By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Melissa Fuller
A stroke of serendipity forever changed dressage professional Stephany Fish Crossman’s life. Little did her parents know that an ordinary trip to a county fair in Bangor, Maine, during the summer of 1977 would leave a lasting impression and spark an insatiable passion in Stephany.
“My parents put me on a pony at the fair and I didn’t want to get off—apparently there was a bit of screaming going on. I believe my parents may have avoided the fair for a bit after that incident,” Stephany chuckled.
Although they managed to avoid the fair, Stephany couldn’t stop thinking about horses. Luckily for her, the family moved to the “Horse Capital of the World,” Ocala, Florida. With horses aplenty, Stephany started taking lessons at the local boarding barn.
“While my parents hoped indulging me with riding lessons would quell my infatuation with horses, the bug had bitten,” Stephany said. Two years later, she got a surprise that cemented her connection with horses.
Stephany Fish at her Serendipity Dressage in Brooksville, Florida, with her horses Dante’s Rhythm RF, left, and Ehrensache WHF.
With Stephany’s grandfather passing away earlier in the year, Christmas 1982 was looking like a solemn affair. “My parents said they were going to the airport to get my Nanny’s brother, Bob, as a Christmas surprise for her. I waited at the house with Nan, but when they came back, they had a smallish brown horse with a Western saddle and royal blue saddle pad on,” Stephany said. “That was Beau, my first horse. I thought they had rented him for the day for me!”
Beau introduced Stephany to the world of horse ownership and led the way to subsequent horses and disciplines. Stephany did Pony Club, hunter shows, dressage shows and several horse trials. “At my first recognized event, I managed to get thrown off at the third jump. Everything looked so big! After that, I decided dressage was the thing for me. I simply wasn’t brave enough for the big jumps and dressage intrigued me,” she said.
Stephany couldn’t imagine a life without horses and said, “As soon as I was old enough to know that grownups had to have jobs, I knew I wanted to be a horse trainer! However, my family had other ideas in mind, and I was told that I was going to college,” she said. “What they said was, ‘Get a degree and you can afford your own horses; train horses for a living and you will be too poor and only ride other people’s horses.’”
A dutiful daughter, Stephany obliged her parents’ wishes. “Several years, many dollars, a slight detour as a working student for Michael Poulin and many credits later, I ended up in the hotel management business, without a degree and without a horse,” Stephany said.
Although not the initial plan, Stephany excelled in the hotel industry. “I was very good at the business and got to work all over the country. As I moved for work, I had several aborted attempts at riding and teaching in each place, but hotels are like horses: My time was never my own, so the job came first,” Stephany said.
Eventually, the hotel industry brought Stephany to Palm Beach County. “I found a barn through the bartender at our hotel and got back into riding again. After five years in the hotel industry, when they wanted to transfer me again, I said no,” Stephany said. “They didn’t like it, but it gave me the courage to give this business a go and focus full time on horse training. I had no clue what I was doing, but I decided I would rather be poor and happy than have money and be miserable.”
Stephany, with Sache, conducts clinics across the country.
Happy to be back horsing around, Stephany worked for veterinarian Lori Minteer for four years while she built her lesson business. As she was trying to figure out how to give her business a jump start, she picked up a copy of Dressage Today and read about the International Academy of Equine Studies (IAES) in Germany.
IAES was a concept started in Warndorf, Germany, with the idea to educate American, Canadian and Mexican riders in the Germany system, but in an abbreviated time frame. “I was working at a local farm in Jupiter and had a variety of horses to ride, but no money and no coaching, so I was pretty much going around in circles. I saw going to Germany as a springboard for my career, something to help me get to the next level of recognition and training,” Stephany said.
Stephany went all in once she was accepted into the program. “I buckled down to study more than I had at anything before; I worried, I sweated, I worked. The biggest piece that I got from going to Germany, besides my dear horse, Rocky, I brought home, was that I could do pretty much anything I set my mind to,” Stephany said.
In fact, to obtain her National Trainer Certificate at the end of the four-month program, Stephany had to pass several oral, written and practical exams. “We had to show competency in lunging, riding a young horse in a snaffle, riding an older horse in a double, we had to jump a 4’ jumper course (I closed my eyes for that part!), we had to formulate a lesson plan for a particular rider and horse, give the lesson and then review the lesson,” she said.
With her certification and new horse in hand, Stephany headed back to America in 2002. “Rocky became my first FEI horse and really helped me launch my career. Without him, I’m not sure the whole trip would have made a difference; without something to ride, how can you show off your knowledge,” Stephany said.
Stephany with her beloved hound Lila, who she recently lost.
Today, Stephany runs her Serendipity Dressage business in Brooksville, Florida. “When I started my business, that name was the natural choice for me. As a child, we had to move, and my parents bribed me with a five-acre farm they named Serendipity Stables. The concept of serendipity is something good that happens by chance. I like to think we take the ‘chance’ out of success,” she said.
Stephany is in the process of building her own facility in her ever-evolving enterprise. “I have a curious blend of serious riders who compete and beginner/novice adult amateurs who ride once a week. I also have a few horses in training, who range from green horses I’ve started to horses needing a tune-up to competing dressage horses,” Stephany said.
Her program blends dressage with biomechanics and natural horsemanship. Stephany is one of only nine accredited coaches for Mary Wanless’ Ride With Your Mind Biomechanics System in the U.S. The system helps her correct riders’ deep-seated imbalance issues that can show up in horses in a variety of ways. “Understanding the human body is pivotal for the ‘average’ rider who is struggling to be the best guide for their horse that they can be but doesn’t know what they are and aren’t doing with their body,” Stephany said.
As Stephany has always been one to get tricky horses to work with, she was looking for new skills to help get the most out of them. That’s when she attended a Harry Whitney natural horsemanship clinic. “Harry looks at everything from a horse’s point of view. They simply want to feel OK—that they will live to see another day, that they won’t get eaten,” Stephany explained.
Combining these two philosophies has been a game changer for Stephany’s riders. “When the rider feels confident about their position and about their horse hearing them, dressage becomes the easy part,” Stephany said.
As an advocate for her discipline, Stephany likes to break that myth that anything other than competition dressage is simply not dressage. “Dressage helps your horse be straight to the jump and after the jump; it helps keep your tempo on the cross-country course; it helps an average mover get better scores. Dressage is knowing what to do to help make your horse better, whether that’s a shoulder in or a medium canter—dressage works for everything,” she said.
With USDF Bronze and Silver medals, Stephany is working towards her Gold medal. She currently has two horses of her own she is working with, Ehrensache WHF and Dante’s Rhythm RF. “Both are amazing horses. Ehrensache is my FEI horse; I plan to bring him to the Grand Prix level in the next two years, if all goes as planned. I’m really excited about Dante too, he’s at First Level this year and I think we will see big things out of him,” she said.
In addition to pursuing her own dreams and those of her regular customers, Stephany conducts clinics across the country. “I enjoy the clinic side of my business because I get to come in for some short, really intense teaching and leave them with a lot of homework to add to what they do with their main trainers. It’s so rewarding to be invited back to a location and see the progress clinic participants have made,” Stephany said.
An extra bonus to doing clinics is traveling to amazing venues. Two such places are Maui and Bozeman, Montana. “In Maui, I’ve seen whales jumping in the ocean from the arena while I was teaching, toured volcanos and swam with dolphins and manta rays. While much colder, Bozeman is another world equally as beautiful,” Stephany said.
Like many professional equestrians, Stephany would love to represent her country at the top of her sport someday. At the end of her career, she would feel like it was a huge accomplishment if she brought several horses to the Grand Prix level. She wants to show that where there is a will there is a way.
“There is a huge gap between those at the top of the business and those who make up the rest of the dressage community. If the people toward the bottom and middle of the pack can see how one gets to the top rungs of training, I think that’s an admirable goal to have,” Stephany said. “Having friends on both ends of the spectrum, I have a unique opportunity to help bridge that gap.”
Stephany earned her National Trainer Certificate while in Germany.
For more information, visit www.serendipitydressage.net
Photos by Melissa Fuller, msfullerphotography.com