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Bliss Heers: “We should promote good horsemanship, not only the wins, the medals and the social scene around the sport”

Wednesday, 28 April 2021
Interview

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen
From day one, Bliss has been captivated by the endless learning aspect of the sport, and the special bond between a horse and rider. “Yes, it is a sport, but it is more than a sport; it is really about you and the horse – something I really love,” Bliss says. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen.

 

Text © World of Showjumping

 


 

Feeling at home on both continents, USA’s Bliss Heers has spent the majority of her competition years in Europe – based with some of the most respected horsemen and horsewomen in the sport. Helena Stormanns, Otto Becker and Eric Lamaze are among those heavy-weights Heers has been lucky to learn from. In December 2019, Heers relocated back to the US – basing herself in Wellington, Florida.

Impressing with consistent results during this year's Winter Equestrian Festival, Bliss was last week selected to the US short list ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo with her 11-year-old stallion Antidote de Mars (Diamant de Semilly x Jarnac). 

To World of Showjumping, the 34-year-old tells about her lessons learned during her years in Europe, how her new trainer Michael Matz has brought her riding right back to the basics and how she wishes the focus of the sport would shift back to where it truly belongs: On the horse.

Growing every day

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen
“When I was 17 and the option of going to university came up, I thought about what I really loved doing. Ultimately, horses have always been my love, so it was an easy choice,” Bliss says. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen.

Bliss was introduced to horses through her parents, who rode as amateurs. “I was lucky, because my dad was very good friends with an Irish horseman called Damien Gardner,” Bliss recalls. “I had all the opportunity in the world to watch the likes of Eddie Macken and the Whitakers compete at Spruce Meadows, to see Anne Kursinski in action and all the other top riders. My dad was very invested in the sport and loved watching. He would have video tapes of Jos Lansink that he studied, because he wanted to ride like him. It was very educational for me, just to have that around, even though I was not even riding at the time.”

“Later on, my mom took me for a riding lesson as a fun mother-daughter thing,” Bliss recalls with a smile. “I had one lesson and didn’t want to do anything else after!”

“When I was 17 and the option of going to university came up, I thought about what I really loved doing. Ultimately, horses have always been my love, so it was an easy choice. When I went to Europe and was based with other people, I was being educated: That was my university,” Bliss says.

From day one, Bliss has been captivated by the endless learning aspect of the sport, and the special bond between a horse and rider. “Yes, it is a sport, but it is more than a sport; it is really about you and the horse – something I really love,” Bliss says. “Also, I love that there is so much to learn: You are growing every day with your horse.”

“The horse should be the focus of the sport, but we seem to drift away from that a lot,” Bliss says. “Many seem to forget that our sport is about the animal, and the relationship with the horse. We should be promoting good horsemanship, not just the wins, the medals, the locations, the venues and the social scene around it. Overall, I would love to see more focus on horsemanship: Whether it is from the riders themselves or the horse shows.”

Back to basics

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen
“Michael has brought it all back to simplicity. We focus on basic horsemanship, how to eliminate big bits and simplify my connection with the horse – to achieve the maximum result but with very basic flatwork,” Bliss tells. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen.

Since March 2020, Bliss has been training with Michael Matz – who has brought her back to the basics with his simplified methods. “He is amazing,” Bliss tells about Matz – team silver medallist at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, team gold medallist at the World Championships in Aachen in 1986 and a six-time gold medal winner at the Pan-American Games, to mention some merits. “With Michael, everything is so simple: It is all about the horse, basic flatwork and your position. Getting your horse to move around your leg and to stay light in the bridle – which basically all comes from your seat and position. Michael has more emphasis on the simple things: Being forward, balanced and straight. If you are in a good position and your horse is forward, balanced and straight, you are more likely to jump the jump and leave it up than not. Usually, if you are going to have a rail, it is because one of those things is missing.”

During her years in Europe, Bliss had the opportunity to learn from some of the very best. “Helena, Otto and Eric are all very different when it comes to what I learned from each of them,” Bliss says about her former trainers. “Both Helena and Eric are very competitive. They really give you this feeling that you can do anything! To walk into a big class – having never done something like that before – with one of them by my side, I felt like I could not lose. They just filled me with so much confidence. With Otto, I learned how to be disciplined, how to work each horse. I understood the dedication it takes to win, to get to the top. Everything from the basic flat work and gymnastics, all the details when it comes to working the horses – I learned most of that from Otto, from being in Germany. Manfred Kötter, who came to Otto’s to help with the flat work, was a huge part of that learning experience, on how to ride all types of horses.”

“Now, Michael has brought it all back to simplicity. We focus on basic horsemanship, how to eliminate big bits and simplify my connection with the horse – to achieve the maximum result but with very basic flatwork,” Bliss tells.  

“I think with horses, there is not one system that works for all of them,” Bliss says. “You have to develop your own, especially when you are moving around like I have done. I always wanted to do my own thing, but you can learn so much from different people and different systems. I think moving around more of an opportunity rather than getting stuck in one system.”

Timing is everything

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen
The timing of the people involved in Bliss’ career has been vital, and that is also the case for her horses. “From my first pony that bucked me off every single day, that alone was perfect timing,” she laughs. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen.

“The amazing thing with all of them has been the timing of each person in my career: Each of them has been absolutely vital,” Bliss continues when talking about her trainers. “Coming out of California, I really needed that boost from Helena: To have the confidence to jump in Europe and to be competitive. I was very nervous coming to Europe, and she really helped me go compete and do my thing. From Otto, I got the discipline I needed.”

After getting badly hurt in an accident in 2018 and spending most of the year out, it was Eric Lamaze who helped Bliss gain back her confidence. “I had a young horse flip over on me and I broke five vertebras and my pelvis, as well as dislocating my hip,” she tells about the accident. “After I got hurt, Eric put me back in the ring, told me I can do it. However, getting hurt did not really change anything for me when it comes to my love for riding. Obviously, if you burn yourself, you are going to stay away from the flame. But it does not change what you love to do; things happen. If you let that get to your head, then it is over. But if you can just take it a day at the time, you get over it.”

Prado K and Antidote de Mars

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen
"I got very lucky with the horses in my life, from my first hunter and my first jumper. Probably though, the two horses that have made the biggest difference have been Prado K and Antidote de Mars," Bliss says. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen.

The timing of the people involved in Bliss’ career has been vital, and that is also the case for her horses. “From my first pony that bucked me off every single day, that alone was perfect timing,” she laughs. “It taught me to be determined. If I wanted to ride horses, I was going to get bucked off and I would have to deal with that – and learn how to not get bucked off. That was a good thing to start with. I got very lucky with the horses in my life, from my first hunter and my first jumper. Probably though, the two horses that have made the biggest difference have been Prado K (Prado x Dynast) and Antidote de Mars (Diamant de Semilly x Jarnac).”

“In the beginning, Prado K was so difficult in the ring that I was scared of him,” Bliss continues. “Learning to overcome my fear, to jump big fences and deal with this animal that was out of control… that was special. Not only was I intimidated of just being in Europe, I had this horse that I felt I could not ride. It turned out great, though: He jumped clear in our first ranking class, and has been an incredible horse for me. And now Antidote: The timing is incredible. When I first tried him after my accident, I was barely walking, I was just barely back on a horse. If you would see the video of me trying him, you would not think anything of it. He was just a nice horse. He was very kind and I felt he wanted to do good. Now, we have built this relationship where I feel like I could jump anything in the world with him. Considering I did not know what I was going to do or what he was going to be, it is cool how good we are going now.”

A dream scenario

Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen
"Every day when I go out it just feels like a dream opportunity and I can’t say it’s work, at all. Just the joy that comes from being on a horse and being with them, I think that is the best part of it," Bliss says. Photo © Kaitlyn Karssen.

“Honestly, I feel like I am just doing what I love,” Bliss smiles when asked what she loves most about her day-to-day life. “I would say, within what I do, the young horses are probably the most rewarding for me. However, every day when I go out it just feels like a dream opportunity and I can’t say it’s work, at all. Just the joy that comes from being on a horse and being with them, I think that is the best part of it. We are learning every day.” 

Bliss’ dedication to the sport does not come without a downside, though. “My family is very close-knit and being away from them is one of the hardest parts,” she tells. “I am very lucky that they come to visit often. My parents are my biggest support, they love the competitions and what I do – for me that is huge. For sure I would love to settle somewhere permanently and have more family-time. A dream scenario would be to be able to stay in Europe during the summer and in Wellington for the winter.” 

While the Covid-19 pandemic has forced Bliss to stay in the US, she believes there are a multitude of positives. “Obviously for the world and for the economy it has been very hard and there has been a lot of sad and bad – but we can also take a lot of good from it,” she says. “If you see the appreciation for everything we have now, compared to how we lived just a year ago: We took for granted all the shows we were going to. And in our private lives, just to be able to leave the house and go see your parents and friends. Now, there is just so much more appreciation. Going to the first shows post-corona, I was so grateful just having the opportunity to jump.”

“With the virus, it is all up in the air, you never really know,” Bliss says about her future plans. “We were very lucky to have a full schedule at the Winter Equestrian Festival and to have all these amazing classes every week. I hope everything gets back to normal: we’ve made the Olympic short list and I’m so excited to be going back to Europe, not only to compete, but the fact that I can once again put on the pinque coat. Right now we are going day by day and enjoying every moment and opportunity. I am doing the best I can and we will see what happens.”

 

No reproduction without written permission, copyright © World of Showjumping.com 

 



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