(Originally posted at Horses Daily)
High Scores and High Spirits as Performance Farms “Fab Four” Head to the Markel/USEF National Young and Developing Horse Championships
Every year, near the end of the summer, all U.S dressage eyes turn to the Lamplight Equestrian Center in Wayne, Illinois where the Markel/USEF National Young and Developing Horse Championships, also known as the U.S.Dressage Festival of Champions will be hosted August 24-28th.
Photo: Performance Farms’ Fanta and Cesar Parra are at the top of the rankings in the new the FEI Seven Year Old division as they return to the Markel/USEF Young and Developing Horse Championships next week.
The Markel/USEF National Young and Developing Horse Championship is the country’s most prestigious, invitation only event featuring the year’s top ranked combinations in each category and draws the best of the best from all over the country.
Parra’s Prominence Spans The History of The Markel/USEF National Young and Developing Horse Championships
For Dr. Cesar Parra and his Performance Farms team, the annual trek to the USEF Markel/USEF National Young and Developing Horse Championships has become a highlight in Performance Farm’s summer schedule. Over the last two decades, Parra’s program has become synonymous with High Performance and the development of top-quality young horses and riders. Since Parra’s win in Intermediaire-I National Championship in 2010 aboard Olympia, Parra and his team have found success in virtually every division at Festival of Champions, but undeniably the Markel Young and Developing Horse Championships is where they have made the most prominent name for themselves as a force to be reckoned with.
“We have been very blessed throughout the years to have wonderful horses and riders in our team. I am not sure what the exact number is now, but with the four horses we have qualified for this year’s Championships, we have been invited with over 30 combinations over the years!” said an ecstatic Parra as he adds that “not only have we been invited but most of our young horses have placed in the podium of their respective categories and many of them have been National Champions or Reserve Champions.”
Parra’s Performance Farm’s “Fab Four” Introduces a New 4-Year-Old, and Brings Back the Trifecta Team Another Year Older
This year Parra’s Performance Farm team has received invites for what he calls the “Fab Four”, with Superior 9 being invited for the Four-Year-Olds Championships, Fortenay being invited for the Five-Year-Olds Championships, Mollegardens Fashion being invited for the Six-Year-Olds Championships and Fanta being invited for the new this year, Seven-Year-Olds Championships. “When you realize that only the top 15 horses in the US in each age group are invited to the Championships, it is especially humbling to have 4 horses in four different age groups invited,” Parra exclaimed.
Furthermore, the top scores that each of the Performance Farm’s horses earned on the way to qualifying for the 2022 Championships are astonishing, ranging from Fanta’s 82.143% to Mollegardens Fashion’s 86.20%.20%, Superior’s 87.20%. to Fortenay’s 91.%.
Last year, Fontenay, owned by Gina Raful and Parra, was crowned National Champion for 4-year-old horses. Additionally, Parra’s Mollegardens Fashion was third in the 5-year-old Championships and Fanta 4, also owned by Raful and Parra, was the 2021 number one ranked 6-year-old horse in the nation.
“Last year our babies were excellent. This year, Fanta, Fashion, and “Fonte” are a year more mature, and they are looking better than ever. Each of them, as well as our new 4-year-old Superior 9, are all very talented, willing horses and we are incredibly excited for their future. We are thrilled about going with them to the Markel Young and Developing Horse Championships, but we also know that this is just one more steppingstone in their development into the amazing horses we know they’ll become,” says Parra.
The Formula For Success
Cesar credits his success bringing horses up the levels to teamwork and a program that emphasizes solid basics to create a strong, healthy athletic horse. “We believe the formula for success is to build a happy, healthy athlete. Regardless of how long it takes, it is important to give each horse the time to develop body and mind so that they can become the best version of themselves. It is finding a balance: you push too hard or too soon and you’ll have a “broken” horse, but if you don’t push enough then the horse will never develop the flexibility and strength necessary for high performance dressage. So, finding that balance is everything.”
Every successful team has a leader and that is Cesar Parra’s role at Performance Farms. “Only a strong and knowledgeable team can ensure that you find the correct recipe for each prospect. We all want the best for our horses and with this as our guiding principle we can tailor training programs to meet each horse’s specific needs,” says Parra, while highlighting that it is a total team effort. “Good riding is only one part of the equation. veterinarians, farriers, grooms, and owners all play a crucial role in the development of our horses. That’s the fun part!”
Markel’s Longtime Support Placed Importance on The Journey
As the name sponsor for the Young and Developing Horse Championships, Markel Insurance has placed philosophies like Parra’s in the spotlight. ”What the partnership between Markel and the USEF and USDF has done for the sport is unbelievable. Through the Young Horse Championships and the Young and Developing horse programs, they have placed the importance in the journey rather than just the destination. Many people don’t realize all that comes into the training and nurturing of a Grand Prix horse, and these programs are the way to educate and support people in the beautiful journey of bringing a horse up the levels.”
“Up until ten to fifteen years ago I was mostly trained in Europe. I owe my program to great masters like Herbert Rehbein, Dr. Volker Moritz, Mariette Withages and Hubertus Schmidt. However, in large part thanks to the great support and collaboration between US Equestrian and Markel Insurance, in recent years we have had excellent support and training here at home from very accomplished coaches like Anne Gribbons, Christine Traurig and Charlotte Bredahl!”
The Dream Team
Not only does the Performance Farms team focuses on the development of horses but also of riders. “To have well trained, happy horses, we need the best riders and horse-people. Therefore, in our team, we pride ourselves on learning from each other and being students of the sport. Not only our professional riders, but also our amateurs strive to become better horse-people daily.”
“This is where having driven, educated and well-rounded people in our team has paid off. Nicolas Torres, who currently runs our New Jersey facility, for example, has been riding with me since he was ten years old and is now an NYU graduate with a double degree in Mathematics and Chemical Engineering. Even when I am in Florida or at a long show like the Markel Young and Developing Horse Championships, I have the utmost confidence that our clients and their horses at home are in extremely capable hands. The riding is very important but caring for our horses entail much more than that.”
As the Performance Farm Team prepares to head to Lamplight with the “Fab Four”, they are confident that things on the home front farms in New Jersey and Florida will run smoothly and they are equally excited about the upcoming competition and the comradery they will share with fellow equestrians for around the country!
Interview Dr. Cesar Parra, Markel/USEF Emerging Horse Program with Markel’s Brandon Seger Associate Director of Equine Operations
Tell us about your history with the Markel/USEF Emerging Horse Program.
The Markel/USEF Emerging Horse Program has been incredibly important throughout my career. For the past 10 years my team and I have competed at the U.S. Young Horse Championships over 30 times with excellent results. I am blessed and incredibly proud to say Chicago has become a staple in your summer show schedule. Some of the biggest triumphs of my career as a rider, trainer, and coach have come at the Championships. Many of our horses have placed multiple times throughout their young horse careers, which speaks not only of their amazing talent but also of the work that our team has done developing them through the years.
We have had multiple champions and reserve champions in young horse divisions. Developing the best athlete horse we can is what our program is about, and the Markel/USEF Emerging Horse Program has provided us with the guidance and a platform to showcase what we do. Just as an example, Fashion Designer OLD competed at Lamplight for the first time back in 2013, winning the 5yo division with over 90%. After that, he continued placing year after year in the championships until we were National Developing Grand Prix Champions in 2017. Maybe even more amazing than that is the fact that so many of our former students have also become very successful riders at the Championships and have developed young prospects throughout the levels.
More than the Championships, however, are the resources available to help us in the development of our young prospects. That is the real value of the Emerging Horse Program. Showing and winning with our babies is fun and it is important for them to get used to big atmospheres that they will encounter in their careers as international competition horses, but the resources that Markel and the USEF have made available to us in recent years go far beyond that.
With the clinics and training programs in place, we have been able to close the breach between Europe and us tremendously. Our national coaches like Anne Gribbons, Christine Traurig, Charlotte Bredal, and Debbie McDonald have been instrumental for the growth of our sport and the development of prospects here in America. For the first time, thanks to this program, we have all this knowledge and experience at our disposal here at home, without having to travel to Europe. They have really made a tremendous effort to mentor us, riders and trainers, and to accompany us throughout the process to help us help our horses succeed.
When was your first trip to the Championships?
I first came to the Championships back in 2010, just after I got my US Citizenship. Back then I was invited to the Small Tour Championships and I came in ranked number 1 in the nation with Olympia. It was a surreal experience and a dream come true as we won it all. It was such an emotional week that I will never forget.
However, the first time I came to the Championships with young horses was a couple of years later, in 2012, with Simply Nymphenburg. That year Simply and I were Reserve Champions in the 6yo Division. I remember that year vividly because we did not have our best ride the first day, but then Simply was amazing for the Final and we won the class, climbing all the way to second place overall.
Ever since Donovan the Markel/USEF Young Horse Championships had been something very appealing to me, but it took me until then to finally be able to compete in them. The fact that it was my first time and that we did so amazingly well was surreal.
What was/is your inspiration for focusing your attention on the development of young horses?
The young horse bug first struck me back in 2005. Funny enough, it was after a conversation with John Seger at my house. Hearing him talking about his plans and his vision for the future of American dressage profoundly inspired me. That was when I bought Donovan, one of the best young horses at the time who had just won the 5yo Bundeschampionate in Germany.
He went on to be 6yo Reserve Bundeschampion with Carola Koppelmann in 2006 before we brought him to America. We were very excited and we started doing amazingly well here. Sadly, he passed from colic complications less than a year after. He was my first great young horse; gave me a taste of what a world class prospect is, and I loved it. I believe his premature passing just added fuel to my desire for more of that and it has been a passion of mine ever since.
Thankfully Donovan proved to be just the first of many amazing young horses, including multiple Bundeschampionate champions and reserve champions, that I have had the blessing to train. I believe that my love for young horses comes from a passion to develop and nurture their talent. I believe there is plenty of very good riders out there that are capable of being successful competing mature, trained horses.
However, not everyone can take a talented young prospect and nurture and train them to harness that potential and create a successful FEI horse. That is the challenge with young horses. Many times you know the talent is there, but every baby presents different challenges and as a trainer it is your responsibility to find the way to polish that raw diamond into a happy, healthy and successful athlete. It requires lots of patience and devotion but there is something infinitely rewarding about getting it done with a horse you have trained yourself.
Of course, in order for these prospects to succeed they need to be in a program that allows them to develop properly. This is no easy task, and you need a great team behind you to give your young horses everything they need to reach potential. This is the biggest challenge but it is also what makes it so incredibly rewarding. It is all about the journey, and you never stop learning.
To what do you attribute your consistent success in choosing young horses?
First of all I think I have been incredibly lucky and blessed. I have had help from some of the most knowledgeable horse trainers, dealers, and breeders in the world, and that has been invaluable for me.
But, aside from a great support team and network, I believe there is two very key things that have always helped me buying horses. First, I always try to buy the best horse I can. Sometimes you cannot afford the horse that you want, but always try to acquire as much quality as you possibly can. Training a horse requires tremendous discipline and effort; it is expensive and takes a long time, regardless of how good the horse is. I have found through the years that many times a little extra effort to buy a better prospect pays off immensely in the long run.
Secondly, I prioritize movement above everything else. When I am buying young horses, the quality of gaits is all that I care about. No looks, no bloodline, no color. Raw potential, especially in young horses, comes from their natural ability as athletes. I cannot expect to find the perfect horse if I restrict myself to certain bloodlines, or certain size, or color, for example. Aside from that, I would say that the most important thing is to be very strict with your veting protocol. When buying young horses, be as strict as you possibly can. Remember that you are buying a horse that is just starting or has not even started its career. High-performance dressage horses, like any other high-performance athlete, put a lot of stress in their bodies. You want to maximize your horse’s chances to have a long, happy and successful career. Believe me, you do not want to see a promising young horse’s career derailed by injuries, so health is probably equally as important as quality when buying young horses.
In your experience, is the development and training of young horses a good way to build a profitable business?
Absolutely! I mean, I remember back in the early 2000s when I got into young horses. The sport was becoming more and more popular and trained horses just became impossible to find. Demand was higher than ever, prices went through the roof and there were simply not enough quality horses available. Furthermore, horses that were already trained and “ready” had lots of problems. Some were not sound, some were very difficult to ride, and the ones that were truly ready were unaffordable.
That is when I decided to focus on developing my own horses. That way I was able to have higher quality horses that were also trained through our program. I felt that this way I could ensure that my horses had everything they needed to become the best version of themselves.
Similarly, selling horses trained in-house has the enormous advantage that you know the horse very well. I feel very comfortable dealing with horses trained by my team, much more than dealing with horses that I do not know as well. This is why I always have at least one very talented prospect in my barn for sale.
What are your goals for the future?
In terms of goals, I would say more of the same. I would like to continue training and producing talented horses and riders. I love the journey and I love teaching. I have been very fortunate to have worked with so many great horses and riders, and that is my passion. I keep learning every day and I feel like we keep refining our program year after year, prospect after prospect. We have been incredibly successful and I believe that we are still getting better at it. Every horse that comes our way is unique, and that keeps me motivated.
Aside from that, hopefully one more Olympic Games. Why not?