Old Town native Lendon Gray has been selected for induction into the Roemer Foundation/U.S. Dressage Federation Hall of Fame on Dec. 2 in San Diego.
Gray, a two-time U.S. Olympic Team member when she was riding out of Puckerbrush Farms in Newburgh, will be this year’s lone inductee during the USDF annual convention.
“I’ll have to be on my best behavior,” she said recently, laughing.
Dressage is “exhibition riding or horsemanship in which the horse is controlled in certain difficult steps and gaits by very slight movements of the rider,” according to Webster’s New World Dictionary.
Gray did it well enough to make the U.S. Olympic Team in 1980 and ’88. Because of the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics, she participated in the Alternative Games instead. But in 1988, she represented the U.S. in Seoul, South Korea. Gray also competed in the World Cup in Paris in 1991.
More important to her selection than her participation at the highest levels of dressage competition, however, has been her dedication to instruction, especially of young riders.
“Lendon has a long list of accomplishments and, perhaps even more impressively, a long list of accomplished students,” said USDF President George Williams in a press release announcing the honor. “Through her Dressage4Kids, she has inspired many others to learn more about dressage, and her impact on the discipline will be felt for years to come. The USDF is proud to recognize Lendon for her outstanding dedication to education and the promotion of our sport.”
“Even when I was riding I was getting kids involved,” said Gray, who now runs the Gleneden Dressage training center based at Sunnyfield Farm in Bedford, N.Y., about 35 miles northeast of New York City.
She does personal instruction at Sunnyfield Farm and other area venues and also helps other instructors around the country.
“I set up programs to get people to be elite riders and trainers,” said Gray, who gave up riding several years ago to concentrate on instruction. “I am 100 percent into that right now.”
Her dedication to teaching stems from her desire to grow the sport.
“I grew up in Old Town and we had horses in the backyard,” Gray said.
She rode with her mother before she could walk and grew up riding different styles of saddles and participated in a variety of events.
When she was older and saw that some kids who might be interested didn’t participate because they didn’t have access to the land to keep a horse, she worked on finding ways that would allow more kids to ride.
“So I started an organization, Dressage4Kids [in 1999],” said Gray, now 62. “I wanted to level the playing field.
“I have also developed a pretty extensive scholarship program for riding instruction. The scholarships make it possible for anyone who is interested to participate.”
Gray believes that a system like youth baseball, which gets millions of children involved at a young age, would help equestrian sports.
“It’s what I’ve been trying to convince leaders of the horse world to understand. You have to work hard to increase the base of kids [who participate],” she said. “You’ve got to have an especially broad base [in order to develop more elite riders].”
As a rider, Gray settled on dressage at 27 and started working with Seldom Seen, the first of her dressage ponies, and trainer Michael Poulin of Fairfield.
“I was America’s first, and possibly only, Olympic rider who had a horse born in America and was trained by an American,” she said.
She credits Poulin, who is now in Florida, with her riding success.
“He took me in six months from pretty basic to world championship [form],” Gray said.
Seldom Seen was a small (about 14.2 hands) American-bred Thoroughbred/Connemara pony that Gray rode for many years, although she rode thoroughbreds in the Olympics, world championships and World Cup.
Gray believed that other types of horses, including ponies, could be taught to perform dressage and perform it well, and she proved it starting with Seldom Seen.
Seldom Seen actually beat her into the USDF Hall of Fame, being inducted in 2005.
Gray started teaching in Maine but moved to New York to be closer to her students.
She misses Puckerbrush, and Maine, a lot.
“I would be back there in an instant if I could conduct my business there,” she said.
The sport continues to grow in Maine.
“There is definitely a lot of activity,” said Gray. “When I was there, there were no sanctioned events and now there are a lot. And it’s still growing, which is surprising considering the economy.”
Gray doesn’t get to see that first-hand, though, because she doesn’t come back to Maine much now.
“I find it hard to go back. I want to be there so much,” she said with a sigh.