Gwyneth McPherson gets a playful lip nuzzle from Eskandar at Pineland Farms’ Equestrian Center in New Gloucester.
Years after teen glory, Windham woman revives equestrian dream of making the Olympics
NEW GLOUCESTER — Gwyneth McPherson won her first national dressage championship at age 12 riding a horse bought off the back of a meat truck in a Howard Johnson’s parking lot.
Jeremy had large scars and bullwhip-like slashes all over his body, she said. People terrified him.
They worked together for a year before the victory at nationals.
“We have this wonderful picture of me and him,” said McPherson. After she’d dismounted, “he turned around to look at me and the look on his face was so proud and adoring. He knew that we had done something special.”
She went on to more wins and, eventually, professionally training dressage riders and horses all over the East from her headquarters at Pineland Farms in New Gloucester.
But after 14 years at the helm as director, McPherson is leaving Pineland’s big, beautiful Equestrian Center in December, and Pineland’s dressage program is leaving with her. A private Morgan horse training and breeding facility is coming in, and McPherson will embark on a nearly life-long goal: Making the U.S. Olympic Equestrian Team.
She’s wanted it since she was 9.
Now 46, she just needs to raise up to a half-million dollars for the horse that will take her there.
Raise it fast enough and competing in 2020 isn’t out of the question.
According to her parents, McPherson’s first word was horse — a cool omen, even if it didn’t seem fitting at the time.
“We were living in Boston, in an apartment, and my parents never really rode. Horses were not a part of our family,” McPherson said. “My mother has always joked I just came with it.”
After her parents moved to a 1700s farmhouse in Limington, they bought her a pony and she was taking regular riding lessons by age 5.
“The instructor almost didn’t let me into the program because he was confident I was too young, and he was absolutely correct,” she said, laughing.
McPherson won the first dressage class she entered at her first horse show and by age 10 was introduced to Lendon Gray, a Maine rider, trainer and Olympian.
“She got me to my first national title when I was 12 (and) my first international title when I was 15 — I was a double-gold medalist at the North American Young Rider Championships,” McPherson said.
It was through Gray that McPherson met trainer and Olympian Michael Poulin, Gray’s coach, and another big influence on McPherson.
She rode and competed seriously in her teens. She also worked part-time teaching riding lessons and training horses, traveling around this area in Rumford and Turner.
By 1992, McPherson said she realized the horse she was riding wasn’t going to make it to the Olympics and she couldn’t afford another.
“Reality was setting in and I decided I needed to have a career option other than riding, so I went to nursing school,” she said.
She spent 10 years as an emergency room nurse in Portland, loved it, and rode on the side in the amateur division.
When the Libra Foundation started building the 100-acre Pineland Farms Equestrian Center in 2002 to breed and train dressage horses, McPherson remembers there was a lot of excitement in the horse community.
“Everyone was talking about, ‘Who’s going to be at Pineland? What’s going on there?'” McPherson said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know, it’s really cool. I’m sure it’s going to be some fancy person. This is going to be so great for us’ — it ended up being me, which I did not anticipate.”
Soon, she was back to horses full time and that Olympic itch returned, too.
FINDING A WAY
Dressage has practical war-time European roots going back thousands of years, according to McPherson.
“A good way to look at it is, the king who had the best trained horses and riders in his army (was) more likely to gain ground and defend (his) lands,” she said. “(A horse’s) natural reaction is to shy away, run away, and they’re herd animals, they want to be together. So when you imagine trying to ride one of these things into a battle, you can appreciate why you would need to have a good way to convince them to do what you want them to do.”
Through dressage training and building a relationship, “the horse develops a trust and willingness to do what you want them to do despite what’s going on around them,” she said.
It’s not unlike asking them to perform in loud, maybe foreign-to-them show rings today, McPherson added.
Any horse can be taught the principles of dressage. She even works with a mule.
Training includes building strength and agility, McPherson said. “The whole process is taking a horse from putting too much weight on their front feet, shifting it back more to their hind feet,” she said. “(It’s) a slow progression of the horse becoming stronger and better balanced on their hind legs.”
Today, dressage is one of three equestrian competitions in the Olympics. The competitions occur during the summer Olympics, and men and woman compete against each other in a ring; there’s no age limit.
Within the sport of dressage, there are a series of competitive levels, each increasing in difficulty, before reaching the international stage. Just as every basketball player isn’t Michael Jordan, not every horse is an Olympic contender.
Enter the financial rub: The most promising horses are wildly expensive.
A 6-year-old that’s a few levels and years away from an Olympic run can go for $180,000.
“Depending on what you have for resources and how close the next Olympics is, you can then make some adjustments,” McPherson said. “An 8-year-old or a 9-year-old that’s right on the cusp, you’re talking $500,000. It can always be more. It’s a very exclusive group of horses.”
She isn’t able to raise that kind of money working for the nonprofit Pineland, so it means a move, but in this case, it’s not too far. McPherson is moving into Pineland’s Broad Park barn in Gray, leasing it from them, and running her own business, Forward Thinking Dressage, from there.
Poulin, who rode in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and has been the head coach, as well as McPherson’s coach, since joining Pineland’s Equestrian Center in 2008, is moving over with her.
Pineland has “been wonderful to me,” McPherson said. “This has been a fantastic place to work. They’ve given me amazing opportunities, they’ve been able to put me on some very nice horses, got me connected with Michael again. In order for me to make that next step, I have to step out of this organization.”
She’ll approach local and national sponsors to gauge interest in backing her. For sponsors, there’s the thrill of potentially watching the Olympics from the sidelines and, should horse and rider do well, having a horse that’s suddenly worth millions.
McPherson, who lives in Raymond with her mother and 10-year-old daughter, said she needs to have the funds and a talented horse before she can work toward qualifying, and in which games. 2020? 2024?
“When I walked in this building out of the emergency room (as a nurse) 14 years ago, I had been a very successful young rider and I had never been able to find a way to bridge that success over into the adult divisions because of finances,” she said.
“What it developed into was so much more than I anticipated, that it woke up the idea of I don’t have to put that (Olympic) dream to bed, I can do this. I have what I need to do this, and so that is exciting. I have never been this close.”
Gwyneth McPherson rides Eskandar in a dressage demonstration at Pineland Farms’ Equestrian Center. After 14 years leading the center, McPherson is leaving this winter to pursue her dreams of riding for the U.S. in the Olympics.
Olympic dream fits with foundation’s vision
Erik Hayward said the Libra Foundation and Pineland Farms are happy to see Gwyneth McPherson pursue her Olympic dreams, as well as see her go into private business.
It’s part of the economic development that the philanthropic organization hopes for, said Hayward, senior vice president at the Libra Foundation.
Libra initially built Pineland Farms’ Equestrian Center in 2002 for the breeding and training of dressage horses. McPherson has headed the program for the nonprofit for almost 14 years.
When she leaves in December, she’ll lease another of Pineland’s barns at its Broad Park facility in Gray and run a private dressage training and coaching business. (She’ll continue to have the use of some Pineland-owned horses there.)
Hayward said the Equestrian Center will then be leased to a private Morgan horse operation that’s been in Broad Park for the last six years.
“Its (work is) more in training and in some breeding; it’s a world-class operation, probably one of the top in the country,” said Hayward.
“It’s the natural progression of these things,” he added. “Libra has historically supported things for a period of time and then turned it over to the private sector. When you have horses, you have to have veterinarians and you have to have grain dealers and tack suppliers and all those positive spin-offs that go with it. That’s been our goal. To the extent we can have operators from the private sector in our building, doing those sorts of things, that helps the overall agricultural economy.”
Gwyneth McPherson of Raymond poses with Eskandar at Pineland Farms’ Equestrian Center in New Gloucester. She’s been competing with Eskandar at the national level and will soon leave the center to follow her Olympic dreams.
Gwyneth McPherson gets ready to go for a ride with Eskandar at the Pineland Farms horse barn in New Gloucester.