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Source of Inspiration Turned Coach-Student Partnership

by Kathleen Landwehr, US Equestrian Communications Department | Apr 11, 2023, 4:30 PM EST

Fiona Howard and Jagger exit the ring with coach Kate Shoemaker at the CHI Al Shaqab CPEDI3*.
(© CHI Al Shaqab)

Fiona Howard has made quite an impression with her recent performances at para dressage CPEDI competitions. Howard is a dedicated equestrian, and her success also is due in part to Kate Shoemaker, a Tokyo 2020 Paralympic team bronze medalist and 2022 FEI Para Dressage World Championship individual silver and team bronze medalist. Shoemaker and her Tokyo mount, Solitaer 40, served as inspiration for Howard during a 2021 hospital stint. Eventually, things fell into place for Howard to train with Shoemaker last summer.

This year, Howard and Shoemaker were part of the winning Adequan® U.S. Para Dressage Team at CHI Al Shaqab in Doha, Qatar, in February, and Howard had the opportunity to ride Shoemaker’s Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games mount Solitaer 40 in the Perrigo CPEDI3* at the Adequan® Global Dressage Festival Week 9 in Wellington, Fla. in March. Howard and Shoemaker shared how a source of inspiration turned into a coach-student partnership.

Returning to the Competition Ring

Howard began riding in 2007, competing first in dressage and eventing before taking up reining. A few years later, she was diagnosed with dystonia (a neuromuscular disease) and other health issues that have required hospital stays off and on since 2016. Despite the challenges, Howard was a successful FEI junior reining athlete for Great Britain, but health issues put her riding career on hold and brought her to the U.S. for treatment. During an intensive care unit stay in 2021, Howard passed the time watching para dressage videos, and Shoemaker and the striking Solitaer 40 caught her eye.

“Specifically, I recall a video of Kate and Soli at Tryon. I remember turning to my nurse after watching it and telling her that I was going to compete in the FEI arena again,” said Howard. “It didn’t matter how many health complications I experienced. I knew I could get through it, and I would get back to riding. I continued to follow Kate and Soli in the media in the lead-up to Tokyo and at the Tokyo Games, and it served as a reminder that there was something outside of the hospital—something to keep fighting for.”

As a dual citizen of Great Britain and the U.S., Howard started her journey to the FEI para dressage arena representing the U.S. in 2022 and steadily progressed. In April 2022, Howard met Shoemaker at a national dressage show in Ocala, Fla., and Shoemaker offered her barn in Wellington as a base for Howard’s horse. Howard was attending college in Massachusetts, but after considering the offer for a week, she decided to move her horse to Wellington.

Training Together

"Fiona is the type of student any coach would like to have," Shoemaker said of Howard. "She is willing to put in the time without anyone needing to tell her to do so."
(© CHI Al Shaqab)

Shoemaker stepped into the role of coach for Howard a few weeks later.

“In June 2022, I was given the opportunity to compete another horse that was being boarded at Kate’s barn, and we all agreed it made sense for Kate to coach me for that show, as she knew the horse. It ended up working really well,” said Howard. “After the show, we just sort of kept going, and then she helped me find the horse I competed in Doha (Jagger). And really the rest is history.”

The coach-student partnership has been a successful one for Howard and Shoemaker. Shoemaker has high praise for Howard’s dedication.  

“Fiona is the type of student any coach would like to have,” said Shoemaker. “She is willing to put in the time and more without anyone needing to tell her to do so. Fiona has the mentality of a fighter, and I believe that comes from the adversity she has faced in her life. If someone tells her she can’t do something, then she is definitely going to figure out a way to do it. When her doctors told her she wasn’t going to ride a horse again, she made it happen. That was just one of many steps she took to overcome the odds against her.”

Howard has benefited from Shoemaker’s coaching, and working with a fellow para equestrian has provided Howard with relatable insights.

“She is so positive when it comes to coaching but also knows when to push me a little more,” Howard said of Shoemaker. “She’s always completely honest with me, which helps me set good goals and keep improving. I love that I can tell her when I am struggling to figure out how to make something work with my dystonia and she will help figure out a way to adapt, no matter how long it takes.” 

Shoemaker has seen significant improvement in Howard’s riding over the past several months. Howard’s horse Jagger has also turned into a solid para dressage mount after receiving some initial retraining from Shoemaker.

“Just the other day, Fiona made a comparison video of her riding Jagger six months ago versus now, and he’s barely recognizable as the same horse, as they have both improved,” said Shoemaker. “In the early weeks with Jagger, I began adapting his aids to ones that Fiona is able to give with her body. The new aids began to really click for Jagger, and Fiona said in a past lesson with a huge grin, ‘I don’t know what you did, but my horse is now really cool.’ Of course, Jagger was already a really cool horse, but helping Fiona tap into those gaits and balance has been a really rewarding journey.

“In the beginning, Fiona and I sat down and made a long-term training plan for Jagger, which included slowly developing his trot through balance and strength over the next one to two years with an eye on the Paris [Paralympics],” continued Shoemaker.

Howard and Jagger made their Adequan U.S. Para Dressage Team debut in the Perrigo CPEDI3* at the Tryon Fall Dressage 3 in October 2022. They were the top individual pair in the CPEDI3* and helped the team secure the win.

“Jagger has so much heart that he met my 12-month goals after only four months, and we began to talk about the wish that Jagger could go to Europe to compete,” said Shoemaker. “With impeccable timing, USEF announced a travel grant opportunity for horses with multiple scores over 70% at CPEDIs and set in motion an unexpected trip across the pond.”

Teammates

Teammates Beatrice de Lavalette, Kate Shoemaker, and Fiona Howard, along with Chef d'Equipe Michel Assouline (back row), celebrate their win at the CHI Al Shaqab.
(© CHI Al Shaqab)

When Howard and Jagger were selected to be members of the Adequan U.S. Para Dressage Team for the CHI Al Shaqab CPEDI3* in Doha, Qatar, alongside Shoemaker and her 2022 World Championship mount, Quiana, student and coach suddenly became teammates on the world stage.

“It was a really exciting moment when we learned the selectors had given Fiona the nod to compete for the team at the CHI Al Shaqab CPEDI3*,” said Shoemaker. “I remember so fondly the moment I unboxed my U.S. team jacket in 2018, and it was equally exciting to be there when Fiona put her Charles Ancona team jacket on for the first time before we departed for Doha. I successfully made Fiona blush by joyfully calling her ‘teammate’ any chance I got. There is something really special about her going from student to teammate.”

“It was a really amazing experience,” added Howard. “Kate and Bea [de Lavalette] were great teammates, as well as their support teams. Michel [Assouline] is also such a wonderful chef d’equipe, so it was great to feel so much support for my first time competing on a U.S. team abroad.”

Howard received words of encouragement from Shoemaker before heading into the electric atmosphere at the CHI Al Shaqab.

“Kate told me to focus on what was within my control, enjoy the incredible experience of competing at Al Shaqab, and just go for it,” said Howard.

“Going into Doha, we both shared the concern that we didn’t know what Jagger would do in such a grand venue,” added Shoemaker. “I told Fiona, ‘We aim for the best, but we’ve also prepared for the worst.’ Incredibly, he flourished in the stunning arena.”

The U.S. team did well at the CHI Al Shaqab CPEDI3*, winning the team competition—the first-ever CPEDI win abroad for the U.S.

“It was a really special moment—especially being able to stand on the podium next to Kate,” Howard continued. “Any time you are on a team is such an honor, but being on a team with Kate, who has also dedicated so much to my horse and me, made it even more incredible.”

Competing Solitaer 40

Fiona Howard is all smiles after competing Solitaer 40 at the Perrigo CPEDI3* in March.
(©Kimberlyn Beaudoin/KTB Creative Group)

After the CHI Al Shaqab, Howard and Shoemaker returned to the U.S. while their horses, Jagger and Quiana, stayed in Europe to enjoy some down time before aiming toward summer competitions abroad. Shoemaker had plans to ride her up-and-coming horse, Ghandi, at the Perrigo CPEDI3* in Wellington, and Howard was initially planning to sit the competition out. Then a plan came to fruition for Howard to ride Shoemaker’s Solitaer 40. It was a full-circle moment, as Howard got a chance to compete the horse that helped inspire her to return to the FEI arena.

“While Kate was in Europe training for the World Championships last summer, she half-jokingly said I could show Soli if I rode him while she was away,” explained Howard.

“I knew how much she loved Soli and told her she could ride him as much as she wanted as long as she was in a lesson,” added Shoemaker. “I told her that she could show him when I got back in exchange for keeping him happy, so last fall, Fiona and Soli entered a local show. Fate would have it that the timing was perfect for her to use the entry to try Jagger in a show situation, and she never did show Soli.”

“While we were away in Doha, Kate brought up the idea of me showing Soli at Wellington,” continued Howard. “I knew it would be a lot of fun, and I was very excited, as well as extremely thankful to be given the chance to show Soli and support the show.”

After returning from Doha, Howard and Solitaer 40 had a week to prepare for the Perrigo CPEDI3*. They picked up right where they had left off last summer and were ready for their competition debut. Their combined past performances were enough to earn them a spot on the Adequan U.S. Para Dressage Team yet again.

“I was one proud horse-mom and proud coach in that moment,” said Shoemaker. “When it seems the fairy tale could not be more complete, they managed to come back from mistakes on the first day to be the high-scoring pair of the show on the second day.”

The competition held special meaning for Howard and Shoemaker for different reasons. For Shoemaker, it was a chance to look back at her journey with Solitaer 40 and acknowledge what a special horse he is.

“Soli is one of those one-of-a-kind horses,” said Shoemaker. “He’s now shown Grades II, III, and IV with four different riders plus knows all of the pieces of the Grand Prix. When Soli and I started competing eight plus years ago, I was told he would never make a para horse—more specifically, that I would never be able to ride him. It’s really cool to see what perseverance, training, belief in your horse, and putting in the time can do.” 

For Howard, the competition offered a chance to see her personal progress in the past year with the help of some key supporters.

“Exactly a year before this show, I had come to Wellington for my FEI para classification and competed in the national show,” said Howard. “I remember watching Kate show Soli for the first time in person. To then be showing Soli in that same arena exactly a year later was very emotional. I felt so fortunate to have been given the opportunity to show Soli. Without a doubt, I would not be here today if it had not been for Kate and Soli.”