By Lori La Mattina
I was nineteen years old when I had my first riding lesson. I was a freshman at Vanderbilt University, studying Viola Performance, and I saw a flyer pinned to a tree. It said, “Vanderbilt University Equestrian Team.” On the bottom, in small type, it said ‘No experience required.’ That was me. The school had no horses or facility, so we were expected to take lessons wherever we could find them, so I took hunter/jumper lessons. It’s a miracle I survived. There were inappropriate school horses and sketchy helmets, jumps set too high and new horses every lesson. My junior year, I stumbled across dressage and found a trainer, relieved that I didn’t have to jump over solid objects anymore. That’s where it all started. Since then, I’ve owned or ridden many breeds of horses, all trained and shown in dressage, despite their non-traditional breeding.
Fast forward to December 2011, when I was horseless after the birth of my son. A rather eccentric woman at the barn where I was still riding bought two Norwegian Fjords, sight unseen, off the internet. She supposedly wanted them for her grandchildren. Anyway, she was very fond of buying horses this way, and it sometimes ended badly. This time, however, she lucked out and happened upon a good breeder: Kathy Johnson of Woodpecker Woods. Kathy was breeding Fjords that were the sport horse type, and these two were full brother and sister.
The gelding was named WW Rudig (Rudi) and he had 60 days of training; the mare was young and unbroken. A few days after they arrived, I was the first to get on Rudi. For the first few minutes, he either stood still or went backward. I didn’t mind because it was nothing training wouldn’t fix, and after all, he wasn’t mine! I requested a whip, and he then did several minutes of very green walk and trot. After I dismounted, the woman who bought him declared we were beautiful together. Then, she gave him to me!
Although he was (and still is!) a beautiful horse, our early training wasn’t always so pretty. Fjords have a reputation for being calm and unflappable, suitable for family or therapy horses. However, I was constantly wondering what was wrong with mine! He had much more spunk than I expected from a Fjord, and bucking, bolting, and spooking were fairly common. Some Fjords never take a step of canter in their lives, yet Rudi cantered every time he lost his balance. Then, for weeks at a time, one lead or the other would go missing. I decided to try a huge change in his diet by cutting out grain, adding supplements, and eventually muzzling him on the grass. This, with the help of my long time trainer Sharon Ridge, helped us progress enough to do the Introductory tests at schooling shows within the year, and Training Level the next June.
Unfortunately, we had a major setback in August 2013. I went to get Rudi from his field, and he simply would not walk…not one step. My usual vet was out of town, so the on-call vet came out to the field and quickly diagnosed an abscess. Somehow, after almost 20 years in the horse world, I had never experienced an abscess. Despite medications and the usual care that goes along with an abscess, the infection spread throughout one side of his heel and sole, and he blew seven abscesses over the next few months. For a while, it was a twice daily exercise of treating, diapering, duct taping, and booting. After about three months, I was able to finally ride him in his boots. I tried to make the most of the time, and he learned all of his lateral work at the walk, and was eventually able to trot in his boots. To this day, his lateral work is of one of his strengths.
Over a year later, we were finally back in the show ring, doing schooling shows at First Level. My aspiration had always been to ride in a recognized show before I turned 40. But as a symphony musician, violin teacher, and homeschooling mom, being able to afford showing seemed out of reach. When my son was very young, I had made wedding and party cakes to afford the lessons and extra expenses that come with horses, so I decided to put those skills back to work. I began making cupcakes to sell to friends and colleagues at my workplace. They loved the cupcakes, and even became enthusiastic supporters of my main goal, the National Dressage Pony Cup (NDPC).
In 2016, we showed First Level in recognized shows, earning the AA and Open Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Champion award from the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry. At the 2016 NDPC, held at the Kentucky Horse Park, Rudi was Fjord Breed Champion, and Reserve Champion in First Level.
This year, we have earned our Second Level bronze medal scores and again attended the NDPC, taking home Champion First Level, Champion Second Level, Reserve Adult Amateur High Point, the Norwegian Fjord Horse Registry Breed Award, and the Neil Sorum Memorial Award. In August, we plan to debut our First Level freestyle.
Rudi stands out in the ring and around the show grounds, and everyone’s favorite word is “adorable.” A favorite memory is of a judge asking me questions about the characteristics of the breed, then leaning in and whispering, “Is he barefoot?” When I said yes, she whispered back like it was our little secret, “Good for you!” Other than the disadvantage in gaits due to having a draft horse body and pony legs, I can find no other drawbacks of showing a Fjord. For me, showing a Fjord in dressage has been a wonderful experience.