Mara Dean’s interview wraps up here with her pride in Nicki Henley and winning the first leg of the FEI World Cup Tour, going out on the town, and letting go to gain control. Enjoy it!
Q. Tell me about your horses.
A. [Nicki Henley] had an injury two years ago that happened at the Pan Ams. He was never even supposed to jump again. Not only did he come back to compete but to come back and win a three star is beyond amazing. Because he had two years off he’s not qualified for [Rolex] Kentucky. But that’s what I’m aim for. The selectors suggested that I apply for special permission. If we can go we will then see about Worlds. He’s got the most personality of any of the horse. He’s more like a dog than a horse and would much rather spend time with people than horses. He only likes certain people. He had two years off and a lot as rehab so I got to spend lot time with him icing and with therapies. He really thinks he’s a person or a dog. The girl that worked for me taught him how to shake and beg. He’ll eat anything. Any snack you have he wants. He likes Gatorade and will drink it out of a bottle. He’s not spoiled or anything! He’s funny and goofy and loveable on ground but can be tough to ride. He’s very spooky and strong. He has matured a lot and came back a better horse after two years off. He’s been a challenge for me. I’ve had him since he was five and it’s taken this long, he’s now fifteen, to figure out how to ride him. I think the biggest eye opener came early on. I broke my ankle riding and to keep his qualifications David O’Connor took him to Radnor and ended up winning. However David’s comment was, “Mara this is the strongest horse I have ever ridden. If you have any hope to ride him then you better start lifting weights.” But it’s different for men and women. I took that to mean I needed to control him but what I really needed was to let go in order to gain control. The more I let go the more he settled and became easier to ride. David helped me a ton and opened my eyes to it, but couldn’t ride him like he rode him. I didn’t have the strength.
photo courtesy of Josh Walker
My other horses is High Patriot and he’s owned by Patricia Overland and her son Patrick O’Brian. When Nicki broke down I was thinking my life was over and I’d never have advanced horses again. Once I got through my life is over I got to how do I ask for sponsorship and find another horse? I’d known them for a while and as I approached them they approached me. It almost came out of ours mouths at the same time.
A girl from California came to do Jersey Fresh on High Patriot as a developing rider and she needed a place to work off the expenses. We hit it off and when I went to the Pan Ams I needed someone to run the business. I told her, “If you ever decide to sell this horse please let me know first.” Within a few weeks she needed to sell him and I was able to get these people to buy him. It was a dream come true and I was very lucky. So he was a horse who had already done three stars where most of my horses I start from an early age. It was different having someone else’s horse and someone else’s tools. He looks like a Thoroughbred but he’s an Oldenburg. It’s a different mentality, not quite as sharp, everything is a little slower. He’s one of the scopiest jumpers I’ve ever had. I took him to Fair Hill and had a silly run out which was just me not knowing him and then I got injured so the partnership had time off. I took me a while to figure him out and finally last year I took him to Bromont and we were 4th in the 3-star and started to click. Unfortunately as I was getting ready for Blenheim he got hurt at Richland. Now he’s coming back and hopefully on the verge of success. It’s just taking a while. I also have two prelim horses, Funmaker and Chequers Macon, that I just have to say are some of the nicest horses I’ve had. They’re from Susie Pragnell and have a little bit of Dutch in them. I’m excited about them for future.
Q. I know you ride Nicki Henley in a hackamore. What are your reasons behind that?
A. I do. When I pull he doesn’t listen anyway. It’s not something I train him in since they can get a little numb to it. I think he’s softer though body without the bit and his jump ends up being a bit more rounded. If he’s tight he can drag hind end and have a rail behind.
Q. Do you ever have days where you think maybe Eventing isn’t for me?
Oh yeah. Certainly. Certainly after a bad day or if I’ve had a bad fall. More when my horses get hurt or when there’s an injury I always go, “Is this the right thing? Is this what I really want to do?” It’s a tough sport with huge risk but the good times make up for the bad times without a doubt. I joke to my husband who has an office job, I’ll say I wish I had your job! But I don’t. I don’t want to sit in an office. I want to be outside with the animals. I get up every day and do what I love. There’s no other passion I’ve had in my life like the one I’ve had for the horses.
photo courtesy of Sarah K. Andrew
Q. What’s your life like off a horse?
A. Well my husband would say I’m not off a horse enough and when I am then he needs to get me out of the barn since I’m making sure everyone is taken care of. To be able to do much with me you have to take me on vacation! Luckily he works for an insurance company in Leesburg which takes him into the city a lot. So we go into the restaurants and museums.
Q. What do you want your fans to know about you?
A. Some people think because I’m a little quiet and shy that I’m not very friendly and that’s so not the case. I’m the most approachable person and happy to talk to anybody, answer questions, or help anyone. I love it when kids come up at an event and ask questions. It’s important to support this sport and if I can help a person or group or horse I would love to.
Q. Posting a win on the FEI World Cup Leaderboard after Nickey Henley coming back from an injury at the 2007 Pan Ams. What’s that feel like?
A. It’s still sinking in. I can’t believe it happened. It’s huge! With the amount of hard work and dedication and sweat and blood and tears getting a win like that: it’s all worth it and reminds you why we do this. I have such an emotional attachment to this horse [Nicki Henley] because of all the ground time rehabbing and bringing him back. I’m proud of what I’ve done with him.
Q. What would “making it” look like for you?
A. I think that’s constantly changing. In that as soon as I accomplish one thing I want something else. It’s part of the perfectionism that helps to make us such good athletes. It doesn’t take away from what I’ve done. If we get to go to Kentucky and do well there I’d love to help the team get a medal at Worlds. But success comes in many ways. Chequers won his preliminary division at Red Hills. I picked him out and have huge success picking good horses. The judges agree how nice he is. And I just had a cross-country school with a student and solved a problem and that meant a lot as trainer and coach. Everything from a 3-star to preliminary to helping a student. Success comes in many ways.
I’ve been riding with Phillip Dutton for six years. I’ve been lucky to ride with so many people. Over the years Philip has taken my riding to next level and made me a better competitor, not just a better rider. Part of that is the work other people have put in but Phillip has brought the best out in me. It was ready to come but he brought it out. He’s not just a good trainer but also a good friend and a good horseman. I owe lot of my success to him.
Q. Anything you want to add?
A. The ony thing I can think of, and it’s been said before, to have success is not just about me. It’s about the whole program and team. One of the most fantastic girls works for me, Katie Strickland, and I couldn’t have done Red Hills without her. She keeps me going and keeps the horses going. I’m riding multiple horses and teaching and can’t check every boot. It’s important to have a good support system of vets and farriers. I’ve got a fantastic crew in the barn and then of course the owners. We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without them. My job is wonderful but I don’t make enough money to pay for all the horses. There needs to be some outside help and to have people that love the sport so much just support me and the horses to go as far as they can go is amazing generosity.
If you want to follow the World Cup tour that Mara Dean kicked off with her win on Nicki Henley see below. You can have a world tour of your own!World Cup Tour Schedule 1. Tallahassee (USA), 5-7 March 2. Kihikihi (NZL), 2-4 April 3. Sydney (AUS), 7-9 May 4. Marbach (GER), 7-9 May 5. Chatsworth (GBR), 15-16 May 6. Tattersalls (IRL), 27-30 May 7. Strzegom (POL), 24-27 June 8. Minsk (BLR), 21-25 July 9. Rebecca Farm, Kalispell (USA), 22-25 July 10. Malmö (SWE), 13-15 August 11. Martinvast (FRA), TBC, 18-22 August 12. Schenefeld (GER), 26-29 August