You know what I love most about Decidedly Equestrian? Getting to know lots of amazing people from all over the country that all love the same thing…horses! This Artist Spotlight is a little different than the usual ones…as this artist is both a fine artist AND a performance artist! I was recommended to Sandra Beaulieu of Little River Friesians from Susan at Mareish Media (who is a spectacular and very creative photographer I recently profiled again and who’s photographs of Sandra can be seen above and below!). I can only hope to meet Sandra in person one day. She’s an inspiration: a rider and trainer, a painter, a published writer, a freestyle and trick training expert, and even a model/actress/stunt rider (and she’s SOOOO talented)! If you need a push to follow your dreams, read on!
What is your day job?
I currently work as head trainer at Little River Friesians in Havana, FL. I am fortunate to have my dream job working with Friesians, Andalusians, and Warlander horses. I love to build relationships with each horse that I ride and explore their unique personalities. I train each horse mainly in dressage with some liberty and trick training. I am fully involved in all aspects of their care and grooming as I strongly believe that extra time spent on the ground is best for bonding. I became a Magna Wave certified practitioner a few years ago and I incorporate that therapy into daily grooming for all the horses.
I also manage social media, sales, and marketing for the farm along with our barn manager Lillian VanWinkle. Our small team gets along very well, we create a positive, fun atmosphere for the horses which I think is very important for their emotional well-being.
What is your riding background?
I grew up in Maine riding English and jumping in Pony Club. When I was 13 I was fortunate to join a riding program at Isaac Royal Equestrian Center that allowed me to ride every day and have multiple horses to train and show. I had big dreams of riding Grand Prix and going to the Olympics! Throughout high school and in my 20’s I earned my Bronze, Silver, Gold, and Platinum medals from the Maine Dressage Society and my Bronze and Silver from the United States Dressage Federation. I was determined not to go to college so I could dedicate myself to training full-time. I taught lessons, started my own graphic art business, and became a dressage judge as part of my continuing education. I was the youngest graduate of the USDF “L” Program and judged a lot of schooling shows all over New England and Florida.
My favorite aspect of this training experience was our annual Equestrian Theater. I learned so many performance skills, how to ride in quadrilles with up to 14 horses, ride with dancers, and how to entertain an audience while also having fun with my horse. We were involved in all aspects of the show including editing music, costume and tack design, and all of the choreography. I have fond memories of those performances and that is why I continue to create freestyles and perform exhibitions.
How did you become an artist?
I started drawing horses when I fell in love with them at age seven. I would draw them everywhere, in my notebooks, in the sand, in the snow, you name it! I went through advanced placement art classes in school and it was during that time that I learned calligraphy art. I used that skill to create graphic art designs for my previous business SandraB. Designs. I sold clothing, apparel, and gift products at trade shows and on Etsy. It was so much fun to meet new horse people and connect with them through my art.
I have explored different styles and mediums over the years but mainly I work with acrylic paints in a loose, abstract style. I like to create texture on the canvas to add dimension and use minimal lines to express the beauty of the horse. This technique works really well when I paint from horseback.
How did you come up with the idea to paint while riding?
One day sitting at the dining room table I was inspired by a thought…could I combine my two skills (dressage and art) together? Was it possible? Had anyone ever tried it before? I couldn’t find any evidence of other riders attempting art from horseback so I decided to figure it out myself. It took me two years to actually formulate a plan and give it a try. I was lucky to have just the right horse for the challenge.
Rovandio is a Lipizzan/Andalusian cross that I have known since he was born. He was owned by my mother-in-law and over the years I started taking on more and more of his training. He has smooth gaits, is easy to ride one-handed, and loves to try new things. He never batted an eye at all the different canvases, easels (my current one is over 9 feet tall!), and eventually audiences watching us paint. Now that he is getting older (he will be 20 this summer!) we don’t paint as often but we have found a new interest in Working Equitation. He absolutely loves the challenge and it suits his personality.
What is your creative process? Does the ride inspire you or do you already have an image in mind when you start?
I start with a general idea of the design but it never turns out exactly as I imagine. But that is the nature of art…every little ‘mistake’ can turn into something beautiful so I basically just plan on having lots of them! My brush doesn’t always land where I think it will or the colors will blend in a surprising way. I have tried many different tools over the years and am always brainstorming new ideas to try. I have used brooms, car squeegees, horse brushes, and a variety of ways to hold the paint like saddle bags and custom belts. Most of my ideas don’t work but it is fun to try!
During the painting process I use dressage movements like collected canter, rein-back, piaffe, half-pass, and walk/canter pirouettes to approach the canvas so that I am mainly painting in motion. I usually ride with a bareback pad and a bitless bridle so that I can feel the movements of the horse. I am a very messy painter so I have designated clothing that I use and Rovandio gets a bath after every session to remove paint splatters.
I see that your horse Douwe was also a painter! How did you teach your horse to paint and what inspired that idea?
Douwe was certainly my once-in-a-lifetime soul partner. In 2008 I tragically lost two amazing horses in my life and was seriously injured resulting in depression and deciding to quit competitive riding. I was lost and in search of a new purpose. One day I came across a video of Sabine Schut-Kery performing with a Friesian and that inspired a dream… I wanted to perform with a Friesian. Two weeks later I got a call from my friend on Vinalhaven Island (tiny lobster village off the coast of Maine) about this Friesian horse that was being dangerous and the owner wanted to sell him. That was how I met Douwe. He was very difficult and became the hardest horse I have ever worked with but there is no doubt we were destined for each other. He taught me so much about patience, trust, emotional connection, and the incredible possibilities when you dive deeper into the human-horse bond. It took a few years to build his trust but we turned a corner when I started learning trick training. It helped us develop our own way of communicating. This led to painting in his later years.
I was inspired to try painting because of Rune the Mustang. His owner Theresa had combined different cues to help him understand what was expected. I was able to combine Douwe’s ability to pick up an object, say ‘yes’, and ‘touch’ the canvas for him to begin painting. We experimented with different size canvases, colors, and ways to make the brushes and improve our setup. It took at least a year for him to paint consistently and he was painting at liberty before he passed away. We finished one large canvas together that hangs in my entryway as a symbol of our 12 year partnership.
Tell me a little bit about the most important horses in your life.
Douwe is certainly my number one but every horse has a special story. Currently, I have Rovandio (painting on horseback) with me at Little River Friesians. He was very sad when Douwe passed away but now he has some new friends and I spend a lot of time with him. I have many special horses to work with but there are a few that stand out. Co Fan S (aka ‘Cor’) is a 13 year old Friesian gelding that embodies all the amazing qualities of a Friesian. He is beautiful, athletic, and has a heart of gold. He has a very goofy personality and he loves to learn. His favorite tricks so far are lay-down, sit, crossing his front legs, smile and giving kisses.
I also have a soft spot for Maureo, an 11 year old Andalusian gelding. He came to the farm as a stallion and was very unhappy and difficult to work with. He had been mistreated with spur scars on his body and an obvious distrust of people. Last year he was gelded and is slowly blooming into the horse that has been there under the surface. It is fulfilling to build a relationship with emotionally troubled horses like Douwe and Maureo. It is rewarding when they begin to trust and communicate. He loves trick training as well and is learning Working Equitation on top of his dressage work. He is very special and I hope he can gain enough confidence to perform one day.
Tell me a little bit about your book. How did you decide to write one!?
I had been teaching dressage lessons and clinics for many years and I kept hearing the same thing from my students, “It is my dream to ride a musical freestyle… but I don’t know how.” Hiring a freestyle designer can be expensive so most adult amateur riders end up stuck, overwhelmed, and frustrated. I started writing e-books on freestyle basics and choreography for the lower levels to help people get started. I noticed there were only a few books on the market about freestyle but they were from the 80’s and 90’s. I pitched Trafalgar Publishers, the leading equine book publisher in the US, and they liked my idea and signed me on! It has been an amazing experience to write a book and have it out on the market. It took a lot of hard work and early mornings spent writing. The best part was that I could include my horses in the book as well as my good friends in the horse industry that shared their freestyle experience.
You’re a stunt/trick rider, actress and model too! Modern day renaissance woman! Tell me a little bit about how you got into that part of the business.
I was inspired to start modeling/acting because of my brother Corey Beaulieu. He plays guitar in a well known heavy metal band called Trivium. I wanted to train my horse to be in music videos so that sent me on a journey learning how to train the lay down, rear, bow, Spanish walk, etc. I joined a talent agency and did some print modeling, a handful of commercials, a music video, and working behind the scenes on a major motion picture. I learned a lot on set and I love that aspect of riding and training. I still do a lot of fantasy photo shoots with the horses when I am inspired with new ideas. Recently we did a photo shoot with a parachute skirt that was challenging and certainly worth the effort. My advice during a horse photo shoot is to always have a relaxed smile no matter what is happening…even if your horse is misbehaving because you never know what shot will look the best!
Is there anything else you want to share with our readers?
I really hope that my story can inspire others to take action towards their dreams and appreciate their horse(s). You never know which ride could be your last so make sure every time you are with your horse you are present, emotionally clear, and light-hearted. Horses love laughter and positive energy, I used to be stressed when I was younger, hyper-focused on my goals and missing the true connection with the horse. Douwe taught me how to be present and appreciate every moment no matter what we were doing. I particularly love inspiring riders that have senior horses. I feel that the older horses have so much to offer if we continue to invest our love and attention into them. I would like to leave you with a poem written by my dear friend Bethanne Ragaglia who owned Rovandio. Her poem has been the inspiration for my riding and I hope you will enjoy it too.
Begin the Dance
“Let all thought leave your mind,
Feel your horse in rhythm’s time.
Let your horse’s spirit flow,
The dance begins when you let go.”
Follow Sandra for more Inspiration