By Barbi Breen Gurley
I was first introduced to horses when I was 4 years old, when a man came through our neighborhood with a Shetland pony, taking pictures. From that moment on, I was obsessed with horses. I would repeatedly ask my father “when could I have a horse?” He promised he would help me find one by the time I was 13. I probably begged him daily, and when I was 12, he came through. My first horse, Comet, was an 8-year-old Arabian. I’ve probably ridden most every day since then; now some 75 years young.
I was introduced to dressage after a trip to England in 1970, where I attended Moat House to acquire my British Horse Society Assistant Instructorship (BHSAI) certificate. Following that trip, my ex-husband and I purchased and built our home and ranch in Los Osos, California. I have taught, trained, cliniced, bred warmbloods, and competed in dressage these past 50-some years from our home base. We are so blessed – our place is right near the Pacific Ocean, overlooking Morro Bay. The horses have such a view! As we developed our stable and home over the years, we have grown to accommodate 40 horses.
During this time, we had two beautiful daughters and got divorced. Then, I re-married 6 years later to a wonderful man (with his two young children), Geof Gurley, who has been such an amazing supporter and life partner.
Through all these years, I have experienced other riding disciplines, eventing, competitive trail, and driving, to name a few, but dressage has always been my number one passion. I am currently working with my 10th and 11th horses to bring them up to Grand Prix.
Over the years I have won numerous state, regional, and national awards, with several different wonderful horses. I am also a licensed ‘Senior’ Dressage Judge (with Young Horse and Freestyle certification).
This past year has been an unusually challenging one for me, and our family. We were hit with the very unexpected diagnosis of my husband having a serious health condition. It has significantly impacted us, both financially and certainly emotionally. At that point I became the only provider for our family. Even though I have always worked and have been committed to serving my clients, through 2010, I also worked as a dental hygienist, in addition to my equestrian endeavors. Now, carrying all the ranch costs, debt, and our family living expenses fell to me alone. The stress has been very trying while I remain consistent in training, teaching, and some competing.
My daughters have been so very helpful, going way beyond to help us keep above water, and on track going forward. I also want to acknowledge my clients who have been so attentive, understanding, loyal, and supportive through it all. I so appreciate each of them!!
With all of this going on, I was able to win the 2022 USDF Open Intermediate-1 Musical Freestyle Champion title with my horse, Happy M! It is so very rewarding to be acknowledged for this achievement, especially through all the challenges and heartbreaks! Through this experience, I was able to tap into the one normal thing in my life, in my brain, and produce the work ethic and clarity of training with this wonderful horse to achieve this honor!
Happy M is a very special individual. He is a KWPN gelding I bought from DG Bar Ranch & Willy Arts as a 4-year-old. He has a very strong work ethic, coupled with three lovely gaits, and a clear up-hill balance in his conformation and movement. He has qualified twice for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, but we were not able to go given the family challenges we have been facing. I so love training with this horse, and he will finish as a really lovely Grand Prix partner, and that is enough for me! Competing locally and regionally in California – even nationally if that ever becomes possible – is still so wonderful.
My other up-and-coming competitive horse is Willit VF, a coming-8-year-old Hanoverian gelding, whom I bought as a 4-year-old. He is quite the comic. I learned after purchasing him that he loves to chase drones! All the other horses may be running for cover, but he’s the one chasing right after the drone – he is so inquisitive! He has been an interesting project, to say the least. This season he will be working and competing at Fourth Level.
I also work with my two former Grand Prix masters daily. It’s wonderful to see them share their talents in lessons with some of my motivated students.
Interestingly, as I work with my clients and students each day, I hear words come out of my mouth (without my consciously thinking of it) that are enlightening words about life lessons and character building, encouraging them to stay the course. It’s a journey of self development. I am finding reassurance and direction myself as I’m fighting my way through a very challenging time in my life.
Our sport builds beautiful, effective horses and riders, but it also teaches us to be grounded, respectful, tactful, responsible, and committed humans of integrity, with great respect for our horses. I am blessed as I still journey through this experience. My horses are beautiful and successful. I get to share my passion with lovely people who grow with me as well.