By Meredith Reiff
We aren’t your typical pair, heading down centerline. I’m an Adult Amateur aboard Flying W Farm’s Prince Prefontaine (just Pre to us). Pre’s not your typical warmblood, as he doesn’t have those classic bloodlines we all covet, nor does he look or move like them. Horses regularly spook and scatter from us in the warm-up arena. You see, Pre is a 17.2h, 10-year-old tobiano Friesian x Saddlebred (Georgian Grande), and I think the ground vibrates when he moves. Picture an old sturdy work truck, surrounded by a bunch of Teslas.
When I got Pre, as a 2-year-old, I hadn’t ridden in 25 years. My last time in a saddle was as a child, up in the mountains of Boulder, CO, bareback in a hackamore. I tracked down my childhood riding teacher who found Pre for me because she thought he was special and that he could do Third Level. Since I had no idea what dressage (or Third Level) was at the time, that sounded like a great goal!
You know that old saying “Green on Green equals Black and Blue?” When we started out, we both knew next to nothing. I hadn’t ridden since I was a child, and Pre was unhandled – pulled out of a pasture in Ohio and about to turn two. I had no business with a baby. We started with a year of ground work – not lunging or long-lining, but sending him over obstacles, taking hikes with him, and teaching him to move, off pressure, like a gentleman. When he was three, I climbed aboard. Ever since that first time on his back, I’ve felt like he is my Avatar… moving his massive body seems as easy as moving my own.
One great challenge is that Pre isn’t a brave fellow. He gets his confidence from me; a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. His own winter blanket can make him snort, stiffen, and spook. He is sworn enemies with our trash can. For no reason, be it under saddle or on the ground, he’ll find horse-eating obstacles everywhere. One of my trainers once said that she thought he was an adrenaline junkie and he liked to spook himself. I think she was right.
At four years old, we did our first little schooling show. We rode Training Level and scored a 70 percent. As we would only get occasional lessons, and go to shows with friends that were also beginners, I had no idea what scores meant. In my world, 70 percent is a school-grade C, which seemed fair for our first go.
Interspersed with his dressage work were bareback hacks, trail rides, and jumping sessions. He even packs around my beginner husband. He comes running like a puppy when I call him from a hundred yards away. My husband says it’s because he’ll do anything for me… but the truth is, I’ll do anything for him. So we bought a little horse property, and named it PreView Farm, so we could have him in our backyard.
Having our own horse property in Colorado is wonderful, but poses training challenges: no indoor, no program, and a lot of barn work. I have my partner in crime, Amy, who keeps her horse at PreView and is the reason we continue to improve. She and I have been lucky enough to get help from top notch clinicians and excellent trainers, but these are occasional luxuries, not weekly rituals.
Additionally, we have a group of other adult amateurs who support each other with what we call “Eyes On The Ground.” We don’t have the big barn budgets or resources, so the help we give each other, be it advice, observation, or just plain support, is critical. We warm each other up at shows, go to each other’s barns to help out, share relevant videos, and download over cocktails after clinics or lessons. We all need a riding buddy…or ten.
We worked as much as we could over the winter, and felt we could try our hand at First Level. Pre, then only five, did just fine. That year we qualified for the Great American Insurance Group/ USDF Regional Dressage Championships. Somehow, that big spotted hunk, with the hugest heart, took reserve champion! In true Pre fashion, when they presented us with the neck ribbon, he spooked. Fortunately, he got away cleanly so they couldn’t take our award back!
Pre soldiered on to Second Level the following year. Once again, we had no idea if we belonged in that arena with those talented horses and riders, but I think Pre enjoys the show environment. Extra adrenaline? He earned a 69 percent his first weekend at Second Level, at a CDI. We definitely did not see that coming. We also got quite a few Dover Medals, which was very exciting. Well heck, we decided…let’s go for Third Level!
This is where things get sketchy, when you are riding a Friesian cross with a rider that has never schooled changes, much less trained them. We worked relentlessly on the canter, to try and set ourselves up for success. We tried changing over a jump, we tried different exercises found in any article I could dig up, but his flying lead changes were a challenge. Even out in the pasture, he doesn’t change leads. So our precious Pre had to put on his big boy pants and go away for a month of training with a wonderful local trainer, who had successfully trained a Friesian to Grand Prix.
This was the first time in his life in a program, never mind he was an hour and a half away, and not in my backyard. Nicole did a wonderful job with Pre, but no one expects miracles in a month. I heard somewhere that you need 100 clean changes at home before they are ready to be shown. Well… oh well, because this year we just went for it! We knew the changes would be a question mark, but what about the other 21 movements? So get this… even though I went off course, Pre earned a 66.3 percent! I couldn’t be more thrilled. Eight years and countless hours under saddle, this year we earned our USDF Bronze Medal–a goal that seemed a lifetime away.
Bringing him up through the levels has been both extremely frustrating and rewarding. My philosophy is to reward the slightest try. I think Pre appreciates it because he’s not a natural; he has to work extremely hard to hold his own against the horses built for the job. Pre has surprised me at every level, and that’s what makes our achievements all the more fulfilling.
Learning Fourth Level, and then onto Pre St. Georges, to get our Silver medal is the next pie in the sky. Once again, it looks like a mirage, murky lines on a very distant horizon. But Pre, the ‘Eyes on the Ground’ legion, and I are geared up for the challenge. T.S. Eliot succinctly wrote, “The journey, not the destination matters”. They’re both pretty spectacular when viewed through the ears of your horse.