion.
The 2017 US Dressage Finals hadn’t been on Custer’s and Sasser’s radar, but Ramzes’ winning performance at the Regionals earned him a wild-card invitation to Kentucky.
“We had not planned to attend,” Custer says, “but I posted the information on Facebook just to show my support. The response was crazy. Around two hundred people encouraged us to open a GoFundMe [account] to raise the money. I’ve never done such a thing before, so I brushed it off as too extravagant and expensive. Eventually everyone wore us down, and we did it. People began donating so quickly, it was shocking. We managed to raise all of the funds, and we entered our first US Dressage Finals!”
Team Ramzes decided to fly the horse to Kentucky instead of hauling the long distance.
“Our trip was pretty incredible,” says Custer. “I’ve never flown with a horse before, so it was great to experience. Ramzes traveled like a champ, and I’m so thankful we had the opportunity to fly.” (One trick she learned: flavor the horse’s water with apple juice to encourage him to drink unfamiliar water.)
“The Kentucky Horse Park was bigger and grander than I had imagined,” Custer says. “It was huge! There was so much activity and so many horses everywhere. I train out of the Los Angeles Equestrian Center in California, and I was amazed at how much bigger the Kentucky Horse Park is.”
One challenge: the weather. Both rider and horse struggled to adapt from mild southern California to chilly Lexington, which experienced below-normal temperatures during the show last November.
“The temperature on show day was a bit frigid, so I probably didn’t ride as well as I could have. I knew we’d done pretty well, and we got to see our scores immediately following the ride, which was neat. I had very stiff competition in my division, so I was not very confident that our score would hold.”
Custer and Sasser waited out the remainder of the Third Level Open championship class in the indoor Alltech Arena while Ramzes relaxed in his heated stall. Their lead held, and “Once we found out we were champions, we all started jumping up and down. It was so fun!” Custer says.
Connections, Human and Equine
“I really enjoyed meeting people from across the country and seeing fabulous horses” at the Finals, says Custer. “I’ve never ridden in a show of this scale before, so I was a little bit intimidated until I sat in the saddle. I really like that we have a national competition, and I hope to participate again one day.”
In 2018 and beyond, Custer says, her goal is to improve Ramzes’ FEI-level work, which can involve managing the horse’s over-the-top work ethic. “Ramzes is so willing and tries so hard that things can be a challenge. He always wants bigger and more in his gaits. I’m working to have more control over his enthusiasm.”
Like other riders who realize they have a gifted horse, Custer has started to dream big.
“I think he will make a great FEI horse. He’s already showing ability for Grand Prix work, so it’s my job to just keep him happy and healthy. It would be so exciting to compete in CDIs and to ride in the [US Equestrian Dressage] Festival of Champions one day, too.”
Stacy Durham is a USDF senior education coordinator.