By Dana Peterson
I found Willow in November 2015, on a Facebook group, and I can tell you now that I knew nothing about what I was looking for, at the time. I had spent a few years riding equitation at a great family barn, on the south side of Chicago. I had just moved north, to focus on learning dressage with a new trainer, but lost my horse to colic a month into the move. I was hoping to learn enough to ride in a recognized show someday. I had ridden in a few schooling shows around the area and was lucky if I broke 50% at Training Level. Coincidentally, the frequent schooling show judge became my new trainer.
I can remember finding Willow like it was yesterday. She’s liver chestnut, with three white socks, a blaze, and a white spot on her right hip (that seems to have grown over time). Her name fit her perfectly, with her long legs and feminine build. I had sent my trainer the video of her, after a lot of back and forth via email.The horses she had been sending me were mostly showing Second Level / schooling Third Level, and I had little idea what that meant, at the time. She said no to Willow, right away. Willow had just turned six, had never been off the farm property where she was born, and was just too green for someone that had little experience in horses. I still set up an appointment to go see her because she was right down the street. I picked up my trainer, who was sick from a bug, and we headed over. For Wisconsin in November, it was your typical cold and windy day, and there was no indoor arena.I got on Willow in the outdoor arena, and the farm was next to the highway. Even in all of those elements, I felt completely safe and knew, from that moment on, she was the horse for me.
A month later, I was lucky enough to be allowed to lease her. I brought her to a big boarding facility, and I knew we were starting out with a lot of strikes against us. Willow had lived outside, in herd, at the same place since birth, but her new home meant a stall and individual turnout. She paced in her stall and along her turnout’s fence line, incessantly. The mirrors in the indoor arenas were so strange to her that she would just dead stop and stare at herself. Riding with other people and horses, in the same arena, was intimidating for her. The looks in fellow boarders’ eyes were mostly of fear, and I can remember more than one person saying I was going to get hurt with this horse. Willow lost a lot of weight over the next two months, failed her pre-purchase exam, and was so slow- going in her training that every logical thought in me said to send her back. Despite the worries of my trainer, veterinarian, and fellow boarders, I bought her in March 2016. What transpired next is still hard for me to even comprehend. My trainer and I put in a lot of work with Willow. She started gaining weight and, in August 2016, I decided to try my first show with her. I was so nervous going down that centerline, but I had spent months building our trust and relationship. She was perfect that first show weekend, earning us a trip to the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships at Training Level. Regionals was our second show, and only her second time off property. It did not go well, but it was a worthwhile experience for both of us.
In the spring and summer of 2017, I took Willow to every show that I could. We quickly qualified for First and Second Level. I worked on two big things that would scare her most; strollers (especially with a baby in it), and bicycles. I spent weeks desensitizing her to these terrors. I took a lot of lessons and kept Willow in training, at least five times a week, because I knew that I was competing with people who had a lot more experience than me. If I wasn’t schooling, or if my trainer wasn’t riding her, I would take Willow on trail rides, our farm’s obstacle course, or for a gallop through the hayfields.
We placed 4th at Second Level at the regional championships, and earned a score high enough to take us to the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, where we ended up in the middle of the class at Second Level. It still feels unbelievable to type that. My chestnut mare that I used to call “Brumby”, which everyone said no to, was at Finals with me. Not long ago, I had only dreamed of entering a recognized show.
Our story has a long way to go, and not every chapter is going to be easy. I am lucky to have found a horse that tries her heart out and protects me along the way. I am lucky to have found a trainer who has become a great friend and cares immensely about my riding, as well as making Willow the best she can be. I have learned that this sport is unlike anything else, and that the bonds created between humans and horses is something we all need to remind ourselves to cherish every day.