Force of Nature

CLICKING: Garcia-Cannavino and Wenesa at the 2017 US Dressage Finals

Whether she’s shooting a TV commercial or training and showing dressage, Elma Garcia-Cannavino gives it her all


Reprinted from March 2018 USDF Connection magazine

Glowing lanterns set aloft into the night sky, a swimmer gliding across a placid lake, a small plane soaring over the Alaska wilderness—in a format where you have 30 seconds to tell a story, Elma Garcia-Cannavino’s commercial spots pull the viewer in with their compelling visuals. Creating ads for clients including Jack Daniel’s, Levi’s, and the top pharmaceutical companies has taken her to such far-flung locations as Poland, Argentina, Italy, and South Africa—but the director- cinematographer says there’s still nothing like coming home to her horses.


Since 2017, home has been Mill Spring, NC, a stone’s throw from the Tryon International Equestrian Center, host of this year’s FEI World Equestrian Games.

“It’s so naturally beautiful here,” Garcia-Cannavino says. “It’s a little slice of heaven.”

Garcia-Cannavino, 59, has embraced her new surroundings as she does most things—with energy, curiosity, and determination. Whether sitting atop a crane framing the perfect shot for her latest commercial or competing her mare Wenesa in FEI-level dressage, whatever she does, she’s all in. Just ask Debbie McDonald.

In 2004, Garcia-Cannavino arrived at a benefit for the US dressage team in California, her home state at the time, with a single goal: to win a month-long training package with McDonald at River Grove Farm in Idaho. In the buffet line before the live auction, Garcia-Cannavino approached the Olympian and introduced herself: “Hi, I’m Elma Garcia, and I’m going to bid on you tonight.” McDonald smiled and said, “OK.”

Remembering the encounter, McDonald says, “You never know if people are serious or not.” But Garcia-Cannavino had just finished a big directing job and was feeling flush. Bidding for the training package began and quickly grew heated. Soon it was down to Garcia-Cannavino and two other bidders. “My limit was eighty thousand dollars,” she says. When the bidding reached that amount, the late Parry Thomas, River Grove’s owner, stepped in to offer separate training packages to each bidder.

Afterward, the late Dick Brown, a longtime supporter of US dressage, asked her, “Are you good for this?” Garcia- Cannavino laughs. “Nobody knew me. They were all saying, ‘Who is she?’ I went back to the hotel, ordered a bottle of Champagne, and jumped on the bed.”

An Eye for People and Horses
Garcia-Cannavino may have been unknown to many in the dressage community in 2004, but her Athlete Portrait Campaign three years later changed that. Putting her photographic skills to use, she shot images of top American riders and their horses—McDonald and Brentina, Steffen Peters and Floriano, and Guenter Seidel and Aragon, among others—which were then made into limited-edition posters sold to benefit the US Equestrian Team Foundation. It was her way of giving back to the sport.

She’s loved taking pictures since she was a horse-crazy girl growing up in tiny Cowiche, WA, near Yakima, the youngest of five children. Her father oversaw an apple orchard and raised cattle, and her mother packed apples in the nearby plant. In a trade for one of her dad’s cows, Garcia- Cannavino got her first horse at nine, and she rode and competed until she went off to college, usually on her Quarter Horse mare, Naches. “We did barrel racing, the keyhole race, and gymkhana. She was a spitfire.

“Riding as a kid gave me a lot of confidence,” Garcia- Cannavino adds, “not just about riding, but everything. When we did the play days, we competed against kids of all ages, boys and girls. Today in my business, I feel I can do anything a guy can do.”

She shelved her love of horses while studying photography at the Brooks Institute in California and during stints working in New York City and San Francisco. In 1991, a client asked if she would direct a commercial, and she found a new way to explore her creativity. She launched Elma Garcia Films and created commercials that have aired during the Super Bowl and the World Series and earned her Emmy, Addy, and Mobius awards.

The idea of riding again tugged at her, and she found an old farmhouse in Marin County, California. Soon, she was the happy owner of the house and a little Thoroughbred mare. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, maybe endurance riding or eventing,” she explains. When the mare needed rehabbing, she discovered dressage. In Los Angeles for a symposium with the German Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol, she saw dressage performed at the highest levels. “I remember thinking, ‘Oh.’ At one point I happened to be standing next to Debbie [McDonald], and I thought, She’s petite, like me. If she can do it, maybe I can too.”

DECORATED: With PSG and I-I championship sashes at the 2017 US Dressage Finals in Kentucky. Photo COURTESY OF ELMA GARCIA-CANNAVINO

Lessons with a Legend
When Garcia-Cannavino arrived at River Grove Farm in the fall of 2005 for her month of training, she was still a novice dressage rider. “Elma’s naturally athletic, and even though she might not have done this earlier in her life, she had a very good feel,” says McDonald. “But she’d never been off a twenty- meter circle. I said, ‘That’s all right, we can figure this out.’”

Garcia-Cannavino’s dedication impressed the Olympian. “Elma was fully committed, and she was there all the time. And she wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty.” Garcia-Cannavino laughs. “I was so green, I didn’t even know how to do a diagonal. But how many people can say that Debbie McDonald taught them how to do a diagonal?”

Occasionally, her barrel-racing prowess revealed itself. “When my horse would buck or get frisky, that was pretty fun. Debbie would just shake her head and say, ‘Oh, Elma.’ The first time I got to do an extended canter in a dressage test, I had a huge smile on my face.”

Training at River Grove and seeing McDonald compete at international shows were invaluable learning experiences, Garcia-Cannavino says. “There’s so much that Debbie instilled in me. She was so precise. She rides every step, and her timing is phenomenal.”

Garcia-Cannavino didn’t just embrace dressage; she fell in love with Idaho and purchased a horse property in Hailey in 2006. A few years later, she married Jim Cannavino, the former senior vice president for strategy and development at IBM, who’s also a fox hunter and an avid golfer. Splitting their time between their farms in southern California and Idaho gave Garcia-Cannavino plenty of time to ride and learn on her own.

“I love learning visually,” she says. “I videotape my rides and study them, and I watch online dressage videos. “I have a good work ethic in life anyway,” she adds. “If you’re going to achieve something, you have to work really hard at it. I learned about running a barn and maintaining my horses as if they were Olympic athletes from Debbie.”

With help from McDonald’s husband, Bob McDonald, Garcia-Cannavino purchased a Danish Warmblood mare named Intermezzo, and took the horse from Third Level to Intermediate I. “She was my schoolmaster,” recalls the adult-amateur rider, who has since retired the mare to her farm in North Carolina. “She’s twenty-three now and looks like a teenager.”

Today, Garcia-Cannavino’s main competition mount is the 15-year-old Hanoverian mare Wenesa (Westernhagen – Dancing Girl, Davignon). Wenesa had been purchased by Parry Thomas at the Verden auction in Germany for McDonald, but the pair never clicked. McDonald’s assistant, Olympian Adrienne Lyle, suggested that Garcia-Cannavino give the mare a try. She took two steps and knew she’d found her horse.

“Wenesa can be a bit strong in the hand,” says McDonald. “And being a mare, you couldn’t repeat things and expect her to keep a good attitude. But Elma was in love with that mare. It was her horse; she knew it from the beginning.” The pair started at Third Level and currently compete at Intermediate, winning amateur championships in California before Garcia-Cannavino’s relocation to North Carolina.

In 2016, they did their first CDI-Am (FEI-recognized dressage competition for adult amateurs) and were the Prix St. Georges Adult Amateur reserve champions at the US Dressage Finals in Kentucky. At last year’s Finals, Garcia- Cannavino and Wenesa won both the I-I and the PSG adult amateur championship titles, and took reserve honors in the I-I AA Freestyle.

Hard-Working Student
When McDonald began spending more of her time in Florida, Garcia-Cannavino worked with California-based trainer and 2003 Pan American Games team gold medalist Kristina Harrison as well as Leonie “Button” Baker, who managed Epona Farms in Thousand Oaks, CA, for 17 years. Inspired by the Cannavinos, Baker relocated to North Carolina last year.

“Button is a continuation of Debbie,” says Garcia-Cannavino. “She is so knowledgeable. For years, she was Debbie’s eyes on the ground when they wintered at Epona. She’s teaching me to understand what’s necessary at any given moment. How do you communicate with the horse? How do you give the horse what it needs?”

Baker says she appreciates Garcia-Cannavino’s ability to work independently.

“Elma’s a really good student. She reads, she does her homework, and even if it isn’t perfect, she has a good idea what it should be. When you’re teaching an amateur, you have to let them make mistakes and then get the feel on their own. Riders have to learn to deal with problems themselves.”

“Wenesa’s not that easy,” Baker adds. “She’s a super mover, but incredibly sensitive. She demands that you ride her. Otherwise, she’d just like to stand there and graze.

Commercial shoots can last three to four weeks, so Garcia-Cannavino relishes her time in North Carolina, where she and her husband are building a horse facility. “Jim’s a systems genius. This’ll be his fifth barn. He’s the visionary for how the place should work, and my contribution is visual.”

She and Wenesa are now working on the Grand Prix movements. “I have so much to learn and figure out. We’re seeing what Wenesa can do and what she has in her tank. To have come up from Third Level, it’s exciting to keep going and see where we can go.”

Kelly Sanchez is a California-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to USDF Connection. When she’s not thinking about horses, she writes about design and architecture for Dwell.

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