Bliss Heers’ horses may be found fast asleep in their stalls, sharing a donut with her, riding along the canals in Wellington, Florida, or jumping their hearts out for her all over the world. She’s petite in size, so there’s no way she could force these powerful jumpers successfully through their courses. Although she prefers horses under 16 hands, she still has to have them on her side to encourage their best efforts. The key to her success? Communication.
Heers was born and raised in San Diego, California. “My dad used to run triathlons,” she said, “and one day when he was out training, he was introduced to Damian Gardiner who was an Olympic show jumper, and they became best friends. About the same time, my mom decided it would be fun to have mother–daughter riding lessons. So, while my dad was having fun with Damian and watching him jump all these fantastic show jumpers, my mom and I started to play around with lessons, and we all caught the bug and stuck to it.”
Heers started riding an Irish jumping pony that she admitted to falling off of every day. But that didn’t deter her, nor did the fact that she was allergic to hay and horses. “I kept coming back to the barn because I loved the horses. I fell in love just doing the simple riding lessons. I’d come home covered in red hives, but I loved it. I loved horses, and I never wanted to give it up.”
When asked why she loves horses, Heers’ answer gives a window into her strong faith. “God put it in my heart that it’s horses.” This love of horses, her faith and the drive to keep going serves her well throughout life’s challenges.
By getting good grades and excelling in school, Heers was only 15 when she was a senior in high school. Upon graduation, her father gave her the option of either going to college or using the tuition money to get another horse. “I decided I wanted a horse,” she said.
Thus began a series of buying and selling horses until the profits Heers made supported herself and her parents, and they invested in several youngsters. At this point, Heers was ready to move on from the California circuit.
Knowing that the top level of the sport was in Europe, in 2011 her father said they could take a couple of young horses to Europe for six weeks. When Heers had the opportunity to ride and train with German Olympic show jumping team gold medalist Otto Becker, she knew she wanted to stay. “My little six weeks turned into six months, and six months turned into about six years.”
“For those years, I was riding as many horses as I could ride, every type of horse, young horse, old horse, just all I could do to grow and to become a better horseman,” Heers said. “It wasn’t just riding. It was everything from grooming, mucking, learning the feed. So, it was really fun to embrace that and to be able to go breakfast, lunch and dinner with horses 24/7.”
While Heers continued to have good horses, she had yet to make it to the top of the sport. To earn a living, Heers still had to buy and sell horses. Even though she loved the animals, she admitted to being in a bit of a rut and started to question if this career was going to be sustainable. That’s when the unthinkable happened.
“In 2018, in a small stable in Holland, I was riding a 6-year-old stallion,” Heers recalled. “It was early in the morning. He was a bit fresh and mouthy. We were just about to head out to a show.” They were walking and trotting, and the horse spooked at something. He reared up and flipped over on top of Heers.
“I didn’t even think I was hurt,” she said. “I had actually tried to get up and realized ‘I can’t get up.’ I got to the hospital, and I had a show in three weeks and my first thought was, ‘Well, how fast can I get back in the saddle? Can I show next week? Can I not show next week? What’s the plan?’ And the doctor goes ‘No, no. You’re going to be out for quite a while.’”
Her injuries were severe. She dislocated her hip, broke her pelvis and broke the wings on the L1 to L5 vertebrae. “At this point there wasn’t going to be a show in three weeks,” Heers recalled. “I wasn’t probably going to be walking for the next six months.”
At this moment, when what she loved looked to be disappearing from her life, Heers knew that all she wanted to do was ride. “As soon as I was free to walk around, I got back on the horse,” she said.
Following her accident, Heers admits her mindset changed. Now it wasn’t all about winning. Rather, “it was just about enjoying every opportunity I could get on the horse. The main part of riding and this sport is enjoying the horses. And now every day I get on, no matter if I win or lose, I’m very grateful to be in this position.”
Heers moved back to the United States in 2018 and continues to bring along young horses. The goal is to have them reach the top levels of the sport, but she often sells them. “I really don’t like selling my young horses,” she said, “but it is the business.” Two top horses she’s been able to keep are the 2010 Selle Français stallion Antidote De Mars (Diamant De Semilly x Tilda De Mars, by Jarnac) and the 2011 KWPN mare Goodbye (Eldorado vd Zeshoek x Rivella Light, by Amulet).
Training the Elite Athlete
When it comes to her horses, Heers is totally focused on their complete health from exercise to feed to shoeing to veterinary care and more. “For me, longevity is the most important thing,” Heers said. “When you have a horse like [Antidote De Mars], you try to protect him. His health and career are my primary focus.”
To keep a horse like Antidote happy and healthy through the peak showing season, the schedule is simple. “He’ll have one easy day in the paddock. No work.” When at her base in Wellington, most of the week she rides him out along the canals for about an hour a day. They focus on basic dressage or flatwork, but it’s all outside the ring.
“During the week I don’t jump. Maybe I’ll do some gymnastics just to keep his legs and muscles moving. It’s all about keeping him in top physical condition. When I’m at the show, that’s when I’ll jump big fences, but at home I try to keep it quite simple to keep him as fresh and fit as possible.”
Heers jumps young horses more often than her experienced horses to expose them to new questions and exercises and to educate them, but she still doesn’t jump big fences all the time. Instead, she works a lot on communicating with her horses through dressage work and simple gymnastic exercises. Her goal is to have her aids seamless so that the horse basically does what she is thinking.
“For me as a horseman, one of the greatest feelings I can have is when I can communicate with the horses, and I’ve developed them to a point where they do what you always believe they could do. When you go into the show ring, even if it’s a 1.10m, little, small training course, but they understand what you’re asking and they try their hardest, and you land after the last fence and they’re happy and with you, and you just grab their neck, and you’re so proud that you did that. You accomplished that goal. You came this much closer to being where you always thought they could be. Just those baby steps, that’s the best feeling.”
Support System and Future Goals
Heers has been fortunate to have her parents support her every step of the way. “When I was in Europe and I really wanted to be independent and working, they were 100% supportive the entire time. My dad would fly almost monthly to come watch me jump and still does to this day. He comes as often as he can to try to visit. He’s a highly competitive person, and he loves it. I think he’s living vicariously through me a little bit.”
Of her mother, Heers said, “Obviously she would like probably a less dangerous career, but she also is an incredible horse- woman. Growing up, she had every book. She knew everything, and she is probably one of the best horsewoman or horseman I’ve ever met.”
Beyond her parents, Heers is grateful to her staff for helping her focus on her riding. “My main groom, Franck [Delvallet], he’s been helping me now for the last, almost three years. He’s been probably my biggest support while we’ve been on the road. He’s amazing with the horses. So, that’s been a huge blessing.
“Franck knows everything about the horses. If a horse comes out in the morning, I think he could tell you just by looking at one that he’s not happy. That’s not even if they’re not eating, but how they’re eating. He knows every hair on their heads, and he is meticulous with everything he does.”
One bucket-list goal for Heers is one day competing at the Rolex Grand Prix of Aachen. And if the 2022 FEI World Championship in Herning, Denmark, in August presents itself as an opportunity, Heers will certainly take it, but it is not her long-term goal. “The Paris Olympics is not that far away, and [Antidote’s] only 12 years old, so we’ll see. We’ll take each day at a time.”
5 Training Tips
Here are five training tips Bliss Heers has about successfully riding and jumping.
- Whether warming up at a show or during an everyday ride, don’t worry about where the horse’s head is. Just let him go freely forward. You want to focus on relaxing his body and getting him moving from behind. The horse will start to put himself in a more correct frame and position just from going forward.
- With a horse that is not naturally forward, the warm-up tempo should be just a bit quicker than what the horse wants to give. This helps him learn a sharper tempo and keeps his focus on you.
- Collecting a horse in trot before asking for canter puts him in better balance to do the transition correctly. Move the horse off the inside leg into the outside rein, quiet your seat, ask the horse to balance back and then ask for the canter transition. This will help you have a smoother transition that isn’t rushed or on the forehand. When you put your leg on, you want the horse to respond immediately.
- When coming to a combination, before the corner, go a little more forward than is comfortable. Then balance the horse through the corner, keep your eyes up and stay straight. This will help you maintain a steady canter rhythm and stay straight through the combination.
- Use your position as your strength rather than your muscle. You don’t want to get into a fight with a horse. It’s not a matter of controlling the horse, it’s a matter of communicating with him. The goal is that you think about asking the horse to do something and change your position slightly to indicate to him what you want. The horse understands and responds in the way you are expecting.