Wellington, Fla. – June 7, 2021 – The fight for a chance to represent the United States at the upcoming Olympic Games is particularly fierce with a short list of 14 horse-and-rider combinations vying for a spot. With the observation event for the team who will make the trip to Tokyo, Japan, taking place this week, PS Dressage touched base with Grand Prix athlete, Jennifer Schrader-Williams. Managing a very carefully structured balancing act between high-performance athlete, wife, mother, entrepreneur and most recently, ballroom dancer, Williams reflects on her career and looks onward to the future.
Jennifer, you’ve had a busy and very successful show schedule over the last year. What have the past couple of months been like with the wrap up of the Wellington season?
My focus since the end of the season has been to keep Millione in fit condition while letting him rest and enjoy some down time. “Mickey” is 18-years-old and continues to be willing to work elastically and accurately. He feels on top of his game and I am very grateful for that. My goal with him is just to keep him feeling good mentally and physically. He knows his job at this point and never lets me down. His health and happiness are my focus.
As the heat and humidity have increased, the work has to be managed carefully. I run through the movements in a relaxed way – every day I’ll check a line of tempis and little tests of the pirouettes or the piaffe – his workouts are usually up to thirty minutes.. For my weekly schedule, he gets Wednesday and Sunday off completely. I work him four days and then hack on Saturdays. I want to keep him sound and fresh and with the trials coming up, I’ve starting to ramp up a bit more where I run through my test once a week.. Mickey is such a confident horse, he just loves the crowds with an electric atmosphere. We can’t wait to get back out there.
It’s been over a year since you made significant changes in your personal and professional life moving to Wellington, Florida. How has the move been for you and your family?
It’s been great! We love it here. We very much appreciate that while the Pandemic caused many things to shut down we have been able to come here and experience high quality international horse shows. In addition, my kids are doing well in school and have enjoyed their time here. I’ve also been introduced to and embraced ballroom dancing while I’ve been here. It’s been wonderful that when the horses need down time I’m still really able to push myself in other ways. Physically and mentally, ballroom dancing is very complementary to riding so that’s been a huge blessing and something I definitely feel passionate about.
Were you a dancer as a child or are dance lessons a brand new thing for you to learn?
It’s totally new! It started as a planned date night with my husband and when he needed to reschedule I took my very good friend and client, Paula Helm. We were sold! It’s been four months of lessons now as I’m doing them regularly and it’s become a huge part of my fitness routine too. My husband Alex has also made it out with me for a lesson or two. It’s so much fun and it is my outlet outside of riding. Just like with dressage, with ballroom dancing, you are always going to be learning more. I love the fast rhythm dances like the Jive, Mambo, and Cha-Cha, but the Waltz reminds me of how I got into dressage at 12 or so when I was complimented for being tall and having long legs. I really enjoy those elegant dances and am determined to have better rhythm.
Can you walk us through what a typical day in the life of Jennifer looks like?
It’s a little bit different now that the season has quieted down, but I find my schedule still needs to be managed tightly. I try to run three miles in the morning and the kids need to be at school by 7:30. With the heat I’m trying to get to the barn by 8:20 a.m. as I’ve six horses that I’m working. Sometimes Oded [Shimoni] comes to IDA and teaches me lessons and once a week I haul over to Oded [Shimoni]’s with two horses for additional lessons. Sometimes I video my rides or do virtual lessons with Christophe [Theallet], and then when Debbie [McDonald] is in town I always look forward to a lesson with her. On lesson days my days end a little later. Usually the afternoons are free and that’s when I go dance and then spend time with my kids’ activities. After they go to bed I will do some bookwork in the office.
I started my daughter with dance also one day a week so we go and dance together. Sundays have always been our family day – we’ve been teaching our children sports or we will have a beach day after church. I try to hold that sacred so we are doing something together. Most trainers are taking Monday off here, but Sunday is our day together. Monday’s are then very quiet at the barn and that works out great!
From relocating to Wellington for more of your year to winning the GP national championship, you’ve had quite a year. Talk us through your emotions of being named to the short list for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
I just couldn’t be more grateful. Millione is such an amazing horse that has fulfilled so many goals and dreams of mine. He is very special. I am grateful for the owners that have stood behind me and really helped keep him going. I had purchased him back in 2013 and I had put together a small syndicate that helped me immensely the first year. Bob and Tina Desroche, who now make up Millione Partners with me, took over and have supported me as dear friends and allowed me to continue this journey.
We had talked about possibly retiring him last year from International sport and then when the Olympics were postponed, they committed to helping Mickey and I compete through this year. Mickey has never felt better and with his love of the work and his strong health and soundness we will see how far the journey takes us. As long as he is enjoying himself and feeling happy and fit we will continue on for a while longer. For the trials in June, I’m going to do my very best and I’m shooting for a personal best performance.
You have a powerful team of trainers surrounding you both at home schooling and at the in-gate. How do you utilize each of your trainers’ different styles and expertise?
I’m very easily motivated, so I would say Oded [Shimoni] and Christophe [Theallet] work keep me calm and relaxed. I’m not nervous, but I want to do my best all the time and am eager to do it right for my instructor’s. I work hard to place my focus on making “Mickey” feel really good about himself especially in the warm up for a big test. I want to tell him constantly what a great boy he is and reward every little thing. I’ve come from where he would completely blow through the twos and the ones in the warm-up, and I would have to trust that counter canter was enough prior to heading into the ring. It has always worked well for me to focus on his confidence over perfection and often times he has been able to go in there and have a mistake free test especially the last two years.
With Debbie [McDonald], she has me focus on the quality and precision in everything we do. She is very detail oriented which I just love. Christophe focuses on throughness and relaxation, while what I get from Oded is quality of concept. I’m thinking about what I am trying to achieve with the horse’s body and how best to get there in the work, training and in the show to make it successful. All three coaches have been integral to the progress of my journey.
Can you speak on how your commitment to the sport has evolved and how it’s helped drive your success?
I would say that I’m constantly wanting to improve. I’m the person that constantly wants to feel growth and to be the best version of myself, whether that’s in family, health, in the equestrian community, or whatever aspect I’m working on. I’m always trying to create that balance and I’m always trying to feel that there is some level of improvement. I know that much of our success has been because I’ve worked really hard on goal setting. I’ve also worked really hard on focusing on what is good in my life and not what I don’t have. I have this great team of people around me that are supporting me, helping me and teaching me. These days on social media, most do not speak publicly regarding the difficulties in life or talk about our failures, but I try to learn from my mistakes and keep pushing on to feel that stretch from being outside of my comfort zone. Sometimes I have to take a step back to see all I have accomplished as I’m often thinking of mistakes and what I can do better – I’m always trying to create that balance of improvement yet enjoy where I have come from.
As Millione ages, talk about your pipeline of who is currently developing up the levels? How is Joppe K doing?
[Joppe K] has had a very good year and had some great scores in the FEI 7-Year-Old tests. I would love the opportunity to actually take him and compete at the World Young Horse championships this year. I would also love to take Millione to Aachen. If the stars align it would be another amazing adventure.
I also have Sandeman who’s working the small tour, schooling the Grand Prix, and he’s coming nine. Then I’ve got some really lovely young horses coming up. The owners of Millione have a beautiful 5-year-old mare Lora– she’s incredibly talented with an outstanding canter and super ability to naturally piaffe. She’s primarily Dutch Harness Horse breeding, so a very interesting mare and it will be fun to see how she develops. We also are developing a mare, Kiriska who is 6 this year. A very lovely mare by Jazz owned by Gayle Atkins. We have some lovely colts in the field weanlings through 2 year olds that look very interesting for the future as well.
What would you say to an up and coming rider as a key to success?
I would say that if there’s not a door opening for you at some point you have to build one. You have to put it on the line and take that leap of faith that it’s going to work out. Go invest in yourself for what you want to do in the future. I didn’t know if this was going to work out. I didn’t know if I was going to be successful. I didn’t know if we could make it work with my husband working out of our home in Florida, but it was my goal. I had to figure it out. It’s my belief you have to commit to what you want to do. It doesn’t take money to be dedicated, to persevere, to dream. I mean, it doesn’t take talent for those things either. It takes commitment and hard work and I think that it’s really important that you don’t do anything 50%. There are going to be setbacks, but you can navigate around that, seek advice, and push on!
What do you wish you’d known at the start of your career?
I tried to learn so many things through trial and error. I believe a mentor is a true gift. Someone who has already been through the trials and tribulations and can help you navigate difficult paths. I feel like if I had known Christophe 20 years ago, I would have probably had a much more direct path of the how’s and why’s of building a successful foundation. I don’t just mean winning but truly communicating with your horse and creating a balanced consistent pattern of work. Sometimes, with sales horses, you are fixing things and have to be good at making things better quickly, but the art is really making the time for teaching a system to the horse from the ground up – that focus has been heightened in the last decade of my life.
When you really build those basics and start with a good foundation you are then able to streamline the process with every horse you bring through the levels. I pride myself on making the horses proud of the work we are creating together. On the horses’ understanding of what I am asking and their willingness to express themselves through our dance.
What would you say is your greatest strength as a rider?
I would say my ability to give confidence to the horses in the show ring and to develop them in a fun positive way to Grand Prix.
Along the same lines, what is one of your weaknesses you’ve been working hard on improving?
I’m a bit high energy myself, so sometimes I need to pause a moment before reacting so that the horse is not made overly sensitive. I’ve also been working to create more contact into my hand and not look for too light of a connection. This has helped me keep a better feel of the horse’s hind legs as I look to keep more weight into the haunches.