By Kate Kudelko
My name is Kate Kudelko, and with the help of my trainer, parents, and barn family, I have had the amazing opportunity to compete at the FEI dressage levels and school the Grand Prix on my rescued paint pony, Watson.
Watson was rescued for meat price by a woman named Kimber at an auction in 2011 with no papers, known breeding, or known age. The only information given was that he used to pull carts in St. Augustine. We are still in contact 9 years later, and she has been a huge supporter of Watson’s journey.
About two months after being rescued, Watson found his way into my life when I stumbled upon him in a computer ad. I was 11 years old at the time and was passively searching for my first pony. He came to the barn on trial, and I fell in love the moment I laid eyes on him. He had a bit of a grass belly and his ribs were visible. Old scars ran down his neck, back, face, and legs and he was a bit head shy, which was difficult for 11-year-old me to understand. He was green and had a very nervous disposition, but had the sweetest, most genuine personality imaginable. With that being said, I definitely took my fair share of falls, and he learned very quickly that he could run me into the arena corners, plant his feet, and refuse to move.
After about 5 months of owning him, I decided that I wanted to start dressage, to which my family was fully supportive of. We started our dressage career and began taking weekly lessons, which proved very difficult in the beginning. We were limited to Intro-Tests A and B, as Watson wasn’t able to pick up his right lead canter for over a year.
Watson would buck, bolt, and contest, throwing an occasional spook here and there—even landing me in the ER once. Early arena exits weren’t atypical events either. I was told to sell Watson, that he was too much horse for me, that he was an ugly mover, and that I needed to get a “real” dressage horse. I was frustrated and heartbroken, coming home from lessons in tears more often than smiling. We eventually made the move to Training Level, but always struggled to hit the 60% mark.
In late 2012, I moved Watson to a dressage barn and began training under my current instructor, Bobbie Guttman. She brought us back to ground zero and made us work our tails off to develop a more correct work ethic. Before we knew it, Watson and I were scoring in the upper 60’s and low 70’s at Training and First Level. We hit a roadblock in our work when approaching First-Level Test 3, and my trainer recommended we start looking for a second horse.
Our search for a second horse began, however we still continued to work with Watson. Lo and behold, the work started to click and Watson seemed to rapidly excel. In 2014, we qualified at First Level for Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships—placing 3rd in a large class—and made our Second Level debut where we scored as high as 66%. In 2015, we earned our USDF Bronze Medal and qualified for Regionals at Third Level and Third Level Musical Freestyle—hitting our personal record of a 74.667% in the freestyle. In 2017, we made our Fourth Level debut, earning our scores for our USDF Silver Medal—eventually taking our first FEI centerline at Prix St. George’s in 2018, right before I went off to college.
While Watson stayed home my first year of college, I still came home to visit and ride on some weekends. He was also being leased out during this time. Without the stress of competing, we were able to spend a lot of time doing bareback and bridleless work.
I made the decision to bring Watson to school with me this year, and it was the best decision I could have made. He was used for the University of Florida’s dressage team, and he adores all the attention. He has a way of radiating happiness to those around him, and seeing the way he impacts others absolutely warms my heart.
We are now training consistently again and schooling all of the Grand Prix, which I never thought would happen in my wildest dreams. We were signed up for our first U25 Grand Prix earlier in 2020, however he came down with a bacterial infection that put our training on hold. His health and wellbeing is always my number-one priority, so I was just thankful that everything was easily treatable and he recovered beautifully.
Despite the uncertainty about the impact of the virus on future competitions this season, it has been refreshing to take a step back and focus on our work and genuinely enjoy our time together. I’ve also been able to come home for the summer to continue training with my coach and barn family, which I am beyond thankful for. Even with this season on hold, I am just thankful for the work we have and the time we can spend together every day. I never thought that I would ever ride a 10-meter-circle on this horse, let alone piaffe and 1-tempis. If there’s one thing that this horse has taught me, it’s to never underestimate the underdog, because they are usually the ones who have the most to offer.
Over the past 9 years, Watson has developed a following on his Instagram, @painted__dressage, and has reached almost 20,000 followers from around the world. One of the most heartwarming experiences I’ve had from this journey has been hearing how much Watson has inspired other riders on rescues and non-traditional breeds.