By Britney Grover
Portraits by Barbara Bower
When doctors told then-12-year-old Leslie Ann Guilbault she’d never fully heal or be able to ride again, it was horses that made the difference in her recovery. Not only did she heal fully and more quickly than expected, she returned to riding and has made it her career. Perhaps it’s because horses helped her heal that Leslie Ann had the love and patience to heal a horse — a pony, to be specific, who suffered not physically but mentally and emotionally from abuse.
Leslie Ann met the pony for the first time in 2015 when a neighbor called about a loose horse wandering through their yard. When Leslie Ann first saw him, he was alone and too frightened of her for her to catch: He trotted away down a trail and into the woods, earning himself the name Woody when Leslie Ann eventually caught and was given him. Less than three years later, Leslie Ann competed Woody in Third Level dressage at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington — and she’s not done yet.
Leslie Ann owes her career with horses to her mother, Karen. “My mom grew up with horses and rode through high school, so when I was 5 years old, she signed me up for lessons,” Leslie Ann shared. “I think she was a little concerned at first because I wasn’t that typical horse-crazy kid, but I did my weekly lessons.”
But by the time she was 8, Leslie Ann was hooked. “I’m not sure what prompted the conversation at home with my mom, but I remember her saying that if I wanted to lease a pony, I’d have to do it myself. There was a girl at the barn who had just gotten one, and I went up to her and her mom one evening at the barn and asked if they were interested in leasing her at all.” By Christmas, Leslie Ann was leasing 32-year-old Tinkerbell, the first in a long line of leased ponies.
When Leslie Ann was 10, Karen and Bill bought Linden Woods Farm in Durham, New Hampshire: a 35-acre horse farm with 18 stalls, indoor and outdoor rings, a jump field and access to trails through the woods. Horses and riding became central to the family’s life. Leslie Ann was 12 in 2004 when a horse bucked her off and she broke her left hip. The outlook wasn’t good: Doctors feared she would never completely heal and certainly never ride again. At just the right time, the accidental purchase of a horse gave Leslie Ann the drive she needed to defy the medical prognosis.
Karen and Bill were at a local hunt club party with a silent auction, and one of the prizes was a Thoroughbred mare named Corinne. Karen bid on the mare and expected others would as well, but when she remained the only bidder, the McGowans found themselves with not just one horse but two: Corinne was in foal to an Oldenburg stallion.
“Corinne was such a saint,” Leslie Ann said. “I would go out to the barn in my wheelchair and brush her. She stood there with me for hours. When I was able to be on crutches, I did the same thing. She’d stand there as I hobbled around, never moving an inch. I think that she and her baby were partly what got me better and kept me motivated. I don’t think I realized it then, but looking back now, they were a huge part of my life. My biggest disappointment was knowing the baby was going to be born in June and I was supposed to be on crutches until at least September, so I didn’t think I’d get to do the initial handling of him.”
By the time June rolled around, Leslie Ann was able to stand without crutches. Corinne gave birth during a thunderstorm to a colt with a picturesque thunderbolt marking on his face. Fittingly named Lightning Strikes Again, they called him Ace. Leslie Ann was not only able to do the initial handling, but did all of Ace’s training on her own. She healed as he grew, and was even the first to sit on him when he was old enough to start under saddle.
Leslie Ann had grown up eventing, and since Corinne was an Intermediate eventer, they thought Ace would be Leslie Ann’s event horse. “We did some, and he was always in the top after dressage,” Leslie Ann said. “He wasn’t a huge fan of jumping, and since he was good at the dressage, I figured I’d keep competing him and see what he could do. I enjoyed the dressage and ended up taking him very successfully up through Prix St. Georges. I never would have considered selling him.”
It was while competing with Ace that Leslie Ann first met and began training with Olympic dressage rider Jan Ebeling. Over the years, Leslie Ann developed her skills as a rider and trainer with the help of eventers like Babette Lena, Eric Horgan and Tom Davis as well as dressage trainers like Jan Ebeling, Jackie Smith, Henk van Bergen and Lou Denizard. She formed her own riding and training business, Double A Equestrians, operating out of Linden Woods. In 2015, Charles Schneider noticed Leslie’s talent with Ace and asked her to ride his large Hanoverian gelding, Rigger, to keep him in shape.
As Charles and Leslie Ann developed a friendship, Charles moved Rigger to Linden Woods so Leslie Ann could ride and compete him more often. She showed him in Prix St. Georges and Intermediare I before moving on to Intermediare II and the U25 Grand Prix. “I’m impressed with her diligence,” said Charles about Leslie Ann. “She’s humble and has come so far in the three years I’ve known her. Leslie Ann has really matured as a rider.”
As Charles encouraged her to pursue her competitive career, Leslie Ann went with Lou Denizard on a horse-shopping trip in Germany and the Netherlands in spring 2016. They found a 5-year-old gelding named Bel Fast, known as Beau, and bought him for Leslie Ann to bring along back home. Tragically, Leslie Ann’s beloved Ace had become ill and passed away the previous year, but she had another, unexpected mount to train alongside Beau: Woody.
Runaway to Centerline
Leslie Ann and her parents had been hosting a summer camp at Linden Woods when they got the call about a loose horse at a neighbor’s in 2015. By the time Karen arrived to investigate, the horse was gone. “About an hour later we got a call again saying that he was back, so I went down there with a bucket of grain,” Leslie Ann said. “He was there, with a halter on, just standing on the edge of their yard kind of in the woods on a trail. I tried approaching him but he would turn and walk away, then stop about 10–20 feet from me.”
Leslie Ann persisted. “I followed him along the trail for a little bit. At some point I put the bucket down and backed up, which he eventually came up to. I then was able to get within reach of him, but wasn’t able to grab him — I wasn’t quite quick enough but also moved too quickly and startled him.” The pony trotted off into the woods, and Leslie Ann returned home, where she found the pony’s owner waiting for her.
“She told me she’d had him for about 2 weeks and that he’d been abused,” Leslie Ann said. “I said I’d just been with him out in our woods and that she was welcome to go look for him, but she got in her car and left. She had gotten him at an auction thinking he would be a good pony for her kids, until she realized she couldn’t get anywhere near him.”
Later, they received a call from a different neighbor who said a pony was visiting their horses. Finally, Leslie Ann was able to get ahold of him and walk him back to their barn, unsure of what to do with him. The owner got in touch and asked if Leslie Ann wanted him. “I didn’t think it made sense to send him back to her, so I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ The owner came by and gave us a copy of his Coggins and signed a bill of sale.”
Woody had been living at Linden Woods for a couple of years when Leslie Ann had some extra time and decided to invest it in him. “Woody was, and in many ways still is, terrified of people. I spent a lot of time initially just getting him used to me, and eventually backed him like a young horse,” she said. To her great surprise, dressage came naturally to him once she’d earned his trust. Overcoming Woody’s nervousness, Leslie Ann was soon competing on both Woody and Beau — and doing well on each. Leslie Ann and Beau finished 4th at Regionals and 8th at Nationals for First Level in 2017, and both Beau and Woody competed in Third Level at the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington this year.
Though the European warmblood and the pony of unknown origins come from different backgrounds, they’re making quite the splash on the dressage circuit. “It is pretty cool to bring Woody and Beau along together,” Leslie Ann said. “It’s very helpful for me. I learn things from each of them that can help me with the other. They’re very different rides and feels, but they try super hard and are very fun. It’s cool to compete them in the same class and see how Woody does alongside Beau: I always expect Beau to do better, but when Woody finishes right behind him, it’s confirmation for me that he’s doing well.”
Leslie Ann says Beau and Woody are very good friends and travel well together, touching noses as they pass each other when they’re able. “When traveling, it makes me feel better that they have a companion in the trailer, especially over long distances. They’re great when we get places, too: They aren’t super attached and never whinny to each other. They’re super focused when I get on them to ride. I can hand walk one without the other, or they can walk together and be very quiet.”
Woody in particular draws attention at the shows — which in reality he would rather avoid. “The first thing people typically want to do is come running up to him and pet him on his nose — which he does not like. Woody stands out at the dressage shows and definitely draws attention. I love to share his story with people, but have to make sure they don’t touch him. I’ve had a couple people ask if I’d sell him, but I’ve said no.”
Despite his success in the show ring, Woody is still a work in progress. “He trusts me, but if I move the wrong way, he’ll jump a little,” Leslie Ann said. “He can’t stand his nose being touched, although I’m slowly teaching him to give kisses for carrots. He typically walks up to me in the paddock, but we have this routine to catch him and if I don’t stick with it then he’ll run away. He can be hard to catch when it’s wet out, and sometimes he still gives my mom a hard time. Recently my husband helped me put the horses out in the morning, and he forgot Woody’s halter stays on. He has been able to catch him on days I can’t, so he went out there, walked right up to him and put it on. About a week later, we had a new person working for us who also forgot his halter stayed on outside, and it took me 20 minutes to catch him and get it on.”
When it comes down to it, Woody helps Leslie Ann take stock of herself. “He’s never spooky about things: I take him on trails, go through water, can pony a horse off him and work cows or rope off him, but people are definitely a whole different story. It really depends on the day, the person and their energy. Even for me, if I’m in a rush, I have to really tone it down as he gets edgy.”
Not one to be defeated, Leslie Ann believes she’ll get Woody to compete at the Grand Prix level, and hopes Beau will go on to be an international Grand Prix horse. She herself hopes to ride in top world competitions, but in the meantime, she, Woody and Beau will keep working together to prove it’s possible to beat the odds. “I want to be a trainer that has a positive impact on the horse, the people and the sport,” she said. “I want to be a role model for all the riders out there who don’t think they can do it, who are struggling, who need that little inspiration to keep trying to reach their goals.”
Photos by Barbara Bower, www.BarbarasVisions.com, unless noted otherwise