Driven To Dressage

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Benjamin Blue driving.

A former Amish, draft-cross driving horse becomes an inspiration for other “non-traditional” mounts at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®

By Jennifer M. Keeler

As a young horse, the Percheron/Dutch Harness cross gelding was doing what he was bred to do: trot at a fast clip pulling a carriage up and down the roads of the Amish countryside in Ohio. There was no way anyone would predict that, in a few short years, that same horse would have a whole new life, leading victory laps at regional and national championships – for dressage.

But before we tell the rest of this horse’s story, we need to meet the person who would become his future partner: Kerry Rose of Middletown, N.Y., a 7th grade special education teacher. Lucky enough to be involved with horses for almost her entire life, she started showing her pony in 4-H and local shows, and then as a teenager rode her off-the-track Thoroughbred in eventing. But she found her true calling in dressage. “I loved how dressage was so disciplined and progressive,” Rose explained. “You never stop growing and learning. It really clicked with me and I knew that dressage would become my passion.”

Continuing her pursuit of dressage throughout adulthood, it was the retirement of her former mount that would ultimately allow fate to bring a new prospect into her life – even if it was from a completely unexpected direction. “I had looked at several warmbloods, but anything that was decent was out of my price range, and I was running out of options,” Rose remembered. “My mother has a driving pony, and she suggested that I look into driving horses since they can be more affordable. I looked at some driving classifieds and saw an ad for a 17.1-hand draft cross competitive driving horse in Vermont, who had been acquired from an Amish auction.

“I went to see him, and under saddle he didn’t steer very well, didn’t understand leg aids, and couldn’t canter,” Rose continued. “I found he also had a tremendous fear of motorized vehicles and horses riding anywhere near him. Even though he didn’t have as much training as I had hoped, I loved his looks and his personality. Honestly, it was love at first sight.”

Taking a chance, Rose brought the big gelding home and named him Benjamin Blue, or “Blue” for short. She sent him to a natural horseman for a month, who successfully taught the big gelding how to canter. With all required gaits now installed, Rose and Blue got to work on dressage with the help of trainer Heather Mason. “We started at the very beginning, working on the basics. Back then, Blue had a big, rambling canter and no brakes,” Rose laughed. “Over time, we made slow and steady progress, and luckily Blue is a pretty fast learner. One thing that particularly improved was his canter – it turned out that Blue has a really great canter!

“I think what makes Blue so special is his willing attitude and wonderful work ethic,” Rose added. “He wants to get it right and tries so hard. Blue is an awesome partner and I have really enjoyed learning and growing with him over the past seven years. Outside of the show ring, we enjoy trail riding, and Blue particularly likes water! Blue has a personality as big as his heart and is very social and friendly. I just love him!”

Starting from the ground up, Rose and Blue began their dressage career at Training Level, and since have successfully worked their way up to Third and Fourth Levels this season. “Fourth Level is the highest level I have ever ridden, so Blue and I are learning the pirouettes and sequence changes together,” Rose noted. “He has been very patient and allows me to practice the movements over and over without getting tense or upset.”

As they rose through the levels together, Rose and her now 13-year-old ex-Amish driving horse experienced some amazing successes. “One of our biggest accomplishments was being Regional Champion at Second Level at the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, and nationally we were the USDF champions for the Second Level Freestyle in the Adult Amateur division in 2019,” Rose explained. “We have also been very fortunate to qualify for the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® for the past five years, and in 2018 we were Reserve Champions in the First Level Freestyle Adult Amateur division – that was such a fantastic experience! Last year at the Finals we placed 5th in both the Second Level Adult Amateur Championship class and the Freestyle, as well as in the top ten in the Third Level Freestyle Adult Amateur division.

“Participating in the US Dressage Finals is a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to any amateur who has the opportunity to go,” said Rose. “Watching and competing with riders from all over the country is amazing and the highlight of the show season. Everyone is so supportive of each other. Another thing that makes Finals so special for me is that my sister, who also competes in dressage, has qualified with her horse as well. Our family is extremely supportive and encouraging and have made the trip with us to Kentucky every time. It has truly been a terrific and memorable experience.”

Adding to their accolades are honors that Rose and Blue have received from the Draft Cross Breeders and Owners Association (DCBOA). “I got involved with them shortly after I got Blue as I was looking for an organization that advocated for and supported draft crosses in dressage,” Rose explained. “The DCBOA participates in the USDF All-Breeds Awards program and the High Score All-Breeds Awards at the US Dressage Finals, and Blue and I have been fortunate enough to win the beautiful plate that the DCBOA awards at the Finals. If someone has a horse that is at least 25% draft and would like to compete for All-Breeds Awards, they should look into joining the DCBOA.” 

Even though Rose admits she didn’t have any experience with a draft cross prior to owning Blue, she never regrets her decision to buy him and beams with pride every time she rides down centerline. “People have asked me if I have experienced discrimination from judges, or if I’m at a disadvantage because I’m not riding a warmblood. I can honestly say I think we have been judged fairly,” Rose said. “I have never felt that judges were biased against me because I’m on a draft cross; actually, I’ve felt many judges have been very encouraging and supportive.
“If someone is looking into getting a non-traditional horse to compete on in dressage, then a draft cross is definitely a viable option even though they may not have been ‘bred for’ dressage,” Rose concluded. “It’s not that they can’t do the movements, but you may have to work a little harder at training your horse to acquire them since some things don’t come as naturally as they may to a warmblood. However, non-traditional horses have other attributes that can make them appealing to many amateur riders, especially those on a budget.

“After the Finals, I have received texts and emails from people who said Blue and I were an inspiration and that we gave them hope that they could be successful with their non-traditional horses. So I think the journey can make the destination more meaningful. I know this journey, with my wonderful draft cross Blue, is something I will never forget.”

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

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