NEW GLOUCESTER — Growing up near Boston, where horsepower is mostly unleashed four wheels at a time, Gwyneth McPherson was an animal-loving anomaly.
“My first word was ‘horse,’ in a non-horsing family,” McPherson said. “Everyone was quite concerned about that.”
Four years later, the preschooler’s passion won out. McPherson’s family abandoned the city and purchased a farm in the southern Maine community of Limington.
McPherson still lives on that farm and is still enamored with equines. Her childlike wonder remains intact, and her way with the majestic animals has afforded her international acclaim in a time-honored sport that celebrates the synergy of man and beast.
This winter, the destination was Florida. The color of the medals, gold. All of which has McPherson dreaming of a more glamorous vacation. Say, London in 2012 or Rio de Janeiro in 2016, with the same end result in mind.
At the fourth stop of a five-race Grand Prix dressage series in Florida, McPherson, the lead trainer and director of Pineland Farms Equestrian Center, captured a pair of first-place finishes Saturday and Sunday at Florida Horse Park in Ocala.
That followed a second-place performance for McPherson and her Dutch-bred gelding, Lawool, the previous weekend at the Palm Beach Dressage Derby in Loxahatchee.
“This is equestrian season down here,” McPherson said in a telephone interview. “It gets too hot in the summertime. There are a few of us northerners who take part in it. I’ve come down here for anywhere from two weeks to four months.”
McPherson, 38, has competed for more than three decades. Only after arriving at Pineland Farms in 2003 and becoming the full-time trainer in June 2004 did she have sufficient financial backing to take a shot at the Grand Prix level.
She and Lawool, 16, have been a team for a year. They perform a routine of 8 to 12 minutes before a judge, who ranks them on a 0-to-10 scale in several compulsory tests, or movements.
Aggregate scores in the 60th percentile are considered excellent. McPherson and Lawool’s weekend scores were 66.809 and 62.9 percent.
Different from the eventing and jumping that are more popular television fare during the Summer Olympics, dressage maintains its biggest following in Europe. It is evolved from medieval times when horses were trained for battle.
Rider and animal must communicate seamlessly and almost silently.
“At its best, the horse seems to be dancing and doing it all by himself, and the rider is just there,” McPherson said.
That’s not to say that dressage is devoid of danger.
Olympian Courtney King-Dye was critically injured during a practice ride for the Palm Beach event in which McPherson won her silver medal. King-Dye was not wearing a helmet.
“I’ve had my shared of broken bones and bumps,” McPherson said, “but so far I’ve been fortunate. The riders seem to be getting younger and younger, but dressage is one discipline where experience is a big plus. We’ve had Olympians in their 70s.”
New England has a strong Olympic tradition in dressage, Maine in particular.
McPherson’s coach, Mike Poulin, is a Fairfield native and a bronze medalist. McPherson also has learned under the tutelage of Lendon Gray, who grew up in Dixmont, and Carol Lavell of Rhode Island.
After touring the country and competing from age 15 to 21, McPherson competed as a semi-pro for many years while pursuing a career as an emergency room nurse. She only recently ascended to Grand Prix, the fourth and highest level of the sport.
Time is of the essence in McPherson’s Olympic dreams. Her one year with Lawool is a relatively short time to build the necessary rapport with the horse. With London looming in 2012, Rio in ’16 could be a stretch. A 22-year-old horse would be considered elderly, as most die in their 20s.
“Of course I want to go,” McPherson said. “That’s been a hope of mine ever since I realized you could go to the Olympics for riding horses. (The tryout process) is sort of ongoing. Everyone knows who the top guys are. The judges start to remember you. It’s a matter of being there year after year.”