Picture the perfect formula for producing a world-class horse-and-rider partnership: The rider is taught correct basics from a young age with access to upper-level coaching and a variety of horses. Her horse is carefully bred to enhance the talents, temperaments and trainability of his parents and is developed from foal to Grand Prix in one consistent training program.
Now picture this formula working in Kansas, about 1,500 miles from the dressage meccas on the East and West Coasts.
That’s what has happened with 27-year-old Emily Miles (née Wagner) and her 10-year-old American Warmblood Registry stallion, WakeUp, the 2014 Grand Prix reserve champions at the Markel/U.S. Equestrian Federation Young and Developing Dressage National Championships. Here’s how their individual stories combined to build such a successful partnership.
Emily’s dressage roots began with her mother, Jana Wagner, who was born and raised in Germany and had completed most of the professional trainer, or bereiter, program before leaving her position at a stallion station to travel. While abroad she met Emily’s father, and the couple eventually made their home in Kansas and had Emily in 1988. After they divorced, Jana started her own breeding and training business, Wally Woo Farm, in La Cygne, and over time earned her U.S. Dressage Federation instructor certification through Fourth Level and graduated from the “L” Program.
Without the budget to buy fancy horses, Jana imported young colts from Germany—so Emily grew up primarily riding stallions. Although her focus was on dressage from the beginning, one of her jobs has been to present the farm’s stallions in their approval testings, which includes jumping. “Basically, it’s me hanging on and closing my eyes and hoping they go over it,” Emily says.
After an inauspicious start to her dressage competition career (“My pony ran out of the ring a bunch of times”), Emily quickly made a name for herself. By the age of 12, she’d shown three different horses to regional championships in Training, First and Second Level. At the age of 18, she won all of the Junior classes at Dressage at Devon on Pik L, a stallion owned by Horses Unlimited. That same year, she and two of her siblings, Eurus and Elaine, traveled to Aarhus, Denmark, to compete in the World Breed Federation for Sport Horses Young Breeders’ Championships, which included judging, in-hand showing and a theory test. Emily placed sixth, the highest-ever U.S. placing. Back in the States, she competed four times in the North American Junior and Young Rider Championships.
During her teenage years, Emily admits that training with her mother, who watched her ride every day, “was very challenging. I’m a little bit stubborn and my mother is very hard-core German sometimes. She’d say something like, ‘You need to move the shoulder to the left,’ and I’d say, ‘No, it’s a question of the right hind leg.’ But even when we were butting heads, she made me really think about things.”
To expand her own education as well as her children’s and clients’, Jana helped to bring top clinicians to the region. She and Emily also traveled together to train with outside instructors, such as Grand Prix rider and coach David Wightman, who is based in Murrieta, California, with his wife and fellow Grand Prix rider, Kathleen Raine. “David taught me the value of starting horses that are your own and bringing them along yourself,” says Emily. “It takes a lot of patience and a lot of time.”
When Emily was 16, she imported a 3-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Weltdorff. “He was the first horse I purchased on my own,” she says. Despite having average gaits and some trouble mastering piaffe, “Willie” proved himself capable and competitive. “Sometimes you learn more from average horses like Willie. His basic gaits are 6.5 or 7, so if he bangs out everything correctly, you can end up with between a 65 and 70 percent. But he’s never going to be able to compete with the really big, top horses.” With the help of FEI***** judge Lilo Fore, Emily learned how to maximize Willie’s performance. “Lilo’s a detail queen. She wants it right and she makes us do it until we get it right. The fact that she judges all over the world and then comes to Kansas to teach us is amazing.”
One of the lessons Emily learned with Willie was the danger of not spotting and addressing training holes early on. “Willie is my pretender horse,” she explains. “He has this gorgeous, stallion-like neck, even though he’s a gelding. Up through Third Level, I always rode him in a show frame because he liked to go there. Every clinician who saw him liked him there. But when we came to Fourth Level and the more demanding collected work, he started getting naughty. I realized that I was letting him control his neck, so I didn’t have a connection over his topline. I had to step back and say, ‘Wait a second, I have a huge hole here.’ It took about a year to get to where I could adjust him as much as I wanted to and say, ‘OK, let’s take your neck a little deeper and keep you more supple,’ then go to the tougher stuff—the pirouette work or piaffe half-step. Then all of a sudden, the work was so much easier for him.”
After graduating from high school in 2006, Emily spent two years working for Cesar Parra, DDS, MScD, in New Jersey in the summers and Florida in the winters before attending Kansas University. One of Dr. Parra’s clients gave Emily the opportunity to ride her Prix St. Georges horse, Molinari, in the Young Rider classes at major East Coast shows.
Returning home with a better picture of the outside dressage world, Emily also had a newfound appreciation for her mother. She explains, “Mama knows how I am at shows, how I am at home, my strengths, my weaknesses. She comes with me to every single clinic and show. She reads the judge’s comments and says, ‘When I saw this, the judge said this and gave you this score, so let’s try this.’ The wonderful thing is you never have to second-guess that Mama wants the best for you.”
Emily had no qualms about settling permanently in the small but growing dressage community of Kansas. “It’s a pretty vibrant community. We have quite a few good trainers and horses and breeders. There’s a lot of potential for breeding foals.” The competitions are smaller and more spread out, she adds. “When you think of Florida or Germany, you have huge Grand Prix classes. Here, you maybe have one or two people in your Grand Prix class and that’s it.” Getting to regional and national competitions usually requires 10 or more hours of driving but, she says, “Our horses are great at traveling.”
WakeUp’s story starts much like Emily’s, with a powerfully influential parent. Jana imported his Hanoverian sire, Wagnis (by Weltmeyer), from Germany in 2000 as a yearling and trained him through Third Level. “Then I didn’t have a horse to ride for Juniors,” says Emily, “so my mother let me steal him.” Emily showed him through Young Riders, then gave him back to Jana, who then brought him up to Intermediaire I.
Meanwhile, Bev McLean Tetrick had put her Canadian Warmblood mare named Maiden Montreal (by Macho) in training at Wally Woo Farm. Jana liked the mare so much that she negotiated a deal with Bev to breed her to Wagnis twice and each keep a foal. During the mare’s first pregnancy, however, Bev was having so much fun riding her that she asked Jana to forfeit her promised foal in exchange for the usual stud fee. At the time, Wally Woo was expecting a bumper crop of foals, so the new deal made sense.
When WakeUp was born in 2005, Emily remembers, “Bev called us and said, ‘He’s awesome. I think he needs to be in a professional’s hands.’ We thought that was just mother’s pride.” Bev eventually talked Jana and Emily into making the three-hour drive to see the foal. Before they left, Emily’s siblings each paid her $20 to find something wrong with the foal because, she says, “We were not in any place to buy more horses.”
WakeUp was striking—black with four stockings and a big blaze—but he didn’t really impress Jana and Emily until he came out of his stall, jumping over the sliding-door track. “He kind of cantered on the spot over it, cantered three strides down the alleyway with his mom and then broke into this trot.” After those three fantastic canter strides and two trot strides, the Wagners were smitten. They agreed to buy him and promised Bev they would keep him a stallion to preserve his genes.
“The genetic lottery is really tough to win,” says Emily. “But we got really lucky. WakeUp is much better than both his parents. That’s not the way it usually happens. He has the suppleness from his mom and strength from his father.” He was so special that Emily, who was the valedictorian of her high school class and graduated from Kansas University with honors, gave up her plans to go to medical school to ride him instead. “A horse like WakeUp is only going to come along once in a lifetime,” she says.
WakeUp turned out to be shy, cautious and extremely sensitive, yet also extremely trainable. “He has a really low palate—a really small mouth—so it was a challenge to find the right bits for him and get him happy in the bridle. The first year wearing a double bridle, he literally went in a pony bit.” Otherwise, she says, “He is easy to work with. He’s super smart. If something’s tough for him—and I’m lucky because he doesn’t find a lot of things really difficult—he never gives me a no. He always tries so hard.” Unlike his father, who Jana eventually gelded because of his studdish behavior, WakeUp is easy to handle around other horses, even during his busy breeding season.
Lilo was an instant WakeUp fan, says Emily. “I met her when he was 4 and she said, ‘I want to stuff him in my suitcase and bring him home with me.’ I always feel like she has a vested interest in us because she feels like she raised us, too. She was there from the very first shows we went to and now is doing the Grand Prix with us.”
The only thing that has really troubled WakeUp is loudspeakers. Emily explains, “One time we were showing and the speakers got crackly because it was raining. He’s always been a little noise-sensitive but ever since then he’s had a lot of trouble with loud music.” This makes designing freestyles challenging. “My ideal freestyle on him would be to super-loud techno music. But WakeUp doesn’t like that kind of music. Erin Boltik has worked with me to find more consistent music that he likes.” A friend helped out by buying big speakers for the farm’s indoor arena. “So now I get to listen to my blaring music. We try to intentionally desensitize WakeUp. We also play his freestyle music for him all the time.”
Although developing a horse with WakeUp’s talent was an entirely different experience than training Willie, whom she trained to Grand Prix and with whom she earned her USDF gold medal, Emily credits the older horse for giving her invaluable patience and perspective. With Willie, she says, “You have to get all the right balance, right pieces in place, find his right tempo, right frame, really pay attention to everything—and then try to bring out the bigger gaits. Whereas, WakeUp is like, ‘Shoo, this is easy for me!’” Even so, WakeUp’s canter and walk scores were much higher than his trot scores in his early competitions. “He was a little bit wide behind as a young stallion and not strong enough to hold and express his bigger trot. In his 6-year-old year, he really started to bloom and carry himself. It went from a good trot to a great trot.”
The previous year, Lilo and others urged Emily to take WakeUp to Wayne, Illinois, to compete in the Central Selection Trials for the World Championships for Young Horses. To her surprise, he won the trials, becoming the only 5-year-old in the country in 2010 to qualify for the championships in Verden, Germany. The young stallion endured a combined total of 12 days of travel to compete in the championships but still put in an excellent performance, finishing 16th.
Since then, Emily’s “tall, dark and handsome” partner, now 17 hands, has risen quickly through the levels. At the Markel/USEF National Young Horse Dressage Championships, he was the top 6-year-old in 2011, the Prix St. Georges Reserve Champion and Champion in 2012 and 2013, respectively, and the 2014 Grand Prix Reserve Champion.
Throughout WakeUp’s development, Emily has tried to preserve his easy-going approach to work. “When he was a little kid trotting around the ring, he was a supple gumball of a horse. It was like everything was a game for him and it was so easy. My goal now is to make this powerful horse, who has all the energy bundled up inside him, perform the movements but still look like that little 4-year-old, playing around, loosey-goosey, easy and fun.”
One of the things she has focused on improving is WakeUp’s collected canter. “His canter is fantastic, but when I started bringing him back, I had to be careful that he didn’t get tight in his back and hind legs and too quick in his stride. To encourage his hind legs to move and stay supple within the compact frame, we did a lot of canter circles to very collected trot on a small circle and renvers then back to the canter on the opposite lead.”
Last fall, Emily received The Dressage Foundation’s annual $25,000 Anne L. Barlow Ramsay Grant to train and compete in Europe. She chose to train with Elmar Schmiehusen, a longtime professional rider for Danish Team Coach Rudolph Zeilinger, for several months in Germany over the winter, this time with four horses: WakeUp, Willie—with whom she had also won the 2013 Young Adult Brentina Cup Championship at the U.S. Dressage Festival of Champions—and two of a client’s young horses. Emily describes Elmar, who has given clinics in Kansas in recent years, as “Zen-like, very quiet and patient. You don’t really see what he’s doing when he’s riding, but when you sit on the horses afterward, they’re better.”
With Elmar’s guidance, Emily experienced breakthroughs with all four horses. He helped her tackle WakeUp’s piaffe–passage transitions. “His piaffe is getting really super. The biggest difficulty is that he almost sits too much in it, so he feels like he has to launch himself out of it.” Once again, her experience with Willie helps to put this process in perspective. “Willie has made a huge difference in his two years at Grand Prix. WakeUp is just going into his second year. He’ll make that jump forward, too.”
The trip to Germany also provided Emily with a much tougher lesson. Toward the end, WakeUp suddenly went lame. Veterinarians suspected he’d suffered a mild suspensory strain. Emily was devastated. “I felt like my whole world came crashing down around me,” she remembers. “It showed me that my happiness in riding cannot hinge on having one spectacular horse but rather that my focus and goals should be bringing out the best in every horse I train.”
Emily rested WakeUp immediately and he recovered quickly. Several months after their return to the States, however, she still didn’t know exactly what had caused his lameness and whether it would be safe to return him to full work. She consulted a lameness specialist in Tennessee, Dr. Phil Hammock, who discovered that WakeUp had fractured his coffin bone. After determining that the fracture had healed completely, he gave Emily the OK to put the stallion back into serious training. The pair successfully returned to the show ring in June at the Maffitt Lake Equestrian Center in Cumming, Iowa, earning 71.75 percent in the Developing Grand Prix test and 72.7 percent in the Grand Prix. In the meantime, Emily and WakeUp have happily expanded their families. Emily married her fiance, Jeff, last fall. And WakeUp had his first crop of grandbabies in the spring. “His babies are super,” Emily says. “I have a few up-and-coming ones that we’re really excited about. All he’s given me already is amazing. From here on out, it’s just icing on the cake.”
The Big Training Net
Emily Miles doesn’t see dressage training as a linear process. “It’s more like a big net,” she says. “You have to keep all the pieces and parts under it. So if you have this big, fancy trot you’re working for, yes, work on the big, fancy trot. But then, if you’re trying to work on something like the connection or the half-passes—the detailed work—then you have to say, ‘OK, let’s first focus on it and get that piece of the net under control.’ If you always train just in the big, fancy show trot, then often you’ll create more problems because you don’t have the balance and the structure and the basics first.
“But you have to approach it from both ways. You have to say, ‘Do I have a good trot? Do I have the energy? Do I have the power? Can I access that power?’ Then go back and say, ‘But can I make it really soft and supple first? Can I make the angle more and make the trot less? Can I make the trot more and the angle less?’ And just have that adjustability.”
Deciding what items under the net you should focus on at any given time depends on your horse. For example, says Emily, on her more talented Grand Prix horse, WakeUp, “Sometimes I get caught up in making him brilliant. He’ll blow across the diagonal in this crazy, huge trot and it’s so awesome I get kind of wrapped up in it. I have to reel it back sometimes and say, ‘Yes, but can I make the trot small and do walk–trot transitions during the half-pass? Do I have that balance so I can catch it wherever I want to? Does my net have these other pieces under control, too? Not just that big trot.’
“I need to also make sure I make WakeUp correct like Willie [her more average Grand Prix horse]. With Willie, who doesn’t have this brilliant trot, I focus a lot on eking out every single point of correctness because that’s what I’ve got to rely on.”
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.