What raised some eyebrows at August’s North American Young Riders Championships was the ascent of a rider who was virtually unknown except in her own region, who had never competed at the NAYRC before, did not ride a horse someone else had trained, and does not have independent means at her disposal.
Her name is Lesley Eden, and she won the individual gold medal and led her Region 3 teammates, Gwen Poulin and Courtney Raiser, to the team gold medal too. It was Region 3’s third straight win, and they did it this time with the handicap of having only three riders.
What is Lesley’s secret? I can fill you in on some of it, since I’ve been her trainer for almost five years, and I believe her story can be an inspiration to kids who think that getting into her position is beyond their grasp.
In the fall of 1996, I was introduced to Lesley by the owner of the barn in Orlando where we wintered for many years. Lesley, who lives nearby, was a tall, lanky, laid-back, coming 16-year-old. Picasso was a tall, lanky, elastic, coming 6-year-old. While Lesley was quiet, almost shy, Picasso’s apparent calm could turn from a yawn to a twister in an instant.
This, and some veterinary concerns (which luckily never became an issue), was the reason he was affordable for Lesley. Lesley and her mother, Lynn, decided that the horse’s talent and good gaits made it worth taking a chance on him, and once committed they never looked back.
Picasso was a wimp and, at first, a very suspicious actor. His eyes would roll in his head when he saw me in the middle of the ring, and he would undulate his body away from me like a large snake, absolutely refusing to let me near him. It took almost a year for Picasso to decide that he liked sugar well enough to over-look the fact that I was the one handing it to him.
Today he allows me to work the piaffe with a whip up close and is completely casual about anything I do around him. When I arrived at Picasso’s stall at the young riders championships and called his name, he ripped his head out of the hay and gave me an eye that clearly said, “Well, I figured you’d show up!”
Lesley and Picasso were a perfect match already when I met them, but they knew not where they were going. Thanks to the timing, we were able to form the team of horse, rider and trainer, which, when all parties involved do their part, works better than any other method to produce results.
Lesley is the kind of student who warms a teacher’s heart for several reasons: She listens and she works patiently on every exercise until she and the horse understand and can easily perform it. She is intelligent and patient, asks questions that make sense, and is willing to wait for results. Even when things looked glum at times, she trusted me when I told her they would improve with time and proper input to the horse.
One example was the flying changes. Lesley had done some changes on my schooled horses and a couple of others before we started them on Picasso, but she had never actually taught them to a horse. Fate would have it that her gelding would be a real pickle in the beginning. For the first year, his changes were some of the most comical varieties on the theme I have ever seen.
Picasso would slow almost to a stop, dig his front feet into the ground, elevate his rear to the heavens, and do a spectacular hand-stand. While hovering in this position, he would move his hind feet like a cricket, change leads behind, and then somehow return to the canter. Although I tried not to, I would sometimes just crack up laughing, and then I would look at Lesley’s face and see she didn’t share my amusement.
Her mother would ask me, when Lesley was not listening, “Do you think he will ever grasp this concept?” I assured her it was just a stage. As sometimes happens, the movement that is the hardest to grasp becomes a forte when the lights go on. This was true with Picasso, whose awkward beginning has turned into lovely, flowing flying changes that have been awarded 8s and 9s in many tests.
Although I wasn’t in Florida during the summers and worked with Lesley and her horse only in clinics, this young lady was able to keep her horse in shape and her work on track according to our plan. She never changed the agenda or doubted the ability of her horse or the veracity of my information. The only thing she might have doubted at times was her own ability to produce what her horse needed or what I wanted to see.
A couple of months before the NAYRC, I said to Lynn, “If we are a little lucky, I believe she can get an individual medal.”
Lynn said, “Don’t tell Lesley. Too much pressure!”
So I never did. Perhaps that’s why the pictures show her with an expression of utter surprise on her face.
This column is not all about the isolated case of Lesley. Her story shows that even today, when the quality of the young riders’ horses, the demands on the proficiency of the riders, and the price of everything has gone way up, you can still reach the top with a good plan and a bit of luck.
But it takes three to tango. No rider gets anywhere without a decent horse, and very few riders get very far without a coach. Look at all the international stars, in particular the ones who come back again and again to the arena and win with one horse after another. In almost every case there is a trainer attached, who may be a pain in the neck on a daily basis, but is indispensable when it comes to keeping horse and rider developing in the right direction.
A good trainer knows when to push the rider and when to soothe the nerves, when to be relentless, and what pots not to stir. They must be as familiar with the horse’s reactions to the training as they are with the rider’s, and they have to know the limitations of the combination, as well as the strengths. Most of all, there must be a trust on the part of the rider and the horse in the trainer, and each must have a strong loyalty.
Not every show is a success story, and the support of the coach is just as important when things are not going according to expectations. In return, the rider cannot find the trainer guilty for every bad show. The trio is still in it together, and the problems have to be solved in a united effort.
Without a support crew to surround the magic triangle (parents, spouses, sponsors, grooms and friends), it can easily break apart from lack of finances, lack of planning, and all kinds of needs (physical and emotional) that develop over the long time it takes to train and show a horse toward a certain goal. But at the core, the three in the triangle must tango in step with each other for a long and sometimes complicated dance.