American Dressage Legends: Elizabeth Searle


A lifetime of pioneering equestrian achievements

TIRELESS ACHIEVER: Receiving her USDF Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 from then-USDF president Sam Barish (SUSAN SEXTON/USDF ARCHIVE)

Seven years after establishing its Hall of Fame, the USDF realized that a second category of recognition was in order: to honor a lifetime of extraordinary volunteer contributions to the organization on a national level.

The inaugural USDF Lifetime Achievement Awards were bestowed in 2002. The first recipients were two women without whose efforts the USDF would not be what it is today: Lazelle Knocke (profiled in our April issue) and Elizabeth “Liz” Searle.

Name almost any aspect of the sport of dressage—or of several other equestrian disciplines, for that matter—and Searle (1917-2012) had a hand in it. In 1967, in her home state of California, she helped to found the California Dressage Society, USDF’s largest group-member organization; the organizing meeting was held at Molehaven, Searle’s facility in Soquel. She was a prominent organizer of West Coast dressage shows, clinics, and seminars. In the 1950s, she founded the first Pony Club west of the Mississippi, and she continued to support Pony Club for many years as national vice president and examiner. She was a co-founder of the California Quadrille Association, an outgrowth of the Osierlea Quadrille, an exhibition team of her students at the dressage facility in San Juan Bautista that she co-owned and operated with her partner, J. Ashton “Jeff” Moore.

An accomplished dressage rider and competitor in her own right—she won a dressage national-championship title in the 1960s—Searle became even better known as a dressage judge. A US Equestrian “S” and FEI “I” (now 4*) judge, she served as a faculty member of the USDF L Education Program, and she chaired the USDF Judges Committee from 1984 to 2001. From 1989 to 1996, Searle was also the USDF vice president.

Searle and Moore were also passionate about sport-horse breeding. They were among the earliest importers of Dutch Warmbloods to the US (including Taxateur, the first licensed KWPN stallion to stand in this country), and Searle became instrumental in the formation of the North American branch of the Royal Dutch Warmblood Studbook, known as the KWPN-NA. A dressage sport-horse breeding judge, Searle was the primary judge of KWPN-NA keurings from 1985 to 1999.

DANCING PARTNER: Searle (left, in 1971) enjoyed pas de deux and promoted it along with quadrille and freestyle as fun for both horse and rider (courtesy of the California Dressage Society)

An equestrian with wide-ranging interests, Searle promoted pas de deux and freestyle in addition to quadrille, saying that these dressage offshoots provided needed fun for both riders and horses. She was introduced to the sport of vaulting during a trip to Germany in 1956 and immediately understood its value, especially for horseless young equestrian enthusiasts, according to Moore. Searle went on to co-found the American Vaulting Association, to serve as the AVA’s first president, and to become a national and international vaulting judge.

A string of other prestigious national awards followed Searle’s USDF Lifetime Achievement Award. She received the Pegasus Award from the American Horse Shows Association (now US Equestrian) in 2003 in recognition of her service to horse sport. In 2007 she received a second AHSA honor, the Walter B. Devereaux Award, for her sportsmanship and service. At the 2012 US Equestrian convention, Searle was posthumously placed on the Honor Roll of Distinguished Officials.

Moore has written frequently about Searle over the years, his tributes usually punctuated with amusing behind-the-scenes anecdotes that offer a glimpse of dressage’s pioneer days in America. Of Searle’s earliest dressage attempts in the 1940s, he wrote the following for the California Dressage Society:

Liz rode a little Standardbred mare with a gaited double bridle. She entered a dressage competition judged by Herman Friedlaender from Germany. After she won the class, he approached her and she set herself up for congratulations. He said: “That was the most agonizing performance I have ever seen. I wouldn’t ride that horse for a thousand dollars” (a lot of money in the 1940s). Liz replied: “I wouldn’t let you ride my horse for a thousand dollars.” More curious than chastised, she called him a few days later to ask if he would help her with the horse, and he agreed. He showed up for the lesson with a thick hollow-mouth German snaffle bit and proceeded to show her how to get the horse on the bit and relaxed. It must have been a good lesson; they were married for 25 years.

Moore wrote the following tribute to Searle for this article. USDF Connection salutes this great lady of dressage, who did so much for so many and whose contributions forever improved the sport in America.

Elizabeth Searle, “Liz” to all, contributed, over her 94 years, enormously to many aspects of equestrian art. She changed the lives of many individuals, some of them troubled young people. I was one of those individuals.

I showed up, at age 15, at a meeting of the Santa Cruz (CA) County Pony Club, of which Liz was the district commissioner and chief instructor. I had ridden hunters and jumpers since the age of 9, and had no clue about, and no interest in, dressage. Liz said that I would have to “do dressage” because it was part of the Pony Club program. At 17 she took me on as a working student, and our 50 years as partners began.

She got me a “gig” as a working student with her friend Kyra Downton, which allowed me to train extensively with Col. Alois Podhajsky and Col. Waldemar Seunig, as well as other classical luminaries.

Although she was a successful competitor in hunters, jumpers, and eventing, dressage became Liz’s great area of expertise. Over 50 years she kept me on the straight and narrow about her concept of classical dressage, no matter the current dressage “expert” of fashion or bastardization of the sport in the pursuit of showing.
At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Liz renewed an acquaintance with the Swedish Olympic gold medalist Baron Hans von Blixen-Finecke. She invited him to Osierlea to teach, thus beginning a 25-year relationship that brought his genius to Americans.
Liz’s ability to be supportive yet still “hold the line” about the individual and the sport was unique. She never let me get too impressed with myself, but was always completely supportive. The number of national and international equestrian projects we founded together are a legacy to her abilities and tenacity. She supported the USDF in so many ways over so many years—but it was just another facet of her remarkable character.

—J. Ashton Moore

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