October 2015 - Horse People: Miela Gross

San Diego rider makes a lovely swan song in the equitation division.

by Kim F. Miller

Making the most of opportunities is not a gift often associated with youth. But 17 year old Miela Gross has that gift and, combined with intense focus and hard work, she harnessed it to achieve a big goal: winning a medal final.

She and her partner of five years, Exquisite, finished atop of the California Professional Horsemens Association Foundation’s 21 & Under medal finals. It was the highlight of what’s been a great equitation career and hopefully a harbinger of good things to come during the indoor medal finals circuit back East in the coming months. In mid-September, she punched her ticket to the national Maclay Finals by finishing second in a tough field of West region contenders.

Miela Gross on the way to winning the CPHA Foundation Medal Finals in August.

“Next year, I’m going to focus on jumpers and I’ll be going off to college, so this is my last year to do everything in the equitation and I really wanted it to be awesome,” says the San Diego rider. “I don’t want to look back and feel that I didn’t make the most of this opportunity.”

Nerves have been her biggest foe and they were in full force going into the second and final round of the CPHA Foundation Finals August 23 in Del Mar. Miela and Exquisite, aka “Alex,” sat second after a terrific first round, and “I was feeling a lot of pressure.”

Alex had no such issues. “He is always extremely confident,” Miela laughs. They dominated the second round with scores of 90 from both judges and nailed a challenging test that included a tight figure-eight pattern done on a counter-counter.

Her partner for five years, and since he was a green 5-year-old and she was just 12, Alex has a confident nature that helped. So did Miela’s conviction that, when that arena gate opens, “All you can do is ride your best and try your hardest.”

Trying hard has never been a problem. Miela’s trainer Emily Esau Williams credits her success to hard work, talent and intelligence. After a year spent riding dressage with Janet Peters, Miela came to the Esaus’ program in 2009, starting with Emily’s father, the late and much-missed Chuck Esau.

“He was such a great trainer and really taught me how to be competitive and to have the determination you need,” Miela reflects. Emily has since become her main role model. “She was incredibly accomplished as a junior and it’s so cool to watch her ride now because she is so in synch with every horse she gets on.”

Alex with his favorite toy.

Miela started in the Short Stirrup division and, by the next year, made the Onondarka Finals. “She works harder than any kid I’ve every known, she’s very bright and has a lovely feel,” says Emily, whose business is based at the Del Mar Horsepark in San Diego.

Self-motivation is another key to Miela’s success. Riding many different horses has helped broaden her skills and running and core strength work are an important part of her agenda. “Running, squats and using a rowing machine to strengthen my back have really helped my stamina,” she relays. The conditioning has helped counter the tendency for nerves to draw down her energy stores.

Strong Bonds

Miela and Alex have had their ups and downs. In the early years, his confidence got them through some beginner mistakes. “I could mess up, chip in or whatever and he’d just keep going,” Miela reports.

The flip side is that he can be a know-it-all with an attitude, especially when he was younger. “He can be a little full of himself. He has an opinion and sometimes, apparently, it’s much better than mine.”

“Becoming the pilot” was an early struggle in their relationship that’s been mostly ironed out. Tests to their bond have only made it stronger. Take the George Morris clinic they rode in four years ago. The third day was hot and the horses were sweaty, so Alex decided to roll – with Miela on board awaiting instructions from the country’s most legendary, and often intimidating, horseman. “I was mortified!” she recalls. It all worked out OK. George was concerned Alex might be colicing, but no, “He just wanted to roll!”

Miela with her parents.

More seriously, Alex suffered a fungal infection in his right eye last fall during the Maclay Medal Finals in Kentucky. He’d had a history of dry eye in that eye and that, coupled with an initial misdiagnosis of conjunctivitis, made it seem manageable, so they continued with the competition. However, when he returned home it was determined to be a “melting ulcer that was eating away at his cornea,” Miela says. He required two surgeries and a two-and-a-half month lay-up. It was a setback, for sure, but one that further built their bond. Miela visited him every day during his hospital stay, grazing and handwalking him.

At home, Alex is a playful guy. His favorite toy is a giant soccer ball in the turn-out paddock and he loves to be surrounded by Miela and other adoring fans. Generally, he prefers people to other horses and he always adores attention.

For this fall, the Capital Challenge, Harrisburg and the national Maclay Medal Finals conclude the calendar for Miela’s equitation swan song. After that, she plans to focus on the jumper division and Alex will pass onto her cousin, 13 year old Sloane McGuire, who also rides with Emily.

Although mostly dedicated to equitation thus far, Miela has been able to translate those skills during occasional forays in the jumper ring with her mare Zoe. Impressively, they’ve competed up to the 1.4 meter level and Miela is targeting a spot on the Zone 10 North American Young Riders team as a goal for next year. She and Emily are currently shopping for a mount capable of that level. She thoroughly enjoyed a brief immersion in the jumper ranks while spending two weeks last year competing at the Winter Equestrian Festival in Florida with the top East Coast training duo of Missy Clark and John Brennan.

“It was intense,” she notes, and a great experience. “It was different because they have a huge barn and their kids are incredibly competitive. I thought it would have been more cut-throat, but instead everybody was super nice to each other.” Miela plans to return to WEF this winter with Missy and John’s North Run crew.

Beyond The Barn

Miela with the late Chuck Esau (left) and George Morris.

Miela’s riding accomplishments parallel her academic success at Pacific Ridge High School in Carlsbad. In addition to rigorous courses, she has enjoyed the “eye opening” experience of community service, some of it in foreign countries.

During a 10th grade trip to China, she and fellow students took supplies to school kids in rural areas and joined in on their basketball games, a local craze, she recalls. They visited the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Shanghai. “The culture is very different,” Miela observes. “People don’t have the same kind of personal space that we are used to, but everybody is super generous and very nice and we loved their practice of bargaining.”

Grateful for her family’s support, Miela describes her folks, Mike (her mom) and John Gross, as the perfect show parents because they are always “super supportive without every putting any pressure on me.” Her grandmother Mary McGuire gets credit for encouraging Miela to take up the sport in the first place and has continued to be “an awesome horse show grandma!”

Miela aspires to be a physicist like her dad and she’s targeting academically demanding universities. She does not plan to be part of a collegiate riding team, but knows that she’ll keep up with the sport in some form. “It is a great stress reliever for me and I could never imagine my life without it.”