Can You Succeed in Dressage Without a Warmblood?

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The Friesian-cross mare Adiah HP, ridden by James Koford, was the 2018 US Dressage Finals Grand Prix Open Freestyle champion (SUSANJSTICKLE.COM)

Meet two “nontraditional breed” horses that have trotted off with many accolades

By Patti Schofler

Adiah HP and Byzy After Hours didn’t get the memo that non-warmbloods don’t do well in dressage competition. The striking pinto mare and the petite Morgan gelding have risen to the top of the standings in various high-profile championship programs.

“Adiah,” a three-quarters Friesian/one-quarter Dutch Warmblood owned by Jon and Sherry Koella, is the first non-warmblood that North Carolina-based dressage professional James Koford has trained to the Grand Prix level. The mare, a two-time winner of the prestigious US Dressage Finals Grand Prix Open Freestyle Championship, has exceeded Koford’s wildest expectations.

James Koford and Adiah’s winning ride at the US Dressage Finals.

“You know when you meet someone and think, ‘Wow, so cool.’ You want to spend time with her,” Koford says. “That was how I felt about Adiah. I decided what was important to me was to be excited about going to the barn and riding her.”

Koford is accustomed to attracting attention in the show ring: He competed the Dutch stallion Art Deco and Adiah’s Friesian sire, Nico, both eye-catching pintos.

Equally unconventional is Koford and Adiah’s path to the top. Koford got the ride when Adiah was coming eight and skipped competing at the lower levels entirely. They made their competitive debut at Prix St. Georges the following year and were entering international dressage competitions (CDIs) at the Grand Prix level by the time she was 11.

“It’s important to lay down a good foundation, but I was not going to make training repetitive,” Koford explains of his approach with the mare. “If you met her, you’d see there is something so special and happy about her. The biggest thing is her heart and work ethic. She never says no. She thinks being ridden is the highlight of her day.”

To give Adiah exposure to the show-ring atmosphere, Koford rode her in dressage exhibitions. “She would take me to the ring,” he says. “It was a whole different mentality than a show. Having a connection with a horse is most important for satisfaction and enjoyment of the sport. Dressage shows are hard on the ego. But if it’s with your best friend, then shows are not so results-oriented.”

Debunking some conventional wisdom, Koford says he has never experienced breed or color prejudice in dressage competition.

“I have a very strict mantra with my students: Don’t tell me about prejudice if you didn’t ride a clean test. If you ride a clean test and follow the directives of that level, you will score well. Judges respect competent, good riding.”

Byzy After Hours, ridden by Joy Congdon, was the 2018 Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds American Morgan Horse Association Third Level Open champion (Essence of Equine)

Dressage was not Byzy After Hours’ intended career: Owner Sue Fowler bred him to be a park horse. But the liver chestnut didn’t have enough action for that ring, and he matured to just over 14.2 hands. Instead, “Byzy” thrived in dressage training, and with Vermont-based trainer Joy Congdon in the irons he earned the 2018 Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Third Level Open championship title from the American Morgan Horse Association. He also earned Fowler, also of Vermont, her USDF bronze medal.

The 17-year-old Byzy is a smart and willing dressage partner, blessed with an active hind leg and good ability for collection, says Congdon, who is a USDF bronze, silver, and gold medalist; a USDF Certified Instructor/Trainer through Fourth Level; and a USDF L Program Graduate. She plans to train Byzy to Prix St. Georges so that Fowler can show him to earn her USDF silver medal.

A self-professed advocate of nontraditional breeds in dressage, Congdon calls Byzy’s show career “a little mission-driven.” She explains: “There are people who feel that they need a warmblood to compete in this sport. But many people are overmounted with horses that are too big, too strong, too bouncy. Byzy is perfect for Sue. I’m all about using other breeds. There are a lot of good horses bred here [in the USA] that are less expensive, very athletic, and suitable for dressage. I’m showing that a pro can be out on a Morgan pony and do well.”

Good training and good riding are always rewarded, no matter the type of horse, contends Congdon. Last year, she says, she competed Byzy and Beni, a Hanoverian, in the same tests, earning similar scores. Beni placed slightly higher “since his gaits have a bit more scope and elasticity, and so movements like half-pass, free walk, and medium trot scored higher. Byzy was equal or higher in halts, rein backs, and walk pirouettes. I think this difference will be slightly mitigated as we go up the levels and have a higher degree of difficulty in the collection.”

Congdon encourages dressage enthusiasts to think about their equine partners in more than simply competition terms.

“People get very hung up on scoring,” she says. “The sport is really about learning and correct riding, partnership with the horse, and both the horse and rider having fun.”

As Koford points out, the right horse isn’t any particular breed

“If you’re lucky to find the one you like to work with every day with its unique personality and physicality that matches yours,” he says, “the process will be more rewarding for everyone.”

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