When Bay Area dressage trainer Heather Robertson first saw Edward Gal ride in 2000, she predicted he would become world-renowned. Robertson has had many opportunities to say “I told you so” since that first encounter: none more so than on Aug. 29 when the Dutch Olympian and Moorlands Tortilas became the European Freestyle champions with a record breaking 90.70% score at the European Championships.
Born in Canada, raised as a Pony Clubber and coached in dressage by Canadian Olympian Leslie Reid, Robertson first went to Holland in 2000. She was bringing along her eventual Grand Prix
partner, her homebred Swedish Warmblood Maguin, at the time and in search of a European training opportunity.
First struck by Gal’s personable nature, Robertson watched in awe as he worked one of the many young stallions in his breeding-oriented stable. “He was such an elegant and quiet rider,” she shares. “He was so systematic in his approach. He took his time to relax and supple the horse with 20 minutes of big circles and transitions and then picked him up in a higher frame for flying changes and a little bit of passage and pirouettes.”
Heather and Maguin with Edward Gal.
Photo: Mascha Hoffman
That day at the rail, Robertson set her sights on riding with Gal and a year later he accepted her as a student. With Maguin in tow, Robertson arrived at Gal’s stable and began to work with him as a student. Her abilities led to Gal asking her to begin working with several of the young stallions he was preparing for the KWPN’s rigorous under-saddle breed tests. In addition to bringing Maguin along with Gal’s help from the ground, Robertson eventually competed several of Gal’s stallions and managed his stable. She wound up working for him for nearly five years
and considers it the education of a lifetime.
Robertson returned to North America and settled in the Bay Area in 2006, excited to share what she’d learned from Gal and her European experience. She had visited the lovely Leap Of Faith Farms in Walnut Creek in 2005 as a clinician and was thrilled when an opportunity to base her business there arose in 2007.
Although Robertson’s experience enables her to work with the most ambitious competitors and elite equines, her heart is equally devoted to horse/rider partnerships at every point on the experience and ambition scale. Whether her students have an expensive Warmblood bred for dressage or an Appaloosa experimenting with the discipline, they will get equal attention in a classical dressage education that begins with immersion in the German training scale.
Equal emphasis is placed on clarity of communication between horse and rider. Robertson’s extensive experience bringing along young horses, before and during her time in Holland, convinced her of the importance of this aspect of training. “The horse must understand his training, and you do this by being unfailingly clear and consistent, and by using positive rewards instead
of punishment,” she explains. “A horse should
enjoy being trained and a well-trained horse is a pleasure to ride.”
An instinct for the importance of keeping horses happy was validated by Robertson’s time with Gal. “Horses should be happy at every age: 3, 7, 12, even at Grand Prix,” she notes. “That was always Edward’s priority.” She’s been dismayed to see attempts to quash a young horse’s energy by over-lunging and/or punishment of high spirits. Riding 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds that needed to behave themselves under saddle to pass muster in breeding evaluations, it was Robertson’s job to teach the horses good manners. Gal never allowed more than a five-minute lunge before the mounts, however frisky, were expected to enter the arena and settle down to work. “It’s unfortunate in North America to see people be scared of working with young horses,” Robertson comments. “It’s not really the horse’s fault. Rather, an unfortunate combination of the rider and/or trainer not having enough skill to handle a talented but rambunctious young horse.” She continues to have a soft spot for developing young horses through these phases without killing their joie de vivre.
“My idea of how to train a young horse is so much more developed after having competed horses in the VSN (Dutch championships for 3-year-olds) and Pavo Cup (Dutch Championships for 4- and 5-year-olds) and also training my own horse up to Grand Prix,” Robertson says. She is particularly happy to have done all of Maguin’s training herself, with Gal’s guidance from the ground. “If he had ridden Maguin, I probably would have gotten him to Grand Prix about two years earlier, but I am very grateful that he allowed me the opportunity to go through that process myself. I draw on that experience all the time.”
Photo: Mascha Hoffman
Open To All
Robertson’s program at Leap Of Faith Farms is open to riders of all goals and experience levels, including those who prefer not to compete. The boarding stable’s owner Mariah Bradford-Urban thinks some are intimidated to approach Robertson for fear she is a “breed snob” or only wants wealthy clients and expensive horses. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Bradford-Urban, a jumper competitor who counts on Robertson to start many of her own horses and those she intends to turnaround for sale. One of those was a PMU gelding from Canada. After being in training with Robertson just a short time, the horse was mistaken for a very expensive Dutch Warmblood in Robertson’s program. “We had a good laugh about that,” says Bradford-Urban. “It was just
one example of what a great job she does with every horse that comes to her. They all get
Robertson welcomes students who want to do all of their own riding, but understands that is not a realistic or desirable path for everybody. Training packages most often involve Robertson riding a client’s horse two or three days a week, plus lessons for the student. One-day local shows are a staple of the Robertson team’s agenda, and those who don’t show are encouraged to come out and have fun anyway.
Her bottom line with all students is “to help them get joy and satisfaction from their time with their horses.” That’s her biggest reward as a trainer. Intent on maintaining a modest horse head count, Robertson attends to every detail of a horse’s care and training. Trail rides and cavaletti work are mind-freshening cross training activities that Robertson incorporates regularly.
In addition to advancing horses and her students, Robertson is focused on her individual goals. Chief among those is targeting her horse Vancouver to represent the United States in the 2011 Pan Am Games. One of two horses she brought back from Holland, Vancouver was the California Dressage Society’s Open First Level Horse of the Year in 2007. He is now honing in on Prix St. George, the level at which the Pan Am Games are contested.
For more information on Heather Robertson Dressage, call 510-326-5543 or visit