Written by Barbara Newtown
Original Publish Date December 2014
I’m sure there are some handsome Arab/Quarter Horse crosses, but Zam Zam was not one of those. His sire boasted a $50 stud fee and a drab English Arabian pedigree. His dam was an American Quarter Pony. (That’s a registry for “Western-style” small horses and ponies of unknown ancestry.) Zammy inherited an upside-down neck, a long back, cow hocks, and short, upright pasterns. His front end moved like a Quarter Horse and his hind end moved like an Arab. But his feet were rock hard, his color was a rich red bay, and, most important, his mind was smart and his character was excellent.
Lendon Gray, member of the U.S. Olympic dressage team in 1988, came to Timber Acres Farm in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to give a clinic. Zammy and I showed up, eager to practice before the Timber Acres Horse Trials the next week, where Lendon would be one of the dressage judges. I wanted to know what was on the teacher’s mind. I had only been riding for six months, and Timber Acres would be my first combined training event. In those days the lowest level was Pre-Training, the equivalent of today’s Novice level. (Yes, I was crazy.)
Lendon asked me and Zammy to pick up the trot on the twenty-meter circle. There was something about Zammy’s metronomic trot and calm concentration (and my wobbliness) that gave Lendon the idea to give me a lunge-line lesson. She hooked the line through Zammy’s snaffle bit ring on the inside and up over his poll and down to the ring on the outside. She caught up the reins in the throatlatch so that they wouldn’t get in the way. For the rest of the hour she led me through a series of exercises to improve my balance and relax my back in the sitting trot, which was the required way to do the trot back in the Pre-Training days. In the last minutes of the lesson she unhooked Zammy and allowed me to pick up the reins.
“Not much time left,” she said, “but let me give you a secret way to score points on the final halt.”
I was thrilled to be actually given a secret. In dressage, it often seems that all the secrets have to be earned through sweat and tears.
“When you make the final turn,” asked Lendon, “how big a half-circle do you have to do in order to hit the center line?”
“Half of a ten-meter circle,” I said. I had been studying my test booklet.
“This is the secret: do an eight-meter half-circle, and fade over to the center line with a little bit of leg yield. You won’t overshoot the line, and Zammy will be listening to your legs as you straighten out.”
“Yes, ma’am!” I said.
“This is the rest of the secret: if your dressage geometry is perfect—round circles, straight lines, deep corners—you’ll pick up extra points in your dressage test. Most people are a bit sloppy!”
“Thank you, thank you, Lendon,” I said.
The next week Zammy and I placed third after dressage. Wow! (Now, cross country was a bit worse: we had a stop at the coffin [jump, ditch, jump]. Yes, they had “coffin questions” in Pre-Training back in the day!) Our stadium round was wonderful. In fact, someone came up to me right after I finished and asked, “Is that horse for sale?” I should have said Yes, because he was….but I said No, through my tears of joy.
I picked up my dressage test at the show office. Good scores…lots of sixes and sevens, which is pretty good for “event dressage.” 8 on the final halt! On the back page were the collective marks: the judge’s opinion of the rider’s seat and effectiveness, the horse’s submission and impulsion, and the horse’s gaits. 7 – 7 – 7 …. Except the score for gaits. Lendon Gray gave Zam Zam a 4. Now, a 4 is a big FAIL. Unacceptable. Insufficient…
In the comment section next to that 4, Lendon wrote: “God gave him more important things than beautiful paces.”
May you all be blessed someday with a horse like Zammy.