By Megan Zureck with assistance from Joanna Gray-Randle
Editor’s Note: This article was an honorable mention for the GMO Newsletter First Person Experience Award for GMOs with fewer than 75 members. It appeared in The LIDA Estension, the Long Island Dressage Association newsletter, August/September, 2017.
My dressage journey began at the age of nine when I purchased my first pony for the tidy sum of three-hundred dollars. With several years of riding under my belt, it soon became apparent that my abilities were exceeding my pony’s, and I was steadily outgrowing him. With my passion for dressage increasing, it was time to consider another horse. Purchased by my mother, Three Hearts entered the family. I learned a great deal from my amazing Three Hearts, especially how to be a better rider. Three Hearts would keep me on my toes as he could be bratty at times; but he tried as hard as he could and performed well through First Level. As Three Hearts aged, it became clear that he would be unlikely to ascend the levels, and I knew it would not be fair for me to push him any further. Three Hearts would have a home with me forever but I knew I needed a younger, more athletic horse in order to continue on with my dressage career.
I scraped together all of my savings and decided that it was time to buy a warmblood. I had put my savings aside for a down payment on a house; but, it didn’t bother me to use those funds, as I did not need a house at that precise moment. What I needed was a horse – a horse would make me happy. The horse shopping commenced and I found an Oldenburg gelding named Seydlitz H, or “Skittles”, as he was known around the barn in Pennsylvania. He had been born in Germany and recently imported to the United States as a sale horse. I wasn’t well-versed about bloodlines or breeding then. All I knew was that he was a big warmblood and that was what I wanted. I tried him several times and performed my due diligence with a pre-purchase exam at Mid Atlantic Equine Medical Center. Soon thereafter, “Sam”, as he was now called, was on his way to Long Island, New York.
Our journey together was not always easy and not without challenges, and some of those challenges were completely out of my control. There were days where I wanted to give up, thinking that this was not what I had in mind. But I realized that this was the horse I owned and I could not afford another one; I had to find a way to achieve my goals with him. It was clear that he was physically capable of the work, though mentally appeared a different story, as he could be a bit insecure. Sam needed me to figure out a way to help him to perform the exercises and movements I desired, without pushing him too hard and causing him undo anxiety.
Sam needed me to be patient with him, which is not one of my strong suits. At times, we were like the blind leading the blind as I did not know the feeling of the movements I was asking him to execute. Having never trained or ridden above First Level, I struggled with how I was going to be able to teach him to do something that I had never done before. I did not have the luxury of riding a schoolmaster and gaining an understanding of the feelings of the movements, so I had no choice. Luckily for me, I found USDF Gold, Silver and Bronze Medalist, Joanna Gray-Randle. As my trainer and coach, she helped me set my goals, work towards achieving them, and would not let me give up. It was never easy, but I held steadfast to my dream with Sam. Joanna helped me understand that I needed to be flexible with my timeframe to avoid burn-out; and explained that Sam and I would figure it out with her help, and we would figure it out together, learning from each other. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a million times from Joanna – “You must learn to feel.” Sam and I truly became a team, a partnership built upon trust.
My ultimate goal was to make it to the Grand Prix Level and earn my USDF Gold Medal. There were definitely moments where I thought that maybe this goal was too hard to achieve, and I consoled myself with the fact that not all horses make it to Grand Prix. I would occasionally let myself feel defeated by plateaus and minor set-backs. In reality, Sam had brought me further than I could have ever imagined, always doing his best for me. Still, I questioned if it was fair for me to continue towards my dream. I was riding and training at ever increasing levels of difficulty, and doing it all for the first time. To say I did not know what to expect would be an understatement. But, with the help of my amazing trainer/coach we would always figure out a way to help me to communicate with Sam so that he could understand. Joanna helped to pull me out of my angst when new movements took time to become consistent, citing endless examples of normal training progression.
Sam and I both made steady progress with our daily work and regular lessons. Throughout his training, we tried various numbers of rest days per week. Sam seemed to thrive on more work, but we monitored him regularly and gave him more free time if it was warranted. It was challenging at times to fit riding into my busy schedule. I work at least eight hours a day, seven days a week. This doesn’t account for the work I do because I have my horses on my property. There were many days where I wanted to just go home and get some rest. Getting sick was never an option; and even with broken bones, I continued to work and ride. My determination would let nothing stop me and I kept pushing on.
Sam had some health obstacles in his way. At age six, Sam was diagnosed with equine recurrent uveitis, which is an autoimmune disorder. With the help of several veterinarians and specialists, we were able to get his condition under control. As a secondary complication, Sam developed glaucoma, ultimately leaving him blind in his left eye. Now more than ever, because of the blindness, I needed Sam to trust me and know that I would not lead him into harm’s way. I believe the fact that we went through this together increased Sam’s trust in me exponentially. Several years later, while competing at Fourth Level, Sam developed a “roar” and was diagnosed with exercise-induced left laryngeal hemiplegia. He was unable get enough air into his lungs and needed “tie back” surgery if he was to go any further in his training. The surgery required a three-month recovery time to ensure that the procedure held. So, shortly after Hurricane Sandy, and right before Thanksgiving, Sam had his surgery. After six weeks of stall rest, I was given the okay to tack walk him. This took the challenging form of walking only for at least three weeks, difficult on a fit, fresh, and well-rested horse, but we survived. After weeks of walking, we were able to slowly introduce trot and eventually canter work back into our routine. By April 2013, we were getting back to regular schooling work. I competed Sam at Prix St. Georges that summer and we earned our Silver Medal.
After competing through Intermediate 1 and earning my first two scores toward my USDF Gold Medal, Joanna and I decided that Sam and I would take a year off from showing and would just train without the pressure of being judged. Joanna really wanted Sam and me to get the feel for the Grand Prix test and knew it would take time to solidify a few of the movements. We also needed to take some time so neither of us would burn out. The schooling needed to be fun and I had to remember that. A year off from showing was just what we needed. I had not planned to show Grand Prix until July of 2017 but I saw shows announced in New Jersey in June and thought I should try. I spoke with my trainer about it and she thought it was a good idea. She told me, “You’ve got to ride it for the first time, sometime. If you wait until everything is perfect, you will never get out there.” She also helped me understand that much of what we had going into the ring was confirmed and the rest would only get better with practice and execution. So, I sent in my entries.
I have to be honest, in my wildest dreams I never thought that Sam and I would earn our final two USDF Gold Medal scores in the first two classes I competed. It still is unbelievable to me. Nine years of training and working towards a goal and we did it! The tests were by no means perfect and we have more work to do but the comments from the judges have been encouraging. Barbara Ebner stated, “You are on your way!” and Sally O’Connor said that we had “much promise”. What more could I ask for? The judges confirmed in those statements that what I have been doing is correct. I am so thankful that I found Joanna Gray-Randle, because I know I could have never done this without her knowledge, guidance, friendship, support and encouraging words. She has been in my shoes and she always assured me that what I was going through was normal. She was also always willing and flexible to work around my hectic schedule so I could get my lessons in. Joanna tells me often that she is so proud of me. She has reminded me over the years to look at how far I have come rather than at how far I still have to go. We hugged, smiled and cried in celebration of this accomplishment.
My Sam in an amazing horse. He has allowed me to achieve the exciting goals of earning my USDF Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals; and, my Silver and Bronze Freestyle Bars. I’m still a bit in awe. I owe him a huge debt of thanks for being my partner.
I am very thankful and fortunate to have a great support system of people who were always willing to put my dreams first, no matter what it took. My parents were always there watching me ride and lending support to help take care of the horses. My boyfriend, who knew nothing about horses when he entered the relationship, went above and beyond to keep Sam and I safe. His hard work in maintaining the arena allowed Sam and I to continue our training, no matter the weather. This wonderful support system of my parents, my boyfriend, my friends, and my trainer kept me going. They always believed in Sam and me even when I did not believe that I could do it. Now, only one goal remains, our USDF Gold Freestyle Bar. Joanna is hard at work on my choreography, and I cannot wait to ride down the centerline next year in our Grand Prix Freestyle.