Craft Brings Success
By Ingrid Edisen

Perhaps it’s in the genes or maybe just the luck of the draw.  But for whatever reason, Nancy Fair got bitten by the horse bug early in life and followed the call of her craft until she has become a Grand Prix dressage rider.  She considers her horses to be her canvas and is in awe of how their musculature and performance changes for the better over time.

    Based in the Austin area, Nancy recounted her path recently.  She’d just returned the day before from what’s affectionately called “the Frostbite Show” in Houston, which is the first recognized dressage show of the season every year. The top scores she’d earned on two of her horses, Pushkin (“B.J”) at the stratospheric FEI levels and Ubetja now at Training Level had pleased her.  All her work over the winter months had paid off. 

    “I was one of three girls in my family,” she said.  And she was the only one who had a hankering for horses.  Living in Washington, D.C., her parents tolerated her requests for a pony at first by trying to put her off but she persisted.  Her desire for horses may have been in her genes.  Her father had had a “brush” with horses.  As it turned out, her grandfather had worked for four U.S. presidents as the chief steward on the presidential yacht The Mayflower.  He had a good friend who was a colonel and owned several horses.  Over time, the colonel kept after her father, who was small framed and semi-interested in horses, since the colonel wanted her father to breeze his horses for him.  When push came to shove, though, despite the invitation by the colonel, her father chose to pursue college and get a business degree, eventually becoming an accountant instead.  But later, Nancy believes her dad encouraged her horse path.  She ended up owning three different ponies and a Thoroughbred as she grew up from ages nine to fifteen, did the Pony Club and 4-H route and showed hunters in the D.C. area.  She had to admit, though, that she does not know how her parents, both government workers, came up with the funds to keep her involved in her horse habit.  Neither of her sisters ever expressed the same interest.

She applied and was accepted into the Morven Park International Equine Institute in Leesbury, Virginia, that was at the time the only one of two places in the country that gave instructor certification.  Unlike the three-month plan at the Potomac school, Morven Park offered a ten-month study platform.  Forty students were admitted.  “All of us were at least ‘B’ Pony Club,” Nancy explained, “but they took us back down to scratch and began lungeing us without stirrups or reins daily.”  In a way, the school was somewhat like a mini version of the course at the famed Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  Major John Lynch of England was the director.  He’d ridden in the Olympics and World Equestrian Games and Nancy even has a signed picture of him receiving a medal from Winston Churchill.  The class instructors taught the classes in “ride formation” and the students had to keep up with the quadrille style in group lessons.  Most of the school horses were donated so the quality was varied.  There were two ex-Olympic horses on campus; many retired event horses and some off the track.  The program offered event training and taught a balance seat.  Among other things, she was given an entire barn along with thirteen students to maintain and had to plan for the daily operation and lesson plans for both steeds and riders.  In the end, she wrote two papers—one on barn construction and the other on how to let a horse down for the winter after a heavy show season.  As part of her final exam, she had to ride at a canter and take the saddle off and hold it up while keeping the canter the whole time.  Morven Park was formed in 1967 and has since then recently folded, but it served as her springboard.

    She took various teaching positions around the U.S., living in places such as New Mexico, Florida, and Upper Marlboro, Maryland.  In Florida she got to work with Jean Brinkman of Valhalla Farms in ’75 and showed and trained there. At that time Valhalla had not yet made its move to Wellington, FL, and was in its embryonic stages of its huge breeding program.  In her late twenties she taught for three or four years at Patuxant Valley Farms while maintaining a day job as a secretary in D.C. and teaching lessons at night and on weekends.  She remembers taking a lesson with Olympian Robert Dover in the mid-70’s and it only costing her twenty-five dollars!  Now living in D.C. she married Harry (“Bud”) Fair who worked for the Defense Department.  Little did he know how much she was involved with horses, at least not at first.  Bud was offered a national research and development post at the University of Texas at Austin and reluctantly, Nancy said good-bye to the East Coast.  They moved to Westlake, close to downtown Austin and Nancy was delighted to quickly meet Barbara Boyd who also lived close by.  Barbara served as a pipeline of sorts.  She had good classical dressage instructors coming to her barn to give clinics and teach regularly. 

    One in particular served as Nancy’s mentor:  Franz Rockowansky.  “Rocky” who had been trained at and helped run the program at the Spanish Riding School, has since died, never stopped  teaching.  He was 89 and still teaching at Nancy’s farm, passing away later that year after his 90th birthday.  For over twenty-five years or so, he’d travel from England where he was based with his protégée, Olympic rider Vickie Thompson, and teach in the U.S. twice a year.  Nancy formed a bond with him.  She recalls that it was at one of the clinic dinners at Barbara’s house in which someone announced that she, Nancy, needed a better horse.

    “I had a Thoroughbred mare at the time,” she said.  “Actually, she was a dangerous horse to ride but it was all I could afford at the time.”

    Rocky put his arm around her and asked in his Austrian accent, “You need a horse?  I’ll go to England and find you a horse.”  Bud and Nancy, not knowing any better, said, “okay.”  Two months later she received the call.  Rocky had found Sable for her, a six-year-old warmblood that had been used as a hunter hack.  So, sight unseen and only able to watch the horse on a video, the Fairs borrowed the money ($14K) to purchase what was to become her first FEI horse.  Up to that point, Vickie Thompson had only worked Sable twice a week for two months.  Vickie had ridden in the ’96 Olympics and would work the horse for its owner who wanted Sable sold.  Sable arrived in the U.S. in 1988.

    Nancy said Rocky always gave her something new to work on.  “He always kept you a little off balance,” she said.  “I’d always learn something really new with him.  One time he’d come here and teach me how to do a flying change.”  So, for the next six months, she’d perfect that.  Then he’d return for another clinic and check in on her progress and teach her how to do tempi changes. 

    “I’d never have done that on my own,” she admits.  What it amounted to was she received an education in classical dressage taught by one of the old school masters and basically kept pure.  “He kept pushing you.” 

    Nancy admits it takes the right combination.  Not all horses are suitable for FEI work.  After she earned her bronze, silver and gold USDF medals on Sable and had trained the horse herself all the way up the levels, she realized had attained her goals and asked herself what was next. 

    She sold Sable and found herself crying as her aged partner trotted off “just like a four-year-old in his prepurchase vet check when she sold him.  That’s one thing you should ask yourself,” she noted,  “is my horse sound?”  All of Rocky’s horses lived long lives and stayed sound.  He even had a thirty-eight year old that was still sound. “It’s a testament to your riding,” she said.

    She then purchased several horses and worked them to fourth level or so, searching for a new FEI partner.  Each time, she’d sell the horses after she’d gotten them as far as she thought they were capable and make a small profit.  In 1992, she and her husband purchased their current training facility where she gives lessons and trains.  It is located in Dripping Springs and on fifty scenic acres.  She charges $70 for a lesson; $800 for full training (five days a week of riding) along with $575 board. 

   In 2003 and 2004, she decided to do the Florida winter dressage circuit just to see where she ranked nationally and was satisfied to find herself placing at several shows and at least middle of the pack in the CDI’s (internationally ranked classes that serve as ramps to the Pan Am Games, Olympics, etc.).  The competition in Florida is fierce.  “You really need to be breaking into the 70’s scorewise at FEI to make it into the top,” she admits.  Her scores were in the sixties but she was pleased nonetheless.

    Who does she use to study with now that Rocky is gone?  “I imagine he’s still with me,” she said.  She can still hear his voice and if she gets into a tough spot, she thinks, “now what would Rocky do?”  She explained she has gotten more confident and no longer gets lost (mentally) as she works her horses.  She knows the path she’s on and what to do to fix a mistake. 

    “I always go back and redo if we make a mistake in training.”  There is no point in trying to ride through a mistake, she said.

    Today she campaigns three horses and has two others in full training for clients.  She also teaches on a limited basis.   Pushkin is a 1993 Pregelstrand son Trakehner, working at Intermediare II and Grand Prix; Japolita (“Jax”) is a 1991 Dutch warmblood (Claveciombal daughter) doing Pre St. Georges and Intermediare I; Ubetja is a five-year-old Dutch warmblood she purchased from Jim and Jody Cunninham and of Flemmingh-Rampal breeding (the same lines as world champions Anky Van Gruensven and Edward Gal’s horses) who is now coming along nicely at training level.
    Nancy Fair can be reached at Fair Oaks Farm, (512) 413-4462, 1001 Brownson Rd., Dripping Springs, TX 78620. 
Her addresses are: (mailing) P. O. Box 645; Dripping Springs, TX 78620; Email: fairoaksdressage@earthlink.net.    

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