Lexington, Ky.—Nov. 9
The last time Jamie Leuenberger rode at the Kentucky Horse Park she was cantering around on a pony during USEF Pony Finals in 2010, but she’s returned this weekend to for the U.S. Dressage Finals with a passion for the sport and The Black Pearl, a gelding of unknown origins who’s found his calling too.
Leuenberger was looking for a hunter when her trainer came across “Jack” at a farm in western Pennsylvania that belonged to a Mennonite man.
“He kind of collected horses from auctions and some of them he resold,” she said. “He trotted him around and jumped him over a log in the field, in a halter and western saddle, and my mom bought him sight unseen. It just went onward and upward from there.
“It’s just been a really interesting journey with him,” said Leuenberger, who was 13 when she first got Jack. “I’ve just kind of done whatever I felt was best to do with him. He’s really awesome because he wouldn’t be a world-class horse at pretty much anything, but he’s pretty good at literally everything. I’ve hunted him, [evented him, competed in dressage seat equitation] and pretty much everything you can imagine except working a cow, he’s done.”
Leuenberger wasn’t totally convinced Jack was going to be a hunter when she first saw him, but he was green-broke and safe, despite not really cantering.
“He was honest and safe and just nice to be around,” she said. “He had some weird quirks; he was a little afraid of people sometimes. But he’s just really been a super horse.”
“Initially, I wasn’t that in love with him,” said Leuenberger, who believes the gelding is a Friesian cross. “He has very up-down movement, so not at all a hunter. We ended up having to change barns, and then we changed trainers and the eventing and dressage people thought he was really cute. As it turns out, his gaits aren’t terrible, and when he learned to canter, his canter’s actually pretty good.”
Jack took to eventing quickly, and he competed to training level, but a lack of scope meant he was maxed out at the level. He and Leuenberger made it to the 2017 USEA American Eventing Championships (North Carolina) at novice before they started focusing more on dressage.
“At that point, I’d gotten really, really attached to him, so it’s not like I could ever sell him,” she said. “So, I figured it’s best for him, and for my riding, for me to learn to do dressage better.”
Trainer Samantha St. Jacques was the first to really believe in Jack’s talent for dressage.
“I’d been told initially by a couple of people that I shouldn’t really bother, that I should just get a new horse,” said Leuenberger, 22, Millford, New Jersey. “Because he wasn’t scopey enough to go up the levels in eventing, and he’s not a good mover, and he’s just not—he’s not, you know, just a bunch of things. His way of going was a little weird.”
Once he figured out his flying changes, Jack began progressing well, and they’re at Finals this weekend in the open fourth level freestyle riding to “Pirates Of The Caribbean” music.
They rode in a warm-up freestyle class yesterday in the pouring rain. “I’m proud of Jack as always,” she said. “I didn’t ride him as well as I’d hoped. He was so good in the warm-up, and he felt great. As I was going around the arena, since it was raining really hard in the morning when I went, my reins started to slip, so it just ended up being one of those rides where I’m just trying to hold onto the reins. We had some mistakes, but it was the highest score I’ve gotten all year with the freestyle, which I was really happy with. I took a chance and made some last-minute changes last week, because I figured, we’re coming to Finals, I might as well really try to make it count.”
A couple of years ago, Leuenberger found out that Jack, who she thinks is about 15, has head shaking syndrome, so he competes with a nose net.
“Once we found the nose net, things really turned a corner,” she said. “Suddenly, he was steady in the contact, he didn’t curl and hide from the bit anymore. It took me a while to decide to try it because I didn’t think it would work. I thought the idea was kind of silly. But I also didn’t want to admit that my horse had an issue. But one day I tried it and haven’t gone back.”
A young professional based out of Bow Brickhill Stables, Leuenberger thinks she’s in the sport for the long haul.
“The owner of that farm, John Alexis, has been really supportive, and I have a couple of his horses that I ride as well,” she said. “Right now, [Jack is] my main dressage horse. I do have one of John’s horses that’s coming along that’s very nice, but has had a lot of behavioral issues, so it’s coming along slowly, and I also have an event horse.”
We‘re on site at the Kentucky Horse Park for the U.S. Dressage Finals! Check back at coth.com all weekend for more news and stories. If you’re at the show with a cool story, let us know by emailing Lindsay at email@example.com. Look out for the Dec. 2 print edition of the Chronicle for more from the show.