Dressage on a Rescue: Doing More with Less

Andante, ex-PMU, casts a giant shadow.

I have a confession. I shop-lifted when I was in high school. No, I don’t seem like the type. It was the only time I ever stole anything and what they say is right: Willfully breaking the law impacts your character.

I was in a pet store and there was a tiny kitten much too young to be weaned. Black and white, skin and bones, crusty eyes and congested; I couldn’t stand it. I took her out of the cage and headed for the front door.

I didn’t consider hiding her, instead I cuddled her up close to my face. Her tiny lungs were wheezing. A clerk tried to stop me, “You have to pay for that!” He called the kitten that. In a teen voice filled with righteous indignation, I hissed, “This kitten is dying,” and didn’t break stride until I hit the car. Yes, I was silly enough to think I would hear sirens and get arrested in the parking lot. I brought her home and marched past my Mother, it wasn’t hard to gauge her level of enthusiasm, and into my room. I made a bed in a shoe box with a hot water bottle and a towel, and fed her some warm milk with an eye dropper. She gulped it down and let loose with a rattling, phlegm-laden purr. And I was right, she died that night. I flatter myself that I made a tiny difference, but not the life of that doomed kitten. The difference was in me.

In some ways, Dressage is a very elite sport. It is a wonderful thing to see an FEI horse competing in his prime- the best training on an impeccably bred Warmblood, guided by a talented rider, and brought along with all the advantages.

But I love the practicality of dressage, as well as the art. For me, the real question is how much dressage training can help off-the-track Thoroughbreds, smart Arabians, or whatever horse you ride now. The magic of dressage is the balance, relaxation, and strength it provides for any horse, at any age, and in any discipline. I love an animated piaffe and positively swoon for a great canter half-pass. But in my heart, the true beauty of dressage is the practical usefulness it gives a horse with less advantage. It’s just more interesting.

“I have, …, always been criticized for not buying good and sound animals for myself, as other masters do. But to educate such an animal teaches the rider nothing. It is too easy. The master does not prove his own ability nor the practical usefulness of his art by training horses already made nearly perfect by nature. The test of his science and his utility lies in his ability to correct the natural defects of an ordinary animal and make it useful.” Henri L. De Bussigny, 1922.

So my dressage world is very inclusive: I have clients who are endurance riders and eventers. Some are gaited horses and I have the extreme advantage of working with mules and donkeys. I work with clients who have challenging horses who flunked out or were dismissed by other trainers. Western tack has been used in my lessons long before there was a name for it, and best of all, lots of my clients have rescue horses: Off the track Thoroughbreds, PMU babies, and horses that fell between the cracks. Whether they came from a rescue organization, like Ruby Ranch Horse Rescue, or were one step away but for the luck of being saved. The common thread in this eclectic herd is that the riders want to build a better horse, rather than buy one.

Sadly, I don’t see as many dressage riders pick rescue horses as I would like. And bluntly put, if you want the highest scores in this sport, buy a Warmblood. But if you don’t have plans for the Olympics… If the truth is that you’ll never be a world-class rider on a world-class horse, then why not do life-changing work? Ride a rescue.

Because in the end, all the money in the world can’t buy the ride. Or the relationship. These are things that must be earned and every step is not beautiful, but in the end it is the stuff of horse legend. Remember Seabiscuit: “You don’t throw a whole life away just ‘cuz he’s banged up a little.”

Which finally brings me to my point: A client, who rides a rescue horse and wants to do Western Dressage, sent me a link to the International Rescue Horse Registry, LLC. You can find them on Facebook and on the USDF website. It means that your rescue horse can qualify for end of the year awards. The organization have been around for over a year, but I hadn’t heard and maybe you haven’t either. It’s time to take some pride in doing the right thing, for the horse and eventually the sport in general.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Update: If you follow my blog you might remember Breezy. After a year here, learning that not all humans are evil, Breezy went to his forever home this week. His new owner is besotted with him, she sees his try much larger than his shortcomings, a sure-fire recipe for a happy ending.  Hooray for the Good Guys!

Anna Blake

36 thoughts on “Dressage on a Rescue: Doing More with Less”

  1. What a beautiful post! I loved reading it this morning. I refer to basic dressage as “calisthenics,” like yoga or pilates for horses… it is a building block to any type of ride. I use it as a means to an end, not about perfecting the move necessarily, but improving the balance and our communication as partners. It’s the components of the dance, and it always about The Try!

    Thank you!

  2. When I started my Dressage journey my Trainer gave us an evaluation lesson, and after watching us walk and trot for quite a while said these magic words: “She (referring to the horse) will do just fine, can’t see any reason why this horse will not be able to do it all.” Did she not see this was 15hh Paint mare ridden by a too long-limbed rider? Nope, she saw a sound horse that seemingly enjoyed the companionship of its rider, a rider that was willing to learn and train, and a relationship of pure magic. That is what Dressage takes. I thank you for the reminder.

  3. Thank you so much for this article…it is spot on!! going to share it on FB for equestrian friends especially those who don’t think dressage is necessary for a jumper!!

  4. I’m so, so thankful I found your blog somehow, because what you write almost always resonates with me. I’ve had one warmblood for a dressage horse, but have actually had more success (and better relationships!) with the two Paints, the Morgan, and my current Mustang than I did with that red-headed mare (okay, so that may have been the problem, not her breed 😉

  5. Yes, yes, yes! Give all the good guys a standing ovation!

    You know, the Spanish Riding School in Vienna named the institution well. The exquisite dressage moves are based on the long tradition in Spain of breeding and training equally exquisite horses, none of which had the height nor the leg length of today’s Warmblood. Their training techniques when transplanted to the New World with the conquistadors have flourished in the vaquero, gaucho, and llanero cultures. In this training philosophy, young horses are never started before a full 3 years of age, and their “horsenalities” are carefully observed in order to mold a training method best suited for them. Slow and gentle, quiet and patient are the keys to building a “finished” horse “in bit”. Fortunately, for us and our horses, sometimes, the “so old” becomes new again.

    Thank you, Anna, for following that great training tradition of looking past the outer appearance of both horse and rider. You see the potential within both of them and patiently call it forth.

    • Now that I have a few Iberians in my pens, I have to say it. The Spanish are wonderful horsemen, but they might have learned it from their horses…very smart! 😉

  6. In my young life, I spent a lot of time with a dealer and saw many less-than-perfect horses. My mentor said two things, ‘ any old horse can work’ and ‘always educate a youngster and you will equip it for a useful life’. Like you, she knew her stuff. Love, Tiny Tim’s Mum

  7. You are MY kind of person! I would have absconded with the kitten too. My horses were rescued from a bad rescue…a STB formerly with the Amish and injured in a buggy accident, and an OTTB mare who I am trying to bond with, through dressage. I love your words…!

    • And I have a wonderful trainer who has almost exclusively taken other trainer’s rejects and made great horses out of them. She never passed judgment on my slightly unsound mare, just helped me get her sound and now we are working on the basics despite the fact we are both “green.”

  8. Amen. I love my 22 year old off the track – raced until he was 9, creaky thoroughbred. We started dressage lessons last fall and he is just wonderful.

  9. As I read your post, I kept reading faster and faster, thinking to myself — this is ME!! I also took a pet store kitten in my early adult years and she also died the same night. I always felt like she at least had a sliver of love before she passed over the Rainbow Bridge. I also have a rescue horse — a Standardbred who moves about as quirky and stiff as they come! He is 23 now, and I have had him for 16 years. I cannot say enough about the very tender relationship we have with one another. He has my back, I have (on) his, and the dressage we have worked on over the years has made all the difference.

    • I seem to be hearing (privately as well) so many dying kitten stories. Wow, to think of all those tiny lives lost makes me sad now. and yes, Dressage is the thing that builds strength, more kinds that the obvious. Thanks for your comment.

  10. My Sonny was an ex-racehorse. Finding a dressage instructor who understood him helped me as much as it helped him. She specialized in tough, hard-luck cases, equine and human. Thank you for reminding me about my friend – Sue, I miss you very much.

  11. Absolutely wonderful post! I wish more trainers and horse people in general held your same outlook. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  12. A good friend of mine cross trains her team roping horses in dressage (she used to compete nationally at Prix St. George level before switching disciplines). 90% of her training rides are dressage. Her chunky, older, hinky, AQHA horses are soft and supple, dreams to ride, and she has yet to miss a year of qualifying for the nationals in team roping. Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of riding six of her horses from off-the-trailer start to polish. Stiff and balky goes to soft, supple and excited much more quickly than I thought possible. I have no aspirations to show dressage, but it’s still my top choice of learning and riding! For me, it’s a blueprint of how to train and ride as well as possible.

  13. Thank you so much for a lovely post. My two horses were rescued from slaughter, but as my trainer says, just because they were rescued once does not label them forever! I agree that people are missing huge opportunities when only looking for warmbloods for dressage. I hope that things change in this area in future!


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