By Veronica Gogan
Glenord’s Christopher Robin is a 1993 American warmblood stallion. His early education was in dressage and he utilized that training in his many jobs in life, from being a school horse to competing in eventing, jumping, huntseat, equitation, and driving. He has a larger than life personality and an iconic look, with his long forelock and drafty build. He loves to go off property, loves to show, and loves being the center of attention. He is an incredibly sensible horse; safe, but not dull. Robin loves his people, especially his owner, Ann-Louise Markert. He’s never quite the same when she’s not in the ring. In 2018, he was mostly retired and began having some health problems. Robin had gas-colicked a few times and was occasionally choking; he was thin and losing weight. Everyone believed it was the beginning of the end. His back teeth had worn down and he could no longer chew. Ann-Louise, his vet, and his nutritionist put him on a calorie-dense regimen of soaked food and he began to recover. Fortunately, his bouts of colic didn’t make Ann-Louise hesitant for him to do a little work. However, she didn’t know that letting him carry a disabled woman around for an hour a week would set them both on a marvelous journey.
I had ridden my whole life, primarily hunters, but gave horses up in 2013 because of my multiple sclerosis; although I was not as disabled then as I am now. At that time, I had no idea there was an entire world of competitive equestrian sport dedicated to disabled riders. Today, my disease manifests in my legs causing weakness, loss of balance, and muscle spasticity. In my right hand, I have weakness and poor dexterity. When Robin and I started our partnership in the fall of 2018, I was weak and out of shape. Our journey of para-dressage would end up bringing out the best in both of us.
Robin began his revival. The minutiae of dressage is amplified in para-dressage. The more (dis)abled athletes ride only walk or walk-trot tests, so the exactness and quality of the walk and trot movements are essential. This turned out to be the perfect way to bring Robin out of retirement and back into the show ring. In the beginning, neither of us was even able to walk a decent 20m circle. Ann-Louise started us off by doing walk-halt centerlines, ad nauseam. It was never straight enough, square enough, or smooth enough. However, after a few weeks, not only were we straighter, squarer, and smoother, we were both a little fitter. Walk centerlines eventually became trot centerlines and walk circles became trot circles. Our 30 minutes rides started out as 85% walking, until we were both able to safely and successfully do more.
Ann-Louise and I could tell he liked this new job. It became a game for him. His dressage foundation was so strong that he knew what behaviors were expected, he just had to figure out what the new aids were. For instance, our aid to transition to medium walk is “Step up!” and our trot transition aid is a hearty, “Up! Up!” He has figured out that lateral work comes from how I’m stretching my shoulder to pull my hip and his body over in the leg yield. The variety of walk-trot movements in my tests became a toolbox to keep things interesting. We practice four kinds of walk: free, collected, working, and medium, and working trot with three to five steps of lengthening here and there. Our movements include lateral, many sizes of voltes, serpentines, and loops. Long walk warm-ups, changing exercises quickly, and short rides mean neither of us gets bored. We also incorporate pole work and trail rides into his routine. He is fortunate to have a big, hilly, grassy field all to himself. He gets alfalfa smoothies several times per day, so he walks up and down those hills a lot!
While we were conditioning and learning new aids, we also worked to find equipment to benefit us. Several iterations of straps and loops helped me stay in the best place to give aids and stay out of his way. When we had a saddle custom made for us, I almost couldn’t ride him because all of a sudden, his shoulders were so free that I struggled to stay with all the action I had underneath me. He had gained weight and muscle. Our stamina has dramatically increased and now we were ready for the show ring. Horse shows were rewarding for Robin – he is quite the show off!
Para-dressage classifies athletes into similar (dis)abilities; Grade I being most affected and Grade V being the least affected. The tests progress from Introductory to Novice to Team, Individual, Freestyle, the latter three are the tests shown at the Paralympic level. As I am Grade II, our tests are exclusively walk-trot in a 20mx40m ring, and as a new pair, we are competing at the Introductory tests. Our scores gradually improved over 2020 as we fine-tuned all the moving parts, just like an able-bodied pair. In October 2020, we won the Grade II Emerging Athlete Competition at the Adequan®/USEF Para Dressage National Championships and the sky’s the limit for 2021!
Nothing could have done for Robin what para-dressage has done. By limiting his work to two gaits, while still maintaining the exacting rigor of dressage, and adding the excitement of showing, Robin came back to life! Now that we’ve figured out his health needs, his ideal work load, and how to keep him excited about work, we have no intention of slowing down. He looks as good now as he did when he was a teenager, and he’s loving every minute of it!