Lendon Gray doesn't subscribe to the modern, "feel-good", philosophy that all participants should walk away from competition with a trophy. In fact, she strongly believes that learning to handle "failure" is an important step for riders, one that is ideally taken early in their careers. For participants in Gray's popular riding programs, winning is not the emphasis, but when it does happen, it's a rarity. The two-time Olympian says, "With our Youth Dressage Festival the divisions are quite large with 20-25 people, and most don't get a ribbon, but if they do get a ribbon, boy does it mean something."
(Dressage rider and coach, Lendon Gray. Image courtesy of Dressage4Kids.org)
The New England native says the inspiration for her programs arose twenty one years ago when she observed a lack of education addressing the complete development of horsemen and women. Gray explains, "I grew up as a Pony Clubber and Pony Club was my life throughout my young years." Through the organization Gray believed she acquired an excellent foundation in horsemanship that carried on into her competitive dressage career. "Pony Club is so strong specifically in stable management and overall horse mastership." However, when Gray moved to the wealthy neighborhood of Bedford, New York, she found the equestrian environment to be quite different than the one she herself had been raised in.
There were "kids who were being taught to ride this horse, in this particular test, and it came to the foremost strongly at the North American Championships" Gray remembers. Looking back as a young trainer she admits, "I was as guilty as anybody". Gray experienced firsthand the state of the competitive culture where frequently "people who were desperate to make the Championships would find a trained horse, and you as a trainer were pressured to get that team together so they could get them to qualifiers." Before long Gray realized that all too often blue ribbons were coming at the cost of the young rider's education - one that was left with gaping holes in the foundation.
From that experience Gray developed the concept for the Youth Dressage Festival where equality is paramount and hard work is rewarded. "The idea was to make a competition where it wasn't just the dressage, where let's face it helps to have a nice quality well trained horse, but also a group equitation class where the rider's position and use of aids is important and the horse is less important, and then a written test on assigned reading where of course the horse doesn't matter at all."
With all of her programs Gray says the goal is to "really try to fill in the blanks" in an effort to "develop well rounded equestrians". She explains, "If something is needed we try to do it. And we work completely on the help of volunteers, and they are an amazing group of people that help with our programs."
Gray admits though that pressure from competitive parents isn't the only obstacle to shaping proficient horsemen and women, one of the greatest limitations is often time. "You know the student comes in, rides, takes a lesson, and leaves. We can only do so much in a period of time, but if nothing else we can hopefully be good role models."
In addition to being a mindful mentor, Gray helps to shape participants of the Dressage Youth Festival by having a clear set of expectations for behavior and responsibility that extends both on and off the horse. She says, "For example every rider has to volunteer - I get that if you have to volunteer it's not really volunteering - but everyone is expected to give at least an hour to help with the show. That could be anything from running tests to checking porta-potties or being a judge's assistant." In addition, Gray asks riders to show appreciation for their opportunities. "Everyone writes thank you notes in all of our programs. Anyone that donates their time is given a hand written thank you note from the participants. For many of these children I have to teach them to how to write thank you notes - which is kind of scary!"
Gray's list of expectations doesn't end with good manners and thank you cards. Instead, she works to impart in children and young riders how to reach their riding goals by being good students and continually striving to give their best performance. "I'll tell you this - the only requirement that comes with being part of Dressage4Kids team program is a real desire to learn and be the best you can be. If you just want to trail ride and have fun, great, I'm all for it, but that's not what I do. Anyone that works with me I expect a high level of focus and discipline. I think in some cases what I've been able to show some kids is that maybe they don't want it quite as much as they think they want it. No one has ever challenged them."
Fortunately, in Gray's experience the majority of her young students are able to rise to her challenges, but she is quick to reveal that she's "definitely a demanding instructor." Attentive listening and extreme focus are two things that Gray refuses to compromise on. "I tell the kids at the beginning of a clinic there are things that you work on and things that you do. You WORK ON - sitting the trot, developing a good shoulder in, and better timing of the aids. You DO keep your head up. Now if I tell you to get your chin up, and again 15 seconds later, and then another two and a half seconds later I have to say it again then you aren't demonstrating that you have enough dedication to be a terrific rider. Bringing your head up is something you do, it's not something you learn to do."
Adopting a disciplined, studious, mindset is clearly essential in Gray's opinion for aspiring youngsters who would like to reach the top ranks of dressage. However, one might argue that the same practices that she puts forth for children and young riders, could be applicable to riders of all ages. The clinician says, "The kids in the clinics get goal sheets where they have to fill out long term goals for themselves and their horse. And one question on that sheet, my favorite question, is - what have you been working on all year that you should have fixed by now? And why haven't you fixed it? Sometimes it just makes you stop and think."
Gray recalls asking herself that same question as an adult and employing fierce diligence to overcome what was likely one of her greatest riding challenges. "I'm by nature splay footed and I rode until my mid twenties with my toes sticking out until I said 'I've got to fix this'. It took me six months of winter (the winter in Maine!) to completely change the way I held my leg. I worked on it on the ground, I worked on it when I went to bed at night, I was a professional then so I worked on it with every horse I rode, and it took me all winter. I took care of it, because if you want to be the best that you can be then you have to be willing to put in."
Even for riders that do take the initiative to "put in", Gray says that progress comes in waves. "Picking yourself up and starting over" is the name of the game in dressage. "In any situation there's a curve of success and you always have your plateaus where you're not getting better per se, but you're confirming what you do, and you're building a very solid base."
The Olympian believes the same resilience is a necessary quality for the most ambitious competitors. "There's a lot of losing on the way to winning and I think the ones who do too much winning early are at a disadvantage because you are going to fall flat on your face at some point. Losing, if you want to call it that, is a huge opportunity for learning. Winning is great, but what are you really learning from winning?
Most importantly, Gray reminds riders to not lose sight of the intrinsic benefits of riding. A foundation in horsemanship she believes serves equestrians both in their riding and in their everyday lives. Many equestrians that grew up riding can attribute skills like worth ethic and resilience not to formal education, but to ornery ponies and backyard horses. Gray promises, "We have a sport that has so many ups and downs and an animal that will help develop us as human beings if you pay attention to it."
To hear to the entire conversation with Lendon Gray listen to the podcast below, find it under Dressage Talk in iTunes, or download it directly here.