June 2018 - Horse People: Leslie Nelson
Written by by Kim F. Miller
Friday, 01 June 2018 05:57
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A Pony Clubber comes of age.

by Kim F. Miller

At 70, amateur jumper rider Leslie Nelson can recite the Pony Club pledge on cue. Not because she has a remarkable memory, but because the concepts she learned growing up in the Dick Collins-led Pebble Beach Pony Club are woven into her hardwiring. She and her Pony Club mates started halter-broke 3-year-olds in three months, scaled aptly-named “coffin” obstacles in the Del Monte Forest and learned to shoe their own horses. Turning herself and her horse out to perfection for day-long Saturday inspections was another lesson turned lifelong habit.

Competing on her perfect horse, Cornetto. Photo: ESI

Leslie Nelson & Cornetto at Sonoma Horse Park.

Overkill for the 1.2M jumper division some might say, but not Leslie. Along with the rare “A” rating, the Pony Club foundation gave her the horseman’s highest goal, per the Pony Club Pledge: To create a partner, she explains. “If I ever get in trouble, he’ll be there to help me out and vice versa.” Her belief that horses were “put on earth for us to enjoy,” also drives her mission of ongoing, immersive education on their behalf. “It’s our job to be their advocate.”

Leslie stables her horse of eight years, Cornetto, with Nina and Mario Alario’s Estancia Farms in Petaluma, where she lives with her husband Mike Nelson. Along with excelling in her 70s, Leslie’s independent approach to horsemanship sets her apart in the hunter/jumper world.  “Coco” has his own groom, Adolfo Garcia, and Leslie provides much of the horse’s daily care herself. She determines his feed, conditioning, veterinary care and general well-being routines.

“We help a bit in the management and make our recommendations, but she really does her own program,” Nina Alario explains. “She’s very knowledgeable and she does it in a way that’s easy for us to have her do it. Her system really works for her horses and she does well. She canters around those 1.2M courses and gives the other people a riding lesson.”

The fact that Leslie does all that without ego is what makes it fit into the Alarios’ program. “Everyone respects and enjoys her and just knows that that’s how she does things,” Nina says. “And she is everybody’s fan. She’s very positive, always asking how everyone is doing, watching their classes, cheering them on.”

Leslie’s fine with being an oddball in the hunter/jumper crowd. For the last five years or so, she’s been one of very few to wear an inflatable air vest (a Point Two). She wears the black safety vest over a long-sleeve black shirt, but that discrete ensemble still stands out amid the hunt-coated or regular riding-shirted contenders.

She’d been standing out well before the vest. Leslie fondly recalls a first encounter with Karl Cook. It was 10 years ago, when the now international Grand Prix jumper was a North American Young Riders Championships star. “He approached me one day and asked if I wanted to know what everybody thought of me,” Leslie recounts. “He said, ‘They think you are the crazy old lady that’s hand walking her horses all the time.’”

Leslie loved the comment then and cherishes what’s become a horsemanship-driven friendship with Karl. The characteristically candid Karl admits it wasn’t the coolest question to ask, but confirms their bond. “Most of the time when I talk about what we are doing at the farm, biomechanically with our horses, it falls on deaf ears. People think I’m crazy. She doesn’t. She’s very passionate and capable and she wants to do everything in a very horse-centered way.”

Knowledge Sponge & Sports Crazed

Pebble Beach Pony Clubber.

World Champion mountain bike racer days.

Leslie is grateful to be able to pursue riding full-time, a status that wasn’t the case for much of a life dominated by doing whatever it took to keep horses in it. Her passion for horses is coupled with natural athleticism and competitive drive, which she parlayed into unusual career paths. Movie stuntwoman, mountain bike and cross-country skate ski racer and mountain biking school owner are among the mid-life professions that helped pay the horse bills. Whatever gaps existed, she covered by working off riding time, everything from mucking stalls and riding young or problematic horses to giving lessons.

The Pebble Beach Stables and Pony Club were sanctuaries for Leslie (née Woods) growing up in Monterey County. The facility in the 1960s and 1970s was the top eventing competition and training venue in the U.S. “I was surrounded by these wonderful, educated riders and you couldn’t feed me enough information because I was a sponge,” Leslie explains.

Riding a horse purchased for $800, she was long-listed, among about 40, for the Olympic eventing team for the 1968 Games in Mexico. Shortly after that, she determined that eventing would not be her discipline. “Back then, it was too hard on the horses.” Her coach at the time, 1964 and 1968 Olympic eventer Michael Page, suggested hunters and she moved back East to be a working student for Bob Freels, a top hunter/jumper trainer and former U.S. Equestrian Team manager.

Leslie returned West to attend Oregon State University, then moved to Sun Valley, Idaho after falling in love with the area and its sports-crazy community during a vacation. She made a career in several high-flying action sports, but never riding. “Early on, I knew I did not want to go the trainer route,” she says. “Having the connection, the partnership, the soul mate part of it…I felt like I’d lose that if I had to rely on it for a paycheck.” In addition to movie stunt work, she became a world champion mountain bike rider and cross-country skate skier. A bad ski accident led her to biking, first as a rehab mode, then, in 1998, as a world champion. As a relatively old competitor in those sports, she both inspired and beat many younger contenders, as she does today on the jumper field.

She kept riding throughout her time in Sun Valley with stunt work income and racing prize money supported her horses. Based at the Sun Valley Riding Stable, she built up a riding school and started a Pony Club. The latter was free, but not easy.

One of her students was Cara Anthony, now a successful Grand Prix rider and trainer based in Washington. A pre-teen then, Cara remembers having a horsemanship epiphany in Leslie’s program when she brought her less-than-perfectly clean horse into the ring for a riding lesson. Instead, she was sent back to the barn, where Leslie gave her an intense grooming lesson. “That moment instilled in me that horsemanship was really important,” Cara says. “Of course, I loved my horse then and never wanted to hurt it, but I didn’t understand really what horsemanship was before that.”

In Sun Valley, Leslie’s life intertwined with Bob and Debbie McDonald and the Parry Thomas family and their beautiful River Grove Farm in nearby Hailey, ID.  Bob and Debbie McDonald were a hunter/jumper training team at the time and Leslie jumped at the chance to work for them in trade for lessons and help with her horses.

Parry and Peggy Thomas’ daughter Jane brought horses to Leslie at Sun Valley Stables during her summer visits, planting the seeds for a many-years friendship that included Leslie keeping her horses at River Grove and helping the McDonalds as an adult-aged working student. Leslie first competed at Spruce Meadows in Canada in 1985, with the McDonalds. And, the tail end of her River Grove time dovetailed with Debbie’s beginnings with the Olympic bound-dressage star, Brentina, a heady time to be in the McDonalds’ milieu.

Educate Yourself!

Leslie returned to California to marry her husband Michael. She kept and cared for her horses without any trainer’s help for a while until she got the itch to go bigger with her jumping and involvement in the sport. That prompted her to partner with an accomplished professional in importing expensive horses for her own riding and the coach’s. Things went well for a while, and then didn’t as aspects of the training program didn’t align with her principles. Even with all her knowledge and experience, it was hard to question the pro’s practices. As such, she’s empathetic toward those with less experience who fall prey to unscrupulous ethics and horsemanship that exist in the industry.

That’s one of the reasons Leslie loves Karl Cook’s willingness to “bridge the gap” with her. Their horse care conversations reflect an open-mindedness that she wishes was more prevalent. More exchanges of ideas, experience and knowledge would be better for everyone, especially the horses, she asserts.

“Educate yourself” is Leslie’s wish for everyone, from the entry-level kid and their parents to those at the highest levels of the sport. The idea includes going beyond asking people’s opinions and experiences, to “immersing yourself in” horsemanship knowledge to the point of being confidently able to call the shots for the horse’s care if you want to, need to, or should for the horse’s sake.

After extricating herself from the disappointing partnership, Leslie bounced back thanks to a great experience working with Rich and Shelley Fellers in Oregon. She enthusiastically describes their program “as like being in the Navy Seals. You work so hard at home that when you go into the show ring, it’s a cakewalk. You learn something every day.”

The commute to Oregon was too far to sustain, however, so Leslie was happy to find the Alarios in Petaluma. They supported Leslie’s independent approach and continue to provide whatever back-up is requested, including that critical role of being her eyes on the ground. “Nina is calm, encouraging, clear in dialogue and very empathetic,” Leslie says. “They don’t hover, yet they are always there for me.”

Dick Collins-led Pebble Beach Pony Clubbers gather for clinic with the legendary USET chef Bert DeNemethy. Collins is on the far left. Leslie (then Woods) is the fourth rider from the left, among those seated in the back row.

U.S. Pony Club pledge
I stand for the best in sportsmanship as well as horsemanship.
I shall compete for the enjoyment of the game well played and take winning or losing in stride, remembering
That without good manners and good temper, the sport loses its cause for being.
I shall endeavor to maintain the best tradition of the ancient and noble skills of horsemanship,
Always treating my horse with consideration due a partner.
I shall strive at all times to uphold the high ideals of my Pony Club and my country.

The Perfect Horse

Paring her string from four to one is one of few concessions Leslie has made to age. Two-hour daily post-ride work-outs and a “move it” mentality keep her in outstanding physical shape, and minding her fatigue level is key to staying mentally sharp. The desire to jump higher has abated with age, in favor of excelling in the 1.2M division at which she’s comfortable. Going out of her comfort zone is her fast track to mistakes, especially in the heightened atmosphere and stakes of competition. “I hate making mistakes!”

Leslie continues to go for it and add to her ribbon stash, but the real goal of competing is finishing the class with the sense that she’s put a lesson to good use, or learned a new one to employ next time. “My goal is always to make it perfect, even though there is no such thing as a perfect round.”

There is, however, a perfect horse. For her, that’s Cornetto, though he didn’t start out that way. A three-stride flyer in a four-stride line at Spruce Meadows was part of their first outing together, but eight years into their partnership those miscues are nearly non-existent.  Lots of foundational flatwork and show mileage have brought them to Leslie’s happy place. “When we go in the ring, he hears the bell and off he goes, which is exactly what I want: to have that connection.”

That connection shows up in winning and not-so-winning rounds. At HITS Coachella earlier this year, Leslie was sick to the point that her groom Adolpho almost hauled her off to the hospital. Yet, she wanted to ride in a 1.2M speed class and she did. Half-way round in her weakened state, she fell-off, triggering her safety vest to inflate with a loud pop. “So, there I was on the ground and Coco was loose and very excited about being in a speed class.

He could have run all around the ring, but instead he just stood there and waited for me to get up.” She was in trouble and he was there for her.

Leslie plans to keep riding “until I can’t anymore” and injuries and worn-out joints haven’t yet held back the partially bionic woman. Two knees, two hips and one shoulder have been replaced, her nose has been broken nine times and her fused spine is reinforced with two rods.  A lifetime of intense physical activity and competition will inform her decision when the time comes. “You know when to back off or push things when you are feeling strong.”

With the Sonoma Horse Park show series, Paso Robles and the Sacramento International shows on the summer and fall agenda, Leslie looks forward to every round and every second with her horse.  At presstime, she had just finished fifth in a 1.2M Speed class at the Sonoma Horse Park. Afterward, she said the same thing she’s been saying for 60 years: “Riding is just the greatest sport in the world!”