When I talk to students about dressage progress, I always ask them a multiple-choice question. What is your goal -- is it (A) to see how far you can go, (B) to see how far this horse can go, or (C) to see how far you and this horse together can go? The answer to this question helps me guide the rider to an appropriate plan.
For riders who want to see how far they can go, that often means a different mount at different stages of the journey. For those who want to see how far the horse can go, that often means I spend more time in the saddle, and sometimes includes me showing the horse. If the goal is to see how far the partnership can go, I often spend less time on their horse, but they may need to accept that their lovely, wonderful 15.3 ottb isn’t bound for the Pan Am games, and they may not earn their silver or gold medals, which is 100% ok, especially in the case of a “heart horse,” the horse that we love more than we love our goals.
I am a professional, which means I answer “A” in this question. But deep inside every professional rider is the kid who fell in love with ponies. We are all looking for the “heart horse,” that one that gets under our skin, the one that breaks through our professional demeanor. The one that we keep on the books, even though a dressage trainer’s income does not really allow enough wiggle room for a sentimental horse. The one that gives wings to our goals and lets them fly to fulfill our dreams. Because every dressage rider I know is a dreamer.
I bring this up because I’m going to tell the story of Venus, my mare. She is not my “heart horse.” But she is the horse I have.
I have written a lot about Venus over the years. I bought her as a 2-year-old. At that point in my life, I had finished my working student time and was still freelance teaching. I had a breeder I was talking with about starting and selling her young stock, so I had nice youngsters to ride, but I needed a horse to develop a bit further. I wanted to show her in the at-that-point burgeoning Young Horse division to market my skills as a young horse trainer, and then eventually sell her. She was a good business decision—I did not expect to make a ton of profit on her, but she would give me the exposure I needed.
I knew Venus wasn’t going to be the easiest youngster when I met her. She had, and still has, a very powerful, athletic hind end. She had, and thankfully no longer has, a nervous, untrusting look in her eye. But I am a professional, and I wasn’t on a short time limit with her, so I thought I would be fine.
She took a lot of time to start, but in the long run, she became a trusting, reliable, rock-solid mare. I did show her in the Young Horse divisions as a 4-and-5-year-old, where she did well. Not horse-of-my-dreams well, but respectable. Late in her 6-year-old year, she kicked a stone wall, bruising her left hind coffin joint. Bone bruises take forever to heal, but she did fully recover. Once she was sound and had a flying change, she had served her purpose in my program and was not the horse of my dreams, so I put her on the market.
She didn’t sell.
So I took her off the market and developed her some more. While she got stronger, I played quadrille and pas de deux with her. One winter, I taught her to jump just for fun. Her trot developed more cadence and her canter more jump. She was getting fancy.
Meanwhile, my business had changed. I was teaching more. Sales and young horses had become a much smaller part of my business. I had students earning their bronze and silver medals. To support this business growth path, a horse that could get me more attention at the upper levels would be nice. I began to think Venus could fill that purpose. Ok, I admit it, I began to dream a little, of neck sashes and shows that require invitations.
So the next summer, I campaigned her at 3rd and 4th levels. She did her first PSG at a schooling show. She gave me some lovely, soft, high-scoring tests, usually in smaller, quieter venues. In the big venues, she would get a little nervous, and tension would creep in and affect her scores.
I signed her up for 4th level at Dressage at Devon. I knew the venue would be hard for her, so it was my litmus test of could she, with enough time, handle the bigger venues. The weather was horrible.We had blowing rain and a cold, blustery wind. These were definitely the hardest conditions Venus had shown under all season. She warmed up tight, but manageable. As we went in, the wind kicked up and the flags blew horizontal. The plastic protecting the judge’s booths rattled. She performed all of the movements, but was quite tense. As we halted at x, I could feel her heart pounding she was so afraid.
The score was underwhelming – not disastrous, but not her potential at all. My emotional reaction was much stronger – I was overcome by guilt for putting my sweet mare through this. I knew I could not ask her to fulfill the purpose of a horse to get me noticed. It just wasn’t fair to her. I gave up on my dream and put her on the market again.
And again she didn’t sell.
I frankly, have no idea why she didn’t sell. I’ve sold tricky horses, I’ve sold green horses, I’ve sold hot, quick, small horses, I even sold a horse with a 2-beat walk and a tendency to rear (all fully disclosed, of course). Venus is quiet, has a great resume, is super consistent in her reactions, and is tolerant of riders sorting things out. She’s probably the most solid horse I’ve ever had for sale, and the market just didn’t seem to want her.
I now had a horse on my grocery bill that wasn’t furthering my career and wasn’t my “heart horse.” I enjoyed riding her, but as I answered “A” above, and she clearly wasn’t the horse for my dreams. I wasn’t sure exactly what I should do with her. Her sale was to fund my next horse, so I was a bit stuck.
Then disaster struck. For no reason any vet can figure out (and believe me, multiple vets ran every test imaginable to try to figure it out), she developed laminitis.
Nothing rips a horse lover’s heart out faster than watching a horse in pain. Dreams and purpose be damned, I just wanted her to not hurt.
The x-rays showed a very, very minor rotation, but Venus’ laminitis was compounded by a series of abscesses that undermined her already-stressed lamina. Resulting in a quarter crack and the heel area falling off. Literally.
My vet and my shoer assured me that she would, in time, be fine. Gradually, she became sound. She had some creative, expensive shoes that she could not risk losing or her recovery would be set back months. As turnout wasn’t an option, I moved her to the stall with a half door that overlooks the grooming area. Always a very friendly horse, she took to calling to everyone as they came to the barn.
One of my students fell in love with the pretty red mare. She would bring Venus raisins and strawberry starburst jelly beans, and hand graze her whenever she was at the barn. Venus would nicker when my student got out of her car. As Venus’ feet became more comfortable, my student started to ride her a little. My student was, at that time, a first level rider. The power and sensitivity of a competing-4th level mare would have been a bit too much for her, but after being sick for so long, Venus was nicely tuned down.
As Venus became stronger and more comfortable, my student became more confident and skilled. She began half-leasing Venus. I was worried at first, as my student had a bit of canter anxiety, and Venus has a large canter stride, but the trust she had in Venus helped her over her nervousness.
Over the months, I watched my student slowly develop a stronger, more independent seat. I’ve watched her learn to half halt and half pass with authority. I’ve watched Venus thrive under the loving care of her own AA. I’ve watched my student begin to dream, and her dreams are ones that Venus can make come true.
On her non-leased days, Venus sometimes helps me teach or I hop on her. Ironically, when I ride her now, without the pressure of my goals, we find each other more enjoyable. I am more creative with her, and experiment with training ideas, ideas I wouldn’t have tried if she was headed for a centerline. But I have no goals of taking her in front of a judge, so I’m willing to play more, and when she gets tense, instead of feeling the need to have her work through it, I’m more inclined to leave that challenge for another day and go for a stroll the hill. She has become my mental-unwind horse.
My mare again has a purpose.