In 2016, an 18-year-old Mary Nitschke travelled to Melbourne with her mother to watch the CDI-W Grand Prix dressage at Equitana. She was blown away by the competition – particularly Australian Grand Prix Champions Heath Ryan and Utopian Cardinal. “I remember watching and thinking, ‘That’s something that I really want to do’,” recalls Mary. Little did she know that six years later, she’d be there at Equitana riding Cardinal herself.
Although both her parents had been involved with horses growing up and had continued to dabble with them over the years, Mary didn’t start riding seriously until the relatively late age of 10, after her family moved from Victoria to South Australia. However, she says the obsession “snowballed very quickly”.
Her first horse was a chestnut Stock Horse named Quaid – selected largely because her mother had a history with the breed – and Mary says he was a really good horse besides the fact he liked to buck. “Oh, gosh, he was naughty… he bucked,” she laughs. Together she and Quaid did everything from Pony Club to beach riding, and Mary learnt a lot. Around the same time, she also had a 13-hand palomino who she recalls being “a wicked little games horse” and again she did everything with him until her younger sister, Claire, eventually took over the ride. Vinnie is now 21 years old and remains at the family property in South Australia as a valued companion.
By 2015, Mary had well and truly caught the dressage bug and found herself in need of a horse for the Pony Club Australia National Championships. Mary’s mother called Heath Ryan and, on his recommendation, Mary and her mother came and tried out a horse named Promise R, aka Percy.
“That was our first look in here at Ryans,” recalls Mary of how her family came to the purchase of her first “serious” dressage horse. “I had no idea, absolutely no idea,” she says of her dressage experience at the time. “I think I’d done one really bad Elementary test and I don’t even think I really knew what travers was. I came to the Ryans and trialled Percy, with Heath shouting across the arena, telling me to half-pass, and I had no idea what a half-pass was either!” Percy was trained to Prix St Georges level, and Mary says he was crucial in her progression in the sport: “I owe a lot to him; he was a really good horse.”
In 2018, the opportunity arose to bid on none other than Utopian Cardinal at Ryans’ Auction of the Stars. For Mary and her family, it was an opportunity too good to pass up. They were the highest bidders, and so the partnership began – and as Mary explains, the purchase had a snowball effect in terms of her association with Heath and Rozzie Ryan.
“I’d done the odd clinic with Heath previously after purchasing Percy, but with Cardinal I began travelling from South Australia to Ryans for a couple of weeks at a time, tying it in with competitions before going home again… and then coming back. There was a lot of back and forward.”