‘I couldn’t have asked for more’: flying Friesians and amateur rider catch the eye at winter dressage championships

  • Gracie Catling and her Friesians are becoming regular features at the NAF Five Star Winter Championships, and they caught the eye once again this year – bringing drama and bombast to the freestyle classes, finishing in the top four, four times.

    We caught up with Gracie to reflect on her championship experience, and what it is about Friesians that makes them so well-suited to a career between the boards.

    Gracie’s highlight was coming second on nine-year-old Fraithwens Wytske Fan Ter Lune in the PDS Saddles elementary freestyle gold championship to Dannie Morgan on Fever Tree, scoring 75.76% – the third-highest score of the whole championships. Wytske was also fourth in the Baileys Horse Feeds novice freestyle gold, 19th in the Prestige novice gold and 13th in the Equi-Trek elementary gold.

    “Wytske is owned by Fraithwen Friesians but I’ve been riding her for the last eight months,” said Gracie. “Her highlight is definitely the freestyle – she was a bit marmite for the judges in the straight classes.”

    Gracie’s second Friesian at the championships was experienced campaigner Tsjebe Fan ’E Vesta Hoeve, who is owned by her mum Julia Catling. The 18-year-old Tsjalke 397 gelding finished third in the Magic Prix St George (PSG) Silver Winter Championship on 67.79%.

    Gracie Catling and Tsjebe Fan ’E Vesta Hoeve in action winning the 2023 Petplan Summer Area Festival inter I bronze title

    “I couldn’t have asked for more from him,” added Gracie. “We’ve owned him for 14 years now so we know him inside out. He’s more of a family pet than a competition horse, I think he genuinely thinks he’s human and he’s given us so much pleasure.

    “He arrived when I was only six, so we’ve grown up together. Luckily for me, Mum had a knee operation and couldn’t compete so she let me start riding him when I was strong enough – with strict instructions not to do more than novice!”

    However, since then “Jeb” and Gracie, all the while learning together, have gone on to win the 2023 Petplan Summer Area Festival inter I bronze title, feature on the cover of British Dressage Magazine, and, more recently, be selected to compete internationally at young rider level for Great Britain – with his connections believing him to be the first Friesian to do so.

    Gracie Catling: “Friesians are powerful but sensitive souls”

    “Friesians stand out for me for a few reasons, their beauty and presence are very impressive, but they also have the kindest nature,” explained Gracie. “They are willing and want to please like no other horse, and in the Netherlands, the KFPS [Royal Association, The Friesian Horse Studbook] grade them on these qualities.”

    It was through Jeb that Gracie got the ride on Wytske: “Fraithwen wanted a rider experienced with the breed. Wystke is quite similar to Jeb, but she was warmblood paces with a Friesian body and brain. She’s naturally more talented and I think she’s a special horse – I adore having her on the yard.”

    Gracie adds that it takes a certain sort of riding, and rider, to enable Friesians to perform at their best: “They don’t need a lot of work like warmbloods and in the Netherlands they sometimes train with a heart monitor on as they can lack stamina.

    “I love them because they’re so quick to learn, try hard and you don’t need hours of riding and warm up – a bonus if you’re short on time! They don’t like nervous riders; they’re sensitive souls and take a lot of confidence from the rider. They are incredibly powerful too.”

    Gracie is a second-year sports psychology student at Loughborough University and juggles her studies with riding her growing string of horses – she also rode her warmblood Qwinton to fourth in the Equitex advanced medium silver at the championships.

    “The deal has always been that I can do the horses as long as I finish my education, which I understand more now as I get a bit older. My Dad says at the end of my degree I can choose to follow my passion or my pension – that remains to be decided!”

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