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Royal title for 2 Eastern Iowa equestrians

Michelle Blackler, Stephanie Wilson got first-place ribbon at Royal Windsor's virtual horse show

Michelle Blackler of Mount Vernon drives Grace's Irish Lass (
Michelle Blackler of Mount Vernon drives Grace's Irish Lass (“Iris”) at the 2018 Midwest Carriage Festival in Elkhorn, Wis. This photo earned trainer Blackler and owner Stephanie Wilson of Coralville a first-prize in Virtual Windsor, this year's substitution for the Royal Windsor Horse Show. (Photo by Bob Mischka, courtesy of Stephanie Wilson)
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A picture is worth far more than a thousand words to two Eastern Iowa women.

One taken two years ago earned a first-place ribbon and stirrup covers from the Royal Windsor Horse Show last weekend. More satisfying than the prizes, though, is getting honored by one of the world’s most prestigious events of its kind.

“Early last Saturday morning I got a notice from a friend of mine in England,” said Michelle Blackler of Mount Vernon, who operates Michelle Blackler Equestrian. “He was saying ‘Congratulations for winning Windsor.’ I was ‘What?’ I’m fumbling around Instagram and then it’s 'Oh my God, we did it!’

“I was shrieking, dancing around, crying.”

Blackler is the trainer of a Haflinger horse named Grace’s Irish Lass, known better as Iris. Stephanie Wilson of Coralville, Iris’ owner, said “I had the same reaction, dancing and crying. I just kind of floated through the day on Saturday. It was incredible.”

The annual Royal Windsor Horse Show, which debuted in 1943 and is held at royal residence Windsor Castle in Berkshire, England, was canceled in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Weeks later, the show’s organizers announced it would be replaced this year with Virtual Windsor 2020, with a variety of showing classes with horses entered via photos.

“Royal Windsor is the pinnacle of horse shows,” Blackler said. “It’s full of many disciplines and breeds. It has the pageantry and pomp only the British can manage. I follow Royal Windsor on Instagram and saw the post that they were having a virtual show and anybody could enter.

“I thought ‘I am so doing this.’ I contacted Stephanie and she said, ‘Yeah!’ So I sent that photograph. I was so delighted with myself just for figuring it out and being able to say I competed in the Royal Windsor Horse Show.”

More than 4,000 photos were submitted, and they totaled more than 100,000 views.

“That alone gives me an incredibly proud feeling,” Wilson said, “knowing the whole world has seen my lovely creature.”

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Entries came from 83 different countries. There were 43 entries in the Haflinger class. Haflinger horses are relatively small, and elegant.

“I was on my way to a fox hunt once and my trailer got stuck and I wasn’t able to get my own horse to the site for a meet,” Wilson said. “So at the last minute I borrowed a Haflinger some friends had brought along as a training horse. It was the handiest little creature I’d ever ridden, fast and smart, really fun to ride.

“Near our cabin in Lake Vermilion (Minn.), some friends breed Haflingers. In 2013 they had a filly for sale. I was back home in Iowa. I contacted them and said I want this filly. I bought her sight unseen. She was just 18 months old.”

Wilson, an independent contractor in the testing consulting business, had decided to take up carriage driving around the same time.

“In 2015 I had the good luck to run into Michelle and then everything just came together,” she said. “I’d wanted to drive, I had the horse I wanted to drive with, and I found the trainer. Michelle trained both the horse and me.

“Her approach to training is very careful and methodical, but it’s also combined with a heartfelt belief and devotion to both the client and the horse.”

The winning photo, taken for Wilson by Bob Mischka of Whitewater, Wis., was shot at the 2018 Midwest Carriage Festival in Elkhorn, Wis.

Chief Virtual Windsor judge Nigel Hollings said Iris’ “strength and versatility” in the photo set her apart.

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“For me, it’s bittersweet,” Wilson said. “Because I wasn’t there. I was planning to be showing Iris that weekend with Michelle and I was ill. I wasn’t able to go, and at the last minute I said ‘My horse still has to go.’ We worked so hard, we trained so hard, countless hours with Michelle.

“So I sent them off and Michelle just presented her beautifully. You can see, when you look at Michelle’s driving, there’s a really strong connection between her and Iris. They are working together as a unit, and that is part of what makes that so beautiful because that’s what carriage driving should be.

“It just makes me incredibly proud.”

Wilson grew up in Cedar Rapids, not a farm.

“I was just born a horse person,” she said. “I think any equestrian will understand exactly what that means.”

Blackler claims the first word she ever tried to say was “horse.”

“My parents thought something was wrong,” she said. “They eventually recognized the pattern. ‘Mommy, Daddy, pony.’”

For someone who not only has made training and breeding horses her life’s work but also spent 12 years living in England, the Royal Windsor honor is surreal to Blackler.

“I’m still grinning like a fool,” she said.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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