Jessica Wisdom is more than good enough. Today, the Washington-based dressage trainer has a Grand Prix National Championship to her name and a Centerline Scores page that's so decorated with awards is practically glistens. Yet her talent as a rider hasn't always been apparent. As a teenager she had not one, but three mentors fuel her determination with one, powerful, four-letter word - "Quit".
"A trainer when I was a teenager told me I would never have the discipline or the patience, or the elegance to be a good dressage rider and that made me want it all the more." Wisdom remembers her initial reaction was one of utter defiance, thinking "Don't tell me what I can't do!"
(Jessica Wisdom pictured on Hanoverian Stallion Diamondhead.)
Never one to respond well to the word "no", Wisdom made a habit of proving people wrong from an early age.
"When we were growing up my dad told told me 'Jessica, you're the smart one, your sister is the dancer'. So I took that, and I now I dance competitively too. And that's kind of what dressage is with horses - it's a dance with them. Nobody said I could ever dance and now I can dance on my own two feet and now I can dance on horseback!"
Dressage wasn't always Wisdom's plan though, the spunky rider was introduced to the sport like many of us - through sheer necessity.
"I started with my first horse and wanted to be a barrel racer, which he hated, so I decided I was going to be a show jumper, but I couldn't steer." Eventually, in dressage she found a discipline that resonated with both her and her horse. "The dressage took off because in my early training years, as well as today, I start a lot of young horses and putting a good dressage foundation on any young horse regardless of discipline is kind of the right thing to do."
It's only logical to think that dressage and all of its precise intricacies was an alluring challenge to the driven young rider.
"I don't feel like I'm a very natural rider. A lot of people say 'oh, you're just such a natural' and I honestly don't think that's true. I think I've bled, sweated, and shed tears to get to where I am now. It's not easy and it takes a lot of work mentally and physically to do a good job of it, and it took me a long time to learn each new skill set. That's what makes it easier for me to teach dressage, because I had to try it one hundred different ways before I got it right."
Wisdom recalls one of her biggest struggles specifically was developing the "feel" necessary for dressage.
"I think it was all just learning to refine and make harmony the goal. A lot of times when trainers are young we don't have the finesse, and certainly the horses that I cut my teeth on were tough horses. I wouldn't even dream of getting on some of them now that I'm older and know better! They could be pretty dangerous. That was kind of my specialty in my younger years - problem horses. So I did have to struggle with some defensive habits as a rider. It's a lot different fighting for your life with a horse that wants to get you off than it is riding something that is very sensitive and requires a fine-tuned touch. So that really took a long time for me and now I feel like a sensitive horse can be my skill set where that was not easy for me initially."
In addition to targeting "problem horses" Wisdom honed in on the sport horse divisions, eventually running across the horse, or in this case the pony, that would eventually put her on the map.
"I actually met Cardi at a breed inspection where his owner had come to a different breed inspection to hire me, so I didn't know this lady's name, I didn't have her phone number, but I drove three hours and just hoped that someone showed up and wanted me to handle the horse, and I met Cardi! I handled him for the ASPR inspection and told her I would be happy to help start him, and I told her I thought he was good enough to compete in the open ring with the big boys, and then look what happened."
What actually happened was nothing short of incredible. Despite having never competed at FEI levels herself, Wisdom took the 14.3 hand Welsh Cob stallion, North Forks Cardi, from the ground to a National Championship title and CDI competitions at Grand Prix, shattering expectations across the board.
"He was my first FEI horse so I had no idea whether he would be talented or not because I'd never been down that road before. I think we all felt like he could be nationally competitive, like through USDF competitions, but I don't think anyone saw him competing at the CDI level at Grand Prix, I don't think anyone saw him winning it, and I definitely don't think anyone saw us winning the Nationals. That came completely out of left field!"
Needless to say, the dressage world took notice.
"I think it came at a time when dressage riders needed a little reassurance that it could happen with an ordinary horse and an ordinary girl. Cardi was a huge accomplishment not just because he won Nationals but because so many people contacted me on Facebook and said 'you've inspired us' and they felt that they could do the same with their Appaloosa or their Quarter Horse."
Even one of the trainers who had originally discouraged Wisdom's aspirations to ride professionally ate their words when they called her years later asking for help with a horse.
"I have so much to learn and so far to go, if there even is an end to this journey, but it was really fascinating because a few years ago I got to experience the other side where this trainer sent a horse to me. This was the person who said I would never be able to do this. It was very interesting to get that voicemail and hear 'I need help, can you help me with this?'"
Following her enormous success with Cardi, Wisdom is now looking forward to taking her next horse up the levels, a Hanoverian named Diamondhead that she started and recently clinched Horse of the Year with in hand.
"I have a younger stallion that I am doing a small tour on this year and I'd like to finish him to Grand Prix. He had a tough story early in life with some injuries and nobody really thought he would be able to come back from that, but we're on our way."
In addition, the tenacious trainer enjoys using her experience to mentor her students saying, "Hopefully, it makes me more sympathetic when they are struggling. Hopefully, it makes me more dedicated to helping them achieve their goals and achieve their highest potential. I definitely have a lot of students where I see myself in them, every now and then I get one where I think 'gosh, this is me fifteen years ago!'. It's just so great to help them to gain confidence and realize that anything is possible if you're willing to work for it."
However, Wisdom is quick to admit that being a professional rider and trainer is not for the faint-hearted, though she insists the rewards outweigh the challenges.
"Be prepared to work really hard and don't give up. Everyone has moments of doubt. It's hard, and it's a tough industry, and people are really terrible sometimes. You're going to work long hours, you might get hurt, sometimes it really stinks, and you give up a lot to do it. And I'm sure there are trainers that don't give up as much as I do, but that's my nature, I am immersed in this."
As if anyone could convince her otherwise, Wisdom goes on to conclude with unwavering spirit what her teenage self has already made so clearly evident.
"This is not my job, this is my life. And I wouldn't do it any other way."