By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Sara Farrell
Oprah Winfrey once said, “The biggest adventure you can ever take is to live the life of your dreams.” Ela Ladwig has been on an equestrian adventure since she was a child. For as long as Ela can remember, her dreams have always included horses.
Ela’s journey with horses has taken her from Poland to Scotland, then across the pond to California first and then to Kentucky, where she lives and works today. Throughout the years, Ela has immersed herself in the two interests she’s passionate about, art and horses, and become a self-taught dressage rider and artist in the process.
Growing up in Poland, Ela got her start with horses at a young age, when she decided to take matters into her own hands. “As a little kid, all I wanted to do was climb onto my grandfather’s Polish draft horses and ride. When I was 5 years old, my parents decided it would be much safer to take me to a riding school rather than finding me in the backyard trying to climb on one of my grandfather’s horses,” she said.
Just a few miles down the road from her grandparents’ house, in the village of Grabowo, Ela started her equestrian journey at the local riding school. It was there that Ela learned how to jump. “Most of my Junior years were spent training for jumpers and eventing. I loved everything about those disciplines: speed, teamwork and competing,” Ela said.
As a Junior rider, Ela was fortunate to have an instructor who instilled discipline and work ethic in all of his students. “My instructor in Poland was a cavalry soldier. I remember every student was expected to make sure all the tack and horses were show-ready for every lesson,” Ela said. “If we didn’t meet his high standards, we didn’t get to ride that day.”
Path to Painting
While Ela was learning to ride, her aunt gave her an unexpected gift that would forever alter her path. “One day my aunt gave me a sketch pad and I started drawing horses when I wasn’t on a horse’s back. I filled the pages with sketches of horses’ hooves, eyes, nostrils and tails,” Ela said. “I would spend hours sitting watching horses graze. I got to the point where I could practically sketch horses with my eyes closed.”
After graduating from high school, Ela moved to Scotland where she worked as an au pair for a year. While in Scotland, she started to experiment with creating pieces with pastels and colored pencils. “On my days off, I would do portraits of horses for nearby horse owners. I loved drawing everyone’s pets and giving my art to the owners as gifts,” Ela said.
After finishing her time as an au pair in Scotland, Ela returned home to Poland. It was in Poland that she met her husband, Milo, who was living in Poland teaching English as a second language. In 1999, the couple decided to move to Bakersfield, California, and lived next door to Milo’s parents.
After getting settled in the States, Ela and Milo bought a small ranch in hopes of breeding jumpers. Ela also went to school to become a registered dental hygienist. When Ela needed a minute to get away from her studies, she’d spend time either in the saddle or at her easel. “It was in California that I painted my first oil painting. I switched to acrylics there as well, which is a medium I still use today,” she said.
After living in California for eight years, getting married and having two children, Ela and Milo decided it was time for a change. “We were tired of the fast-paced life in California and felt like God was leading us somewhere else. We visited many places and although beautiful, none felt like home—until Maple Swamp Farm was shown to us,” Ela said.
In November 2006, Ela found her dream home, Maple Swamp Farm. Nestled in the rolling hills of Central Kentucky, it was the place where she could finally make her breeding dreams come true. “We fell in love with the farm and knew it would be a great place to raise our kids. Milo sold his business and I quit my dental hygiene job, which was not easy. We packed our U-Haul and left California for Kentucky,” she said.
Moving to the bluegrass state was perfect for an equine enthusiast like Ela. “I became a professional when we bought Maple Swamp Farm. I submerged myself into the horse life and trained horses, taught lessons, developed my breeding program, tried to keep up my painting and juggled my family life,” Ela said. “Not an easy task, but I became very good at managing my time.”
Ela didn’t just change professions when she moved, she changed disciplines and decided to focus on dressage full-time. “I love the intricacy of dressage. It’s all about giving and taking at the right moment. It can be an incredible dance with your equine partner and going through the levels is very rewarding,” Ela said. “Dressage allows me to develop a horse and myself into a more harmonious and skillful pair.”
After falling in love with dressage, Ela bought a 2 ½-year-old Fresian stallion, Alrick, to achieve her dreams in the dressage arena and her breeding program. “Alrick was my heart horse. He was the most amazing horse I’ve ever met,” she said.
Ela and Alrick were dance partners for 13 years, until she lost him in April 2023. Together they climbed the levels of dressage, earning USDF Bronze, Silver and Gold medals. Just as Ela taught herself how to paint and create art, she did the same in the dressage arena.
“I’m a mostly self-taught dressage rider; I’ve watched a lot of YouTube training videos over the years. Training my own horse, especially a stallion, up to the Grand Prix level was a great accomplishment that took hours and hours in the saddle,” Ela said.
Although Alrick is no longer here, he lives on in the competitive offspring he sired. “His sweet and kind personality and exceptional work ethic shines through in each of his babies,” Ela said.
Today, Maple Swamp Farm is home to over 40 horses including stallions, broodmares, babies, boarders, training horses and a few rescue horses. “We now stand two Oldenburg stallions and offer quality young sport horses,” Ela said. What started as a dream, fueled by a heart horse, has turned into both a successful breeding operation and an oasis and fun place for Ela’s customers to gather and be with their horses.
Passion for Perfection
It’s fitting that Ela’s two greatest passions are dressage and painting. Whether applying brush strokes to a canvas or trotting down the center line, she’s always in pursuit of perfection. However, in both endeavors, perfection is always slightly out of reach and that’s what keeps her coming back for more in both pursuits.
When it comes to art and equine activities, Ela enjoys the journey of taking a blank canvas and turning it into a finished product. “When I sketch a piece, I see the finished project in my head. I love putting finishing touches on a painting and seeing it all come to life,” she said.
While she initially started sketching realistic portraits of horses as a child, Ela’s style has evolved from realism to a mix of realism and impressionism. “I love unusual perspectives and bold colors,” Ela said. Ela’s favorite piece she’s created is Noble Horse II. Inspired by her heart horse, Alrick, the Noble Horse series features the beauty and grace of Friesians.
With a studio apartment created at Maple Swamp last year, Ela is looking forward to spending more of her free time painting. “There’s an energy that builds up in an artist that they need to transfer into art. When I paint, nothing else exists and time stands still,” she said. “I love spending time in my studio. Regardless of how busy my life has been, I’ve always tried to make time for my passion for painting.”
Ela loves sharing her passion for art with others. “I do a lot of commissions. I absolutely love making people happy with a portrait of their horse, but painting my original pieces is my favorite,” Ela said. “I’m honored so many want to welcome my art into their homes.”
In August 2022, Ela created her Art Stories vlog series on YouTube. Each month, Ela interviews an artist about their work. “Every artist has a unique and inspiring story. I wanted to bring artists, especially local artists, together and give them another platform to show off their passion for art. I love meeting fellow artists, and they love sharing their art with others,” Ela said. “I ask each artist to donate a piece of their art and we raffle it off to Art Stories subscribers.”
Living the Dream
As Ela looks back at her journey that brought her to where she is today, at heart she’s still the little girl who dreamt about horses and wanted to spend every minute in their presence. “I thank God every day that I get to do what I love and call it work,” she said.
Ela has been lucky to not only pass along her love of horses to her students, but she’s also passed it along to her children. “Adalee is an eventer and dressage rider who’s studying to become an equine chiropractor. Elijah owns a business that builds arenas,” she said. “Supporting both Adalee’s and Elijah’s careers is a huge priority for me.”
When it comes to her own equestrian future, Ela is looking forward to helping her students achieve their goals while also developing more Grand Prix horses. “I love teaching dressage, so hopefully I will be giving more clinics in the future. I’m also looking forward to continuing my breeding program, training and competing,” she said.
For Ela, it will always be about horses. “Horses have always been my inspiration,” she said. “I love them and can’t imagine life without these amazing animals.”
For more information, visit elasequineart.com or mapleswampfarm.com
Photos by Sara Farrell, www.threeredheadsandamoose.com, unless noted otherwise