The 2022 show season is well underway in Wellington, Florida. While the usual suspects can be found cantering into the ring at the various showgrounds, fans and spectators at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival will see a fresh Canadian face in the CDI arena. Michelle Filsinger, 45, originally from Guelph, Ontario, is making a splash with her stunning chestnut stallion Bellmeier.
It was love at first sight for Filsinger and the 12-year-old licensed Westphalian stallion by Bellissimo, who she bought in 2019. “After I rode him, there was no other horse for me.”
While the handsome stud had competed at the FEI WBFSH Dressage World Breeding Championship for Young Horses, Filsinger says his performance was unremarkable with his rider at the time. But for her, it’s a perfect match. “He’s a super calm and steady stallion who just loves to cuddle, and we start every day with a snuggle.”
The pair competed in the small tour last year in the adult-amateur division and had an impressive seven wins in ten starts at CDIs in California and in Wellington in 2021. This year she plans to put her riding and training to the ultimate test by entering the open division of the CDI, so she can go head-to-head with the pros, which will give her a true picture of where she and her stallion sit in the standings. “I want to put myself against more people and then get a real baseline for where I’m at with my horse. And that’s important to me; that’s what drives me to ride every day, to keep getting better and keep improving.”
As we all know, equestrians aren’t born, they’re made, and despite Filsinger’s current under-the-radar status, she’s been in the sport for decades, beginning her competitive riding career like many of us did, on ponies. “I’ve been competing pretty much all my life,” she tells me as we sit on the patio at her rented home in Wellington. “First in Welsh ponies going to the Royal Winter Fair, and then hunters.”
She said a few bad falls in the hunter/jumper ring compelled her to make the switch to dressage at the tender age of fourteen. From there she competed as an adult-amateur off and on, but took time off when her kids were small, followed by a major seven-year break from riding when the family relocated to southern California in 2010.
Since re-entering the sport she’s had time to understand what drives her to pick up the reins each day. “I think what I love about dressage so much is it’s challenging. Every day I learn something new. Every day I learn how to perfect what I thought I knew the day before,” she explains. “And for me, that is so gratifying to get better every day, and to learn every day.”
And that dedication to detail is why she loves competing at the CDI level. “It’s always been a goal of mine since I was a kid. I really feel [the judge’s scores] are an indication of where you’re at with your horse.”
Her personal goal this season in Wellington is to crack a ‘true’ 70%, meaning all five judges have consensus that is where she should be. She’s already reached that milestone in the amateur ring, but the open division is where it counts. “It’s a lofty goal. But I think Bellmeier is going the best he’s ever gone, and I’m riding the best I’ve ever been. So, it’s time to move up.”
I ask her if she’s a perfectionist. She laughs. “Yeah, I think so. I think you have to be to ride dressage, because you’re riding a 20-meter circle until you’re blue in the face, over and over to perfect it.”
While she’s the only equestrian in the family, she’s not the only one drawn to horsepower. Paul, her husband of 27 years, races Porsches for a hobby. Her eldest son, Alex, 26, is starting his first year as a pro race car driver, while his brother Reegan, 21, is pursuing his passion as a vintage car mechanic. “Paul is my biggest supporter,” she says. “He pushes me to continue, even on the bad days.”
Filsinger’s love for animals extends beyond the stable; she’s also a dedicated mom to three pugs and has been active in pug rescue over the years. Her social media account @3pugpile is popular, with 33.5K followers on Instagram and over 130,000 on Facebook . But since the horses took over, Filsinger admits she’s not had the time to devote to posting.
And now that her kids are young adults, horses are her full-time job. “I train five to six days a week, and I love it,” she says. “I start my day thinking about the horses and how I can improve on yesterday’s ride and what can I do to make it better.”
She says she owes a large part of her success to her current coaches, dressage husband and wife team Jennifer and Jürgen Hoffman. “They were the first coaches to truly believe in me,” she says. “I am and will be forever grateful to them for that. And it’s still continuing every day. They push me and they say that they see something in me that because I’m so shy. I don’t see it. But they see it.” She adds that even when she feels she needs her coach to sit on her horse to fix an issue, Hoffman will more often than not decline, and instead encourage Michelle to figure things out and work through the issue herself. It’s all part of her rider development.
Jennifer Hoffman is an American, originally from California, who married Jürgen Hoffman and spent 23 years running a successful dressage stable in Germany. Jennifer competed several times for the USA Team for Nations Cup with her two top stallions Rubinio NRW and Florentinus. The couple run their training and sales business, German Dressage, out of California and have several clients with them in Wellington who are also competing in CDIs.
The Hoffmans are equally effusive about their Canadian client. “Michelle has an amazing work ethic. She comes to the barn to ride every day and tries every day to be better than the last,” says Jennifer Hoffman. “She has an incredible feel for rhythm and timing. I know Michelle will be able to go all the way to the international Grand Prix level. There is no doubt in my mind. That’s our goal and where we have our mindset.”
In addition to Bellmeier, Filsinger also has a four-year old that she bought as an eight-week-old foal named Mount St. John Florantinis, or Felix. “He’s super exciting,” she says. The gelding is by Franziskus x Furst romancier x DiMaggio and is currently in Germany being backed and she plans to bring him to California this summer. She’s hopeful that Felix will prove to be an ideal replacement for Bellmeier when the time comes.
Depending on how Wellington goes, Filsinger is considering a brief stint in Europe to compete, starting with Horses and Dreams in Germany in April. This year the show has a Canadian theme, so the timing seems perfect. But any European tour has a time limit due to Bellmeier being a stallion. Stallions can only be in Europe for 58 days or they will have to enter a 30-day quarantine. Filsinger will select competitions to fit within that deadline and fly her horse back to the States.
Beyond that, Filsinger is open to any and all possibilities. “The journey is my journey,” she says. “I want to live this journey as far as I can take it, but I don’t want to label it.”