By Tonya Bruno

I discovered dressage because I started breeding foundation Morgan horses. That is probably not a normal sentence, and you were probably expecting a more natural transition such as, “I discovered dressage because I started breeding Andalusians or Hanoverians.” However, as a teen, I fell in love with Morgans, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, the story is longer than that, as it always is when it comes to horses.

Tonya and Matton Majestic at the 2016 Capital Dressage Classic Show in Raleigh NC

I did not have any formal riding training until I was in my thirties, but I have ridden for as long as I can remember. I was a typical, horse-crazy girl, whose mother did not have the means to buy me a horse. What she did do was haul me all around our rural county, in central Virginia, so I could ride the ponies and horses that other children had outgrown or lost interest in. I was a teenager when I fell in love with Star, a beautiful, bay Morgan gelding at a local school barn, and my copy of Justin Morgan Had a Horse by Marguerite Henry was worn. The notion of “America’s Original Breed of Horse” appealed to the patriot in me.

When I was 26, I finally had my own means to buy and care for a horse. I decided that horse would be a Morgan. It was not as easy as I hoped to find one that looked the way I envisioned a Morgan should. Purely by accident, I did end up buying two Morgan geldings that were foundation-bred, as I had no idea of bloodlines at the time. Now that I finally had my own horses, I started learning as much as I could about the foundation bloodlines. I subscribed to The Morgan Horse magazine and supplemented with old copies, from the 1940s through the early 1990s, on eBay. I joined the Yahoo Chat Lists, a precursor to Facebook, and discovered the passionate foundation Morgan breeders.

One thing became clear to me, and that was that I wanted a Whippoorwill Morgan. Mary Jean Vasiloff, of Old Lyme, CT, bred Whippoorwill Morgans since the 1950s. Her advertisements in The Morgan Horse magazine showed me the beautiful type and temperament I was looking for. In 2001, I went to Connecticut and met her and her horses, and bought my first Whippoorwill Morgan, Whippoorwill Electra. Mary Jean, who died in 2016, was a talented breeder and an incredible salesperson. She somehow convinced me, against all my common sense, that I needed to buy her three-year-old stallion, Whippoorwill Aristocrat, who was in training with Catherine Echternach, in nearby Dickerson, MD. Not only did I acquire Whippoorwill Aristocrat, but I also bought four more Whippoorwill mares (all at least half-sisters) to start a foundation Morgan breeding program.

Whippoorwill Felicty In-hand champion

And finally, we come to dressage.

When I bought my stallion, I started riding with Cathy Echternach and began my first real riding lessons, at the age of 32. Cathy is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist and has her USDF Gold Freestyle Bar. Cathy took two Morgans, Whippoorwill Ebony and Whippoorwill Dorado, to Grand Prix. She had a barn full of dressage students and many of them rode Morgans. It never occurred to me that I couldn’t ride my horses in dressage, but I quickly discovered that it was hard to learn a new discipline!

My personal dressage training went with fits and starts. It did not begin in earnest, until we moved to Hillsborough, NC, in late 2013, and I started riding with Bailey Cook, a USDF Certified Instructor, USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold Medalist, and USDF Instructor Trainer Senior Faculty member, in 2014. For the first time, I was able to dedicate the time and energy to my horses and dressage. The pieces were falling together.

In 2017, my eight-year-old, 14.2hh, homebred and trained Matton Majestic (Whippoorwill Aristocrat x Whipoorwill Echo) and I earned a Second Level Adult Amateur wild card spot, with a 65%+ score at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 1 Championships, to go to the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®. We scored a 65%+ in our Second Level Adult Amateur Championship class, and were only .06% out of the ribbons.

Many well-intentioned people offer their opinions on my dressage partners. My non-horsey husband, who is wonderfully indulgent of all of this, has asked more than once, why don’t I get a warmblood, since that is what he sees everyone else riding at shows. I had a clinician, who I rode with regularly, tell me that when I rode one of my older mares, I needed to “breed her to a really nice warmblood stallion.” Another well-known and highly respected trainer recently said to me, “If you are serious about dressage, you must get a warmblood.” Maybe so, and who knows, maybe one day I will. However, I do not ride Morgans in dressage to prove a point. I ride my Morgans in dressage because we enjoy the mental and physical challenge. I love the breed, and I love riding horses I have bred and

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raised. I have never felt handicapped by my Morgans, I am sure they would not say the same about me!

The greatest thing about dressage is that, if you have a horse with three good gaits, a good mind that likes the work, and a quality instructor who will help you and not cut corners, you can do dressage. You can be competitive. You can enjoy the dressage journey, and both you and your horse will be better for it! I know I, along with my Morgans, am truly enjoying the journey.


  1. Loved the article about the Morgans, so cool to see someone so dedicated to their breed of choice, proving that Dressage is for all breeds!

  2. It’s about the journey and the everydays on that road. My heart horse of 27 years helped me on that journey and, unlike fancy warmbloods, he was a heck of a trail horse, taught my son to ride, did some theatrical work and was an easy keeper who lived a normal horse life outside until he was 33. I will never be on the Olympic team or earn a living riding dressage so I just want to enjoy it and all aspects of enjoying my mount. Thanks for sharing this insight! P.S. I teach in Old Lyme and knew of Jean, I taught her grand kids.

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