When Robert Clements’ children left for college 30 years ago, they didn’t leave an empty nest. They left a small Arabian named Sprout.
Sprout wasn’t the kind of horse that a family can sell.
“This is a long story,” said Clements, 86. “We had a lady who was working with our children, teaching them hunter/jumper and Pony Club and everything. We were going on vacation, so we brought the horse we had at the time, a little mare, over to stay with her at her place. A while after we came back, our son was out riding this mare, and he said, ‘Dad, I think she’s pregnant!’ Sure enough, one day we came home, and here was this little brown foal in her stall.
“We asked the trainer, and she said, ‘Oh well, she did jump over the fence and get with an Arabian stallion, but I had her back the next morning,’ ” Clements continued with a laugh. “That was time enough!”
Clements, a dentist, had little first-hand equestrian experience. But he had always loved horses. He grew up in Arlington, Virginia, where he used to walk to the Fort Myer military base to watch service members and their dependents ride.
“My family didn’t have the financial means to give me riding lessons or anything,” said Clements. “Living in a suburb, with no farms or open land, riding wasn’t really anything that was done.”
At 56, Clements got his chance. After his twin son and daughter left home, he started saddling up Sprout between cavity fillings. At first, he mostly stuck to the trails around his small farm in Purcellville, Virginia, riding with his wife, Judge Jean H. Clements, who served on the Virginia Circuit Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals.
It didn’t take long for the hobby to grow.
“I knew I needed to have some instruction,” Bob said. “We had a neighbor who began giving me lessons on just how to ride a horse. Her daughter was into dressage, and I was captivated by the various movements and requirements for dressage. It’s the best basic kind of technical riding you can do, and I liked that it was a challenge.”
When he retired after 37 years of practice, Bob knew he needed to find new challenges beyond riding, so he studied for two years to become a licensed veterinary technician. He also began growing his herd of Black Angus cattle.
By the start of the new millennium, he and Jean wanted more room to roam. They bought a large parcel in Flint Hill, Virginia, and raised a barn for their horses before building a house for themselves.
By the time they arrived, Bob felt ready to compete in dressage.
“I had a horse called Rumpole at that time, a wonderful, wonderful horse,” Bob said. “He was a Morgan-Quarter Horse cross, and he was just the sweetest thing. I was told, though, that he was just not a dressage horse, so we ended up donating him to Virginia Tech’s riding program. I missed him afterward, though. I think maybe if I’d been a better rider, I would have been able to bring him along.”
Working with trainer Donna Gatchell, Bob imported a Hanoverian mare from Germany named Golden Rosebud in 2007. They began traveling to shows, always with Jean as a self-dubbed “groom.”
In 2013, Bob and Rosebud’s combined ages totaled more than 100 years, making them eligible to become members of The Dressage Foundation’s Century Club. And Bob knew just the show where he wanted to perform his first level qualifying test: the Hoofbeats To Hope Show at Homestead Farm in Catlett, Virginia.
“It was a benefit show to raise money for ovarian cancer research,” Bob explained. “When we put together the music for our test, we used vocals that were all associated with life, like John Denver’s ‘I Want to Live.’ Michael Matson, who was on the board of The Dressage Foundation, came all the way from Maryland to give me the ribbon.”
Over the years, Bob’s interest in horses expanded. Rosebud lacked the suppleness to move beyond first level, so in 2011 Bob purchased Wrachmaninov Q, a Hanoverian gelding bred by Suzanne Quarles. He and “Wrocky” competed through second level, and in the process Bob and Jean became heavily involved in the Northern Virginia chapter of the Virginia Dressage Association. They began volunteering regularly in roles from ring steward to scribe.
“I appreciate so much that the whole riding community is so volunteer-based,” Bob said. “If we didn’t have volunteers, there wouldn’t be any show. Not many people are getting paid to do this.”
The Clementses also took their passion for horses on the road, embarking on equestrian adventures in Iceland, Italy, Australia, Costa Rica, Greece and Ecuador. Even when they weren’t on horseback, Bob managed to find equine inspiration wherever they went.
“We took a trip to Cuba and really enjoyed the culture there,” Bob said. “When I got back, I brought a bunch of recordings of Cuban music, mostly guitar, and I used that for a musical freestyle with Wrocky. We used the Cuban national anthem for the entry.
“That’s the most fun in dressage for me—doing musical freestyle,” Bob continued. “I think just about anybody who does them will make the same comment.”
When Wrocky died, Bob purchased Moon Striker, a Hanoverian gelding (Mister A—Walkyrie) bred by Creek Hollow Ranch. Gentle on the ground, “Striker” seems to respond better to Spanish than English, which is no problem for Bob as he speaks both.
Bob set his sights on the next goal: a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze medal. He started training with Lisa Eagley, who travels to him for lessons.
In the abbreviated 2020 show season, Bob earned the final scores for his bronze medal in September aboard Striker, who is now 16. The accomplishment came a few weeks shy of Bob’s 86th birthday.
If you ask him about his feelings on that day, well, it sounds like just another show.
“I agreed with the judges on my scores,” Bob said. “For the first ride, we had just gotten the horse off the trailer and hadn’t had a chance to warm up, so we weren’t as forward as we needed to be. I had 45 minutes between that and the second ride, though, so that gave us time to get going. On the second ride he was very forward and collected. I was happy about all of it but much happier with the second ride.”
Bob has no plans to slow down. Every morning, he walks to the pasture and calls to Striker and Rosebud: “Come in!” for Rosebud and “Venga aqui!” for Striker. He and Jean feed and do chores for the horses and cattle, which Bob is currently transitioning toward Red Angus. Bob handles routine shots and vaccines.
What’s next on his competition agenda?
“We take our goals one year at a time,” Bob said with a laugh. “Striker and I are well past 100 together, and I’m working on a freestyle for another Century Club ride with him. I’d like to do a third level musical freestyle next year and really have it nice and enjoyable. And I think that’s enough goal for now.”