Not quite right for the reining world, a Quarter Horse finds a new career in dressage
Reprinted from the May 2015 issue of USDF Connection
By Sandi Zarzycki
The day Cee Melody Step was born, I had to rush him and his colicking dam to the veterinary hospital at Michigan State University. I held him in my arms while they examined her. She had surgery the next day. They both survived.
“Damian” is reining-horse-bred. His sire is Mr Melody Jac, the 1988 National Reining Horse Association Open Futurity champion. His dam, Big Step Sue, was also a successful show horse. Damian started his reining training when he turned two. He had a lot of talent, but he wasn’t the best fit for me to show because he was nervous in the show pen.
I had other reiners to show, but whenever they were off, Damian was my practice and sometime show horse. We went on a lot of trail rides all over Michigan and to Kentucky and Ontario. When a friend’s niece didn’t have a horse for her high school equestrian team, Damian went there, too. He was always pleasant and willing to work.
Then my reining trainer moved away. I decided to try dressage even though Damian is only 14.2 hands. I always thought it would be fun. In those days, people called reining Western dressage. I’d never ridden in a dressage saddle. I had a lot to learn!
For starters, reining and dressage are quite different. In dressage, you can usually have someone read your test. Reining had 10 patterns that were the same for all divisions, from Rookie to Open; dressage increases in difficulty as you move up the levels. Reining is done at the lope with maneuvers like sliding stops, spins, rollbacks, and a lead change in each direction. A reining rider does four spins each way. I wondered how many times a dressage horse goes around in a pirouette. Turns out it’s only once.
I started taking dressage lessons and going to schooling shows. Damian seemed to enjoy everything. At the time I decided to try USEF/USDF-licensed shows, the American Quarter Horse Association started a program with the USEF/USDF in which scores of 60 percent and better would be converted to AQHA points. Damian earned an AQHA Register of Merit, and for three consecutive years he earned top-10 finishes in Dressage Amateur Select, competing at Training and First Levels.
Even with this competition experience, Damian still got nervous at shows. I asked my dressage instructor, Barb, to show him and also to teach him some upper-level movements. He excelled at half-pass, and Barb showed him at Second and Third Levels, qualifying for the Great American/ USDF Regional Championships at Third Level.
Last year, I decided to retire Damian from showing. In the reining world he would be just an old practice horse, but in dressage he is considered a schoolmaster! He and Barb have been teaching me to do shoulder-in, haunches-in, trot and canter halfpass, and canter half-pirouettes. What fun this has been!
But after all these years of riding Damian, I feel the little stumbles or dragged toes here and there. He thinks if he just moves a little slower, I’ll think he’s collected and let it go. I know it’s time to retire my schoolmaster. He was always something of a misfit wherever he was; I would say he is like the old saying “jack of all trades, master of none.” But I wish everyone could have a horse like him—willing worker, kind heart, good teacher, and dear friend. At 20 years old, he’ll be going out to pasture. I’m pretty sure he’ll be a master at that.