Wednesday, Sep. 27, 2023

Two Great Teachers: Failure And Ellegria

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She was 5 but green broke, still owned by her breeder. I was 21, a veteran of the Young Rider and U25 programs, and as such I thought I knew a few things about horse training. I was wrong, as young people filled with hubris are often are. But I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher than Ellegria.

“Ella’s” real name was, tragically, Elly McBeal, which clearly had to go. She was a Westphalian of great old German breeding (Ehrentanz I—Patrizia, Philipo) and one of three Grand Prix horses her mother produced, with a coat like a copper penny, and a tanky body that belied her 16.1 hands. She had an extended trot that would knock your socks off, a gift for passage and a 10 extended walk. 

When I tell you I did just about everything wrong, I’m not being modest. I didn’t take the danger of that walk seriously, and I allowed her to develop a spectacularly lateral collected walk. I encouraged the passage before starting the half steps, making them a years-long battle that deprived her of the kind of piaffe she should have had. I showed extensively at second level, including becoming regional champion my first show in Virginia after leaving the womb of working studentship to go out on my own; confirming her counter-canter meant it took me a year to get anywhere near a clean flying change. I started in the double bridle badly and too early; a tongue problem haunted her for much of her youth. And I thought I could learn to train horses by dabbling in clinics with Trainer X, and the occasional lesson with Coach Y.

Blogger Lauren Sprieser and Ellegria. Jeff Counterman Photo

But when I tell you I’m grateful for every mistake, I’m not kidding, either, because there is no teacher like failure.

Ella let me fix so much on my own: that awful flying change became her highlight, and our Grand Prix freestyle featured one-handed one-tempis. I learned about how to manage walks, how to navigate weird mouths and how to manage a top horse with wise veterinary and farrier care. And she taught me what absolutely to not do when it came to the teaching of piaffe, or the picking of a coaching system.

It was Ella who led me to my longtime coach, Michael Barisone, the first one to tell me that my system of clinics here-and-there wasn’t how anyone got good. Michael fixed the training holes in Ella I didn’t know how to undo, bringing her from my mediocre Grand Prix scores into his CDI winner. More great learning experiences: We decided to sell her, but priced her with a wacky (and ultimately unsuccessful) number. And thank goodness again, because after Michael contested the 2014 World Equestrian Games selection trials and earned top placings at Dressage at Devon (Pennsylvania) on her, I took Ella back to ride myself.

She had more humble pie to serve me. Just because Michael had found success with her didn’t mean I could simply waltz in. I took my licks. I took a 0 in a pirouette in Wellington when I planned badly and she just simply stopped. I learned about caring for the skin of a delicate girl, because the consequences of a bit rub was a big, expensive “E.” I had my first foray into fitness work, which would prove so valuable when I met Elvis. I had my first foray into traveling hours and spending bajillions of dollars to go and have things go askew. But I also learned how to shake off the mess and rally, like at the 2016 CDI4* in Omaha, the test event for the 2017 World Cup Final where we had a colorful moment outside the ring in the Grand Prix, then came back to place third in the freestyle. I learned to swallow bad scores and celebrate good ones. I learned to video every ride, because no video exists of our career-best 78.90% Grand Prix test in 2016. And I learned that not every horse lives by the same rules: in my program, where my horses are out for long stretches of time, and where hacking plays a critical role in their development, Ella was a hothouse flower who preferred the Great Indoors.

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One of Ella’s last gifts to me was learning to let go. I sold Ella in 2017 to a young rider, knowing that the law of diminishing returns meant that, while horses always have more to teach us, the cruel reality of this line of work is that we can’t afford to be sentimental. When she retired at 20, I thought briefly about asking for her back, so I could breed her. But I didn’t. I think it was a mistake; Ella’s heart and otherwise unbelievable soundness would serve her offspring so well.

Ella has lived her last few years not far from me, with wonderful friends who specialize in retirement board. It was fascinating to hear stories of my former hothouse flower learn to live out, though of course not in the herd of bossy mares, but rather with some doting older geldings she could order around. Tough as nails, she developed a systemic health problem that could easily have killed her at any point in the last two years, but she refused to quit, and stayed comfortable until this week. Her owners let her go on a beautiful day, before it’s gotten too hot or too buggy, things Ella hated. Their kindness to her over the last two years was the richly deserved cap to a great life of teaching her humans how to be better. 

Trainer friends and I often swap campfire stories about the horse we wish we could do again, knowing all we know now. I think about all the wasted time with Ella, learning all the ways to do it better, to do it kinder, to do it more efficiently and compassionately, without having to go back and fill in holes. 

But thinking of that time as wasted, thinking of the opportunity Ella was to me as wasted, is nonsense. I couldn’t be the trainer I am today without her. Every horse I’ve had since her has benefited from the lessons Ella taught me. I hope she doesn’t think of it as wasted time, either. I hope she knows how grateful I am to her, and all she gave. And I hope that Ella’s heaven is full of bananas (which she ate whole), devoid of bugs and only requires she suffer through one hour of turnout in a tiny paddock on a perfect day. 


Lauren Sprieser is a USDF gold, silver and bronze medalist with distinction making horses and riders to FEI from her farm in Marshall, Virginia. She’s currently developing her and Mary Ewing’s Gretzky RV, as well as her own string of young horses with hopes of one day representing the United States in team competition. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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