Claudia Ballesteros jumps clear in the Wellington Ag Services Grand Prix with Destiny Second Life Z. Photo by Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
As Claudia Ballesteros galloped through the finish timers of the Wellington Ag Services Spring Grand Prix, elation overtook her. A rousing cheer came up from the crowd and a sparkling grin spread across her face. She reached down to give her horse a copious amount of pats before wrapping her arms fully around the mare's neck in gratitude.
Producing a clear round on the expansive derby field in Wellington, FL—ultimately finishing in the top 10 in the class with her own Destiny Second Life Z—against some of the world's best riders, was validating. A rising talent in the sport of show jumping, Ballesteros has dedicated herself to taking her riding to the next level, working with some of the sport's most revered trainers. It shows.
"I'm aiming for as big as it can get!" says the effervescent Ballesteros.
Ballesteros, 32, has her roots in Mexico City, but she is quickly making a name for herself in the U.S., home to the the largest and longest-running equestrian competition in the world, the Winter Equestrian Festival. Ballesteros recently concluded her fourth WEF season and competed her string of three international mounts under the tutelage of John and Beezie Madden's John Madden Sales, undisputedly among the world's best training operations. Beezie, of course, is also a two-time Olympic gold medalist and twice won the Longines FEI Jumping World Cup™ Final.
"It's all about the rhythm and helping the horse to achieve its best jump. With John and Beezie, there's been a great emphasis on flatwork and the basics," Ballesteros explained. "In Mexico, I lacked this. We have no equitation, no flat lessons. We just didn't have the theory there! That part and understanding how everything works and helps the horses is one of the things I put more value in now."
Claudia Ballesteros meets with John Madden to review her course in Wellington, FL. Photo by Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
Ballesteros represents her family's Haras Santa Ileana, whose breeding and sales business in the Mexico City town of Valle de Bravo has operated for the past 15 years.
Each year, there are several foals on the ground, though the number has scaled in recent years to put a greater focus on quality. Still, the operation has had an international impact for more than a decade. When Ballesteros added another Olympian to her team, Alberto Michan, this year, she found a homebred within his stable. The now 13-year-old mare, Caitanya HSI, competes with one of Michan's students.
"It's been a long journey with a lot of trial and error," Ballesteros said. "We've bred a couple of horses that are really nice, and in the last few years, we've had our best group of horses to date come out of the program. We're excited about it."
It's no secret that the strength of Mexico's show jumping squad has risen over the course of the last five years, having won the prestigious Longines FEI Jumping Nations Cup™ of the United States in 2019, and many riders from the nation are fixtures on the American circuit. Ballesteros first joined them in 2016. At the time, Haras Santa Ileana was part of a partnership that owned the talented horse Cor Bakker, and Ballesteros joined the gelding and his rider, Fernando Martinez Sommer, for a few shows in New York.
She returned in 2018, when she got her first taste of Wellington. A friend, Russell Rodriguez asked her a question that would turn out to be quite impactful: If you could train with anyone, who would you choose?
Ballesteros responded with the Maddens, and to her surprise, Rodriguez said that he could help. A former Madden employee, he passed on a phone number, and before long, John Madden was making trips to Ballesteros' Loxahatchee location several times a week for lessons. The following year, the Maddens became Ballesteros coaches full-time, and when competitions were put on hold in 2020, Ballesteros set up a temporary home at the Maddens' farm in Cazenovia, NY.
"[Claudia] fit right in with John Madden Sales. She has a really nice operation with nice people around her that help take care of things with her horses. She's well set up," John said. "The first period of working with her, the focus was on some of the fundamentals and the basics of high-level riding. We will always continue that, but we put a real onus on it.
"Now, the next steps will be to try to hep manage her and her string of horses so that they can do more. She has three really nice horses now and a couple of young horses. Now is the time to really start trying to build up her whole operation so that it can support high-level competition."
Claudia Ballesteros and Destiny Second Life Z. Photo by Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
The Maddens are more than coaches; for their select group of students, they are career managers, working to set their riders up for long-term success in the sport. The education—and the work required—extends far beyond the show ring.
"We take our students' careers very seriously," John said. "We're much less of riding teachers are we are generally trying to manage one’s career," John said. "It's just that idea of what we do here in the states, from when kids start out to what’s happening at the very [top] level. Claudia was hoping to get more of that type of relationship."
Ballesteros' intensified commitment to her training has been rewarded. Aboard top mount Destiny Second Life Z, an 11-year-old Belgian Warmblood mare (Diamant de Semilly x Cassini I), she concluded the 2021 WEF season with a top five placing in the CSI2* CabanaCoast grand prix qualifier before jumping to her top 10 finish in April's Wellington Ag Services Grand Prix.
"I've had Destiny for a little over two years now," Ballesteros said. "She's really something. She's easy to ride, and she's a winner. She has a wonderful attitude: She's brave and always in for whatever you ask of her. She has a funny way of expressing herself, but she has so much good in her. We're hoping to move up to the CSI3* level shortly."
Ballesteros' string of international mounts also includes Heaven vh Appelsvoordehof (2007 Lord Z x Latano) and Bella Hopp (2009 Larimar x Clearway). She also brought 6-year-old homebred Carissa HSI (Carusso Is—Cecile) and sale horse Latika to Wellington this winter; Ballesteros trains these two mares with Michan, who connected with Ballesteros at the recommendation of Mexico-based trainer, Guillermo Williams.
Claudia Ballesteros and Heaven vh Appelsvoordehof. Photo by Catie Staszak Media, Inc.
"Claudia is already having nice success [in the sport], and I'm sure it's just the start," Michan said. "For me, one of her best qualities is her [work ethic]. She is super hard-working and an extreme fanatic of the sport. She is very positive, even if the day didn’t go as was planed, and keeps an eye on where she wants to get at the end. If you have that passion and ambition, and you combine it with hard work and discipline, you can get very, very far!"
Ballesteros returns to Cazenovia this spring to continue her training with John and Beezie, with her sights set on international competition in Tryon, NC, and Traverse City, MI before returning home to Mexico for fall competition.
Her intentions are clear: She wants to take the sport as far as she can go.
"The plan is to go big!" she said. "My goals are to hopefully represent Mexico in Nations Cup competition and to aim for a Championship like the Pan American Games [and beyond]."
For Ballesteros, the feelings of elation aren't set to fade anytime soon. As this rider-to-watch continues her journey, it's her love for her horses that will continue to fuel her most.
"It's so much [about] horsemanship," she said. "We're always looking for the best things for each horse and being completely honest to them. We're looking out for their wellbeing first. Everything else comes from that, not the other way."
Claudia Ballesteros. Photo by Catie Staszak Media, Inc.