2013 Regional Second Level Freestyle Champions Joanne Coleman and her Hanoverian gelding Fhreelancer strutted their stuff to Dixieland music at the Inaugural US Dressage Finals to capture the National Championship title. Photo courtesy of Pics by You.
They were alone, and her truck was creeping through rush hour Cincinnati traffic in the darkness and torrential rain. Joanne Coleman was shaking—the coffee and adrenaline surging through her veins—and her hands were wrapped around the steering wheel like a vice. The trailer swayed in the gusts and her eyes, straining to see the GPS, shifted to check the rearview mirror. Stressed was an understatement. The almost fourteen-hour drive from Birdsboro, PA to Lexington, KY to represent Region 1 in the Second Level Musical Freestyle at the Inaugural US Dressage Finals would be her horse, Fhreelancer’s, longest journey to date, and not only was he a little nervous, but now they were lost.
Coleman first started on hunter ponies at seven years old and then hunter horses at twelve, but jumpers held an allure and later, in 1994, so did dressage. She rode throughout a career in the movie development business, finally leaving to pursue the equestrian opportunities that continued to fall at her feet. “The horse world is like the mafia: once you’re in, you can’t leave,” laughs Coleman. “I enjoyed movies so much, met great directors, and it wasn’t an easy choice. It’s not an easy business to be in…it’s a lot of love, but also a lot of hard work.”
In 2009, when Mo Swanson, of Rolling Stone Farm in Slatington, PA, offered her a job as the Head Trainer at her breeding farm, Coleman declined. She did, however, ride some of the sale horses and fell in love... but ironically, once she was able to get the funds together, her top pick was sold. Another available for sale, Fhreelancer, was imported as a yearling and intended to be a Hanoverian stud horse, but simply never developed enough masculinity. The elegant bay had beautiful bloodlines (Florencio x Lafayette x Londonderry) and Coleman was intrigued by his potential. In December of that year, Coleman decided it was time for “Lance” to come home.
“He was started late and has been extremely hot and insecure,” says Coleman. “Training has been difficult and the progression rate is not where I’d like it to be. But I take my time with him—he doesn’t always respond well and he needs patience.” Schooling without an indoor arena can be especially challenging in the winter and the cold, blustery days are generally used as down time. “There’s no training; just survival. Lance is not very weather-tolerant and feels much better in the heat of the summer.”
Learning with Lance
“Flying changes. They haunt me,” Coleman says. “He learned them early and it’s tough to be riding both second and third level where the requirements differ.” Fhreelancer wants to please but frets about his rider’s requests. If Coleman discourages a certain movement, Lance will think it is completely wrong and will avoid it in the future, making training tricky. On the other hand, if a movement is encouraged, Lance will offer it continuously. “It’s his personality,” Coleman divulged. “I think he’s a bit dyslexic. I’m a little scared for when it comes time to learn tempi changes!”
She continues, “He’s the sweetest horse I’ve ever encountered though. He has a heart of gold.” His trot work makes him easy to love—Coleman was warned ‘to make sure you can sit the trot of any horse you are going to buy’ and she certainly can with Lance. “I love those huge extended trots up hills on trail rides; they’re so fun and I feel like I’m not even moving.”
Since he is slowly maturing and still easily agitated, Coleman makes sure nine-year-old Lance is comfortable in their endeavors. There is a lot of hand walking at shows and lowering his head and neck to encourage him to relax. “We do a lot of work in hand and it really helps with him,” Coleman explains.
Determined To Succeed
When the pair pulled into the Lexington Horse Park, frazzled, shivering, and exhausted, no one was around to help. Coleman went in search of the stables in a whipping wind and worried about Fhreelancer. “It was still relatively mild, but the temperature was supposed to drop about 30 degrees. I was so thankful to get there safely, but I was also on the verge of tears and wanted to go home.”
But she stayed—and the duo went on to do great things. That night, she told herself to just enjoy it. Coleman wanted to ride in the Finals as soon as she heard about them, and worked on it for years. “I was bold, thinking, ‘I want to win it, too,’” she recounts. “It started with a thought and a dream, but then we finally made qualifying scores and won the regional championship. It was an evolution, a work in progress the whole season, and I was thinking I might have a shot at this.”
Coleman wasn’t very experienced with musical freestyle and was working with a limited budget. She videoed herself riding Lance and sent the tape to the company Musikur, who provides ready-to-ride freestyle cds, to match his beat to a composition. While Dixieland wasn’t her personal preference, the music worked with the horse and as they tweaked the choreography, their presentation became tighter and more in sync.
The next day dawned with tempestuous winds still blowing, but luckily, the warm-up was inside a climate-controlled arena. It particularly helped keep Lance focused and allowed Coleman to concentrate. She recalls, “I thought to myself, ‘This is where you watched Anky van Grunsven at the World Equestrian Games. This is the same footing that dressage heroes from the past have competed…’ and that made me smile.” But once inside A, she was fixated on the job at hand. She had to nail the first and last halt/salutes, for she was going to stop and salute at the same time for a more dramatic effect instead of separating the two movements.
The test flourished, and Coleman and Lance captured the Second Level Freestyle national championship with a score of 73.678%. “Not to sound cocky, but we deserved to be there. We did well all year, and that title was my goal from the beginning.” She remembers what her old instructor, JJ Tate of Chesapeake City, MD, told her: “You have to believe it’s in your reach, not because it’s your lucky day, but because you can do it.” They may not have been the most sophisticated team; Coleman was her own groom and her music was not tailor-made for her horse, but they were determined to make it happen. “It was a dream, and while I know I deserved to be there, I also think the stars aligned for me. And we didn’t need to do any flying changes!”
What’s next for the two, now that they are already qualified for third level and winter is upon them? “I’d like to start the third level choreography, but he’s not fit right now to do much. I’m teaching him the Spanish Walk right now. The other day, he accidentally kicked my dad in the groin. I can’t reprimand him…I know if I did, he would never pick his feet up off the ground again!”