By Lauren R. Giannini
Jessica Jo (JJ) Tate believes in Classical Dressage and how it benefits all horses, whatever the sport or discipline. One good example is Kynynmont Gunsmoke’s Gideon, the 3/4 Connemara gelding she trained and competed to third place nationally in the 2015 U.S. Dressage Finals Fourth Level Open Championship at Kentucky Horse Park in November. They also competed in the Prix St. Georges Open Championship. The “pony” has impressed JJ with his attitude and potential.
“Gideon is one of the most fun horses I’ve ever trained and every day he’s happy to come out and dance with me,” said JJ. “He learns very easily and has a terrific work ethic. He gives an amazing feeling. He thinks he’s a big horse, and I’ll never tell him that he’s only 15.2 hands! Connemaras are so undervalued. They’re hardy, agile, sensitive, sensible, sane and built to withstand work. Gideon was just made to be a dressage star. Great strong body, good legs and a super brain — the perfect little package!”
JJ started riding Gideon a year ago. His owner-breeder, Pam Liddell, needed a rider-trainer for a “really talented mare” at the upper levels and sent her to JJ. Before long, Pam was taking lessons with JJ, which resulted in sending Gideon to JJ for training. Shortly thereafter, Pam sent two more homebreds, Kynynmont Cooper O’Grady and Kynynmont Blue Sapphire (Sophie), from her farm in Pennyslvania to JJ, who trains them with her own assistant, Kaitlin Blythe, riding the officially carded Connemara ponies.
Cooper, Pam’s younger purebred Connemara stallion, has progeny coming along and is half-brother to Gideon, both sired by *Gun Smoke, a purebred Connemara stallion in Ireland; Cooper is out of Moira, Gideon out of Tara, both Kynynmont mares. JJ’s assistant Kaitlyn piloted Cooper to the Third Level Open Championship in the 2015 National Dressage Pony Cup Finals and finished the year at Fourth Level. Kaitlin rode Sophie at the NDPC, earning the 2015 FEI Reserve Championship. The equines are happy and thriving — a major element of JJ’s mission as trainer and rider.
Knowing Your Horses
“Happy horses train and perform better,” said JJ. “Classical Dressage is my way to express my love for horses and my commitment to their well-being. I think it’s very important to know each of your horses and what brings them joy. I have a few horses who love riding in the big field and cantering out in the open. It helps them to release their backs and to feel joy in their bodies. I ride Gideon in the field a lot so he works his body, not his brain. These aren’t just my young horses! One of my top Grand Prix horses loves to be out there and that keeps him really happy, fit and healthy.”
JJ is also aware when horses don’t enjoy the great out-of-doors. “I have another horse who feels really insecure outside in big spaces,” she said. “Riding in the big field is not her favorite thing to do, and hacking makes her really anxious, so we do ground poles in the arena to change things up. Many of my other horses learn flying changes in the field and horses with not the biggest trots learn to pick up their feet a bit more. I’m mindful to keep Gideon happy in his work and he really enjoys himself out there.”
A video of Gideon and JJ doing a Fourth Level test shows the springiness of his collected trot that someday will animate his piaffe and passage; ditto, glimpses of future one- and two-tempis in Gideon’s lead changes every three strides.
“Fancy-moving Warmbloods will get big points for extravagant movements, but often the compensation is the horse not being through or the circle being a bit bigger than it’s supposed to be,” said JJ. “Classical Dressage is about accuracy, precision, harmony and the feeling that the horse does everything with ease, that the bend is correct, etc. You make up for lack of extravagant movement by better technical execution.”
A Good Year
JJ will be the first to describe 2015 as a great year for Team Tate Dressage. Felis Apollo, 5, her Dutch Warmblood gelding, an American bred by Judy Yancey, earned the top score of the day when he won First Level, Test 3 Open with 75.294 percent at the Great American Insurance Group/U.S. Dressage Federation (GAIG/USDF) Region 1 Dressage Championships at the Virginia Horse Center. The weekend before Regionals, he was high score of the show on 85.455 percent at the BLM Championships at the Garden State Classic, New Jersey. JJ trained and rode her 8-year-old, 17.1 Hanoverian mare Summersby (Summer) to the Region 1 Prix St. Georges Championship with a 75.197 percent and was fourth in the USDF Markel Developing Prix St. Georges Championships.
“Summer was breathing down Apollo’s neck for the show high-point at Regionals. I’ve had her since she was 5 — thank you, Grandma! — she’s intense, very sweet, willful, beautiful, energetic and impatient,” said JJ. “We call her the Red Queen. She’s a boss and has taught me to be very tactful in my riding and how to help her best when she gets too emotional. She’s acutely aware of everything around her; she doesn’t miss a thing. Summer’s not really spooky, but she can get affected by her surroundings. I’m connected to her on every level — we’re sort of twins — and it’s been super rewarding to see her mature into a top FEI horse.”
Gideon also contributed greatly to Team Tate’s success, winning at Open Fourth Level at Dressage at Devon, then earning the Region 1 Fourth Level Championship. “Gideon peaked this fall. Sometimes we call him the Cheeky Pony, but he’s always happy, the best-tempered horse, ready to do anything I ask of him,” said JJ. “We went to the U.S. Dressage Finals. It’s a really special show, really the best of the best. We had a mistake and I felt badly we didn’t win, but he finished third in the country. He was a wild card for PSG and finished 12th with a good score. He’s only 7. Next year, I’d like to keep him at PSG and go for Developing Young Horse Prix St. Georges, which is very challenging and competitive.”
JJ also trains and competes Faberge (Fiji), a 13-year-old Westfalen Grand Prix gelding owned by Elizabeth Guarisco. She has young horses coming along, including two Hanoverian geldings, Fürst Han Solo (Hans), 4, and Scantinos (Sammy), 3. JJ’s very excited about their potential and hopes to find syndicate members for them.
Grounded In Classical Horsemanship
JJ began riding at 7 at a neighbor’s barn. A year later, she acquired her first horse, an American Saddlebred. They’d compete at Training and First Level. “Solo became my best friend and taught me about love and trust between horse and rider,” she said. “We had so much fun together and having fun is still the priority with my horses.”
When JJ was 9, her first dressage instructor moved into the barn. “I started taking lessons with Gail Kelln and she did a fantastic job, letting me be a kid and playing with my horse,” said JJ. “I rode bareback in the field, ran around, and learned to jump. I still love to work my horses in the field — nothing better than feeling grass under your feet and wind in your face! Gail taught me a deep love of classical dressage and horsemanship and introduced me to my mentor of 26 years. I was 11 when I first rode with Charles de Kunffy. He taught me two times a year for many years and recommended that I go to Europe to train with Gyula Dallos.”
JJ earned her U.S. Dressage bronze medal at 14 and her silver medal at 16 when she made her FEI debut. At 18, her parents continued to support their daughter’s passion for horses by helping JJ to take two horses to Hungary to train for nearly three years with Gyula Dallos, multiple European and Hungarian National Dressage Champion.
After her return to the states, JJ earned her USDF gold medal. The nation’s top Young Rider at Grand Prix in 1999, she led the Region 2 Dressage Team to the silver medal at the North America Young Riders Championships at Tempel Farms, Illinois. That fall, she turned professional and never looked back. In the interim, she has harvested many championships, reserves and rosettes, but what’s most important to JJ is how she uses what she learns day in and day out with each of “her” horses.
“It’s fun to win, but you have to always decide what you’re giving up in order to win,” said JJ. “If the horse enjoys it and doesn’t feel over-prepared and doesn’t feel stress, it’s a wonderful feeling to win. I could never live with myself if my need or ego made choices that weren’t good for the horse. I believe in teaching a horse to perform because he wants to, not because he’s made to do it. I do my best to encourage each horse’s spirit. I love riding happy horses.”
In addition to de Kunffy and Dallos, JJ has trained with Oded Shimoni, Gerhard Politz, and Walter Zettl. She rides whenever she can with Steffen Peters and, as a U.S. Developing Rider, trains with Debbie McDonald. She takes weekly lessons in the winter with Michael Klimke and rides weekly year-round with Scott Hassler.
So far, JJ has trained and competed 24 horses to FEI levels, many going on to Grand Prix with her or her students. A skilled instructor and popular clinician, she has helped many horses and riders from green to Grand Prix. Eight students have earned the USDF gold medal.
“I’m lucky. I’ve had such great mentors and it’s wonderful to know that Charles de Kunffy is incredibly proud of me,” said JJ. “He was here in early November and he can’t believe how I keep getting better and better. It’s important to share what I’ve learned about classical dressage with my students and my apprentice program — it’s essential to help aspiring trainers and riders learn the theory and science of correct riding. Every morning I wake up happy because I spend my day with horses. It’s everything I ever wanted. I love what I do. I live to ride.”
About the writer: Lauren R. Giannini is an award-winning journalist and avid photographer, specializing in stories about the equestrian world, wildlife and conservation. Lauren lives in the heart of Horse Country Virginia, watched over by her CEO (canine executive officer), a rescue who sums up perfectly the term “hybrid vigor.” Lauren’s pleasures and pastimes include horses, travel, especially to Kenya, and writing about wildlife, conservation and eco-tourism. Books are next on her to-do list.