Ross Beats The Odds At Pebble Beach

July 24, 2009 Issue Email this Article | Print this article

Her FEI-level debut with Lancaster is met with a blue ribbon, but it’s the path she took to get there that's the true reward. 
California State Barrel Racing Champion isn’t on the résumé of most dressage riders, but Sheryl Ross isn’t like most dressage riders.

She’s slowed down a bit since her days in a western saddle, but only in gaits, not in goals. 

And while the Pebble Beach Dressage Show was only her horse’s fourth career competition, Lancaster’s proving to Ross that he’s capable of playing this game. They won a section of Prix St. Georges (64.47%) and were also second with 66.84 percent at the Pebble Beach, Calif., show, July 2-5. 

Ross, 52, Menlo Park, Calif., said that Lancaster excels at the lateral work and has a natural ability for piaffe and passage, though he occasionally struggles with his pirouettes. 

“He’s one of those softly supple horses,” she said. “There’s no tension, but there’s a lot of power there. He tries too hard in his pirouettes, and he hasn’t quite figured out where to put his feet. We only started working the pirouettes about two months ago, so when we got a 7 at [Pebble Beach] I was stunned. 

“He grew up another step at Pebble Beach,” added Ross of their performance. “We used to get comments like, ‘impressive horse, but has own agenda at times.’ But he took a deep breath, and we went in there and both grew and became more confident.” 

Doolittle Plays Doctor

Ross began her career with horses “turning and burning” around the dusty rodeo grounds of southern California until her family moved to the South Bay city of Torrance, Calif., where there were no western horses to be found.

“I put myself through Pacific Horse Center Riding Academy [Elk Grove, Calif.] and learned all about hunters and then started my own business,” she said. “When you’re young you don’t really realize what you don’t know, which is a good thing and a bad thing.”

Ross managed Spindrift Farm with much success and won a trainer of the year award through a local organization before she walked away from her business in 1985. 

“I had a great group of kids, and I loved teaching,” said Ross, who also contested the grand prix jumpers during that time. “My bookkeeper embezzled all of the money from my business, and I went bankrupt. It just broke me emotionally. I had to walk away.”

Another four years went by before Ross was back in the saddle schooling horses on the flat for a friend, which propelled her into a dressage career. She bought her first true dressage horse from Leslie Morse in 2003, a 13-year-old Hanoverian gelding named D’Artagnan or “Doolittle.” 

“Doolittle taught me all about dressage,” said Ross. “It was tough going from jumpers to dressage. ‘Get those legs down, sit up straight, sit still, be quiet, don’t lean when you do your changes!’ Doolittle taught me a lot; I got him for almost nothing, and he was the best buy I’ve ever had.”

Doolittle proved to be more than just a good dressage instructor, however, as Ross was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2003. 

“I rode as much as I could through the treatments,” she said. “Even if I could just get on him and walk, I would. It’s the one thing that gives you life when you’re feeling that yucky. You come out with the horses, and for 45 minutes you’d forget how sick you were.”

In addition to riding, Ross worked out at the gym several times a week to keep her strength up and also rode in clinics and horse shows.

“I rode in a clinic with Kathleen Raines two days before I had surgery [in 2003],” said Ross. “People would be shocked that I would ride when I was so sick. I would get off and go toss my cookies, but I did it! I kept trying to learn and get through, and I was going to ride until the last minute.”

After her last round of chemotherapy, Ross took Doolittle to their first dressage show together, where they won all of their first level classes. She went into remission for a time before the cancer spread to her liver in 2005, but she didn’t let it stop her from riding.

“The horses were mentally and emotionally good for me,” she said. “They re-invigorate life into you. It’s hard to be depressed when you’re riding and having a good time. And the horses don’t care that you’re sick, though Doolittle was much kinder to me. It was like he knew.”

Onward And Upward

After recovering from cancer a second time, Ross began focusing on finding a horse that could teach her the ropes of upper-level dressage. She turned to Karen Lipp, Ball Ground, Ga., for guidance.

“I was looking for a made Prix St. Georges horse so I could learn, and Karen showed me what she had, and nothing fit,” said Ross. “So she showed me this young horse, and I was thinking that I didn’t want a young horse, but I got on him and in 90 seconds I knew he was the right horse for me. He had that willingness and flexibility of movement. I tried well over 20 horses, and he was it. It was love at the first ride.”

Lancaster, a 9-year-old Dutch Warm-blood gelding, proved to be a sensitive yet sweet horse that required Ross to take a lot of time in earning his trust. 

“Right after I got him I got bucked off a baby and broke five ribs,” said Ross, who sent Lancaster to Shannon Peters for a while right after her injury. “For months I would lead him up into the hills to get him in shape and be with him until I could get back on. He learned to trust me from the ground before I got on him. Now when I ride him and something scares him I just put my hand on his neck and soften the contact, and he calms down.”

Lancaster began his dressage career in April of this year at the Golden State Dressage Festival (Calif.) at third level, but Ross heeded advice from horsewoman Akiko Yamazaki and began working him toward the Prix St. Georges movements.

Ross said she feels very lucky to work and board with Yamazaki, and she also trains with Shannon and Steffen Peters and Francis Verbeek, an O-rated judge from the Netherlands. 

“My dressage career has been in fits and starts,” she said. “I’d get going, then I’d get cancer. Get going, get cancer. Now I’m going again. I may be 52, but I feel like I’ve got the right horse and the right people around me. You do the best you can and practice the best you can every day.”

Ross hopes to bring Lancaster up to Grand Prix eventually, but she hasn’t forgotten her barrel racing roots.

“I like to do hill work with my horses and get them to canter or trot through the trees where they have be quick and pay attention to everything,” she said with a laugh. “It keeps them fresh and the both of us in better communication. My friends think I’m crazy because dressage horses don’t do things like that—but mine do!”

Making Horses Her Business

Sheryl Ross, a photographer for most of her life, began designing websites about a year ago. 

“I didn’t really think of it as a business until I did about five websites,” said Ross. “It allows me to have that creative side, and this is more personal because it’s horses. My business, Equus Art And Design, is solely focused on horses.”

Ross has designed websites for Steffen and Shannon Peters, Karen Lipp, Sand Haven Farm, and several other clients, and she’ll be launching her own website in the near future.

“I have experience in multiple equestrian disciplines, and I have over 15 years in corporate marketing,” she said. “I get to work with horses and beautiful images and help people define what they want to look like. I’m loving it.”