Trainer Spotlight: Nancy Smith
The Road to Beijing: Scaling the Great Wall(Part One of a Two-Part Series)
By Candy Lawrence
China, a mysterious and massive country steeped in a culture that combines both Daoism and Confucianism, is a place where few people from the United States have ever ventured. It’s an almond-eyed sprawling nation of ancient magnitude dotted with fabled pagodas, eclectic temples and red papered lanterns awash with colorful dragons. At the eye of its giant, vibrating soul lies Beijing, revered as the core, the nucleus of this mighty dynasty and the host for the 2008 Olympics.
Entering the heart of the city’s soul, through the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the doorway to the Forbidden City beyond Tiananmen Square, a portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong smiles down benevolently from the south side of its weathered, eternal post. To the north of the city, about an hour’s drive, is Badaling, where the section of Wanli Changcheng, the nearest accessible portion of the Great Wall of China, sprawls in all its aspiring magnificence amid a steep, forested mountain range.
Scaling China’s Great Wall is an arduous, breathless task, even for seasoned hikers, veteran mountaineers or athletic equestrians. The aged stone steps are worn and irregular, some only five inches high, followed in succession by twelve inch high stretches, the treads continuing in a progression of inconsistency so that a rhythm, such as a rider would want to achieve with their horse’s gait, is never fully attained. To reach the top, past the seven imposing watchtowers, often takes several hours, yet on finally reaching the pinnacle, the view is breathtaking and so worth the ascent.
Nancy Smith, a horsewoman with roots in both Ohio and Florida, has been scaling her own version of the Great Wall, trying to maintain her own sense of rhythm, impulsion, tempo and balance, for the last five decades, hoping to tackle the ultimate climb as she struggles to reach her brightest, most challenging goal, a spot in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It continues to be an extraordinary journey on her way to the summit, an exhausting adventure punctuated with both disappointment and glory but one that she pursues relentlessly.
“I have never been to Beijing,” dressage enthusiast Smith explained. “They have actually moved the Equestrian Venue to Hong Kong since they are better able to facilitate the horses. For me, however, I hope to visit Beijing, as it is a possible stop along the way, as are the Pan Am Games in Rio De Janeiro this summer and the World Equestrian Games in 2010 in Lexington. It is about a never ending quest to be my personal best. That would not stop if I do go to the Olympics, it is a way of life for me. Yes, I think my life is very exciting! But you have to remember that the pinnacle is a very small place and you can’t stay there long, only short visits.”
The visits may be brief and elusive, but Smith is making the most of her time throughout her roller coaster journey as she experiences the highs, lows and seismic sweeps of the adventurous climb. For the last few weeks, she has been riding, studying and training in Germany with legendary Hubertus Schmidt, who rode on the Gold Medal winning German Team at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The German section of the journey will hold her and her horses happily hostage for two months.
“The only thing is, he is even better in person than his credentials are on paper,” Smith gushed, delighted to have the opportunity to rub shoulders with one of the world’s best dressage riders. “What a talent!”
Schmidt’s credentials also include winning the Gold Medal at the 2005 German Championships and the Silver Medal at the 2005 Federation Equestrian International (FEI) European Dressage Championships. He also won the Silver Medal at the 2005 FEI World Equestrian Festival and is regarded in Germany as a Pferdewirtschaftsmeister, or State-Recognized Equestrian Expert, the equivalent of a Masters/PhD degree. He is also a five-time German Professional Riders’ Champion.
During the last week of October of this year, Smith packed her bags and arranged for two of her charges, Donneur, a nine-year-old Danish gelding by Donnergraf; and Donatella, a ten-year-old Westphalian mare by Diamo, to be shipped overseas along with herself to Germany in order to undergo intensive training sessions, their joint target being the United States Equestrian Team (USET) Selection Trials, a precursor for Beijing. Both horses are owned by Caroline Ashton, a staunch supporter of Smith as well as the sport of dressage, a discipline Ashton, herself an FEI level rider, is no stranger to.
“Caroline is quite an experienced horse woman,” Smith said. “She has ridden and trained horses to the Grand Prix level herself, and now that she has retired from the competition arena, has been kind enough to give me the ride on her horses. She bought Donneur four years ago with the idea that he would be a competition horse for me to come up with behind Etias.”
No doubt Ashton elected to support Smith and give her the rides based on the principle that ‘it takes one to know one’. There was no foolery here. And both Ashton and Smith certainly have an eye for talented horseflesh.
Etias, a Dutch Warmblood by Onyx and a horse also owned by Ashton, qualified Smith for a spot as the team alternate for the 1999 Pan American Games but tragically, the horse was lost to colic in September of 2003 after desperate attempts to save his life. It was a painful disappointment as Smith is deeply attached to all of her charges, but an experience that she was grateful for, because Etias was a horse who she felt privileged to have had touch her life. Like each of her horses, he was a gift she treasured.
“When I went to try Donneur, after only a couple of minutes of riding, I knew he was the horse for me. We fit really well together and he had the kind of talent that would take him to the top of the class,” Smith said. “He is a rare combination of being very laid back in the stable and very personable. However, under saddle he is an over-achiever and extremely intelligent. He is very unassuming and humble, yet when he goes to work, he is one of the most powerful and exciting horses that I have ever ridden. Everyone is amazed when they stand next to him because he is only 16.1 hands, but in the arena, he is huge. It’s kind of like sitting on a rocket! Not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has tremendous heart and work ethic and it is a matter of channeling all that enthusiasm into the right direction.”
“Caroline purchased Donatella for herself to ride,” explained Smith, “But after a year, it became evident that she had too much talent not to put her in the competition arena, so I began riding and showing her. Donatella and Donneur are very different. He is all about power and she is a graceful Princess who moves like a beautiful butterfly. She is much more predictable and steady to compete than Donneur is. Her feet barely touch the ground as she floats along.”
“Donatella, aka Dolly, is a business mare,” continued Smith. “She goes right to work each day and gets right to the task at hand. There is no question that she is a girl, you can always pick her out in a crowd and she even whinnies like a girl! If she were a human, she would definitely be in diamonds and her best Chanel suit. Donneur is more likely to be dressed in his Levi jeans.”
It’s a difference Smith finds both amusing and stimulating. “It’s nice to have two different types of horses in a sport that is judged so subjectively. Now that we are at Prix Saint Georges and Intermediare I, both horses compete against each other, which is too bad, because they can’t both be first. But I would say they are pretty even in the number of times they win a class.”
Smith spent her childhood years growing up in Florida but headed north to Ohio to pursue higher academics after graduating from high school. “Horses are more than an interest, more than a career, they are a calling for me. I have always known that I would work with horses. You can look back at my Senior High School yearbook and in addition to being voted ‘Most Likely to Succeed’, I predicted that I would train horses,” Smith said.
“When my high school counselor talked to me about colleges, I said, ‘You tell me where they have horses and that is where I am going.’ When I went home from boarding school the next time, I announced that I would be going to college at Lake Erie College (LEC) in Ohio from my home in Florida. Fall term of my freshman year I loaded my car and headed out, not once considering any other option. It never occurred to me that I might not have the talent to train horses, I just knew that I would because horses make me feel so happy and complete. How many other people do you know that look forward to going to their job every day and still get excited about riding even after over 30 years?”
After graduating in 1978 from LEC, a school which offered the first accredited equestrian program in the country, Smith stayed on for another four years as a faculty member at the LEC Equestrian Center teaching, training, organization horse shows and managing the stables.
In 1982 she received the Carl-Heinrich Asmis Dressage Scholarship Fund from the USET, an award which validated her talent and thrust her into a league reserved for only the elitist and best. The purpose of the Fund is to afford qualified riders an opportunity to advance their studies with dressage masters around the world. Past winners include legendary riders Carol Lavell, Lendon Gray, Anne Gribbons and Linda Zang, all notable dressage dignitaries.
Smith temporarily left Ohio in 1982 for Canada where she was employed by Hans and Evi Pracht, who owned International Equestrian Sports Services, and hosts of the 1986 World Dressage Championships. Famed German Olympian Josef Neckermann, father of Evi Pracht, frequently visited their Toronto facility, along with many European masters, all adding to Smith’s wealth of exposure in the international equestrian arena.
At the close of 1986, Smith returned back to U.S. soil where she was given the ride on The Immigrant, a Hanoverian by Gazal VII owned by Barbie Asplundh. The pair were long listed for the World Championships.
The following year, 1987, Smith made the USET short list for the Pan American Games riding Felit, the first horse she had ever trained to Grand Prix, and also collected the Team Silver Medal at the Olympic Sports Festival. In 1989, also aboard Felit, Smith pocketed the USET Team Bronze Medal in Quebec at the North American Championships.
The impermanency of being at the top of the pinnacle is indeed fleeting, a life lesson that has been repeated with frequency throughout her career. When it was clear that Felit needed to retire from his show career, Smith wasn’t about to give up on her quest. Creatively reaching into her educational resources, she was determined to find a way to finance her dream, and continue on the road to the Olympics. Smith designed detailed sponsorship packages for both individual prospects and syndicates, put them to paper and set out to beat the bush, determined to sell her dream to anyone and everyone who crossed her path.
“No question that the overall education that I received at LEC helped prepare me for the business side of the horse world,” Smith said. “Ironically, sociology was my second major at LEC. The public relations and fund raising skills have had to be self taught and cultivated. They are a function of the will to succeed at my goal to be my personal best as a rider and a teacher.”
“It is time consuming to juggle training, teaching and promoting my Olympic campaign, but it is a labor of love,” Smith continued. “When I am in my rocking chair reminiscing about my life, I want to know that I gave 110% to reach my goal and left no stone unturned. I have an endless fountain of enthusiasm for my riding and you only need to ask one question to get me started. It’s getting me stopped that is the problem. I want everyone to experience horses with the same intensity of color and emotion that I do.”
A fairy godmother in disguise, Irene Kooyman tapped her magic wand agreeing to fund Smith’s new horse, Focus, a Hanoverian by Furioso. For the next six years, Smith, her supporters, students and benefactors were able to raise $75,000 in funding to further the dream, financing trips abroad to refine and perfect Smith’s talents. Smith and Focus spent four months together in 1993 and again another four months in 1994 studying, training and competing in Germany with the late Herbert Rehbein, five-time Champion German Professional Dressage Trainer who passed away in 1997.
Everything was falling perfectly in place and Smith could almost taste her Olympic goals. In 1996 Focus and Smith were long listed for the Olympics. It was a helium high she’ll never forget. Headed for Gladstone and the Selection Trials, while ranked in the top twelve in the nation, Focus pulled a suspensory, a huge tear in their sails which sent Smith again back to square one, sinking her plans for the 1996 Olympics.
After the tragedy of losing Focus, a promising new horse, Etias breathed new life into her sails and they qualified as alternates for the 1999 Pan American Games. But in yet another crushing defeat, the horse was lost to colic in September of 2003.
Even with her share of disappointments and the highs and lows of her career, the lessons Smith continues to acquire along the path are experiences she welcomes, none of which she regrets as she focuses on her future with a logic that would rival Confucius himself. “My bootstraps are well worn,” Smith said. “But for me, there is no other course than to continue toward my goal. I can do that because I enjoy the journey so much. Without disappointments, the rewards would not be as sweet. We need those experiences to gain perspective and mature in our thoughts and actions.”
“I had so many wonderful experiences with Focus and Etias that I bring to the table today that make me a better trainer and teacher. One of the best things you can learn in life is how to set a goal, a dream with a time-line, and how to take steps toward it,” Smith philosophized. “I knew four years ago when I got Donneur as a five-year-old that I would be taking him to Europe to train at the appropriate time. The wheels have been turning since then to make that happen.”
Smith comes from a strong gene pool of maternal resourcefulness. Her first role model was a lady powerhouse, someone who could work miracles against insurmountable odds. It was an early experience that left an indelible imprint on her life. After watching her mother in action, there was never any doubt that she couldn’t do anything she put her mind to.
“One source of great inspiration to me has been my mother, who raised five children on her own. She is the queen of finding a way to make it happen. A more recent source of inspiration is a book by Jack Canfield, titled ‘The Principles of Success – How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be’. I keep that book on my bedside table and refer to it often. Basically, the amount of success you have is directly related to how hard you want to work at it. And having an optimistic outlook!”
“Back to the Journey,” Smith continued, “Whether I reach the Olympics or not, I enjoy my horses to the max every day. They have brought me so much happiness and opportunity and I love sharing that with my students. I would not like to be 30 again if I had to give back everything I have learned between then and now. What a great way to celebrate your 50th year with a trip to Germany and embarking on a journey of a lifetime on the Road to Beijing!”
Between traveling to Europe to enhance her equestrian education, and commuting between base camps of Florida in the winter, Ohio in the summer, Smith’s plate is pretty full. An over achiever, it’s been that way for most of her life. Since the year 2000, Smith has incorporated her business as Equisential, Inc., offering both training and instruction for horses and riders from entry level through Grand Prix.
“I have had ties in Ohio since starting at LEC in 1974,” Smith explained. “I have been teaching a clinic in the Cleveland area every month since 1984. Most of my students are on their second, third or fourth horse since we started together. Actually, although not as glamorous as the Florida dressage circuit, I find the people in the Cleveland area to be tremendously dedicated to their horses and the pursuit of knowledge. The quality of horses has certainly improved in recent years and you can see some nice quality rides at the local shows now. I would love to take this opportunity to thank all of my students in Ohio and Michigan for being so supportive over the years and being a part of my growing process. They benefit from every experience that I gain in the process of becoming a better rider and teacher,” Smith said.
“Even if I never got to the Olympic Games, I can’t imagine approaching any of my goals with any less commitment, I guess you could say Donneur and I share that same quality of putting in 100% every time out. I don’t think you can train that into a horse or a person, I think you have to be born with that kind of drive. I am very fortunate that my health is excellent and I have more energy than most people to pursue my dreams.”
#30# Part Two: January Issue The Road to Beijing Germany: Equine Culture Shock