From The Magazine: The Unexpected Dressage Star

Jun 18, 2021 - 7:41 AM

On a sunny day in July 2014, Leslie Ann McGowan got the phone call.

She was teaching at her family’s Linden Woods Farm, a 20-horse boarding facility in Durham, New Hampshire, when a neighbor rang to say there was a loose pony in her backyard.

McGowan, 29, knew the pony wasn’t one of theirs, but her mother, Karen Bishop, went to the neighbor’s equipped with halter, lead rope and a bucket of grain. By the time she arrived, the pony had disappeared into the woods.

A few hours later, the pony had returned, and McGowan attempted to coax him with a bucket of grain.

“He was interested but super cautious,” she says. “He’d stop and face me, then walk 10 or 20 feet away, then stop and look at me again. He did that for a while.”

Eventually, the pony got close enough to take a bite of grain. But when McGowan reached for his faded nylon halter, the pony spun and ran off into the woods.

“At that point I was like, ‘I’m not going to keep chasing you. I hope you find your way home,’ ” McGowan says.

The pony was spotted from time to time as he moved through the dense forest in the area, occasionally making appearances in the road. Eventually, McGowan was able to corner the skittish animal against a neighbor’s fence line and get a lead rope on him. She led him back to her farm, wondering what to do with him now.

A few hours later, the pony’s owner called, asking if she wanted to keep him.

“I said, ‘I guess if she doesn’t want him, I’m not going to send him back,’ ” recalls McGowan.

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Leslie Ann McGowan has earned the trust of Woody, a pony found running loose in the forest. Susan Irene Photo

By that night, McGowan was holding a bill of sale and a year-old Oklahoma Coggins test claiming the 14.1-hand roan was a 10-year-old Paso Fino. He’d been bought from an auction just a few months prior and was still quite underweight, with a large head, long, tangled mane and overgrown feet. In tribute to his sojourn through the forest, they renamed him Woody.

“He definitely was kind of funny looking,” says McGowan with a laugh. “But there was also something about him. I liked him. At that point, I thought I’d have a little project and either sell him or keep him as a lesson horse.”

Growing up, McGowan often rode green horses, as well as those with behavioral quirks. She learned to be patient, determined and creative with training challenges.

“I was always the kid who rode the pony who took off bucking with everyone else, because I knew I could ride it and because I wanted to be the one who could make it better,” says McGowan, who has helped retrain horses for the New Hampshire Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s always been in me to work with the more difficult horses and to help anybody who’s got something that maybe doesn’t look like your average horse and make it better than average.”

Not knowing if or what kind of training Woody may have had, McGowan treated him as if he knew nothing. Using her background in natural horsemanship (McGowan’s mentors include Kip Fladland of Montana and Warren Meyer of New Hampshire), she started introducing Woody to basic groundwork exercises. But McGowan’s time was focused on teaching and training horses for her business, Double A Equestrians, so Woody mostly hung out for the next several months.

“He certainly wasn’t on my priority list every day,” McGowan says. “I would let the kids brush him. I put a saddle on him that fall, and he was a little worried but seemed to understand it. Eventually, I got on him in the round pen, and he was worried but didn’t try to go run off bucking or anything like that. He felt like he had done stuff before, but he was afraid. I think he was perhaps started by someone with a heavy hand, in the more old- fashioned ‘breaking’ kind of way.”

In time, McGowan started to use Woody for walk-trot longe lessons, occasionally letting more experienced students ride him independently. He was safe and reliable and soon became a student favorite.

But Woody continued to be difficult to catch in his paddock. On more than one occasion, McGowan and Bishop would have to leave him out alone and try again later. But as frustrating as the process could be, it gave McGowan plenty of opportunities to watch him show off three quality gaits. In 2017, inspired by a month spent training in Wellington, Florida, McGowan decided to begin riding Woody more consistently.

“At first, it was just, ‘Let me see what I can do with him,’ ” McGowan says. “I started riding him every day. That summer I took him to a show, and he came home with a blue ribbon. I was like, ‘Let’s keep doing this.’ And no one else has sat on him since.”

Over the next four years, McGowan developed Woody to fourth level, receiving scores to 68% at venues ranging from the Adequan Global Dressage Festival in Wellington to the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 8 Championships in Saugerties, New York. After spending the pandemic training at home, she’s preparing the now 18-year-old for his 2021 FEI debut at Prix St. Georges.

“He didn’t know how to be a dressage horse at first,” McGowan says. “But because of his build, he’s quite good at his collected work, and the basic lateral work like leg yield is just easy for him. More than anything, it’s his work ethic that’s made him so successful—he will go all day long. He never complains; he lets me ask anything of him. He just keeps plugging away.”

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Leslie Ann McGowan plans to debut Woody at Prix St. Georges this year. Susanjstickle.com Photo

Flying changes didn’t come naturally to him— McGowan says were more like “flying leaps” for quite some time. But she’s worked with Jan Ebeling, Jeremy Steinberg and Scott Hassler.

Hassler, of Loxahatchee, Florida, has worked with Woody for two years, primarily using remote technology such as the Move’n See app.

“He is very afraid of some things,” Hassler says. “He would never go up to a person on the ground who he doesn’t know. But once you’re on him, it’s like he goes through a worry process when learning, and then he gives into it and trusts his rider. To just teach him one change was a scary thing for him at first, but then he figured it out. And now the sequences are coming along. The way he processes what you ask and then gives into it is really unique.”

McGowan says Woody can get worried but never frazzled. “He’s kind of hot, and he’s got that expression for an upper-level dressage horse,” she says. “It’s been a challenge in teaching him new things because he gets tight and worried, and it’s taken longer for sure. But because of his work ethic, I’ve never really struggled.”

Not that the process has been easy. In fact, Steinberg believes this is one of the lessons Woody has to offer McGowan.

“The easy horses to train don’t create exceptional horsemen,” Steinberg says. “The horses like Woody that make you think, lose sleep, create plans and really break a mental sweat to get around their shortcomings are horses that you always learn from. Even though Woody might not make Leslie Ann a star in the FEI ring, he’s giving her training skills she can use and apply to other horses—not just those she rides, but also those riders in her program that she teaches and passes that information and skill set on to. The skills she is learning from working with him are invaluable.”

Even around those he knows well, Woody can still be unexpectedly quirky on the ground.

“He’s always on alert,” McGowan says. “He doesn’t read your intention well. For example, if I reach underneath him to do a belly strap and my coat makes a noise, you can see his whole body tense up. I can’t imagine what he’s been through, to still at this point not wholly trust.”

And of course, he always gets turned out with his halter on.

“It’s a dance to catch him,” McGowan says. “I can catch him the quickest, followed by my mom, but there are still days I walk out with my hood up, and he’s just like, ‘Don’t come near me.’ If you touch any part of him before he’s clipped [to the lead rope], he runs away. You have to walk in and read him and see how he’s feeling. If he starts to step back, you have to stop and step back. Then he’ll step forward.”

Woody has been earning scores in the low to mid-60s, and McGowan is as proud of him as any of her more purpose-bred mounts.

“I’ve had a few people say, ‘Look, he’s a waste of your time,’ but I’ve never felt that way,” she says. “You can say maybe I’m putting money into him that I could spend elsewhere, but I’ve learned so much. The changes have always been my weak point, but because of him, I’ve figured out those pieces, and I’ve been able to put them together. I have to approach things differently with him, and he gives me a different feeling. It helps me when I get on a horse that’s more naturally talented, to help them do even better.”

Hassler loves seeing students who ride unconventional horses.

“It’s refreshing for the sport,” he says. “It gives others the inspiration that they don’t need to go out and buy a horse that is a traditional ‘wow factor’ breed. As a trainer, our goal is to make every horse we come across a little better.”

Steinberg is equally impressed by McGowan’s perseverance and commitment.

“I always seem to root for the underdog and love seeing her dedicated to his wellbeing and training,” he says. “In the long run, we really need trainers like Leslie Ann who are willing to work with a horse that isn’t easy or perfect, otherwise as a national community we are creating a system that cannot self- sustain. If all we do is work with the easy and the talented ones, lots of horses fall through the cracks, and lots of people miss out.”

Last summer, McGowan bought Woody his own saddle, a custom MacRider with sparkles and patent leather, along with a matching bridle. This tack adjustment, combined with the work of an equine chiropractor, has helped put the finishing touches on his preparation for an FEI debut. But McGowan still has a bigger dream to fulfill.

“I’d like to see him go up centerline at Grand Prix,” she says. “If he can figure out the timing, I don’t think things like the one [tempis] will be a challenge for him. He can piaffe for sure—he’s still in the learning process of it, but I think he’ll figure it out. He’s probably not coming out with the blue ribbon, but I think he could score in the low 60s at Grand Prix.”

McGowan still needs one Grand Prix score to earn her USDF gold medal. Although she predicts that Bel Fast, a 10-year-old Hanoverian she competes at Intermediaire for Schneiders Sporthorses, will reach that level first, developing Woody to Grand Prix would also fulfill a dream.

“He has such a big heart and tries so hard, to get to the top level of the sport with him would mean so much,” she says. “I want to prove he can do it, for everyone else out there who doesn’t have the opportunity to have the top horses. No matter where he ends up, he’s gone above and beyond what I’d ever expected.”


This article ran in The Chronicle of the Horse in our June 7, 2021 issue.

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