Lee Jorgensen: Living the Dream

By Dawn Shipman [taken from an article in Flying Changes Magazine, March 2009]

The teenage girl clung like a burr as the big gelding rocketed around the arena, jumping everything in sight. “Lee ___ slow down,” the trainer begged from the sidelines, but to no avail. The horse was an off-the-track powerhouse who was only vaguely aware of the slight girl on his back, the girl who should have been terrified except that she was too busy having the time of her life.

“He was too much horse for me,” Lee Jorgensen admits with a smile these many years later, “but he was what I had at the time and I was having fun.”

Lee, currently training at Linda and Wade Worley’s Cornerstone Equestrian Center, as well as at Karin Hunt’s Shadysprings Farm, has been an icon (albeit a quiet, soft-spoken one) in the Portland-area equestrian world for more than twenty-five years. She has ridden with and worked for some of the top riders in the country and spent a year as stable manager for the USET, but most of the adventure began right here in the Northwest.

She started riding as a child of five at a local boarding stable in her home state of Maryland. The family moved to Lake Oswego when Lee was 13 and soon she and younger sister Vicky found Ridgeview Stables. They leased horses, joined the original Willamette Valley Pony Club, and rode whenever and wherever they could. As time went by Lee became, in her words, “the perennial working student,” working for such trainers as Sue Sherman, Claudia Cojocar, Weylin Meyer and Julie Hook. As high school graduation loomed and many of her friends started making plans for college and careers, Lee knew there was only one thing she wanted to do in life: Ride and train horses. Then, as now, this was not a pathway to worldly success, but it was the only path Lee ever wanted to follow.

She soon became acquainted with Gene Lewis- the first west coast rider to pilot a horse over a seven-foot jump- when the trainer came to Portland to do clinics at the barn where Lee rode. It was Gene who was in attendance when Lee bounded in on the explosive Willy, and Gene who would later suggest that Lee trade the gelding for a young mare he’d recently acquired, a four-year-old appendix Quarter Horse named Sunwind. Lee had learned a lot using Gene’s creative riding exercises and she and Willy were communicating better but Gene had a point- the mare seemed a much better fit for the teenage girl. Lee agreed to the trade and over the years the chestnut mare with the big blaze and bigger heart, became the “number one horse forever,” in the mind and heart of Lee Jorgensen. “She was the best.”

They started out in the hunter-jumper world but Lee was keen to try eventing, as well, which was still in its early stages of development in the Northwest. She had graduated from high school in 1973 and by ’75 was working for Julie Hook at Lake Oswego Hunt Club. She’d passed her B rating in Pony Club and ridden Sunwind to a third-place finish in the Country Classic Grand Prix, when a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was presented to her.

Malcolm and Julie Hook were friends with Jack LeGoff and had invited the USET 3-day coach to Portland to do a clinic for them. While there, Le Goff mentioned that he was in the market for a Team stable manager. The Hooks suggested that he consider Lee for the job. The interview, as Lee remembers it, went something like this.

LeGoff, gruff coach for the US Equestrian Team: So, do you love horses?

Lee, trembling 19-year-old rider. Yes, sir I do.

LeGoff, still gruff: Are you willing to work hard?

Lee, still shaky. Yes, sir I am.

LeGoff: Okay, you’re hired.

1976 found Lee in residence at team headquarters in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, keeping barn operations running smoothly while the team prepared for the summer games in Montreal. The bad news was she stayed at the barn, taking care of horses during the Olympics, the good news- she had a year to watch, learn from, and occasionally ride with the best riders in America. Sunwind had made the trip to the East Coast, too, and Lee rode the mare to a 4th place finish in the preliminary division of Vermont’s Green Mountain Horse Trials.

“I was so nervous when I went back there,” Lee remembers. “But Pony Club had prepared me well. I looked around the stables and thought ‘Oh, my goodness- it’s just like pony club, only on a higher level.’ I felt right at home.”

After her year was up, Lee went home for a time, long enough to earn her “A” Pony Club rating, but was soon back on the East coast, this time, working for Olympian Mike Plumb. She continued to ride and soak up everything she could from the man who would eventually compete on eight Olympic teams. Riding Sunny, she won at Ram Tap and placed at Pebble Beach, Blue Ridge and Radnor, and – the highlight of her riding career- won the World Championship Selection Trials at Ships Quarters, Maryland. “I beat Bruce [Davidson]!” she remembers fondly. Life was good, indeed.

Lee headed back to the Northwest and spent the next few years as head trainer at Lake Oswego Hunt Club and attending invitation only USET training camps both on the East coast and West coasts. As with any top-level rider, she had aspiration to make an international team but Sunwind started having soundness issues and the team was getting away from owning horses as it once had. The trend was moving toward the current policy of team members riding their own (or their sponsor’s) horses. Without a top-level, sound horse, the opportunity just wasn't’t there anymore.

She did take Sunwind with her when the opportunity came to manage Bruce Davidson’s barn in Unionville, Pennsylvania, in 1983, but the mare’s competition days were past. Lee rode several of Bruce’s top horses in local competitions, did well, then returned to Portland in 1984 to set up her own business. She’s continued to ride competitively herself, as well as share her experience and insight with students ever since.

Lee has trained with several local barns over the years, including Liz Warren’s Farside Farm, and Norma Furlong’s Vossenberg. She focused on eventing for a number of years but has switched back to an emphasis on hunter/jumpers and equitation and splits her time about evenly between training horses and teaching humans.

She’s taken students to Indio and Spruce Meadows and many points in between and has gotten to ride some very fine horses- “Fleet Street” and “Presto", “Ariel” and Debbie Foster’s “Gift Wrapped", whom Lee rode to the OHJA Baby Green Hunter Championship in 2006. As with every other serious trainer, she’s always looking for that next top horse, the next talented student with big dreams. That’s what her life is all about.

She’s currently working with her own hunter mare- “Summerwind”- a chestnut thoroughbred named after Lee’s partner from of old- a mare, Lee avows, who is out to disprove the old horseman’s adage about chestnut thoroughbred mares! She’s a sweet horse. Lee is also riding Laurie Christensen’s Irish thoroughbred, “Best Imp,” in the jumper division and they both have high hopes for this talented horse. In 2010, he was Reserve Champion in the .90 Meters Jumper Division for the year.

When asked what she appreciates most about the path she started down back when she was a teenager, Lee doesn’t hesitate. “The horses and the riding; the people [see sidebar] and the teaching. Every day’s a new day, a new challenge. When you figure something out, it’s just great.”

On the other hand, what’s the most difficult part of being a full-time equestrian? She ponders a moment. “When a horse gets sick or hurt. Or when the people do . . .” And the bane of most all professional horsemen- the lack of money. “There were times I thought about being a flag-holder [on the road construction crews] but I gave that up! Truly, there’s not anything else I’ve ever wanted to do.”

A few months back, Lee’s farrier, Matt Myers was out. It was a clear, sunny day and after finishing with the horses, Matt looked around the beautiful equestrian facility, then back at Lee. “We’re really living the dream, aren’t we?” he said. Lee chuckles, thinking about it now. “I remember thinking that I didn’t know about HIS life- farriers work awfully hard! But for me? Yeah, I guess I am. It has been my dream. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”