At an age when most professional riders hang up their chaps, Susan Demers is just stepping up into the demanding sport of grand prix show jumping.
For most of her 51 years, Demers has worked with horses, beginning on ponies in her native Denmark. “When I was 10 years old, I was bitten right in the arm,” she says. “It didn’t put me off. It got me hooked, I think.” She hung in there and went on to win the Danish Junior Jumper Championship at 15.
Sort of a role model now for women of a certain age who love horses, she encourages her riders. “Don’t let your age discourage you. If your heart is in it, it’s never too late.”
For Demers, a veteran of mid-level jumping competition, her ticket to the big time came with a 15-year-old Holsteiner called “Just Manadi,” owned by actor Kelsey Grammer.
And while 15 is way over the hill for race horses, it’s considered prime age for top jumpers, who need lots of experience to negotiate the tough and technical grand prix courses. “Manadi is still very sound,” Demers says. “He didn’t have hard miles, and he’s very clean legged.”
The 16.3-hand, imported warmblood gelding was competing in World Cup classes three years ago for a young Canadian rider, and was purchased in July 1998 on the East Coast. “Kelsey looked at him and fell in love,” Demers said.
When Manadi came West, the plan was for Demers to start competing with him in smaller shows and to put a more experienced grand prix rider on him for the tougher classes.
“They forgot to consult Manadi about this,” she says. Although Demers lacked grand prix mileage, the horse had confidence in her and she in him. After a few inauspicious rounds with seasoned winners Hap Hansen and Suzie Hutchison, it was decided Demers would be the horse’s pilot.
“We absolutely bonded,” she says. “He’d been a family horse and was used to a lot of attention. The dad did the hauling, the mom did dressage and the kid started in junior hunters and then went on to trainer George Morris and wound up doing grand prix.”
Between shows, Manadi stays fit by going on trail rides. “I barely jump him at home. He knows his job.” And when they are at shows, Demers does everything with the horse herself, rather than having the grooms tack him up. “He needs his confidence. I can feel his vibes. If I feel he’s restless, I’ll calm him down,” she says. Like most really talented horses, Manadi has a distinct personality. “The first three days at a show, he’s a nut case, but then he settles down. He’s a real professional.”
A gorgeous chestnut with a flaxen mane and tail, Manadi is easy going and relaxed at home. “My 14-year-old son rides him here. And when he sees me, he’s looking for a carrot,” she says. “He doesn’t take advantage of that.”
At the end of last year, Demers worked up to a few World Cup classes. “He didn’t win, but he did respectably. He did all the hard stuff, we just had a few errors,” she says. “He’s very brave. I’ve never had him stop and look at a jump — water, walls, no problem. But he is sensitive to crowd noises and has to wear ear plugs.”
Demers came to the States in 1971 and took up training again in 1975, riding for a race horse stable in Rhode Island.
“I bought ‘Luger’ and sold him to Barney Ward. That was my first connection with the world of show jumping,” she says. “Then I ran a barn called Cedar Crest in Rhode Island.”
When she came to Malibu in 1981, she worked as night manager at Swenson’s and rode at Sycamore Farm during the daytime. “I started teaching Sheldon Gordon, who wanted to own and raise jumpers. Rodney Jenkins found several horses for us, and one was ‘The Natural.’ He stayed with Rodney in Virginia and, after winning a potfull of grand prix, was sold in December ’85 for $1 million, the first gelding jumper to sell for that much,” Demers says.
Sheldon bred and raised 25 grand prix horses, among them the successful mare “Ardennes.” They raised four with the stallion “Galoubet,” one of the top sires in the country. “The Developer” won the Jumper Futurity at 4 years in 1990. “I showed him for a few years, and he won several grand prix in ’95 with Hap Hanson. I now have a bunch of babies by him at my place in Solstice Canyon.” Sheldon later moved to England and shipped all his horses there.
“When Kelsey started riding with me, he didn’t know what kind of horses he wanted. I had to talk him out of Arabians. Then he wanted paints, so we’re breeding warmbloods with color.” Thoroughbred mares are bred to a pinto Oldenberg stallion. “They’re beautiful. Kelsey has one for himself and one for his wife and two guest horses. He’s really getting into it and is starting to ride over fences,” she says.
Demers trains and gives lessons at Sycamore Farm, an older facility on Cross Creek that has recently undergone an impressive renovation, with new paint, lush landscaping and new stalls for the school horses. She says she takes her students to a few local one-day shows, at Trancas and Griffith Park, and about six “A” shows a year. Not a tough schedule compared to the average hunter and jumper trainer. “We like to choose nice shows and have a good time,” she says. “And I’d like to have some clinics here with East Coast riders.”
Demers and Manadi did well in their last effort at San Diego Show Park, just 4 faults, and they’re tuning up for the Grand Prix at Griffith Park on Memorial Day.