By Laura Scaletti
Portraits by Kristen Scott
Lindsey Holleger believes if it’s meant to be, it will be. Throughout her life, things have happened organically when it comes to horses. From finding her first trainer to turning professional to getting her current job as head trainer at Maplewood Warmbloods, everything has always just fallen into place.
Born into a family of horse enthusiasts, Lindsey happily followed in her parents’ footsteps. “My parents actually met through horses and had me riding when I was 18 months old. My mom did eventing until she had me, then shifted to solely dressage. My dad did Western riding, eventing and now participates in Civil War reenactments,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey spent her early childhood years in Budapest, Hungary. It was abroad that Lindsey first competed. “I did European leadline when I was 4 years old. I have always been around horses and can’t imagine life without them,” she said.
The family returned to the States when Lindsey was 8 years old and purchased a farm in South Georgia. “We had a private farm with six stalls and as everyone knows, no matter how many stalls you have, you fill them up,” Lindsey said. “I had a few ponies, dad had horses for fun when he wasn’t working, and mom and I always rode together.”
Like many equestrians’, Lindsey’s first few mounts were character builders. She first started with a POA pony and then moved on to a spicy Quarter Pony, Sonyador. “We got Sonyador for $500 off a trade. She was kind of wild and had unfortunate nicknames from the public like devil pony,” Lindsey said. “She was challenging but taught me a lot.”
Although Lindsey grew up riding with her dressage-oriented mother, it wasn’t until Lindsey was 13 years old that she committed herself to the discipline, when she got her first real dressage horse, Friedensfürst, aka Fenway. A 7-year-old Trakehner, Fenway, much like Sonyador, decided to put Lindsey’s skills to the test immediately.
“He bucked me off a few times pretty good. The third time he bucked me off I was like, That’s enough, we aren’t having this anymore; let’s get to work,” Lindsey said. “Developing Fenway ended up being a huge starting point for what I wanted to do with my career. He’s a huge reason why I went the route I did.”
As soon as Lindsey got Fenway, she knew she was destined for a career with horses. “I just decided that I wanted to go to the Olympics one day and that was that. I don’t exactly know where that thought came from, but I was just so passionate about the sport and watching the top horse-and-rider combinations,” Lindsey said. “Today my dreams and aspirations are a lot more well-rounded, but that’s what originally got the fire started.”
Lindsey didn’t just watch videos of Brentina, Briar and Totilas growing up, she would try to recreate what she saw on the screen when she went to the barn each day. “There was just something about those amazing horses that made my heart beat a little bit faster. Poor Fenway—I would go to my backyard and try to get him to feel like I envisioned Brentina and Totilas did on the videos,” she said. “I feel bad he had to be my guinea pig, but he taught me so much.”
It was this search for perfection that captivated Lindsey. “As a child, dressage was such a great place to put my intensity and focus toward. The fact that you can’t ever be perfect in dressage but are always trying to be perfect just spoke to me,” Lindsey said.
Prior to Fenway entering her life, Lindsey didn’t have big goals or a consistent trainer. “It was the perfect storm; Fenway’s breeder, Erin Brinkman, ended up being my trainer for seven years. Once I got him and started working with Erin, I honed in on what I wanted to do and would spend all my summers and winter breaks at the barn,” Lindsey said.
From age 14 to 20, Lindsey competed her self-trained Fenway through the ranks from First Level to Grand Prix, winning multiple regional championships along the way. In 2013, Lindsey and Fenway won the North American Junior/Young Riders Championship Junior individual gold medal and team bronze. The duo also won team silver at Young Riders in 2015.
At the same time Lindsey was bringing Fenway along, she also began riding young horses for a local breeder and was a working student for Erin Brinkman and then Jody Kelly. “Being a working student consists of a lot of long hours, but it teaches you how to work, builds a lot of character and weeds out a lot of people,” Lindsey said. “I gained so much experience as a working student. I learned a lot of horse care, maintenance of performance horses and emergency care as the position is so hands-on.”
Lindsey’s dad encouraged Lindsey to attend college before entering her career of choice so she would have a backup plan if needed. While majoring in international affairs at Florida State University, Lindsey still pursued her equestrian dreams. “When I first started doing horses as a job, people would contact me to come ride their horses. It was a great way to make a little money on the side while I was focusing on school,” she said. “It just grew from there.”
In 2016, Lindsey was invited to participate in the Robert Dover Horsemastership Clinic. Invites to the prestigious clinic are only sent to the most promising and talented young dressage athletes in the United States. Lindsey didn’t know it at the time, but this invitation would again allow things to happen organically when it came to her path with horses.
A year after the clinic, Lindsey found herself ready to make a go of running her own operation. With limited options to be a trainer in an established program, she decided to move to North Carolina with her fiancé, Jake, and do her own thing.
“Two months after I moved to North Carolina I was standing in our kitchen, and I got a message on Facebook from Jen Vanover at Maplewood Warmbloods. She had seen a video of me at the Robert Dover clinic and decided to reach out to see if I wanted to move up to New York to work for her,” Lindsey said. “I had never thought I’d be living in New York but the minute I opened that message, I knew right away I would make the move. I flew up the next week, interviewed and started as the assistant trainer at Maplewood in April 2017.”
Eight months later, as fate would have it, the head trainer at Maplewood left, giving Lindsey an opportunity at the top spot. “They watched me ride some other horses and decided to make me the head trainer,” Lindsey said.
As part of her role at Maplewood, Lindsey is involved in every aspect of the business. “We do everything ourselves: breeding, raising, starting, stallions, sales, young horse competition to high performance FEI. I’ve learned so much from being at Maplewood by having the opportunity to ride with Scott Hassler, Debbie McDonald, Lars Petersen and Christine Traurig,” Lindsey said. “Working with them has been irreplaceable as far as education goes, both in the saddle and in terms of sport horse management.”
When it came to turning professional, Lindsey chose her path because she loves horses and the process of training them from the ground up. “For me, I don’t do this for competing or obviously the money. I do it because I completely love to develop horses and all the training it takes to make them up,” she said. “If I never competed for the rest of my life, I would still wake up every day wanting to train horses.”
Each spring when Lindsey begins working with the next crop of 3-year-olds, she’s reminded why she’s passionate about horses and her job. “To take a horse out of a field when they are just a raw, feral animal and climb on its back within a few weeks is absolutely insane. It’s so rewarding to see the look on their face when they understand something, and watch the progress they make every day,” she said. “There’s a certain feeling in the saddle I go for and when a horse gets it, I think I’ve really created something beautiful.”
Lindsey currently has 19 horses under saddle that she’s responsible for. “We have an incredible number of horses. They range from 3-year-olds to 10-year-olds, a Grand Prix horse, a schooling Grand Prix horse, a few stallions, competition mares we pull embryos from and sales horses,” she said. “Each horse in our program is like a puzzle that needs something different. They all have their own goals, and I love figuring out how best to develop them.”
Proof of Lindsey’s skill at bringing horses along abounds. In 2021, she was awarded the $25,000 Anne L. Barlow Ramsey Grant for U.S. Bred Horses, which helped Lindsey meet Debbie McDonald—who is now her trainer. “I’ve learned so much from Debbie and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to train with her,” Lindsey said. This August, Lindsey was awarded another $25,000 grant—the first ever Debbie McDonald Fund from The Dressage Foundation, created in Debbie’s honor to further the training of high-level athletes who may not otherwise be able to pursue FEI-level training. Lindsey has also trained three horses from 3-year-olds to receiving their OLD titles, earned with consistently top scores.
As a professional involved in developing horses from breeding to competition, Lindsey is a huge advocate for American-bred and -developed horses. “I think the United States has a huge capability in being a true force in building up young horses to be top athletes globally. There are great horses, riders and breeders in this country, and if we all come together, I believe we can create something amazing,” she said.
When Lindsey first started working with young horses, it was hard to find information readily available on how best to develop them into top athletes. “How helpful would it be to have more resources out there to get these top horses started correctly for high-performance dressage? If we can build a stronger foundation for the sport, just imagine how much stronger we would be in the long run for many teams and Olympic Games in the future,” Lindsey said.
Once she develops the youngsters, Lindsey also enjoys the sales aspect of the industry. Each year at Maplewood, Jen and Lindsey select a few of the top-quality horses to sell. “I get a huge kick that I can take a horse that is worth a certain amount of money and make it more valuable when it comes time to sell,” Lindsey said.
In addition to developing horses at Maplewood, Lindsey takes her show on the road with her horses in training travel to competitions across the country. “Every year for the last six years we’ve competed at the Festival of Champions/USEF Young and Developing Horse Championships,” Lindsey said. “We’re also hoping to start competing in the CDI Grand Prix in Florida with MW Ave Maria OLD.”
Lindsey and MW Ave Maria OLD were named to the Kundrun USEF Dressage Development Program. This program provides strategic guidance and resources to selected athletes with the perceived ability to make the podium or contribute to podium scores for Team USA. Lindsey is also on the USEF Emerging Young Horse Program list with two horses she started and developed, MW Bodacious and MW Furstencharmant OLD.
While Lindsey is focusing on furthering her equestrian education and trying to become the best rider she can be, she’s also trying to focus on having a happy, balanced life. “It’s really hard to find balance in this industry, but it’s a necessity. I want to spend time with my fiancé, family and friends and really prioritize that as much as possible,” she said.
Yes, Jake and Lindsey are still engaged. Factor in Lindsey’s sudden move to work in New York, Jake heading to Phoenix, Arizona, to pursue his motorsport industry dreams as a factory test driver at Rivian for two years, and a global pandemic, and the wedding date kept getting pushed back.
“Jake just moved back to New York a few months ago. We were supposed to get married three years ago, and then the COVID-19 pandemic happened. So, getting married is definitely something I’d really like to do in the near future,” Lindsey said.
Lindsey’s found that what helps her strike a work/life balance is to make a conscious effort to do something for herself occasionally. “It can be something as small as making a good meal for myself, going for a run or just doing something fun. Each month or so, I like to take a few days to go visit a new place,” she said. “Burnout is real in this industry, and I’ve found by prioritizing small happy things for myself, I avoid getting burned out.”
Lindsey has found a recipe for happiness and success both in life and in the saddle. “I think when you focus on being your best, great things come more organically. I’m blessed to be able to ride amazing horses and develop them,” she said. “This is just the beginning of great things to come.”
For more information, follow Lindsey on Facebook at Holleger Dressage and on Instagram @lindseyholleger
Photos by Kristen Scott, www.sunsoarphotography.com