During an unforgettable trip to Kentucky as a teenager, Terri Sue Wensinger earned a stunning silver trophy and had her name added to the historical ledger of American Horse Show Association (AHSA) champions by winning the prestigious Stock Seat Medal class at the 1978 Arabian Nationals. Forty years later, Wensinger was back in the Bluegrass State for an equally memorable ride, but this time in a very different saddle as an Adult Amateur competitor in the U.S. Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®.
“I remember watching the Finals for the first time online on the USEF Network and wanting so badly to compete there someday,” said Wensinger, 56, of Dallas, Texas. “I had my first opportunity in 2014 when I eked my way in but didn’t do very well. But this year I really felt like I deserved to be there after winning at the Regional Championships, and it paid off with top-10 placings in all three of our Small Tour classes. Walking from our barn down to the Alltech arena on Friday night for the Intermediate I awards ceremony, I had tears in my eyes thinking about how special it was to be there with my horse. You have to embrace these types of special opportunities while you can.”
A Good Diversion
If it wasn’t for her parents’ attempts to thwart rebellious teenage behavior, Wensinger may never have discovered her passion for horses. “As a kid we moved from Oklahoma to Kansas City, Missouri, and I was getting involved with some friends that my parents didn’t think were such a good influence on me,” she explained. “They knew someone involved in Arabians and encouraged me to go out to see the horses. I liked it and ended up watching the Arabian Nationals with them, where I saw a girl who was the same age as me . She and her horse were stunning. I was absolutely smitten and, at that point, decided that I wanted to be just like that. I told my parents that I would stay away from trouble, work my butt off and would do anything to have a horse.”
Her family agreed to give horses a try and purchased Wensinger an Arab named Lazy D Zorro, whom she cared for and attempted to show on her own. “I had no idea what I was doing and, thinking back, it was just a big mess,” she remembered. “I would go to the barn every day after school, and since it was a self-care barn, I was pretty much there by myself. One day I was longing Zorro and he ducked in and kicked me in the face, breaking my nose and cheek. I don’t know how long I lay there unconscious before the woman who was supposed to drive me home found me. It’s a wonder I wasn’t killed!”
Wensinger’s father decided it would be safer for his daughter and her mount if he enlisted professional help and got connected with a local Quarter Horse judge, who turned out to be friends with horseman Billy Harris, a legendary horse trainer. “Even though I hadn’t started riding as young as many other kids, I was so determined to succeed that I applied for an independent study program to go spend a month working with Billy in California,” said Wensiger. “After spending that time with him, he thought I had some talent, so I went home for school and then back to California to spend the next summer there. In retrospect, I can’t believe my parents let me do this—I wasn’t even 16 yet and I was spending summers so far from home basically with strangers, all just to ride horses. But I showed in the open classes, got a great horse named Ballandrad, and we just cleaned up. We went to Scottsdale and won both the Saddle Seat and the Stock Seat Medal classes in 1978 and then on to Arabian Nationals, which were in Kentucky that year, and won the AHSA National Stock Seat title.”
But Wensinger’s youthful glory days with horses were about to come to an end. As she aged out of the junior divisions and prepared to head off to college, she received devastating news: Her parents had decided to divorce and she would need to sell her horse to pay for school. “So that was it for a really long time—more than 30 years actually—as far as my involvement with horses,” she said. “After college and law school, I worked for a real-estate developer, got married, had three sons and I built my own company called Snap! Event Production, where we produce events for big corporations. During those years I would still say that I loved horses but didn’t really have a lot of time to think about them. Life just got in the way.”
Then one fateful day in 2008, when Wensinger attended a routine parent–teacher conference at her son’s school, everything changed. “I saw a mom there in riding clothes and she told me that there was a group of women who took a riding lesson every Friday morning at 8 a.m., and then everyone would go to work. I was intrigued,” said Wensinger, who asked to join the group. “The following Friday I showed up at Rocking M Stables in Dallas with my designer jeans tucked into my fashion boots and climbed aboard a veteran school horse named Teddy. It was utterly ridiculous, but somehow I remembered how to post and check my leads. It was like I was breathing for the first time in a very long time.”
Located right in the heart of Dallas, Rocking M Stables is home to about 60 horses and backs up to a park system. This became a new weekly destination for Wensinger, whose group learned something new every Friday from dressage to jumping to quadrilles. “I just had the best time, so when another woman became pregnant and put her Quarter Horse named Annie up for lease, I took her over and ended up with the prettiest horse in my Friday lesson group,” she laughed.
“A few months later I actually purchased Annie and began competing in dressage. Then the stable owner brought in dressage trainer Yvonne Kusserow from Germany, so Annie and I trained with her,” Wensinger continued. “Yvonne and Annie won a championship at First Level that year and I won several dressage high-point awards through American Quarter Horse Association, including a huge silver belt buckle. I didn’t know any better and really thought Annie and I were going places in dressage and even applied to ride in a clinic with Steffen Peters with my little Quarter Horse!”
As her knowledge and abilities grew, Wensinger purchased a schoolmaster who carried her to success through Third Level. But something was missing. “I really wanted to progress, but l didn’t have a lot of confidence,” she explained. “So in 2011 I got connected with David Blake, and he invited me to come out to California to work with him for a month. The progression was dramatic. I got to watch amazing horses and riders, had a ton of fun and I earned my USDF silver medal, so I kept going back every summer.”
It was finally time for Wensinger to find her horse of a lifetime, which she found in the form of a flashy chestnut Dutch Warmblood gelding named Valentino in Chris Von Martels’ barn in Florida in 2012. “Val was 9 years old and competing at Second Level, but he didn’t have a flying change yet,” she recalled. “He was a big, pretty boy and I got on him and felt very fancy. So I bought him and left him in Florida to learn his changes. I traveled to Wellington several times to ride with Chris and one of the first times I rode Val he spooked, slipped and we both fell down. Canadian Olympian Jacqueline Brooks picked us both up off the ground—not the most auspicious start!”
The pair found a way to get things going in the right direction, moving their way up the levels to blossom at Fourth Level, Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I. “I’ve been lucky to have the support of some wonderful people who have helped us find our way because it’s not as easy as we’d like to think. You have to have help, support, patience and a ton of time. It is a journey for sure,” said Wensinger. “Any opportunity I have to ride in a clinic or ride someone else’s horse, I do it. My career allows me to work from home, and the barn is eight miles from my house, so I ride my bike there and back. On days I don’t bike, I’m on the elliptical studying dressage videos online. My husband thinks I’m crazy, but I’m just very focused.”
Second Time’s a Charm
Wensinger’s hard work paid off. After a disappointing first trip to the U.S. Dressage Finals in 2014, she and Val returned to Lexington a year later to place third in the Fourth Level Adult Amateur Championship. “But then I went in for our Fourth Level freestyle and totally choked and forgot my pattern. I was absolutely mortified, but it made me even more determined to come back again and keep it together.”
After winning the 2016 Prix St. Georges and Intermediate I Adult Amateur titles at the Great American/USDF Region 9 Championships last October, Wensinger felt more ready for the finals than ever before. She didn’t even let a last-minute complication stand in the way of success. “We arrived in Lexington and Yvonne fell ill and ended up in the hospital. So all of a sudden, I had no help or trainer,” she noted. “On a whim, I got in touch with Gwen Poulin because I had taken a clinic with her at one point, and thankfully she stepped in to help me.”
Despite the distraction, there would be no choking in the arena this time: In the huge and hard-fought Adult Amateur Small Tour divisions, Wensinger and Val finished in the ribbons in all three of their championship classes, including 10th in the Prix St. Georges, sixth in the Intermediate I and then fifth in the Intermediate I Freestyle. “There’s no better feeling than having a goal, working hard and achieving it,” said Wensinger. “But at the finals it’s about the whole experience. It sounds cliché, but everyone is just so nice. I met some wonderful people in the VIP area, and there are just so many incredible horses and riders. One afternoon we were staging for awards and Akiko Yamazaki [owner of Steffen Peters’ Olympic mounts Ravel and Legolas] had also competed in my division, and she leaned over and started talking to me and the other riders who were waiting and we realized that everyone was from a completely different background and part of the country. It was just so cool.”
So what’s next for this determined amateur? “I wouldn’t say that Grand Prix is necessarily my goal,” she said thoughtfully. “Val does a great job for me, but I think I can ride him better and fancier. I feel like I’ve come so far so fast, so I’d like to take time to really digest what I’ve learned and work on my reaction time. It’s a big difference between consistently getting a 65 percent and a 70 percent, and you can always work to ride better and improve your scores even if you don’t have the fanciest horse.”
This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Dressage Today magazine.