A MODEL RIDER : She Got Out of Fashion, Hopes to Make It in Demanding Sport of Dressage

Times Staff Writer

In 1984, Judith Fontaine, head of one of the largest modeling agencies in the world, had big plans for Kathryn Zahlis, booking the 5-foot-10 blonde on the "Grand Tour"--New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo, key stops on the road to stardom in the modeling business. For a woman of 20, it is a coveted chance to see the world and live like a glamour queen.

But Zahlis came into Fontaine's Hollywood office one day and "says she's quitting the business," Fontaine remembers. "I couldn't believe it. She had everything. Height. A beautiful face. She could have really reached the top in fashion. She could have done magazine covers. Anything."

If Zahlis gets on the cover of a magazine today, it's likely to be Practical Horseman rather than Cosmopolitan. Zahlis gave up her promising modeling career to pursue another dream--she wants to become a world-class rider in dressage, an Olympic sport in which the rider gives nonverbal commands to make the horse do intricate maneuvers.

But dressage is also a sport where apprentices such as Zahlis have to earn their spurs by grooming horses, breaking broncos and mucking stalls, stable work that's a long way from the glitz of a Paris salon.

"I chased her for quite some time but she convinced me that she was serious about what she was doing," Fontaine said. "Her heart was in the horses."

Zahlis, in fact, even loves horses more than money. Five years after doing a reverse Cinderella, she makes a small income as a groom for Marie Meyers, first alternate on last year's U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team. Potentially, Zahlis could have "easily made $100,000 a year" as a model, Fontaine said. Zahlis is well aware that even Olympic riders don't make much money in dressage.

And while models can hit the big time almost overnight, dressage apprentices need years of schooling before competing in Olympic and international shows. Unlike jumping, in which horse and rider can practically be strangers and still win, dressage demands years of training for both horse and rider to create an almost metaphysical bond between them. Indeed, riders often get misty-eyed and poetic about their sport.

"It's living art, going back thousands of years, the highest form of expression in riding," Zahlis says. "You're one with another spirit. I can think what I want the horse to do and he'll do it."

Zahlis, who has been studying under Meyers since last Halloween, is still serving her apprenticeship. "She's a naturally talented rider and she'll probably be showing by the end of this summer," Meyers said. "It depends on the progress of both her and her horse. There's nothing worse than going in the ring and doing badly after working so hard. It's very discouraging."

It may surprise some people that Zahlis walked away from modeling and saddled up, "but not my friends or family," she said. Everybody close to her knows that horses have always been a major part of her life. A photo in a scrapbook shows her as a cherubic 1-year-old sitting on a pony at her home in Thousand Oaks. As a child, "They couldn't get me off a horse," she said. "My grandparents were horrified. They thought I was going to get killed."

Zahlis acquired her love for horses from her mother, an equine artist who used to pick her daughter up from grade school in a pony cart. When Zahlis was still a child, the family started a business raising Peruvian Paso horses in Lynn Ranch. At 10, Kathryn showed her Peruvians in national shows, finishing in the top five. At 11, she bought a half-Arabian gelding for $1,500 and began winning equestrian events at local shows. Her family couldn't afford a trailer and she had to ride her horse to shows--three-to-five-hour trips over surface streets.

It was at the local shows that she discovered dressage, which was new to California, and was encouraged to get into the sport by Hilda Gurney, an Olympic rider. When she was 16, her father, a computer designer, moved the family to Seattle and Zahlis began taking dressage lessons from Judy Thocher, who had competed in the Pan-American Games.

"She liked me and put me on her grand prix mare," Zahlis said. The horse's skills and intelligence astounded her. When she gave it the proper command, it performed the difficult piaffe --trotting in place--"and I was hooked on dressage," she said. "I knew I had to do it."

But at that age, people are supposed to look for a career, not a hobby. Zahlis got a taste of show business in high school when she was cast as Jackie Onassis' sister in a TV Movie of the Week filming in Seattle. She moved back to Los Angeles in 1981 and eventually signed with the Fontaine Agency.

"I thought modeling would lead the way for me to get into dressage," she said. "I thought I'd have financial independence and be able to keep horses. I didn't realize what it took to do modeling. Five interviews a day. Driving all over town. I was really disillusioned. I knew that it wasn't what I wanted to do."

In 1984, after Zahlis finished a 2 1/2-month job in Japan, Fontaine pressured her to go to Europe for a year, "but I was really, really tired," she said. Then she shot a rock music video with Toto and started dating Tim Clawson, now head of production for Propaganda Films.

Realizing she was unhappy, Clawson encouraged her to give up modeling--"He knew how models were treated," she said--and bought her a schooled dressage horse, a thoroughbred gelding named Copper Talisman. "If she had said she wanted to be an Olympic volleyball or basketball player, I'd have been more skeptical--she was past her prime" to get into those sports, Clawson said. "But we had just watched the '84 Olympics, and the gold medal winner in dressage was 70 years old.

"I was also excited that it was a life-long thing to learn dressage, like becoming a maestro--I can appreciate that kind of thing," said Clawson, who lives with Zahlis in Woodland Hills.

Inside a stall at the Los Angeles Equestrian Center, Zahlis does all the things other grooms do. It's a dirty job, but Zahlis manages to look as if she could go directly from there to Spago. "I'm a little old to be grooming horses," she said. "But I would have missed out on a lot of life if I hadn't gone into modeling."

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