Last fall as Ariel Grald trudged back to the barn with LBF O’Leagh’s Image at the Dutta Corp Fair Hill International CCI** (Md.) after falling off just a few fences from home on cross-country, she was understandably frustrated.
Grald and the 9-year-old Irish Sport Horse mare had come into their first two-star on the heels of a successful season in which Grald had gained valuable experience at the level and picked up rides on other quality intermediate horses. Because of that, she was eyeing a spot on the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s Developing Riders/Eventing 25 Program, but one of the requirements is for a pair to complete a CCI**.
Assuming all was lost as she headed into her last year of eligibility for the list, Grald was surprised to find her name on it this winter. She’d been “talent spotted” by U.S. eventing chef d’equipe David O’Connor and a group of selectors who’d seen her and “Leah” compete throughout the season.
And at the Carolina International on March 21-22, Grald put the education she’s gotten from O’Connor in her training sessions to work, winning the CIC** with LBF O’Leagh’s Image.
Now Grald is eyeing a move up to advanced this season, all while riding in honor of her late mother, Carol Rittenhouse, who picked out “Leah” as a weanling in a field and supported her daughter throughout her riding career. “We always shared a love of horses, but that horse in particular, is probably likely to be my horse of a lifetime and I have my mom to thank for that,” she said.
Off To A Good Start
Grald grew up near Royalton, Vt., and picked up eventing after taking lessons at Hitching Post Farm. Her mother evented at the lower levels, but when Grald decided to seriously pursue eventing, Rittenhouse threw her support into helping her daughter succeed.
When Grald was 10, her mother decided she wanted to breed her beloved novice-level Connemara mare Oboe’s Piccolo, and let Grald help pick out the stallion.
“I can’t honestly remember why my mom thought it would be a good idea to breed a horse. I was 10,” she said. “We couldn’t afford to buy fancy horses. I kind of got free horses that nobody wanted growing up. I remember looking through the New England Equine Journal and they had a stallion auction.”
Grald was smitten with Cradilo, an Irish Draught who’d show jumped to a high level. “I bid on him, all of my savings, which I think was somewhere around $900 and I ended up losing by about $50,” she recalled. “Sandy Ladd, who owned the stallion, had heard I was just this little kid and had put all my savings into bidding on this stallion and she let me breed for that amount anyways.”
Months later, Grald slept in the barn every night until the foal was born. She named him Practically Perfect and trained him through intermediate with the help of Vermont-based trainer Sue Berrill.
“It was really pretty cool to be 11 years old and have this little foal,” she said. “I remember playing with him everyday. We grew up together.”
Grald learned the ins and outs of eventing with “Hobbs”, who topped out at 15.3 hands. She was a working student for both Berrill and Denny Emerson and completed the last long format CCI* at the Virginia Horse Trials in 2009.
“I think what’s cool about [the Connemara-Irish Draught cross] is that the Connemaras are so clever and they’re such good jumpers and very smart. Hobbs just always jumps in that very tidy, neat style.
“We had some ups and downs,” she continued. I definitely learned a lot. He’s a very safe horse. We each had our responsibilities and we met in the middle. I tend to be a perfectionist. I’m really intense about working on things, and he just has an incredible work ethic and was very trainable.”
When Grald started college at the University of Vermont, she took Hobbs with her, and decided she like his sire so much that she wanted to bring up another of his offspring.
On a cold, wet December day in 2005, she and Rittenhouse went to Ladd Brook Farm to pick out a weanling. “There were three weanlings all out in a field together,” said Grald. “My mom walked out in the field where the three babies were and they were all eating their hay. Leah picked up her head and walked over to my mom—left her friends, left her hay pile—and my mom sort of decided at that point that that was the one she wanted.”
Grald’s plan for the summer of 2008 was to back Leah, but an injury in the field meant she’d have to wait another year. Leah (Cradilo—Oleagh, Torus) had scraped her right hind pastern so badly that it had almost severed the tendons and she required surgery and stall rest.
Once she recovered, the mare came along quickly and Grald brought her to school and let Hobbs go home to be leased and ridden at a lower level. “She is definitely more excitable then he is,” she said with a laugh. “I couldn’t have asked for two better horses to bring along. She has that same work ethic as Hobbs. She tries really hard and is really intelligent.”
Grald graduated with a degree in microbiology in 2010 and spent a year working in a lab at the university, but decided that she’d rather make a living in the horse world.
Three years ago, she was offered a position at Annie Eldridge’s Setters’ Run Farm in Southern Pines and Duxbury, Mass. Eldridge, a former upper level rider, is no longer able to compete due to health issues, so Grald spends her days riding and competing five of her horses, including Fernhill Cove and Wynthrop at intermediate.
“I’m very fortunate to work for Annie,” she said. “She’s just incredibly supportive of my goals with my own horses as well as her horses, so I think I have a unique opportunity to work for one owner. Last year I got the ride on quite a few of Annie’s horses and I just gained so much experience. I had done some intermediate horse trials, but that was back in New England on my home turf at events I’d been to a lot. It was the first season that I was competing consistently in Area 2. I jumped around some of the biggest courses I’d ever seen. All in all, it brought my riding level and experience to the whole next step.”
Sadly, Rittenhouse was killed in a car accident last May. Grald keeps her listed as Leah’s owner in honor of a mother whose enthusiasm and love of eventing was steadfast.
“She was at every event she possibly could and traveled a lot with me and made lots of sacrifices in her own life to help me compete and follow my dreams,” she said. “I always had her unwavering support and that was all I could ever have asked for as a child growing up.”
Grald is hoping to tackle advanced this season and continue to hone her skills at the upper levels. She thinks Leah has the potential to be a four-star horse in the future.
“I think she’s a very good jumper and very brave and has the athleticism and mentality to be a four-star horse,” she said. “I’ve been given a lot of amazing opportunities because other people have been so kind, so I’ve just tried to work hard and be as deserving of other people’s time as I can be. What I’ve been able to accomplish in the last couple of years, I really have Annie to thank because of her support and being able to train out of her farm. She’s really allowed me to do things that I didn’t think were possible this soon.”