Unorthodox Excellence, Pt. I: Harry Callahan, Grand Prix dressage Saddlebred

In the first edition of our new series on nontraditional sporthorse breeds, we speak with the past and present trainers of an unlikely dressage star.

Meet Harry Callahan, an American Saddlebred (Supreme Heir x Make My Day by The New York Times) who not only made it to the upper echelons of dressage but also held his own in world-class competition.

Harry’s former owner Linda Cawthon of Louisville, Ky.,  purchased the 16-hand gelding as an unbroken 3-year-old. She entrusted Harry’s training to Chrissa Hoffmann of CFH Dressage.

Chrissa recalls, “That was her vision, her goal, her fairytale, to have a Saddlebred do dressage. We thought, ‘Let’s take a risk.'”

To look at him standing in a stall, Harry doesn’t immediately strike one as a dressage horse–his back is long, his neck is short, and his tail is high-set. To Harry’s advantage, however, he had not been started when Chrissa began working with him so his three basic gaits were still intact.

“He never really knew he was a Saddlebred,” Chrissa says.

The pair began powering their way up the levels, dominating their classes against more purpose-bred warmbloods.


Chrissa and Harry, age 6, on the cover of USDF Connection in December 2005. That was the year they moved up to Third Level, winning with scores of up to 67.9%.  Photo credit: S.W. Busch.

Chrissa says Harry’s dressage career snowballed from there thanks to his incredible intelligence and work ethic.

“He learned flying changes in a day. He learned passage in a day,” Chrissa says. “He was just so game and built to do it mentally.”

Harry debuted at Grand Prix in 2008 as a coming 10 year old, scoring an impressive 65.2% in his very first outing. In 2009 Chrissa and Harry placed 6th at the WEF Dressage Classic CDI-W against a competitive field of 18 horses.

Chrissa says she got an education working with Harry that she was later able to apply to other horses–how to enhance the gaits, how to deal with a hotter horse. She has since trained another Saddlebred, Forty Something, to I-1.

Video: Chrissa and Harry demonstrating passage, piaffe, tempi changes, pirouettes and more.

These days Harry is still out there competing and teaching other riders the upper-level movements.

Most recently Harry’s new owner Wendi Montgomery loaned him to her trainer, Catherine Reid of Reid Sporthorses, so that she could earn her final qualifying Grand Prix score for a USDF Gold Medal. They accomplished the goal in just one show.

“He is such a fun horse,” Catherine says. “He tries so hard.”

Catherine says that Harry is a different ride from the warmbloods that are more typically seen in the dressage ring.

“He’s very, very sensitive–in a good way,” she says. “His smaller gaits are easier to maneuver. In the FEI work, with a bigger horse you really have to work to balance those giant gaits. He’s so handy.”

Wendi, Harry’s owner and proprietor of Sky River Equestrian Center in Sultan, Wash., plans to compete Harry at Third Level this year.

“She is really, really happy to have such a great schoolmaster,” Catherine says.

Chrissa enjoys keeping keeping track of Harry from afar and marvels at his continuing impact on her life. “It’s amazing–his success still follows me,” she says.

Harry has inspired dressage enthusiasts around the world with his story of unlikely success, perhaps because it is one to which many of us can relate.

Harry german

Harry’s story featured in a German magazine.

“We all want to watch Edward Gal and he’s beautiful to watch, but that’s not the average person. The average person is riding their thoroughbred or their Saddlebred in the back field,” Chrissa explains.

There’s an assumption that your horse has to have the right conformation, the right movement and the right bloodlines to succeed in dressage.

“I just don’t believe that anymore,” she says. “Harry loves to work and he has heart. At the end of the day, a horse is a horse.”

Harry 3rd

All photos used with permission from Chrissa Hoffmann.

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