Back in the saddle

Back in the saddle

'I am reliving the dreams I set for myself as a teenager'

By Lisa Carlsen for CBC Sports
September 4, 2019

I was the girl with the fairy tale story.

The fairy tale about a horse and girl who were destined to be special. A story that began with the gift, on my 15th birthday, of a scrawny seven-year-old thoroughbred named Kahlua, who had previously been trained in dressage. But as most fairy tales go, the road to “happily ever after” is never quite as smooth as we hope.

Lisa Carlsen and Kahlua developed into a magical pairing. (The Canadian Press) Lisa Carlsen and Kahlua developed into a magical pairing. (The Canadian Press)

As a kid, it was just me and Kahlua. That was my life. What made Kahlua so special was his unique style of jumping, his unwavering faith, and his desire to never knock down fences. It’s a rare thing for a first horse to take you from pony club rallies and hunters, all the way to the Olympics, but Kahlua was that diamond in the rough. From the very beginning, Kahlua and I depended on each other to learn, and to succeed within the sport. As fate would have it, I soon found myself competing in Grands Prix, and then winning them. Once Kahlua and I discovered the limitless potential we had together, the world was our playground.

We were such a team. I was still just a kid, so I made my fair share of mistakes, and yet every time I threw my heart out, he would jump and catch it. Eventually I found myself wearing my team jacket, representing Canada at numerous events, and soon enough a gold medal was hung around my neck at the 1987 Pan American Games. The following year I hit the pinnacle of my career; the 1988 Olympics. Kahlua was one of the greatest stories in my book of happiness. But like many fairy tales, the beautiful story came to an end all too quickly.


I gave Kahlua the retirement he deserved when he was 17 years old. It was both the most rewarding and heartbreaking thing to do. Kahlua was everything to me at that time and the idea that I would no longer get to ride him was difficult, but after everything he did for me, it was only fair. And now, perhaps, we get to write another story. A few decades and several horses later, I am aiming for the Olympics again…eight Games and 32 years after Seoul.


‘Pitfalls of early success’

Everyone knows about the pitfalls of early success. I had so much luck, so young, with my first horse. As I carried on in my career, every horse was a search for another Kahlua. I went to university, intending to pursue work outside of the equestrian world, but soon learned that nothing matched my passion for horses. That was when I created Trademark Stables.

Even with a growing business and a talented bunch of students to teach, I was still in search of my next great teammate. Try as I might, every horse I sat on was compared and contrasted to Kahlua.  Although I had stepped back from the red coat level, I was watching for a spark to let me come back to the top level.

My goals as a kid, to some extent, remain the goals that I pursue to this day. But there came a point when I decided I wanted it to be more than just me. Becoming a mother and a wife was and is my greatest pride. My husband, Dayton Gorsline, was also on the horse scene when we met, and 17 years ago we had our daughter Cassie.

We operate Trademark Stables as a family. Every day I get to do what I love with my family. But one of the hardest things about pursuing my goals now is that it is no longer just me and my horse. There is always a bigger picture to take into account.


When I decided that I wanted to pursue the team again, I had a daughter in elementary school, and a business to operate. Trying to be a mom, an athlete, and a coach proved to be more difficult than I imagined. But I was lucky enough to get back in the team jacket with La Boom. He was a horse that I had brought along, and although he was good, he was not Kahlua. And I was aware that I had new worries — making sure my daughter, who was thousands of miles away, was getting her homework done and getting to dance practice on time.


‘Hardest part’

Being a mom has actually been the hardest part about being a member of the team. Constant travelling means I haven’t always been there when I needed to be. I feel a weight crushing down on me every time I step onto an airplane without my family. I cannot wear two hats at once. I missed dance recitals and band concerts because of my ambitions, and I really despised it when people said my daughter was mature for her age. I blamed myself for Cassie having to grow up faster because I was not always around for her.

Carlsen wants a chance at another Olympics (The Canadian Press) Carlsen wants a chance at another Olympics (The Canadian Press)

Having a daughter has also taught me how social media can cast a positive and negative light on our actions. That is one of the glaring differences between now and when I first arrived at the Seoul Olympics. We did not have to contend with Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat or whatever the next thing will be, back then. Athletes need to be so aware now of how social media can colour their actions.

But here I am in 2019, after being in Lima for the Pan American Games, I can finally say I am riding a great horse again. Although she is not Kahlua, Parette holds her own. I bought her as a six-year-old mare, late starting her career because she had a foal. I have been developing Parette ever since. I am excited to be able to put the red jacket back on. With our business well established now and my husband and daughter standing beside me, I can’t help but be pleased with how my life has changed since I first put on the red jacket.


So I am reliving the dreams I set for myself as a teenager. With a family by my side and a successful business along the way, I guess I could say that the fairy tale hasn’t gone away, it just picked up some real-life detail.

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