Published in Private Edition 24:
Uber-trainer Elra Tonkin-Biering is working Assassin’s Tango when I arrive at Cavalli Estate, located on the Stellenbosch Wine Route and designed to celebrate a South African family’s passion for wine, horses, art and cuisine.
The stallion is a statuesque five-year-old American Saddlebred, and Elra’s dismount is calculated. He stands taller than the average 15 to 17 hands (152cm to 173cm), and it’s a long way down.
The American Saddlebred, or Saddler, is a sought-after show breed suited to show riding, endurance riding, dressage, jumping and mounted athletics work, but Cavalli’s managing director, Lauren Smith, wanted a trainer who would prioritise the classic dressage training approach. Renowned for her natural horsemanship techniques (in both South Africa and the US), Elra rose to the challenge and returned to Cape Town from the US in 2010, where she’d been living with her husband, Chad Biering.
With 10 new foals born on the estate by late last year, Elra has had her hands full managing the herd hierarchy, their training and the systems they depend on.
It’s a labour of love for breeders, with little ROI, and yet the people who do invest in Saddlers are mostly men. ‘It’s like a power trip. I call Saddlers the Aston Martin DB9s of horses; they’re so thrilling,’ says Lauren. ‘If a man is interested in riding one of these horses, he’ll be challenged in the quest to perfect the slow gait and the rack (which require you to sit dead still while the horse moves to a controlled or really fast beat, respectively).’
A significant sum has been offered for Assassin’s Tango, but he’s Lauren’s once-in-a-lifetime horse, bred and trained at Cavalli, and definitely not for sale. While she’s had to come to terms with the possibility of selling some of her horses, she won’t consider it until they’re fully trained. ‘Only then the potential shines through and you can get a clear idea of their actual value. You get hints of it when they’re young, but sometimes they completely transform,’ says Lauren.
The selling price for a Saddler depends on its age, size and level of training, as well as its gait action and style. It comes down to conformation (which refers to proportion and the way they hold their heads ‘with their faces tucked in and their necks straight up’) and athleticism.
‘The possiblity of breeding an export-quality horse is where the potential for real money lies – the US market would be the largest in terms of opportunity, commanding figures that could extend to several hundred thousand dollars,’ says Lauren.
The roots of the American Saddler can be traced to the Galloway and Hobbie horses that found their way to North America from the British Isles. They were crossed with Thoroughbreds in the early 1700s and, later, with Arabian and Morgan horses. ‘I had an Arab when I was young, and I’ve ridden Thoroughbreds and warmbloods, but I’ve never experienced that sense of fire and dynamic impulse that you get in an Arabian with other breeds,’ says Lauren. ‘When I first rode a Saddler, I thought, “Wow! This is something else.”’
Elra’s younger charges, which were all born at Cavalli Stud, range in age from 18 months to two years. ‘They’ve just graduated from crèche to preschool. They’re very dangerous at this age; they’re very strong and think they know everything,’ she says.
Her eyes scan the arena constantly, calling instructions to grooms in the surrounding stables and ready rooms. ‘If they’re naughty, all you do is stand in the middle and let them go around you – it’s exercise and it teaches them that you’re in command,’ she advises. Horse whispering 101: horses are herd animals, and depend on a hierarchy and systems for survival. In this context, the human must be seen as the leader.
The grooms are like family to Elra. She says their handling of the Saddlers when she’s working helps to keep her safe, but she attributes her success with horses to her husband. ‘Chad is a laidback, all-American cowboy, who does the first backing and in-hand training, and gets them to trust the human. And when I get frustrated because I’m not getting the results I want, he reminds me to be patient. The horse will do it when he’s ready.’
The formula requires equal parts instinct, sensitivity, understanding, leadership and skill. It doesn’t make Elra invincible. ‘I can still get hurt if something unexpected happens, but I have a very strong sense of when the horse is going to try to challenge me,’ she says. ‘I can read them so well; I feel it in my stomach. To be a good trainer you have to be able to feel what the horse is communicating, because he can’t verbalise it.’
Elra has been working with horses since the ’70s, but she had a tough apprenticeship, cleaning stables to earn her lessons.
I had to pick up manure for the privilege. If I cleaned 10 stables,
I could ride a show horse. As a teenager, I was able to train horses for other people. I loved taking a young, wild horse and “joining up” with him, getting him used to the saddle, and riding him.’
Her training focus at Cavalli is towards general riding ability and the show-stopping performance of the five gaits (walk, trot, canter, slow gait and rack). Elra likes working with the young colts and showing them for the first time.
Saddlers have an amazing temperament: their intelligence, curiosity and friendliness are tangible among those present at Cavalli Stud. They’re also described as even-tempered, gentle, willing and energetic. It has a lot to do with their environment.
‘I believe you must never deny any living creature the ability to be as true to its own nature as possible, and that was of paramount importance when we designed the arena,’ says Lauren, who was joint architect with Hannes Bouwer. ‘When horses are kept in isolation or in dark stables with poor air quality, it affects them psychologically and manifests in bad manners… They’re sociable, and need to be able to interact.’
The stainless-steel equine penthouse features a large degree of natural ventilation and light, a specially mixed, dust-free arena turf, individual stables that look out onto the arena on one side and the paddocks on the other, and two ready rooms where the horses are tacked up. They are served four or five meals a day and provided with plenty of fresh water and mineral licks. A tractor lane runs behind the stables to expedite the early-morning removal of the resulting ton-and-a-half of manure. It’s labour-intensive maintenance.
Lauren turns her attention to a recent video of the yearling, Enigmatic. ‘He’s got an amazing, strong engagement,’ she smiles. ‘He’s super-feisty; Elra’s going to have her hands full with this one.’