The greatest challenge for dressage legend Jessica Ransehousen was Orpheus, her mount for the 1988 Seoul Olympics
By Jessica Ransehousen with Katherine Walcott
Reprinted from the March/April 2022 issue of USDF Connection magazine
With Orpheus, I needed to build a relationship with a very talented but difficult stallion.
I have enjoyed competing stallions. Forstrat was a stallion with a genuine character, and I rode him in two Olympics: Rome 1960 and Tokyo 1964. However, Orpheus was sensitive and initially hard to analyze.
The first time I tried to show him, I had a thousand pounds in my hands going down the center line and a very stiff, tense horse throughout the test. I then realized the importance of building a proper warmup plan and preparation before riding into the arena.
My early approach when competing Orpheus was to walk on the bit in a small circle by A until the whistle. Then I would canter down the center line on the left lead because it was his weaker side and I was able to influence him more effectively. Starting this way seemed to settle him and prepare him for a much better ride. I picked something that I knew he would listen to and could react to, and I just stuck with that. By the time I got to the Olympic Games, I could trot him around the outside of the arena.
I had to develop a way of riding Orpheus that dealt with the sensitivity and tension and gained his trust so we could be a true partnership. I had to ride with an enormous amount of concentration because he could change so quickly. He was inconsistent in that he could change from being fairly steady to unruly. There was nothing violent; it was just a consistent sort of resistance. He was a stallion, so he had that side which could be a little persistent in not wanting to go along with everything I did. A friend commented that, when I was on Orpheus, it was hopeless to try to speak to me because I was concentrating so hard I didn’t hear.
For competition, I felt it was important to make the movements fluid and blending throughout the test. I wanted his trot rhythmic, smooth, and active while under my aids. I believe that consistency rather than the flamboyant, big movement was a better way to ride the difficult elements of Grand Prix.
In the daily training, I needed to create a program to keep Orpheus focused. I rode him every day except for a day off. I rode both in the indoor arena and outside because he could be a little curious. He could find something that he was a little nervous about, and I would have to be pretty steady getting him past whatever it was.
Around the barn, he was very sweet. We had him in a stall that was at the end of the barn so that he didn’t have tons of horses cross-tied outside of his stall. A stallion can need a few different effects to make their lives go well, and that’s one of them.
It took about a year to build a true partnership with Orpheus. The big thing was to get a concentrated approach to each workout, so that the aids stayed consistent and the same. It was an ongoing, steady plan. Orpheus’s former owner came to me with great excitement to say how thrilled she was to see him so successful at Grand Prix. She told me that she sold him because she believed he would never be a Grand Prix horse. I always thought he was fancy enough and smart enough. I was able to turn him into not just a Grand Prix horse, but an Olympic Grand Prix horse.
My advice to a rider faced with a difficult horse is: First, make sure you have the experience. Second, make sure the result you get is worth the effort you will have to put in.
Three-time Olympian Jessica Ransehousen, of Unionville, Pennsylvania, is a retired FEI “I” (now 4*) dressage judge. She served as chef d’équipe of the US dressage team at competitions including the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympic Games and the 1990 and 1994 FEI World Equestrian Games. She was the US Equestrian Team’s vice president for dressage and for three terms chaired what is now the US Equestrian Dressage Sport Committee. In 2001 she was inducted into the Roemer Foundation/USDF Hall of Fame.
Katherine Walcott is a freelance writer based in Alabama.