By Claire Wheeler
Thank you for asking me to write about my experience at PVDA and riding Mary Alice! My name is Claire Wheeler, I’m 17 years old, and I have been riding since before I could walk, but just recently started doing dressage. I started riding in the pony hunters/jumpers and moved towards eventing as I got older. When I was 14, I had done mainly unrecognized events with my rescue pony, Lacey, when I heard the McGaughans were looking for a working student.
I had known the McGaughans a little before applying to be a working student, since our family farm is located right near the former Banbury Cross and I often rode in Packys cross country field while on hacks. I had taken a few lessons from Packy on and off over the years but didn’t know him or Judy that well.
I started working for them 3-4 days a week, riding the young horses, helping with basic farm chores, and feeding horses over the weekend. Working for Packy and Judy was a unique experience for many reasons, one of which was the fact that I got so much time riding horses and getting lessons. It was in these lessons that I finally “understood” what dressage really was.
I came into the position very underqualified, especially in the dressage department. Up until working for the McGaughans, my goal for dressage was simply to get through it and make it to the jumping phases. Packy mainly gave me jumping lessons which, though quite challenging, ultimately completely changed my riding and allowed me to progress further than I ever had before. Judy spent countless hours teaching me true dressage and the fundamentals of training the young dressage horse. It took months just to teach me how to do a correct shoulder in, I was pretty clueless.
Over time I spent more and more time at Banbury Cross and eventually came six days a week either to ride or feed the horses. All of the McGaughans horses are wonderful but
Mary Alice Brown (one of Judy and Packys homebreds out of Hilltop Bugatti and Velvet Brown) was the first horse I got the pleasure of riding. She was the smallest of their horses, standing at 15.3hh. She looked almost like a pony, which I loved. Mary Alice is such a sweet mare and always tries her best – if she likes you. She won’t hesitate to let you know how she feels about the way you ride or care for her, she’s a sensitive soul. I learned a lot from my lessons with Mary Alice and Packy, learning how to ride firmly, yet soft enough not to upset her. Mary Alice is extremely athletic in everything she does, our jumping lessons always focused on me trying not to rile her up. Mary Alice also helped me learn a lot about dressage and how to ride correctly and effectively. I’d like to think that caring for Mary Alice so often is what allowed us to work together effectively.
When Packy unfortunately passed away, it was really hard on everyone at the farm. Clearing out all of the supplies from the barn when the farm sold wasn’t the hardest part, it was finding homes for the horses Judy wouldn’t be able to take with her. My event horse at the time, George, had just been injured in the field, and I was without a competition horse. When Judy brought up the possibility of leasing Mary Alice, I was super excited but a little hesitant at the
same time. Mary Alice is such a talented horse that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to give her the training and riding she deserved and needed, I had never had such a capable horse. I started officially leasing Mary Alice on my birthday, May 28, which is a pretty awesome present. We evented successfully at the beginner novice level and ended up winning the Area II Junior Beginner Novice championships on her dressage score of 19 (81%). It was at this event that I realized just how talented Mary Alice is in the dressage ring and how much I enjoyed it. Over the 2020 winter we focused solely on improving our dressage and, in 2021, began showing just dressage at First and Second Level. It has been so much fun working on dressage, especially with a horse that loves it as much as Mary Alice.
This was my first year riding at PVDA Ride For Life and it was so much fun! The show was really well run and got so many donations for breast cancer research. Mary Alice and I competed on Sunday in First Level Test 3 and Second Level Test 3. This was our first time doing Second Level Test 3 and we won the junior division on our score of 65%. We also won our First Level test with a 74% and earned the high score of the show!
The day before we competed at Ride For Life I attended Packys celebration of life, which was so beautiful and well put together by Judy. My main goal for this show, and all of the others, is always to try and do my best to make Packy proud of his wonderful little horse. I was also super pleased that Judy was able to come watch Mary Alice and I compete at PVDA, it had been over a year since Judy got to watch Mary Alice and I in person. My goals for the year are to qualify for the Great American/USDF Regional Championships at Second Level, move up to Third Level by the end of the year, and get my USDF Bronze Medal at some point. Long term, I want to continue progressing up the levels with Mary Alice and compete at the highest level I can. Barbara Strawson has been a big part of our journey and has helped us progress up the levels and in our training immensely.
I can’t thank Judy enough for allowing me to ride Mary Alice Brown and I will never be able to repay her, Packy, and everyone else at Banbury Cross farm for allowing me to learn from them, and find a real love for dressage and true horsemanship.