By Elizabeth TeSelle
Editor’s Note: Th is article won first place in 2015 for a GMO newsletter award for first-person experience for GMOs with 75-174 members. It originally appeared in the November 2014 Central Tennessee Dressage Association newsletter, The Half Halt.
Most riders would be thrilled to earn their silver medal sometime before they were ready for retirement. Some are able do it sooner than that. A fortunate few manage to achieve that kind of success while still young. But when Grace Gregory earned her silver in September 2014 at the age of twenty-one, it was a very special accomplishment.
Grace was diagnosed on the autism spectrum early in life, following a traumatic birth. She also has severe dyslexia and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD). By age seven, she was still barely speaking, so when Susan, Grace’s mom, heard about Saddle Up! Therapeutic Riding Center, she decided to give it a try. Founded in the late 1980s by, among others, long-time CTDA member Lynne Evans, Saddle Up! provides riding lessons to disabled and special needs children throughout Middle Tennessee.
Grace herself remembers that she liked riding because it was something different from what her friends did, and because she enjoyed its challenges. She has always been a competitive person (participating in softball, basketball, and swimming in addition to riding), and setting goals for herself keeps her focused.
An integral part of Grace’s therapy, Lynne Evans began teaching Grace privately shortly after she started at Saddle Up! Lynne says that she noticed immediately that not only did Grace have a good seat and natural feel, but that, most important, she showed “a real, true love of the horse.” As Lynne continued to teach Grace over the next ten years, she observed that as Grace’s riding improved, her confidence in herself, and her ability to communicate with others, grew as well. To this day, Grace and Susan refer to Lynne as “Grace’s other mom,” and clearly Lynne is just as dedicated to Grace.
At age thirteen, Grace began volunteering at Saddle Up!, where she was eventually hired as a paid lesson assistant, cleaning the barn, tacking up, and assisting with lessons. Grace began jumping at a local stable, joined Pony Club, and acquired a horse of her own, who unfortunately contracted EPM after six months and had to find a new home. Her next horse, Opie, was a good fit for her. Lynne continued to teach Grace (free of charge), and helped Grace with the musical freestyle she and Opie performed at the Pony Club National Rally in Lexington. Grace worked at the barn where Opie lived in exchange for his board, and also rode horses and worked at Walnut Trace.
When Grace was selected to participate in Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids Youth Dressage Festival in Saugerties, NY, everyone was elated, but two hurdles presented themselves. The first was financial: the expenses associated with the trip to the Festival were too much for her family. In stepped Theresa and Andre Jaeckle (of the Jaeckle Center in Thompson’s
Station, who provided the lion’s share of the funds necessary for Grace to attend. The second problem was that Opie’s arthritis had progressed to the point where he was unable to compete. Fortunately, arrangements were made for Grace to borrow a horse in New York.
Grace was the first special needs child to attend the Saugerties Youth Festival. Although her verbal skills had improved, her writing still lagged behind that of other kids her age, making it difficult for her to complete written work. Grace was permitted to use a scribe on her written test, and her score was the highest of the several hundred kids at the Festival. On her borrowed horse, Grace then took home the first level championship trophy (and a new saddle!) for the 15-18 age group (out of 120 riders).
Although originally skeptical that special needs children should be included, Lendon Gray has since opened up the Festival to other special needs and para kids, and has made a point of highlighting Grace’s accomplishments in press releases.
After Saugerties, it became clear that Grace needed a new horse—one who could take her further towards the accomplishment of her dreams. Again the Jaeckles stepped in, along with Drea Gunness of the Jaeckle Center. The Jaeckles sent Grace and Drea to Ocala to try more than sixty horses, and they finally settled on a six year old Hanoverian/Oldenburg mare, Latatiana (Bella), paid for entirely by the Jaeckle Center. Needless to say, the Gregorys were overwhelmed by this generosity.
Originally trained as an eventer, Bella was not an easy ride. Lynne Evans admits that at first she thought the horse was too much for Grace, and during Grace’s first year with Bella, Lynne gave the pair lessons almost daily. Although Grace remembers being unceremoniously dumped several times (resulting in two broken helmets and a black eye!), Bella made steady progress, thanks to Lynne’s, Drea’s, and Grace’s hard work. Grace says that as she prefers a more forward horse, she is willing to deal with the occasional negative side effects of Bella’s high energy, focusing instead on the mare’s positive attributes and willingness to work hard.
It was Lynne who suggested that Grace begin training with Tami Crawford. Susan remembers that as a difficult time, because Lynne was so loved by the family that she and Grace were reluctant to leave her, but Lynne insisted that if Grace truly wanted to succeed, Tami was the one to help her do so. At age nineteen, Grace moved to Tami’s barn to be her working student, and soon felt at home there. Lynne, who remains a close and supportive friend and “second mother,” selflessly attributes much of Grace’s success to her new trainer.
For her part, Tami calls Grace’s work ethic “amazing,” and adds that she is “an individual who can tackle anything life throws at her.” Tami initially felt, as Lynne did, that Bella might not be the right horse for Grace, given the mare’s sensitivity, tendency to express her opinions, and unexceptional gaits. But Grace persisted, and with Tami’s considerable help, has learned to make the most of Bella’s talents (such as collection). In addition to a natural feel for riding, Tami says that Grace has other valuable skills. She has, in fact, “completely changed my life,” Tami says, through organizing Tami’s lessons and keeping her on task. Tami readily admits that organization has never been her forte, but now that Grace handles her schedule, Tami’s lessons and training horse rides are planned well ahead of time and clearly noted on a large board. Grace has Tami’s horses ready to go at the right time and keeps her organized at shows, as well.
When Grace applied to Lendon Grey’s Dressage4Kids Winter Intensive Training (WIT) program in Wellington, FL, Lynne Evans wrote a letter of recommendation in which she told Lendon that “Grace will never let you down.” Since Lendon selected Grace to attend WIT not only in 2013, but again in 2014, clearly Lynne was right! WIT, a three-month program for serious young dressage riders, includes daily lessons, lots of barn chores, showing opportunities in Wellington, and clinics, workshops, and classes on all aspects of riding and horsemanship offered by the best riders, vets, and farriers in the country. This experience does not come cheaply, however. While some of the expenses are covered by the program, many are not, and the Gregorys needed help. Over the course of several months, enough contributions were made through Facebook and website appeals to enable Grace to head down to Florida with Bella. Once there, Grace leapt in with both feet.
During her two winters in WIT, Grace kept a blog detailing her experiences (http://www.graceriding.org/?cat=3) that makes for fascinating reading. What stands out the most is Grace’s persistently positive attitude. Bella had a hard time settling into the Wellington scene and reacted badly to schooling with other horses (Grace describes her as “very spirited, but a big chicken”), but even when her lessons were less than great, Grace just let it roll off her back and focused on the next task at hand. And this laser focus paid off . Grace went to WIT the first time (January 2013) having recently earned her first level scores towards her bronze medal; at WIT she worked tirelessly on Bella’s changes, earned her second level scores at the WEF Dressage Classic, and then earned her third level scores and her bronze early that summer. Six months later, she earned her fourth level scores in Florida, came home and debuted at Prix St. Georges, and on September 6th of this year, earned her silver medal at the age of twenty-one.
When asked what she likes most about dressage, Grace says that it is the very “nit-pickiness” of the sport that appeals to her, because as a competitive, goal-oriented person, she appreciates the challenge of perfecting her skills and those of her horse. She says, though, that what she loves most about horses is the relationship she forms with them. Working for Tami, she grooms and tacks up many horses every day, and she enjoys getting to know them all so well that she can immediately tell if something is off just by walking by their stalls. This ability to read horses has certainly contributed to Grace’s success with Bella, whose movement from first level to Prix St. Georges in two years is, particularly considering the horse’s challenging personality, nothing short of amazing.
Grace’s goals are broad and far-reaching. She wants, of course, to earn her gold medal, hopefully on Bella, and she would like to compete in the CDI-U25 program. She has also become interested in judging, and plans to begin the L program in November. Lynne Evans was impressed by the clarity and helpfulness of Grace’s comments when Grace served as a judge at a recent 4-H show, and thinks she will have real talent as a judge. Grace, she says, “has a good eye.” Both she and Susan Gregory note that Grace can remember a test after going over it only a few times, and that she seems to have a visual memory that allows her to understand what she sees and communicate that understanding to others. These skills will stand her in good stead in her pursuit of another ambition—to become a teacher and trainer like Lynne and Tami, running her own facility. She is already instructing a few beginner students at Tami’s barn, and both kids and parents have raved about her abilities. Recently Grace learned that, due to the generosity of family friends, she will be going to Wellington again this winter, with plans to improve her and Bella’s work at Prix St. Georges and make a start on Intermediare I.
In addition, Grace is now taking photography classes at Nashville State Community College. Not surprisingly, she specializes in equine photography, and a photograph she took of a fellow WIT student and her horse was published in a national Connemara magazine earlier this year. She is also interested in learning more about videography.
Meeting Grace’s mom makes it clear that Grace has a support system that would be the envy of anyone. Susan Gregory is 100% committed to ensuring that Grace has every opportunity possible to achieve her dreams, and her enthusiasm about Grace’s accomplishments is contagious. She feels absolutely certain that “God has a plan for Grace.” In addition, Grace has enjoyed the tutelage of Lynne Evans and Tami Crawford, as well as Lendon Gray and many other trainers in Florida. She has been assisted financially by the Jaeckles, and by all the generous people who contributed to make the WIT experience happen.
The main driver of Team Grace, though, is Grace. In her WIT blog, Grace says, “This year has shown me that I can be a dressage rider. I always dreamed to be a top dressage rider, but now I know one day sooner than later I will be.” Everyone who knows Grace has no doubt that wherever her dreams lead her, Grace will succeed. In fact, this writer came away from an interview with Grace feeling that “special needs” may, in her case, be a misnomer. She might not write as well as some of us, but clearly she rides better than many of us, and her determination and tenacity set her apart from many other young people. Perhaps Grace’s “disability” actually has a silver lining if, indeed, her autism has forced Grace to learn early what many of us never fully embrace: that only hard work and dedication can help us achieve our goals when life throws barriers in our path.