American Dressage Legends: Jessica Newberry-Ransehousen

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Reprinted from the November 2014 USDF Connection magazine.

Some dressage enthusiasts make their mark as riders. Others’ primary contributions are as judges, organizers, or other roles. Not many people reach the top in multiple categories.

One who did is Jessica Newberry Ransehousen, 76, a three-time Olympian who went on to forge careers as an influential instructor, judge, chef d’équipe, and governance figure.

In 1956 and 1957, riding Forstrat, Ransehousen won the United States Equestrian Team’s dressage national championship. In 1959, the pair helped the US team to win a silver medal at the Pan American Games in Chicago. They went on to compete on the US dressage teams at the 1960 Rome Olympic Games and the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Along the way, Ransehousen became the first American dressage competitor to wear the prestigious green leading-rider armband at Aachen, Germany.

After a break to marry and raise children Clayton and Missy, Ransehousen returned to dressage competition. Aboard Orpheus, she represented the US at her third and final Olympic Games, Seoul 1988.

After the Seoul Olympics, Ransehousen—who continued to ride and train—was just getting started. She served as the chef d’équipe of the US dressage squad at the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympic Games; at the 1990 and 1994 World Equestrian Games; and at the 1991 and 1995 Pan American Games. She earned a dressage judge’s license and rose through the ranks to FEI “I” (now 4*) judge, officiating at many high-profile competitions. She was the USET’s vice president for dressage, served three terms as chair of the American Horse Shows Association (now United States Equestrian Federation) Dressage Committee, and in 1997 was elected the AHSA’s assistant secretary. She also served as the US representative to the FEI World Cup Committee and helped bring a World Cup League to North America.

Ransehousen riding Orpheus at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

After a stint in Germany so that she and her children could ride and train with the late Dr. Reiner Klimke, Ransehousen returned to the US in 1980 and settled at her Blue Hill Farm in Unionville, PA, where she and daughter Missy are still based today. Missy, a successful eventing trainer and competitor and former chef of the US para-equestrian dressage team, is just one of the many prominent equestrians Jessica Ransehousen has helped educate. She coached Dorothy Morkis on Monaco before the pair won team bronze at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Longtime student Todd Flettrich was the inaugural FEI North American Young Riders Championships dressage individual gold medalist in 1992; he went on to be a member of the US team at the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. In 2001, student Kerri Sowers won team silver and individual bronze at the NAYRC. Eventers she has coached in dressage include Olympic medalists Darren Chiacchia and Phillip Dutton. Ransehousen’s most prominent para-equestrian dressage student to date (with coaching duties shared with Missy Ransehousen) is six-time USEF national champion Rebecca Hart, whose mounts have included Jessica’s own Lord Ludger.

With Forstrat, Jessica Ransehousen (née Newberry) represented the US at the 1960 and 1964 Olympic Games. They are pictured in Aachen, Germany, in 1960.

In recognition of her seminal efforts on behalf of US dressage, the USDF inducted Ransehousen into the Roemer Foundation/ USDF Hall of Fame in 2001. In 2009, she was honored with the USEF Lifetime Achievement Award and the Jimmy A. Williams Trophy.

You are part of Ransehousen’s dressage legacy every time you stretch your horse during a ride, and particularly when you ride a “stretching circle” in a lower-level dressage test. Ransehousen was a member of the test-writing committee that introduced the stretching circle into the AHSA (now USEF) Training and First Level tests. This movement, which has remained in those tests ever since, is now considered a key assessment of a horse’s basic dressage training.

Here is an article by Ransehousen.

What We Were After: What We Want to See

By Jessica Ransehousen

Letting your horse take the reins out of your hands—a movement never before seen in our tests—can be quite attractive when it’s done well. But we members of the test-writing committee had more than an attractive novelty in mind when we included it. Adding this movement was part of our effort to make the entire series of new tests—from Training Level through Fourth Level—into a workable blueprint for the correct, systematic, step-by- step, daily training of your dressage horse.

We designed these new tests to help you, the rider—particularly if, like so many American dressage enthusiasts, you live where there are few or no trainers, so you rely on test scores to tell you how your training is going, and on the upcoming levels to tell you where to take it next. We wanted the new tests to discourage riding with too much hand and muscle and not enough seat and leg. We wanted them to make unhappy, tense, “Swiss-cheese horses” (horses that are full of holes) with restricted gaits a thing of the past. We wanted to encourage lighter, happier, better-balanced horses, stepping freely and energetically under themselves from behind and not relying on their riders to hold them together. And we wanted the tests to progress logically and “doably,” the way training should. We emphasized (in many cases with double coefficients) the classical training tools of dressage that you should be using at home every day, such as:

Clear transitions (between and within gaits, they challenge your and your horse’s balance— and by so doing, improve it)

Changes of bend and direction (they supple your horse and teach him obedience)

Lateral work, such as leg-yields (to supple and strengthen him)

And this movement, taking the reins out of the hands, which tests and improves your horse’s ability to stay balanced on his own.

What do I, as a judge, want to see from this movement? A relaxed, balanced horse, on an accurate circle, smoothly and quietly stretching down, maintaining his rhythm and energy, then coming back up without resistance or hesitation. As you start the circle, I want to see you gradually giving the reins. I want to see him respond to your “invitation” by evenly and politely easing three or four inches of rein through your fingers without rooting, jerking, or flipping his head. I want to see him stay in the same fl owing, energetic trot rhythm as he stretches his nose forward and down, neither putting his head up in the air nor rolling up in a ball and bringing his head to his chest or knees. And I want to see you keeping things pretty much under control by maintaining your position and contact with his mouth—because you still have an accurate twenty-meter circle to ride. When, several strides before you finish the circle, you gradually begin to shorten the reins, I want to see your horse raise his frame without resisting, tensing up, opening his mouth, throwing his head, or slowing down.

What difference should I see between Training and First Level? Not much; just the increased animation and “bounce to the ounce” that naturally goes along with a First Level horse.

Simple, huh? This “new movement” really isn’t radically different. It’s just an extension of what I hope you’re already doing in your daily training. All we test writers are interested in is seeing your horse relax and swing through his back and stay balanced and comfortable when you give him a little longer rein and allow him to lower his frame, nose, neck, and ears.

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