Interview with Heather Blitz
Kansas-born Heather Blitz is a hugely successful international dressage rider, who reached Grand Prix level in 2000 and has competed at this level ever since, with a string of fantastic horses, many of whom she has produced to GP level herself.
Heather and her current horse Paragon entered the big circuit with a bang in 2011, competing in the World Dressage Masters and CDI 3* concurrently, and achieving over 70% in both the Grand Prix and the Special.
Later that year, the duo qualified and were selected as the Traveling Reserve for the 2012 London Olympic Games.
Heather now has Paragon firmly aimed at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro.
Heather’s younger horse Ripline is also making a big splash; his career already includes 24 wins, including the National Six-Year-Old Championships.
Hi Heather and welcome to the podcast- super excited to have you on!
I know it has been quite difficult to pin you down because we have such a big time difference, it’s ten o’clock in the evening where I am right now, but how are you and how has your day been? I think it’s about five o’clock where you are if I’m right?
Yes, it’s a nice sort of day here in Florida.
We’ve actually got our first break from the heat. I know that most of the world has been more temperate this year, especially down here as well.
We had a nice 85 degree Christmas and now we’re getting into January and it’s starting to cool off and be absolutely beautiful weather out and it’s a nice sunny day and had a great day actually off from the busy schedule today so I’m quite relaxed and feeling great.
I’m just listening to you now talking about the nice Florida weather and we are over here in the UK and it’s just been rain, rain and I know a lot of parts of our country are now flooded.
I think a lot of people are quite jealous of your weather right now!
I am certainly not complaining whatsoever. It could certainly be much worse!
Let’s get into this interview because I know there are a lot of people that want to know more about you.
To start this off, tell us an interesting fact about yourself that most people listening to this would not know about you.
It could be anything interesting or anything slightly weird. It doesn’t have to be horsey related. Just something that you think most people listening wouldn’t know about you.
Well, I don’t have too many secrets or too many things that I haven’t at some point or another – from Facebook or whatever – that hasn’t gotten out there.
I guess I could say, and people do not realise, and it is horsey, is that I never really started with an intention to be a professional dressage trainer.
Actually, I was going to head more for veterinary medicine career in horses but I didn’t plan on making a training career, but it just sort of fell into place and happened.
I don’t know if people know that, perhaps. I don’t know what else is interesting about me that isn’t already known.
I’ll have to think about that one and maybe come up with something else later in the interview.
No, that’s fine. If you started in veterinary, or that was your main goal, how did that change into dressage actually happen?
Just because of a hobby. When I was seventeen years old I lived in Kansas, which is in the middle of the country, and there really wasn’t any dressage around – and if there was it might have been one person – but I like to compete, and I like to do fun things on horses and at that point it was totally just a hobby.
I was a western rider at that point and then I did some barrel racing and pole bending and western pleasure classes.
Never got into reining which is too bad, I wish I would have.
I was just riding horses just as a hobby and then, naturally, because of my love for horses, I thought well a real career would be something like going to be a vet.
After four years on undergraduate, I wanted to take a little break before I applied to vet school and I just got some advice from some people that made sense to me and it kind of steered me away from going the next step to apply for vet school.
The main thing was that the percentage of women that ended up with fairly large vet school bills at the end of their four years of hard work and study. You start your practice with quite a lot of debt.
I was advised that some women then get married and have children and don’t continue to practice. Obviously, many do, but that sort of stuck in my head and I couldn’t really forget that one, and then I just realised I was a happier person out of the classroom than in the classroom and I would much rather be in practice than in a textbook, I don’t think I read all that well.
No, I’m not very good at reading. I can’t get involved in it so much, I’m much more of a practical person as well. I think most people in the equine industry tend to be more practical people. Do continue, sorry.
That’s okay. I just realised it wasn’t my thing and I just thought in the meantime before I went anywhere I got asked to teach some lessons because I had a horse that people thought was interesting and they thought maybe I could teach.
I started trying and I have a knack for teaching and I think that might come from my mother.
She had a career as not an airline pilot, but a commercial jet pilot and she did quite a bit of teaching as well. She had a knack for teaching flight students and I think I got the knack for the teaching part of it from her.
I got happy clients right away and I got filled up right away and I realised that it was interesting and I just had to keep telling my father that it is a real career.
He kept saying ‘don’t you want to do something like a real career?’ It turned into a very real career as a matter of fact.
It just started as a hobby and then it just sort of fell into place and I think that I’m fortunate for that, because a lot of people are in work that they don’t love and then they have to try and find time for their hobbies in their off time.
My hobby is my job.
I think that’s the most important thing with anybody with their life. That each day when you get up, you are doing something that you enjoy and that you feel fulfilled in doing, otherwise why spend so much time doing it?
Give us a bit of an insight into your personal life at the moment. I understand that you’re based in Florida at the moment; how many horses do you have? Do you have much family around you? Are you married? Do you have children? Do you have other pets other than horses?
That’s a lot of questions.
I move a lot. Probably in the last ten years I might have moved twelve times and maybe that’s the way it is with a lot of horse professionals.
I’ve had to move quite often to do what’s best for my career and to not have any excuse to not succeed as much as I possibly can.
My most recent move has been from Boston. I was there for the past three summers, of course, every winter still in Florida because that’s the way the circuit goes over here.
This summers I was in Boston and so the last move was to pack up all of my stuff and move back to Florida as a base.
It’s not new to be in Florida, I’ve been coming down here since the early 90s but just recently come here with my partner of ten years. I met him after Hurricane Katrina, that’s a long story all in itself and maybe I won’t talk about that because that would be a big digression.
That’s a whole new podcast, isn’t it?
It is, yes but it definitely started me in a whole new direction of my life the day that storm hit.
I met him then, and we have been travelling together since then, so ten years and it’s been throughout wonderful.
Most people know about me because it’s all over my Facebook about my four beloved whippets and I have one Italian greyhound so I have my five dogs.
No children, I always had too much of a busy schedule to feel like I could have any children, so I didn’t do that, that was a sacrifice in my life which I hope I don’t regret.
The horse I have; I own one, that’s Paragon, and I have some partnerships with three other ones and then I have a number of horses in the stables as clients bring them to me, so I have fifteen in total in the barn.
My day consists of ten to eleven sessions, five days a week and now that January has started, of course, almost every weekend down here is going to be showing. Whether it’s my horses or my students’ horses, so we are really gearing up for quite a busy season.
That’s kind of what it looks like for my current situation for a current day.
That’s a busy day- ten to fifteen horses!
It is, and I just have to kind of hold my breath and just get through the really busy season in Florida because it’s just how it is.
It’s exciting; there is a ton going on for you. You see a lot, you learn a lot, you work a lot and then you play a lot, so I wouldn’t want it any other way.
If I did, I wouldn’t be here.
I think it is a big part at being at the top of the game in this country and there are starting to be a lot of foreign combinations also showing up in Wellington more and more each year.
It’s really a very competitive and very necessary place to be for the winter season.
It’s busy now but it will slow down a little bit after April 1st, but of course then not really. I always say that, and I always stay so busy. At least I tell myself that.
You’ve ridden all the way to Grand Prix level, but if you could go over your career and pick out one possible test, or maybe one horse, or one moment, or a competition that you would pinpoint as the highest time in your career, what time would that be?
Well, the horse of my lifetime so far is definitely Paragon.
He is fairly well known.
I bought him as a one-day-old foal and I’ve had him his whole life; I’ve done all of his training and he is thirteen this year.
He is a big horse.
He has just been a very exciting, very wonderful horse for me in my career.
He is outstanding and he has an incredible, reliable temperament and he has been, I have to say, nothing but pure excitement to train all the way up through the Pan-American games in 2011.
I don’t know how I’m ever going to top having a horse like that.
He is just, to me, a game changer in many ways and extraordinary.
I had a hard time not just riding him in admiration to get the training done on him I had to say, ‘okay he is just a horse, he needs training and stop just admiring him, or he’s not going to go far from me!’.
The highlight for sure was the Pan-American games in 2011 in Guadalajara, Mexico and it was a team of Stefan Peters with Weltino’s Magic, Paragon and me, Marisa Festerling with Big Tyme, and then Cesar Parra with Grandioso.
It was a really fun team and of course, we ended up with a team gold medal and I was doing a small tour there.
Now the Pan-Ams are a mixed format with Grand Prix and small tour and in 2011 in was all small tour and Paragon was just eight.
We were doing the small tour and he had been super successful up to that point and I didn’t have a lot of stress going into the games because of his record and just his reliability up to that point.
It was amazing to go into a show like that and to have such a relaxed confidence, still a little bit on edge, but confident actually going in.
Our freestyle at that competition is something I will never not remember because we were so on our music, we were so together, and we were so in the moment that it seemed like every second lasted a minute and I could really replay every one of those seconds in my head still from the beginning of that test until the end.
The applause that we earned at the end of it was so rewarding, that has to be the highlight of my career so far.
Everyone dreams of taking a horse, training him from nothing all the way up to Grand Prix and then to be able to have a moment like that in the arena.
What I would like you to try and tell us now, is how much time and effort did that actually take you to get to that point?
Because you didn’t just sit on him and start doing a nice canter half-pass across the arena, obviously it took a lot of time and it took a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifices.
What did it actually take for you to take this horse, take him through the levels from scratch, all the way up to Grand Prix and also get him in the Pan-Am games and have that moment? What did that actually take on your part?
Well, it takes a lot of everything.
It takes a lot of time and money and effort.
Everybody can understand that and realise that and can say that.
Living it, there is no way you could know what it’s like to get there until you do it yourself because of course, that’s going to affect each and every person’s life in a different way.
What you do have to have is just complete focus and it takes priority over everything else.
I would never say that I would do anything that I’m not proud of to get there, above everything else, but along with what I think is right and just and fair to help horses and humans and everybody.
It just has to be the same that all of the decisions, whether they’re big or small, are pointed towards that goal. Whether it’s a tiny decision or big decision, they all have to have this inherent sense of what’s going to get me more success in my life, which in that case for Paragon and me was to just keep competing in the biggest ring we could.
I have to say also I never started out thinking I want to buy an Olympic horse.
I’m in this business so I have to have a number of different ways of continuing to keep the money coming in and he was just going to be a horse that I tried to invest in and sell when I put a little training on him.
That’s one thing I would advise.
I see a lot of people make the mistake of trying to go out and buy their young horse, a weanling, a two or three-year-old whatever and they have too much expectation that that’s going to be ‘the one’.
That expectation can really get in the way, too, from really seeing is it the right horse or should you sell this one and get a better one, is this the one you take the whole way and make your dream really happen?
I think some people are going to go out and buy that and have too much of a dream and they’re going to lose sight of the fact that it isn’t the right time, it isn’t the right horse, it isn’t the right combination and the possibility that it should be a different one.
It wasn’t so difficult in trying to make him a Pan-Am horse because I just trained him.
He was so incredibly enjoyable that it wasn’t difficult in the way that ‘I’ve got to get the half-passes done’ or ‘I have to get this collection done’ or ‘I’ve got to do this’.
He just could and of course no horse is going to do it unless they’re trained, I don’t care how fancy they are when they started, they still have to have the obedience and the understanding of the aids and the relaxation and the ability to just let the rider tell them what to do and all of that.
I think it would be harder if I started out that, in my mind, he had to be ‘the one’, because then I definitely would have put more pressure on. Which is the thing that happened after the Pan-Ams, all of the blissfulness sort of went away, because everyone was telling me after Pan-Am that he was a shoe-in for the Olympic for the team.
So, then that’s the first time I had to train him where there were expectations and that-I don’t want to say wrecked it- but it wrecked it.
Just as wonderful as it was to train him and how wonderful the Pan-Ams were and how it just was something that, of course, I wanted, but I wasn’t going to force it to happen just to get a medal around my neck.
Then people get excited about him and then, of course, with the internet the whole world could see him.
Then I would get feedback from all corners of the world and the huge majority of it was positive. You might think that is what everybody wants also, but that also puts more pressure on you because you don’t want to let your fans down.
Then if there is a little bit of a weak moment or you just don’t have the drive sometimes, you know, moods go up and down and you just think ‘maybe I will put focus somewhere else’ but you can’t because there are too many people expecting what’s going to happen over the next year.
Then the training after the Pan-Ams is where it got so difficult because of the expectations.
Like I said, even though the huge majority was behind me and really wanting it to happen and have him be in the top five in the world or whatever. That’s the kind of horse he could be.
That’s really hard to train when you put pressure on yourself to train like that or other people put it on you, even if it’s positive.
I first started changing and I started listening to different influences and how to ride him and up to that point I had done it with just me and my own head with my own horse and it was just our own partnership.
That was really working, but it’s really hard to stay that independent when you become a team member and you have a new coach that you didn’t have before and you then operate in a whole different department because of the nature of it.
It did get much more challenging to just keep finding the same reins that we used to operate on and we haven’t ever really gotten back to that.
I don’t think it can because you grow into new places and you can’t ungrow.
You have to go from where you are to the next thing and not backward.
I don’t want to backwards, I want to come from also going for the Olympic team and I ended up going as the reserve combination for the 2012 games in London and I had an amazing performance on my horse and I didn’t get to compete, but I was there with the team.
I would never not want that I didn’t do that.
I still just hold those Pan-Am years, those 2010, 2011 years as absolutely the best time that I ever had in the ring and with any horse still to this point.
I’ve got a couple of new exciting ones so I’m looking for who is going to take over that spot, but it’s tough shoes to fill.
You have always got to look forward, haven’t you?
You’ve got to always think what’s happening next and just keep positive and just keep working at it and just keep going and keeping that nice positive frame of mind.
It’s there for you, it’s just got to be the right time and the right moment and like you said before the right horse and the right training and the right trainer and you’ve got to be in the right moment as well, haven’t you?
Yes, it’s totally up to yourself.
There are a lot of people that support you and there are people that try and knock you down too, that’s going to be in anything.
There are a lot of people that want to be where you are, so they want to criticise, but that’s human nature and you can’t let that get in, but if you’re human it will.
If it doesn’t get into you when you’re awake, it will get into you when you’re asleep or whatever.
It’s really hard to just keep your chin up sometimes, but it’s up to each person and to make something positive out of whatever happens.
Getting a medal in the Pan-Ams was obviously that’s just an amazing memory, but the memory of how to get through the disappointing times, that’s where you become more grown up and you get a bit of tougher skin to learn how to just hold your own whatever comes your way.
That’s what we’ve all go to learn, and horses teach that to you in a big way, because you can do everything right and your horse can colic. You can do everything right and all of a sudden a foot falls off, you know, it’s horses.
You can just get so set back, even if you try so hard in this career that is extremely trying.
It’s rewarding but I haven’t done obviously every sport in the world, but I have a feeling that this is the toughest one that there is.
Yes, you have got a partner that’s on your team that is a lot bigger than you and that doesn’t speak English and you have to try and get them to dance.
That’s a lot more difficult.
Going back to your career, what was the biggest temporary setback that you’ve had to face? Something where you’ve worked so hard but then your horse got injured, or you just got them up to a certain level and something happened.
Is there a moment in your life that was just a big temporary setback that really hit you and you had to really pick yourself back up to move on from that?
Have you got a certain moment that you could possibly describe to us?
Well I mean there are numerous occasions where you’re ready and you’ve gotten through a lot of obstacles and lot of setbacks and you’re ready and something big happens.
I think in my career, I’m close to 50, I think I can count up a number of them and maybe the particular ones aren’t important but just that it definitely happens.
In my life the hardest year for me, like I said earlier, was hurricane Katrina.
I had things going, I was working for Oakhill Ranch, it’s a wonderful place in Louisiana near New Orleans and they breed English warmbloods and I had a very nice position there.
I was married, and I had, what I thought, was that lifestyle and things were going well there. Then my marriage went awry, and hurricane Katrina came in a blew the whole area to hell.
Of course, Oakhill Ranch was very fortunate that they didn’t get any damage, but I did.
That was just a year of complete turnaround.
I could have gone back there and kept training but it was too difficult with my personal life taking a change and so many people had evacuated and coming back to the area was too much for me to take all on my own because at that point I just wasn’t in a great mental state.
I tried to go back there and live and it just wasn’t going to work for me. It was just too devastating.
Maybe when you have the biggest devastation it also makes the biggest change.
I’m still happy to be very much in partnership with Oakhill Ranch and the new stallion that I’m bringing out now in the CDIs is Ripline, bred by them and owned by them, and I’m partners with them and him.
I’m still partners with them, but the days of waking up in the morning and starting in eight or nine of the three years olds every spring probably needed to come to an end anyway, because that’s left for the younger, more fearless bodies that bounce easier off the ground.
I needed to shift anyway and onto more of an upper-level career where I could also travel and go to Europe and I guess it was just that year helped me get into a new path.
I don’t know if it was a setback or a help and maybe sometimes they are sort of disguised but that was the biggest change in my life that year than any other.
Like I said, there are horses coming along and getting injured and bringing them back and getting injured, I think everyone needs to realise, unfortunately, anyone can be a victim of that.
It happens no matter how good the care. Sometimes if the care is too protective then it happens even worse.
Those are too many to count probably.
I’ve known a few riders that have worked so hard with their horses, got them qualified to certain championships etc and then something has happened in the field.
It’s really soul destroying for them when they’ve worked so hard to get to that point and to actually pull that around.
What would be your top training tip that you would give to all the riders listening? Everybody that’s starting out on their dressage career at the moment and are wanting to work up the levels and improve.
If you could give everybody one training tip, what would it be?
I know it’s quite hard.
I can spend a few hours on this question!
I’m just going to say, because of where I am when I’m benefitting my most in my own career and my own riding, so I’m just going to say to everybody that to me right now it is about my own fitness.
I’ve always been fairly fit.
Riding five or six horses a day, that can burn a thousand to fifteen hundred calories. I know because I have an apple watch and that reads it for me.
If I don’t do extra cardio and weight lifting and stretching, my riding definitely gets less effective.
It only gets worse every year that you get older and I have a new cross training programme right now that I’m doing for myself that is improving my riding a tonne.
That’s a huge one.
It’s not really a training tip but it’s something that’s so necessary for staying a really effective rider.
The riding is so hard on your body, just all the pressures and all the movements you have to follow and the concussion and all of the health and fitness it takes to ride that I just think it’s a really necessary part of it.
To stay stretched, to have good muscle tone, to have good cardio endurance so that you don’t get in your horse’s way.
They’re required to be that way, so if the rider is the same then it is a really great partnership and it just clicks so much better.
I think that is a fantastic tip. We concentrate so much on the horses in their fitness and their training and their diet and how they are kept as athletes, and we sometimes forget that they are only 50 percent of the partnership and you, yourself, are meant to be an athlete as well.
You have to take care of yourself, you have to train yourself and you have to eat healthily and be in the fittest condition that you can be, in order to work together as best as you both can.
I think that is a fantastic tip and I think that is something that we overlook as riders.
Thank you very much for your time on this.
This has been a fantastic interview, Heather, and it’s really great to get a bit of an insight into your life and your experience and your dressage career.
Now for the people who are listening what is the best way for them to connect or follow you? Do you have a Facebook or Twitter page or a website or something?
I do. Yes, Twitter is @HeatherBlitz and I have a Facebook fan page which is just Heather Blitz.
I have a website heatherblitz.info.
I’m pretty easy to find.
Thank you very much for your time Heather, I really appreciate you taking the time to do this interview, especially because of the time difference. I hope you enjoyed it.
I did, I’m flattered that you asked me to be on board and I can’t wait to see what else you have on your site.
Thank you very much.