Small But Mighty

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Lauren Chumley riding Avatar's Jazzman at the 2019 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® placed eighth in the III Open Championship and claimed the US Dressage Finals High Score Breed Award for Morgans. (SusanJStickle.com)

A fiery Morgan gelding named Avatar’s Jazzman shows what his breed is capable of at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®

By Jennifer M. Keeler

During a recent dressage competition on the hallowed grounds of Gladstone, N.J. where equestrian legends have gathered for decades, plenty of stunning warmbloods could be seen warming up for FEI-level classes. Among those, one dark chestnut stood out not only for his flair as he passaged down centerline, but also because he is a pony – yes, a pony, doing Grand Prix.

Meet Avatar’s Jazzman, an 18-year-old Morgan gelding who has made a career out of demonstrating the brilliance and versatility of the Morgan breed, as well as how size doesn’t matter when it comes to dressage. With an official height of just over 146cm, which qualifies him for a USEF Dressage Pony Card, “Jazz” has been trained through the levels and ridden for most of his life by Lauren Chumley of Pittstown, N.J.

Yellow Horse Marketing photo

Now competing at the top level of the sport, the pair earned national honors last fall by placing eighth in the Intermediate II Open Championship at the 2019 US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, and claimed the US Dressage Finals High Score Breed Award from the American Morgan Horse Association (AMHA) for the FEI Levels – Open Division.

“I love going to horse shows and the bigger the better, so it’s hard to get much bigger than the Finals,” said Chumley, who has competed with various mounts at almost every Finals since its inception in 2013. “It’s always fun to see my friends from all over the country, and it’s a top-level competition. I will always come if given the opportunity, despite the long drive. And Jazz loved it last year and was completely unfazed by the atmosphere of the Alltech Arena. He’s been around so much and in some of the biggest rings in the country from the National Dressage Pony Cup to the Global Dressage Festival in Wellington and to Devon under the lights, so at this point he has a ‘been there done that’ outlook on life.”

At the National Dressage Pony Cup in 2015 (Yellow Horse Marketing photo)

It’s been a long, nearly 15-year journey to the Finals for Chumley and Jazz, and it all started with the fiery Morgan’s owner Melissa Dowling, who has a long history with the breed. “I always liked the baroque conformation of the traditional Morgan and owned other horses that participated in the Morgan show world,” Dowling explained. “When I determined that my primary interest was dressage, I decided the athleticism of the Morgan as well as its versatility, intelligence, personality, vigor, and eagerness to please, were qualities that would make it competitive in the dressage world.”

As a young trainer in Ohio, Chumley was working with another horse owned by Dowling when fate stepped in. “Melissa found this four-year-old Morgan on the internet where he was advertised for sale by his breeder in Minnesota and asked me to fly up there to look at him,” Chumley remembered. “I was just starting out in my riding/training career, and here I was looking at this youngster who was still a stallion, full of sass, and completely not broke. But I thought he was really pretty and that I could probably make a dressage horse out of him. Looking back I can hardly believe it but Melissa bought him, and the rest is history.”

Yellow Horse Marketing photo

As the new partnership began to develop, the road was less than smooth for the young trainer and the opinionated now-gelding. “He wasn’t easy as a youngster, and we have the terrible scores to prove it,” Chumley admitted. “One winter, I went to Florida so Jazz went home to Melissa for a while. But his attitude started getting the best of him, and he was being quite bad. So he came back to me and Melissa jokingly told me to ride him, show him, sell him or shoot him, and then it started to come together. He still has not mellowed in the slightest. I just like to think we’ve learned to channel some of that energy in the right direction.”

Step by step, Chumley guided Jazz through the levels to finally reach the epitome of the sport at Grand Prix, where she not only appreciates her mount’s physical talent, but has also found a newfound appreciation for his enthusiastic attitude. “In looking at his bloodlines, it turns out Jazz isn’t really sport-bred – he actually has mostly park-bred lines meant to perform like a saddleseat horse, which would explain a lot,” she chuckled. “But that fire has also helped him go as far as he has. If you have to kick a horse around Grand Prix, you’re not going to have a good time. And you definitely don’t have to kick Jazz.”

So far in 2020, the pair is enjoying their best year to date at Grand Prix, scoring mid to high 60’s this summer as COVID-19 restrictions began to lift in New Jersey and showing resumed. As a result, they will once again be heading to the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Region 1 Championships in Virginia and hopefully punch a return ticket to the Finals. But that doesn’t mean that the Grand Prix work comes easy for the gelding.

The pair participated at this year’s Challenge of the Americas musical quadrille competition

“The changes were always difficult for him, and for a while there I was just shaking my butt around as he jumped from side to side trying to get through the one-tempi’s and hope for the best,” Chumley laughed. “But we’ve finally got it. He also has a very expressive piaffe and nice passage and lateral work, and I think his extensions are pretty decent for a 14.1-hand park horse. It takes a lot of time for horses to build the strength to do the upper-level work, and it takes some breeds or individual horses even longer.”

But Jazz is so much more than a dressage star – he’s a modern day Justin Morgan, showcasing the impressive versatility of his breed. Quite the eager jumper, Jazz has competed with Chumley through Training level eventing, culminating in an eighth-place finish at the 2017 American Eventing Championships (AEC) in Tryon, N.C. The pair also enjoys an occasional foxhunting excursion, and Chumley has repeatedly threatened to take Jazz for a spin in combined driving.

Showing their versatility they compete in eventing (SportFot)

“For many dressage horses, trainers, and owners it is rather unconventional to ‘allow’ a Grand Prix horse to event or hunter pace, or do any activity other than dressage,” Dowling noted. “Fortunately, Jazz, Lauren, and I appreciate and thrive on the unconventional! Jazz’s abilities, coupled with his high energy busybody/workaholic attitude, mesh perfectly with Lauren’s ‘can-do’ attitude. I think it says a lot about his breed that Jazz likes to be busy and doesn’t know how to give less than a hundred percent.”

It was both Jazz’s success in the show ring and his signature versatility that attracted the attention of the famous Breyer model horse company. “Breyer reached out to us more than a year ago saying they were interested in making a Jazz model,” said Chumley. “It’s so ironic because growing up I was an avid Breyer collector and went to Breyerfest every single year – I think I still have probably 300 models in boxes in my basement. During the time they were developing Jazz’s model, we were sworn to secrecy until it was released this year, but the process was really fun. Then we were supposed to go to Kentucky for Breyerfest this summer but they held it as a virtual event because of COVID-19, so we did an online interview from our lawn instead, which was a blast too.”

Turned into a Breyer model

As they continue their dressage journey together, Dowling, Chumley, and Jazz look forward to more trips to the US Dressage Finals, as well as proving how horses (and ponies) of all breeds can succeed in the sport. “I am thrilled for all of Lauren’s and Jazz’s successes,” said Dowling. “Jazz and Lauren have proven that Morgans can be competitive in equestrian endeavors usually thought of as disciplines reserved exclusively for other breeds.”

Chumley agreed. “Even at the biggest shows with the loveliest warmbloods, I never feel intimidated with Jazz. We just keep showing up time after time and doing our own thing, and it shows the world not only what Morgans can do, but that others can do it too.”

To learn more about the High Score Breed Awards to be offered at this year’s US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, visit this link: https://www.usdf.org/usdressagefinals/competitors/breed.asp

Read Jennifer Keeler’s story “From Naughty to Nice” about another High Score Breeds Awards winner.

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