When 13-year-old Alexis “Lexie” Merguerian first met Blissful Sunset, then a scruffy, 3-year-old, 14-hand mare of unknown breeding, the pony didn’t exactly scream upper-level dressage prospect. Little did Merguerian know, she was looking at her future Grand Prix partner.
“I definitely didn’t have it in mind, but I just kept going,” said Merguerian, now 29. “She’s what I got and could afford. She’s happy, super sound and very willing, so I just kind of kept on trucking.”
“Bliss” wouldn’t become Merguerian’s for another four years after they first met; the mare was bought to be a training project and future child’s pony at the barn in Enfield, New Hampshire, where Merguerian took weekly dressage lessons. Fortunately for her, Bliss proved ill-suited to the lesson pony lifestyle. The two of them have been a team for the past 12 years.
“Back then, she was not the easiest,” said Merguerian. “She was so naughty when I bought her, not because she was mean at all, but because she was just so nervous and lacking an education. She had a bad bolting problem [and] was afraid of so much—she was quite afraid of little kids flopping around on her back—but really anything that made a noise or moved, she would bolt away and have no brakes.”
Although it took Merguerian the first five years of their partnership to get Bliss—also affectionately known as the “Energizer Bunny”— settled and able to focus on the work, the fearful little pony she once was bears little resemblance to the athlete she is today. Last year, the pair made their Grand Prix debut and earned the last scores they needed for their USDF gold medal at the Wellington Spring Classic (Florida). This season is their first full season competing at the level.
“Because she’s built downhill, and she’s only 14 hands, it’s tricky for her to do all of the work. So teaching it all to her, I had to be super creative and patient, because I had to show her how to move a certain way,” said Merguerian, who is now a professional trainer. “It did not come as naturally to her as it would have with a nicely bred warmblood. So, for example, it took me a couple of years to put changes on her. Her getting up in the air and then moving her hind end underneath herself when it’s inches higher than her front end is tough for her.”
Not long after becoming a team, Bliss and Merguerian moved to Burlington, Vermont, so that Merguerian could attend the University of Vermont, where she double majored in equine science and entrepreneurship. It was while they were home for winter break that Bliss revealed her Grand Prix potential for the first time.
“I was at home, and I was riding her outside in the snow,” she recalled. “There was like a foot and a half of snow freshly fallen, so I was riding her in the outdoor arena. She just started passaging around in the snow, and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Alright then.’ That was the moment where I was like, ‘You know what? I think we could do this.’ ”
After graduating from college, Merguerian became an assistant trainer and barn manager for Denielle Gallagher-Legriffon in Wellington, Florida. Working with sales horses of all levels has been a large part of Merguerian’s job for the past three and a half years.
Prior to her current role, however, Merguerian had little experience riding upper-level horses, which made training Bliss all the more difficult.
“It was like the blind leading the blind,” she said with a laugh. “Until I got to Denielle’s, I had never really had the opportunity in any regularity to sit on made horses and know what it felt like. I felt like a lot of it was just shooting in the dark and seeing what worked, seeing what didn’t—videoing it, seeing ‘that’s not what I thought that looked like’ [and] trying again. Luckily once I was able to sit on some upper-level horses, it definitely helped speed the process along, because I had an idea of what I was going for.”
Bliss has made the jump from schooling fourth level to competing at the Grand Prix since she and Merguerian joined Gallagher’s team. Gone are the days of the mare’s notorious child-dumping reputation—Merguerian can be found cantering Bliss bareback and in a halter along the canals on their hack days. The shift in her personality has been undeniable.
“She’s like the babysitter. She’s so great. Any horses that are a little naughty or that are new, she’ll keep them in line,” said Merguerian. “One time, we had a baby we turned out for the first time, and I put her out next to him. He started running around in his paddock, and she came trotting up to the fence line, squealed, stomped her feet, and he just immediately stopped. It was hilarious.”
Although Bliss is approximately 19 years old this year—according to her veterinarian’s assessment of her teeth—she has shown no signs of slowing down. The only support the mare needs in the way of maintenance is her two front shoes, put on for the first time last year.
The pair kicked off their 2023 season at AGDF 3 and will be returning this week for the Palm Beach Dressage Derby, competing in FEI test of choice classes during the national show.
In the future, Merguerian hopes to continue building on her partnership with Bliss in the Grand Prix competition arena. Merguerian has her eyes on the Grand Prix Special and the freestyle, both of which would be firsts for the team.
“She just keeps getting better and better,” Merguerian said.