Dressage Champion Aims for the Olympics

JWU alum and dressage champion Jessica Forend

Blue ribbons are nice, but dressage champion Jessica Forend '10 has her eye on the gold — thanks to her dream job at Lionshare Farm in Connecticut.

The sun climbs as groomers — ranch vaqueros, cowboys from Central America — brush the horses to a salsa rhythm. They trace their hands over the glutes and legs, scanning for knots and warmth that can signal inflammation and a possible injury. They bandage the legs in polo wraps and cover the front hooves with protective bell boots. Cushioning is paramount: Most of these horses are worth six figures, with a handful valued at $500,000 and up and a few worth at least $1 million.

Their home is Lionshare Farm, a 100-acre property in Greenwich, Connecticut, owned by Olympic silver medalist Peter Leone and his wife Marcella.

Approaching Lionshare’s classic white barn with hunter green trim, it seems you’ve crossed into more than another tax bracket. The setting, which feels European, has been described as cinematic. Julia Roberts galloped across its white-railed paddocks in the 1997 thriller “Conspiracy Theory.” The driveway unfurls past a pond with a gurgling fountain and pristine swans; the property expands to 14 grass paddocks, two all-weather rings, sand trails and a cross-country field. A Grand Prix field crowns the highest point of the property, with views of the valley and permanent natural obstacles such as banks, slides, ditches and a water jump.

Like the groomers, Jessica Forend ’10 is a foreigner here. Still, she qualifies: Raised on Martha’s Vineyard, the alumna has ridden since she was five and could pass for a model. Yet she cantered the island’s savage bluffs while peers did the show circuit. During one summer off from Johnson & Wales, the 27-year-old worked as a nanny, assistant store manager and EMT — simultaneously.

“I’m proof that you don’t have to be born into this world to succeed,” says Forend. “The fact that I had to work harder to get here makes me prouder of what I’ve accomplished.”

Forend was the only JWU student to place first in her division for three consecutive years (from 2007–10) at the Intercollegiate Dressage Association (IDA) competition — and remains the only student to do so since the IDA’s founding in 2001.

"You want the horse in a zen state where they feel relaxed but want to work for you." Jessica Forend

Dressage’s fundamental principles date to around 350 BC. The tradition boasts a steady line of riding masters from the military and the famous riding schools that developed during the Baroque era. The sport is often likened to figure skating, ballet, acrobatics or gymnastics. It’s an edge that Forend owns the frame and poise of a dancer. With hazel eyes and a Chiclets smile, standing a willowy 5’7’’ in custom-made brushed Italian leather riding boots — a Christmas gift from her employer — she commands attention without demanding it.

Dressage helps the horse and rider communicate and develop balance, strength, flexibility and accuracy.

Seemingly imperceptible nonverbal cues, such as a leg squeeze or a foot tap, are a shared secret language. As with dance, there is a veil of grace: Intricate athletic maneuvers must appear effortless as gossamer. Judges check for accuracy, energy, relaxation, consistency, rhythm, tempo, balance and submission. They also consider the horse’s way of moving and carrying itself, as well as the rider’s position and use of her body; movements must be technically correct at all times. Nine progressive levels exist with multiple tests in each level. At intercollegiate competitions, in the interest of meritocracy, the name of the horse one rides is fished from a hat moments before show time. Riders are then allotted a 10-minute warm-up on the horse before a 45-second cue to enter the ring.

“When you’re getting on a new horse, you want to feel what you have underneath and see how responsive they are to the different aids — your feet, seat, legs and hands,” Forend explains. “Every horse is so different and they are trained by different people. You have to figure out how to explain the different movements in your pattern to a horse that is completely unfamiliar to you.” In 10 minutes, she had to adjust her equipment and decipher “which buttons the horse has and which ones they don’t.”

JWU alum and dressage champion Jessica Forend

Fall is a poster child for Lionshare Farm. Oak and maple trees ripen to russet and saffron; apple trees bow with fruit. For some, this is the best season for riding, as gold sun tempers brisk clean air. The morning of our visit, Forend’s alarm bleated at 5:30. She spent an hour preparing breakfast (a mixture of bran mash and oatmeal with SmartPak nutritional supplements) for the 50-plus horses. Then she mucked out the stalls, added shavings and filled their water tubs.

Afterward, she groomed and exercised the four horses owned by her employer, Eliane Cordia-van Reseema. The Netherlands-born dressage champion — a 2016 Olympics contender recently ranked 22nd in the country — leases stalls at Lionshare Farm. Jewel Court Stud, the American branch of her family’s Belgian stud farm, is in Wellington, Florida. She, Forend and two other JWU-educated equestrians (barn manager Kayla Burroughs ’10 and dressage team captain Tara Proulx ’16) have migrated south to Palm Beach County before the freeze, in time for its show season. If their young horses show well, this summer Cordia-van Reseema and Forend might bring them to the Belgian farm in hopes of qualifying for Europe’s Young Horse World Championships.

Despite dawn-to-dusk working hours that can stretch to 7 days a week, Forend considers this her dream job. As Cordia-van Reseema’s assistant trainer, she is carving a name for herself: With the Olympics in her sightline, Forend is confident she is on the right team to achieve that goal. According to Forend, some employers are so focused on winning that mentoring an assistant is not a priority.

This week, her employer even imported a horse that Forend will train for competition: Fellow, a six-year-old Dutch Warmblood with marble eyes, an espresso and cream coat and a case of jet lag.

Forend explains his “superstar potential” as she brushes Fellow in circles with a curry comb to exorcise the dirt. Then she tucks him in before the breath of night, strapping a wool madras blanket around him.

He has “phenomenal breeding,” and certain bloodlines throw particular temperaments. “He looks like a plain Jane horse under tack, but once you start him up he has so much power — about 15 gears,” says Forend. “Personality is more important than the physical; they won’t do very well without the willpower to succeed. Fellow has a great work ethic: He always wants to be learning and is eager to please — it’s that much better when they want to be a team with you.”

As she strokes Fellow’s cheek, Forend cautions: “You have to be careful with a horse like that; an inexperienced trainer could physically and mentally break him. Some people want them to be winning all the time to make a name for themselves and so the horse will be worth more. They drill them at the shows, work them too hard and a horse can get ring sour. You want the horse to come to that zen state where they feel relaxed but they want to work for you.

“Eliane and I share the same training philosophy. We’re not in a rush to get the horses to a certain level by a certain date. You can have that goal in sight, but we want to build up their confidence rather than push them. An animal can be fantastic and then have an off day, which is when I think, ‘How can I get them to better understand what I’m trying to teach them?’ ”

Her ambition is to be riding Fellow at the Grand Prix (highest) level within a few years; some experts believe it takes an experienced trainer with a talented horse at least 7 years to reach that caliber. However, Fellow had already been training in Europe: Cordia-van Reseema flew Forend to Holland after personally vetting him. “When I entered the stall, he was lying down taking a nap — that’s when a horse is most vulnerable — but he didn’t get up and he let me stay in the stall,” Forend recalls. “I just fell in love — I hadn’t felt that before.”

Riding an animal of Fellow’s girth and power (he stands just over 16 hands tall and weighs nearly 1,200 pounds) is analogous to an extreme sport.

While Forend has never been seriously injured, she is intimate with the sport’s occupational hazards. In 2011, her mother, Lisa Scannell, was riding a friend’s horse that reared on its hind legs without warning, causing her to slide off and the 800-pound pony to land atop her. Her pelvis was fractured in 14 places and her sacrum was broken.

Doctors predicted Scannell would never walk again; today, she does so with a cane and is determined to ride once more. “Jessica has never said, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t get back on a horse!’” Scannell says. “And it hasn’t created fear in her; she knows this was an extremely rare freak accident.”

Forend left an internship with a well-known trainer to care for her mother — who was bedridden for three months — and to keep Scannell’s bookkeeping business on track (she winces at the memory of learning Quicken).

Anchored by a relationship, Forend remained on Martha’s Vineyard for two years. Ultimately, she had to choose: love and a career stunted by ferry crossings or the Promised Mainland.

“If Jessica had stayed on the island, I think she would have always been wondering, ‘What if?’” Scannell says. “My middle-aged friends are envious because Jessica is so passionate about what she’s doing.”

She credits horses and Johnson & Wales for helping her formerly unassertive daughter to mature. “As a child, if she needed something at a restaurant, her younger sister would ask for it. She wouldn’t raise her hand in class. But on a horse, Jessica had all the confidence in the world. At Johnson & Wales, she was on so many different ones that it really brought out her natural talent and feel for the horse. She became confident all around.”

Now, when she needs anything, this Olympic hopeful has no problem speaking up.

"Jessica is a cool competitor; her confidence instills trust and confidence in the horse." Crystal Taylor

Center for Equine Studies

“I do think we will see Jessica in the Olympics,” says JWU’s Head IDA Coach Crystal Taylor, who taught Forend when she studied equine business management. “Jessica is a cool competitor; her confidence instills trust and confidence in the horse. If she drew a challenging horse, she was always positive and had a great attitude. She would work through any issue that came up, and continue riding as if everything was perfect.”

Scannell tutored her daughter and the other riders she instructed that prizes should not be the objective. Rather, her students set goals such as working on their diagonals in the show ring.

“Jess would come out with six blue ribbons and say, ‘Mom, I got my lead time!’ When friends were nervous about competing with Jessica, she’d reassure them, ‘We’re not competing against each other; we’re riding together.’ If one had a tough day at the show, she’d give them her ribbon.”

At Johnson & Wales, Forend had the opportunity to compete regularly and to dedicate herself to the sport at its Center for Equine Studies in Rehoboth, Massachusetts. When the program launched in 1981, Johnson & Wales was the first college to develop a business degree in equine studies. Southern schools offered riding, but it was not integrated with a business curriculum; other schools have since followed JWU’s lead. The bachelor’s degree combines riding training with classes in physiology and genetics, nutrition, diseases, and anatomy, as well as business management. Starting in Fall 2016, equine science will be offered.

The Center’s bucolic 31 acres, adjacent to a state forest, include a cross-country field atop three acres in the Upper Valley, with a derby-style jumping field with banks, ditches and step jumps. The farm includes a mirrored indoor riding hall with waxed footing, radiant heat, an attached 32-stall barn, pastures and turnout paddocks. There is a multipurpose jumping ring and a separate dressage ring.

The dressage team has won numerous regional and national awards and has been represented at every national championship by team members. In 2012, JWU won the National Championship; in 2013, the university was the IDA reserve (second place) national champion; last year, the IDA team placed first for its region. The university also belongs to the Intercollegiate Horse Show Association (IHSA). The IHSA team competes in hunter seat equitation throughout New England; in 2015, they were ranked second place in the region.