Caroline George wasn’t looking to buy a horse at 18. In fact, she had a six-month contract working a data entry job she hated in order to save for a car. But after the car purchase fell through, the barn owner of the sales barn where George rode took her aside one evening with news about Tundra, the 3-year-old Percheron-Thoroughbred cross who’d become George’s favorite project.
“She said, ‘Caroline, there’s someone coming to look at Tundra on the weekend. Just wanted to let you know,’ ” George recalled. “That happened all the time because it was a buying and selling barn. I just blurted out, ‘How much do you want for him?’ I ended up buying him.
“I had to go home and tell my parents I was buying a horse the next day,” she continued. “I started off by telling them, ‘I have some news to tell you. Don’t worry, I’m not pregnant.’ And then my mom, who was the less horsey of the two said, ‘Let me guess: You bought a horse.’ The reason I bought him was that he never put a foot wrong. I put a saddle on him, and he said, ‘OK, I guess I’m broke.’ I’d sit on his back, and he’d say, ‘OK, I guess you’re going to sit on my back.’ As an 18-year-old without a lot of experience, I figured he wouldn’t kill me. I knew enough to know that I didn’t know a lot.”
George began riding at 12 after she fell in love with a family friend’s horse and begged for weekly riding lessons.
“I actually fell off the first time they put me on the horse, and then I decided I would learn how to ride,” she said. “Which is sort of ironic of course, because it’s a lifelong sport, not something you learn in a lesson or two.”
Once she got a driver’s license, she went out to the barn more frequently and saved up to ride as many different types of horses as she could. Soon she settled in at a sales barn that bred Standardbreds and warmbloods and sold off-the-track Thoroughbreds to hunter/jumpers. That’s where she met Tundra.
Though she’d grown up riding hunters, George was responding to the siren song of dressage, and shortly after she purchased Tundra, she took a job grooming for Grand Prix rider Simone Williams at Queenswood Stables in Navan, Canada.
At first, dressage was a challenge. While George rode some of Williams’ horses, she wasn’t routinely taking lessons with schoolmasters, so she and Tundra had to learn together. And because George also didn’t have a lot of cash to spend showing, the pair’s experience at training and first level was light.
The other part of the problem was Tundra’s build; his drafty frame meant he wasn’t a fancy mover, and George says they weren’t successful at the lower levels. While forgiving and kind, Tundra (Carloway—Georgette) was also more apt to find creative ways to avoid doing a movement correctly, rather than throwing himself into the task. She was growing frustrated with their scores when Williams gave her a new perspective.
“I got really tired of not being competitive, and I decided I was either going to get better or quit. So I got better,” she said. “I really learned how to be really accurate in my test. I didn’t have a fancy horse, so I couldn’t afford to throw away any points.
“What had happened a bit was I’d make excuses for him and say, ‘He’s not fancy enough.’ And Simone would say, ‘You could keep making excuses or you can fix it. You can get better.’ I started really believing in him,” she said. “He doesn’t know he’s a Percheron-Thoroughbred. As far as he’s concerned, he’s a big, fancy dressage horse, and I just have to learn how to ride him.”
George completely revamped her outlook. Instead of assuming she was limited by her horse’s breeding, she decided to apply herself as if there was no limit to Tundra’s abilities.
Now a special education teacher, George rises at 5 a.m. and squeezes in lessons or rides before work, and after classes let out, she works as a tutor and runs an after-school social skills program and a summer camp.
She also threw herself into the psychological aspect of her riding career. When they began teaching Tundra third level movements they discovered the mental aspect of new movements helped him become more engaged with his job.
“It really helped having a coach who believed in him, and I assume, me. Never once did she say, ‘You need to sell him and buy a fancier horse.’ It was always, ‘This is what you have, and we’re going to do the best with what you have,’ ” George said.
In their first season showing third level, the hard work paid off—the pair was champion or reserve champion at every show they entered, earning a national trophy and provincial trophy at third level from the Ottawa Area Dressage Group. A move-up to fourth level was met with similar success the next season.
But George wasn’t content to stop there. With additional help from Oswaldo Lazzuri, the pair worked their way up to Prix St. Georges. At first, she admitted, the transition didn’t go well.
“I spent two years doing really bad Prix St. Georges tests because of that,” she said. “I was just so happy to be doing the Prix St. Georges on a draft cross that it wasn’t very good. Then I decided I was tired of it not being very good and cleaned up my test.”
Often George finds herself competing primarily against professionals, and at her first Intermediaire II competition last year, she entered the ring after Canadian Olympian Belinda Trussell. She admitted it could be a little intimidating, but George chooses to think about the upside.
“I’m not going out there to win,” she said. “I’m going out there for me and to see how far I can get with my horse. I also try to be grateful that I get to compete against them. It is nerve-wracking, but it’s a really cool experience.”
After picking up a pair of year-end trophies through Ottawa Area Dressage, George went to Williams and asked whether she should be saving up for her next horse. Tundra was getting older, and she wasn’t sure what else they could reasonably put on their bucket list.
Williams’ answer: “You’ve come this far; let’s go for broke. Let’s see if he’ll do Grand Prix.”
“I had seldom been on a horse that knew how to piaffe and passage, let alone teach it to a horse,” George said. “We started teaching him to do that, and he said, ‘I can’t believe you guys think I don’t know how to do this.’ He was really inclined to the piaffe, but the passage took a lot of imagination at first. It looked like a workhorse trotting slowly. It was really choppy. Then one day he found the elevation in it. He had to figure it out, and I did too.”
Now, the pair are prepping for their Grand Prix debut. Tundra is 18, and George is 33; they’ve been together for nearly half her life, and she’s savoring every ride.
“For the last five or six years I just feel so lucky every day that I get to go ride him, and he’s happy and sound and wants to work,” she said. “I trot him around and think how lucky I am. He’s not the fanciest horse in the barn, but he gives me so much confidence. I think you really never know what a horse can give you, and just because they don’t look like the fanciest horse and don’t come from a certain pedigree, that doesn’t mean they can’t fulfill all your dreams and more.”
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