By Lauren R. Giannini
The Lone Star State is famous for longhorns, “Lonesome Dove,” black gold (oil), the Alamo, cowboys (horseback and football), and the two-step, but more and more Texans are taking up dancing on horseback. Houston and nearby areas boast strong equestrian communities. Just west of Houston, one of the up-and-coming venues for dressage is Twinwood Equestrian Center (TWEC).
In 2014, Lacey Halstead signed on as TWEC’s manager, joining longtime dressage trainer Nikki Taylor-Smith. Earlier this year, after a seven-month search and about 50 applicants, they welcomed Ida Mattisson, who personified the skill set and personality desired. “The best thing about the three of us,” said Lacey, “is that we collaborate on each horse’s program with the same focus: the horse.”
Physical upgrades weren’t the only major changes at Twinwood. “With Lacey as manager and Ida coming on board as a co-trainer, I feel we have become one big, happy family with the same goals in mind,” said Nikki. “We all get along really well, it feels cohesive, runs smoothly, and our boarders seem really happy, which is very important.”
Nikki and Ida learned dressage from some of Europe’s best and are experienced international competitors. With their focus on correct basics and the patient, progressive development of horse and rider, they’re well equipped to take students from start to Grand Prix, if that’s the goal. They also offer solid training for the dressage phase of eventing, represented by a small group of enthusiasts at Twinwood.
Swedish-born and raised, Ida (pronounced Ee-dah) finished school and moved to Bavaria, Germany, for seven years to work for Master trainer Dirk Meylemans. “He taught me everything,” she said. “Real work ethics, attitude and dedication in combination with the opportunity to work with 15 horses a day on all levels. I learned to train young horses, Grand Prix horses and everything in between, under supervision from Dirk himself six days a week. I also got the opportunity to ride clients’ horses in international competitions in Europe.”
When Ida returned to Sweden, she met Pether Markne, Swedish Olympic rider and top trainer in dressage and show jumping. “He’s so inspiring and really helped, pushing me to the next level, both in my own riding and in the way he teaches,” she said. “I learned a lot, and many new ways of problem-solving.”
In 2011, Pether and his clients proved instrumental in Ida relocating to the United States. She trained mostly in upstate New York and Wellington until recruited by Lacey this year.
“My training is very focused on the real basics for both horse and rider — no one gets to take shortcuts,” said Ida. “As the rider, you have to understand your own body so you can use it correctly to find ways to loosen the horse with minimal strength, to work up the levels in the snaffle and to create true strength and balance in the horse that comes from the hind end to the front.”
British by Birth
Nikki, born and raised in England, specialized in eventing and dressage. During 14 years in Aberdeen, Scotland, where she was Scottish National Champion in eventing and North East Champion in dressage, she contributed to the growth of dressage by bringing in top-notch clinicians and arranging symposiums. In 2007, she moved to the U.S., settling in Texas. She will become a citizen this year.
“I feel the same way about Houston — passionate about raising the standard of riding and teaching to compare favorably with the East and West coasts,” Nikki said. “It starts by encouraging top-level, world-class trainers to come to Twinwood so that we, as trainers, can continue our development and education and filter that down to all our students.”
Nikki did her dressage training with Stephen Clarke, British five-star Olympic judge. “He always made everything so clear and had the ability to explain something in 10 different ways so that everyone could understand the end result,” she said. “He adhered to the European ‘Scales of Training’ in his teaching, which I strongly believe in.”
Nikki’s training her 7-year-old who shows great potential for going to Grand Prix. “I would love to ride Grand Prix again, and I still enjoy competing,” she said. “But my ambitions lie with my daughter, Carly Taylor-Smith, helping her to get on the U.S. team and perhaps one day go to the Olympics. I honestly get more pleasure from watching my daughter and my clients be successful.”
Carly grew up in the saddle, dividing her time between eventing and dressage. Twice Scottish Junior Dressage Champion at two levels on two different horses, she also rode on the international teams for both Scotland and Great Britain. Upon moving to the U.S., she worked for Olympian Jan Ebeling for three years, then set out on her own in 2013.
Based in California, Carly travels to Twinwood to teach clinics whenever her busy training and competition schedule allows. She has campaigned Nikki’s young horse, Rosalut NHF, with great success. “Carly’s a very gifted rider who can get any horse to go in a soft, forward and round frame,” said Nikki. “The horses always seem so happy to work for her.”
A longtime dressage enthusiast, Lacey trained with Petra Wilder of Spellbound Farm in Ocala, Florida, who taught her, among other things, how to train an off-the-track Thoroughbred to move like a Warmblood. Lacey’s goals include getting her OTTB Valrhona through rehab for a suspensory injury and back into training next year and, with luck, to ride “at least one rockin’ freestyle” to The Commodores’ Brick House.
“Part of the reason I came to Twinwood Equestrian Center was because of the vision the owners had to make this a premier dressage facility,” said Lacey. “Nikki and Ida are totally on board with the plan. It’s wonderful to work with two smart, talented, dedicated ladies, who live and breathe dressage.”