A year ago Tamra Brown didn’t see herself competing in high-performance dressage classes, let alone scoring 69.33 percent in a Prix St. Georges test at a popular Florida show on her way to trying to qualify for the Pan Am Games selection trials.
But on Feb. 2-4, Brown and Leoliet easily defeated their competition in the FEI Test of Choice class at the German Equestrian Alliance Cup in Apopka, Fla., and now the pair is poised to try their luck in Brown’s first CDI.
“Being competitive–going from a world where you’re showing other people’s young horses and a few more advanced horses for experience, going from that to being serious and going for scores, correctness and a much higher level of collection and engagement–it’s a big jump,” said Brown.
The 34-year-old Minnesota native has spent the past 10 years grooming for and assisting renowned rider and judge Anne Gribbons. Brown discovered dressage by “happy accident” when the equestrian science degree she was pursuing required an on-the-job internship.
She went to Knoll Farm in Brentwood, N.Y., and spent two years as a working student there while Gribbons was in Germany. “I never went back to finish my degree,” admitted Brown. “I came to New York to do jumping. My lessons in dressage–I liked them, but I was really there for the jumping.”
But when Gribbons returned, she offered Brown the position of groom, and she decided to try it out.
“Coming from Minnesota, I knew nothing about dressage,” said Brown. “Anne put me on her Grand Prix horses and just taught me everything from the very beginning.”
Once she got hooked on dressage, Brown never really wanted to do anything else. “I left briefly for about a year and a half to pursue another career in the city, but I just couldn’t stay away from horses,” she said. “So I quit my job and came right back and have been with [Gribbons] or affiliated with her ever since. My passion is now dressage. Once you start to get into the process of riding dressage and you understand more about it, you get really passionate about it.”
Brown made a life for herself grooming for Gribbons, riding the young horses, teaching lessons, taking lessons and doing the jumble of things that need to be done to run a farm.
“As a person that is getting more involved in the sport, you have ambitions and goals for yourself. But sometimes they’re almost on the back burner,” said Brown. “There are things that you’re concentrating on like the daily work and daily lessons, the daily horses that you normally ride and train. It’s not that you don’t want to achieve those things, but you get caught up. Even though I always wanted to have goals of being successful, and getting a name out there, I wasn’t pursuing it myself. I was occupied with what was happening on a daily basis.”
A Push In The Right Direction
Gribbons decided that it was time for her employee and protï¿½gï¿½ to test the waters as a professional FEI-level rider.
“The day that Anne walked up to me, about six months ago, and said you’re taking the stallion to the Pan Am trials, I was a little shocked and a little nervous,” recalled Brown. “Suddenly the possibility of pursuing my own ambitions became available. I always wanted to do it, but this is the first time that I feel like not only do I want to do it, but I’m also actually being guided in that direction.”
Gribbons herself had been riding Leoliet, but when his owners regrettably had to put him on the market, she came up with a plan that would keep the horse in her barn and would also benefit Brown.
“I got her the horse and ripped both her arms off to get her to do this,” said Gribbons with a laugh. “I live with people who are nothing but ambition. The world is filled with those who are all ambition and no reality. Tamra is just the opposite–no ambition but a very good horsewoman.”
Tom Scott and Yasuo Fukushima, mutual clients of Gribbons and Brown, agreed to purchase the 12-year-old, Dutch Warmblood stallion (Zeoliet–Dorien) and leave him in training with Brown.
“Tom and Yas were glad to give me the opportunity to ride their horse,” said Brown. “Without either one of them, this would not be possible. I’m really grateful for the opportunity. They do ride him. They do not compete him, but they do take lessons on him when we’re up in New York. He’s an all-around fantastic horse and is very happy to accommodate all of us.”
With Gribbons’ urging, Brown tentatively made qualifying for the Pan Am trials her goal. She’d never shown Intermediaire before, although she’d ridden through Grand Prix in schooling.
Getting Her Feet Wet
The test at the German Equestrian Alliance Cup was Brown’s third time showing “Leo.” She also won her Intermediaire I test at Ocala Dressage (Fla.), on Jan. 20-21.
“The last test we did felt really good, but, of course, there’s much room for improvement,” she said. “There were places where I wasn’t paying enough attention. We’re still learning to get along at shows. He’s experienced, but I’m a little inexperienced at showing these levels, so we’re bonding. Each time we go to a show I feel a little more confident, and I think he’s a little bit happier with my riding.”
Brown said that she finds being competitive the most difficult thing for her. “The horses I’ve shown before, I want to do the best and be successful, but some of them have never shown before–the goal for them is to get them comfortable in the show ring. Going from that to a horse that’s comfortable in the show ring and just being able to focus on [getting] better at it is a totally different thing.”
With only three months of partnership under her belt with Leo, Brown found herself working hard to try to form a relationship with him. “This horse has been super helpful in teaching me some of the finer points of showing,” she said. “Some of the riders have been doing it for years on their mounts. This is my first time with this horse.”
But the challenge of learning to show Leo off in the FEI classes wasn’t discouraging to Brown. “I think that we’re really good at bits and pieces of things,” she said. “As a whole we still have much work to do. There are moments where we’re really put together and moments where we lose it. We have to learn to be much more subtle and accurate. I’m very inexperienced as far as riding at this level, so it’s definitely been an eye-opener for me.”
Gribbons has the utmost confidence in Brown, however. “She’s trained two clients’ horses to Grand Prix with my help. You have to show and get your name out there,” she said. “It’s about time she gets some credit.”
And both Gribbons and Brown agree that it’s the journey toward the Pan Am trials that’s more important than the actual outcome. “Whatever happens at the end of this, I’m taking him back,” said Gribbons with a laugh. “He’s mine! I’m just trying to give her confidence in her own ability and show her that she’s good enough.”