Lendon Gray: I Made My Career on an Average-Moving Horse Everyone Said Was Too Small

Lendon Gray: I Made My Career on an Average-Moving Horse Everyone Said Was Too Small

Hindsight is a funny thing. American dressage rider Lendon Gray couldn't have known in the late '70s that she was well on her way to making a name for herself on a small, unspectacular Connemara/Thoroughbred named Seldom Seen, but years later, she looks back at this pivotal time in her career.

Though frequently short listed, Seldom Seen, known affectionately as “Brillo,” never competed on the U.S. team at a major championship. Nevertheless, his small stature and larger than life personality made him a fan favorite. Despite the naysayers who thought the little horse couldn’t be produced to the top levels of dressage, he and Lendon enjoyed a long and successful career. He retired in 1987 and was inducted into the United States Dressage Federation (USDF) Hall of Fame in 2005. Lendon would go on to be one of the most prominent names in U.S. dressage and was herself inducted into the USDF Hall of Fame in 2011.

The horse who had the biggest influence on me in so many ways was Seldom Seen, the “pony” that I rode in the late '70s and into the '80s. He was bred by Peggy Whitehurst in Alabama, who gave me my first job away from home after college. Seldom Seen was hers and she got sick and asked me to ride him.

Seldom Seen as a foal. He earned the barn name Brillo because his coat was black and frizzy, like a Brillo pad.

I was still eventing at the time. I evented him for a season and he went undefeated. But I was a bit big to be eventing something that small. I always had an aptitude for dressage, so we thought we’d give that a try. He ended up being the first horse I trained to grand prix myself, and he was so memorable that people to this day still think I went to the Olympics on Brillo and not the ones that I actually did.

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I faced a lot of backlash riding Brillo, who people considered a pony even though he measured just over 14.2 hands. People said I shouldn’t ride him and that I would ruin my reputation. My coach Michael Poulin sort of said ‘well, we’ll show them,’ and he gets a lot of credit for encouraging me to keep going. I won’t say that Brillo was the best in the country, but he was highly competitive and we won a lot. He was reserve national champion at second level and then national champion at every level after that all the way through grand prix. I never made a team with him, but I made my name on him.

Brillo was a very average mover — there was nothing spectacular about him — but he was a solid, reliable, good competitor. This was at a time in the early '80s when people were starting to go to Europe and buying fancy, trained horses. Brillo was American-bred. He was the every man’s horse. I think that’s part of why we had an amazing following. Back then I wasn’t Lendon Gray — I was Seldom Seen’s rider.

Seldom Seen says hello to an adoring young fan.

I always felt that I was so blessed to have him as my first horse I trained to grand prix. He was so forgiving. I always felt him saying, "OK how do you want me to do it?" He was the first horse I felt what it’s like doing a piaffe or flying change correctly, or having a horse truly on the bit. Those feelings stay with you. He gave me so many good firsts that I was able to carry on forward in training other horses.

"He was the every man’s horse."

When he was 17 he was champion at Devon. At that point he was so well known — he got fan mail — I felt very strongly that I didn’t want him to go downhill in public. Peggy agreed with me and together we decided to retire him. I never showed him again after that, but I continued to ride him for exhibitions. We did exhibitions all over, including Madison Square Garden and the Atlanta Olympic Games, and we both loved it. I’d start out riding around with a dinky pony trot, then showed the development of gaits you can achieve with dressage training. When he was done with that, he went to a client of mine as a trail riding horse. That was his last job.

This dressage horse is breaking down traditional barriers.

Brillo lived a very good life of just being spoiled. He was a very good boy — you could put anyone on him to ride him around. And he always tried his heart out. He had a heart of gold. Of all my horses, he really was the one I think of most fondly.

Watch Seldom Seen's incredibly touching (and entertaining!) retirement ceremony at Devon below:

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Photos courtesy of the USDF Archives.