Dressage on a Rescue: Doing More with Less

Photo: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!

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Comment by Anna Blake on April 7, 2014 at 3:54pm

That makes me proud of USDF! but so many really great horses go into rescue and this is one way to include them and acknowledge them. I love it.

Comment by Anna Schriebl on April 7, 2014 at 3:41pm

Thanks so much Anna for mentioning the International Rescue Horse Registry (IRHR) in your blog!  My hope is to get more rescue horses considered for dressage and other performance careers by giving their saviors registration papers and a chance for year end awards.  The IRHR offers them for our members and I'm in talks with other performance registries to get the IRHR in their year end awards too.  The USDF was kind enough to accept us first!

Comment by Anna Blake on April 6, 2014 at 12:25pm

There was one, he was made a Breyer horse and his name was JB Andrew. (from the Canyon City prison program, JB for Jailbird, if I got that right.) He was spectacular, black and beautiful!

Comment by Sunny Humphries on April 6, 2014 at 11:30am

I commend your eagerness to train rescue horses in dressage.  I keep wishing to see a mustang with the BLM brand on its neck in high-level dressage competition.  I do wonder whether the judges would hold the horse's beginnings against it in competition against high-dollar warmbloods . . .

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