By Jennifer Bryant
Reprinted from the June 2016 USDF Connection magazine.
Many horses make successful contributions in the show ring or in the breeding shed, but precious few of those are ever selected for induction into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame. Why?
To be considered Hall of Fame material, an individual—human or equine—must have achieved something extra-special: helping to shape or expand our sport in America. And the ones that make the most indelible marks aren’t always the ones that win the top medals and prizes.
A perfect case in point is this month’s American Dressage Legend: Seldom Seen. The ponysized Thoroughbred/Connemara cross would easily capture any award for cuteness, but the gelding (1970-1996) was never on a US Olympic or World Championship team. Although he won an impressive share of ribbons and titles, his achievements are eclipsed by many others. Yet the American-bred Seldom Seen became a powerful ambassador for the sport of dressage. In an era that saw American riders importing huge warmbloods from Europe as fast as they could load the planes, the 14.2-hand pony proved that the smaller, non-warmblood equines could hold their own—and win—against the big guys. He was adorable and fun to watch, and he was a mount audiences could imagine actually being able to own and ride, unlike the imported warmbloods with the intimidatingly huge movement and the price tags to match.
Seldom Seen—so named because as a newborn he was so tiny he wasn’t visible over the tall grass—and his lifelong rider and trainer got their start in Alabama, where an event rider from Maine named Lendon Gray was working at the farm of Peg Whitehurst. Whitehurst’s daughter, Kim Whitehurst, was a Pony Clubber and had been riding “Brillo,” as the family nicknamed their pony for his resemblance to an oversized steel-wool pad as a fuzzy foal. In 1975, Gray took a five-year-old Seldom Seen to a novice- level horse trial. They won.
Eventually the jumps got too big for the pony, and a year later he and Gray began focusing on dressage. (Hilda Gurney, who would win an Olympic team bronze medal that year, reportedly told Peg Whitehurst: “If you don’t let Lendon take that horse to Grand Prix, I want him.”)
The Gray-Seldom Seen partnership proved to be a perfect match, despite the fact that both horse and rider were new to dressage, particularly to the upper levels. “Since he was the first horse I trained to Grand Prix, we had to do things along the way, and I made a lot of mistakes,” Gray recalled. “He was very, very forgiving. You could not have had a more patient, understanding horse.”
The pair was soon established as a competitive force, progressing at the rate of two levels per year. From 1977 to 1987, Seldom Seen was highly ranked in the USDF Horse of the Year standings from every level from First through Grand Prix, capturing Horse of the Year titles in 1981 at Prix St. Georges and in 1982 at Intermediate II. He ranked in the top six in the annual USDF Grand Prix Horse of the Year standings three times. And in 1981, he won the individual gold medal at the US Olympic Festival in Syracuse, NY.
“People would buy big, fancy horses, and I would come trucking in on a pony and beat them,” Gray said.
Gray is famous as a champion of “nontraditional” breeds in dressage, and her success with Seldom Seen was a launching pad for her platform.
“When he became a Grand Prix horse,” Gray said of the pony, “it was great to compete him since he attracted a lot of attention because he was an average horse. He was not a special mover, and he was small. He was just a horse that was trained and competed well. He developed a huge fan club because of this. Seldom Seen brought dressage to everyone and showed it was for anyone.
“He had such a huge fan club wherever he went,” Gray continued. In 2005, the year that Seldom Seen was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame, she said: “I still receive letters from people telling me how Seldom Seen gave them encouragement to try harder with their own horses.”
So popular was Seldom Seen that, in 1987, thousands of fans were on hand for the 17-year-old pony’s retirement ceremony at Dressage at Devon in Pennsylvania. (He went out on top, having just swept the Grand Prix, the Grand Prix Special, and the Grand Prix Freestyle at the competition.) His competitive career may have ended, but Gray continued to ride him in dressage exhibitions, including a memorable pas de deux with a reining horse.
“The everyman of American dressage,” as former USDF president Sam Barish called Seldom Seen, died in Florida in 1996 at the age of 26.