One teacher, five horses, and a lot of luck!

Chris (left) with coach, Robin (mounted). Photo by Steve Griggs

By Chris Cashel

A few weeks ago, I received my certificate for completing my USDF Gold Medal. I think the odds were against me, but I am goal driven so here is my story.

After spending a year in North Carolina as a visiting professor in 2004, I returned to Oklahoma with the desire to ride again. Call it a wild hair. It had been 35 years since I last rode. I also wanted a puppy related to the one who lived with me in NC. The puppy, Mazie, came home with me and when I signed up for a dog training class, I discovered the instructor, Robin Hessel, owned a horse farm, Valley View Equestrian Center. I spoke to her about riding and she invited me out. We agreed that I could cover the farm chores on weekends when she was showing in exchange for lessons. It didn’t take long for me to prefer the farm to my job at the university. I was the ‘old’ barn helper and it was wonderful. A year later, I had acquired my first horse and really wanted to be full time at the farm. At 55 years old, I retired early to do so. Robin was happy to have me full time. 

That first horse, Konan, taught me so much, and I rode him at Introductory and Training Levels. Mostly what I learned was to ride with shorter reins, and that dressage is not possible without eyes on the ground. For me, that meant regular lessons with a professional. 

My next horse was poor and underfed. After putting 500 lbs on him, Tango took me from First Level to Fourth Level. I was enjoying learning to ride dressage, and practiced diligently. I started riding in clinics, and had regular lessons with Robin. What I learned from Tango was that horses could be incredibly kind and giving. Once again, the lesson of shorter reins was important. I also learned that I liked showing, and it provided built in goals for me. After a suspensory injury, Tango retired to a pasture and mentored baby horses. He was the kindest horse ever.

Photo by Captivation Photography

Third, was a small Dutch horse who I had seen and liked. He wasn’t for sale, but Robin talked to the owner and he ended up with me. Keo took me to my Silver Medal when he was 24 years old. I loved riding a smaller horse. He taught me to ride with short reins, ride much more forward, and to “go for it” in tests. 

My next horse has turned out to be a gem. His former owner was looking for a forever home, and we are good with maintaining older horses at Valley View. I suppose it is important to note that each of my horses have been schoolmasters, and have been older when I acquired them. Perfect for an amateur to learn, and enjoy. Buena Vista has allowed me to ride at the FEI levels (with short reins). I started schooling Grand Prix on him while competing I-1, and Intermediate A and B. He is fabulous and, while 25 now, he is still going strong and enjoying himself. Hopefully I will do my century ride on him in a year.

As I got closer to being able to challenge the Grand Prix test, Robin offered me her retired Grand Prix horse. He was trickier to ride for me, but he also made me feel like a rider who understood what to do. Grand Prix teaches everyone what a test of training is! It took me almost two years riding Waterfront to complete my Gold Medal. Despite all the failed tries, and getting better at keeping short reins, I was learning so much and could truly appreciate the discipline. Finally, on October 29, 2022, I earned my medal with short reins. It was a relief!

Perhaps the luckiest part of my story was in the first meeting with Robin in dog class. She is passionate about education, and studies dressage on a daily basis. As a student, I benefited from her diligence. She brought in many clinicians that helped me understand the basics and nuances of dressage. At shows, we would watch many rides together. I developed a pretty good eye after a while. We attended World Cup competitions, and symposiums. As an educator there is little doubt why I was attracted to this type of person as my teacher. In addition, the fact that she had the ability to take me from the very basics through the highest test is noteworthy. In her barn, there are many older students who need the right balance of encouragement and criticism. She wants us all to be independent riders with the ability to warm-up, check flexibility in the horse, and know how to develop suppleness on our own. Being an older rider, I came with several physical limitations, as well as some fear. The advantage of being older was that I had other experiences from which to draw reasonable expectations of my abilities. Robin supported all of that for me and I am grateful to her, the clinicians, the judges, and other riders who helped me achieve this goal.

Photo by Captivation Photography

I am 72 and have had one teacher from Intro through Grand Prix. I have had the right horse appear at the right time. I started riding dressage at 55. I am unsure what the odds are for any of this. Not high, I think. 

Many people have asked me what I will do next now that I completed my medal. I want to ride Grand Prix more confidently, and to ride tests that are not quite so challenging that both the horse and I can enjoy. Having 25 and 23 year old horses will keep me competing at the FEI level as long as they are happy. After that, who knows?


  1. I can sooo relate! I am 76 & goal is a century ride! Be great full for your support. Not all instructors enjoy us oldies!

  2. I congratulate you both for sticking with it! And keeping the older schoolmasters sound and happy! You accomplished a dream I tried, on my own trained horses,
    For years but never got the gold.

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