Horse-Rider Suitability: Matchmaking and Divorce in the Equine World

Finding the right horse and rider combination is sometimes a difficult thing to do.

This article won the 2020 GMO Newsletter Award for a general-interest/informational article for GMOs with 75-174 members. It originally appeared in Hoofprints, the newsletter for St. Louis Area Dressage Society, September 2019.

Watch the GMO Newsletter awards from the USDF Convention.

By Taffy Ross

Taffy and Linden

Most of us in SLADS are devoted to our equine partners and keenly aware of the good luck needed to bring about successful pairings. I certainly feel this is my own case. I absolutely dote on my now 13-year-old Fjord Linden. He is the sweetest thing in my life, and I give thanks every day that I have a safe, sane partner, appropriate temperamentally and physically for his aging AA rider. But of course not everything in our partnership is perfect. Linden and I are both physically challenged in our pursuit of dressage. I enter competitions modestly hoping to break 60 at training level but rarely succeed. Trying to rein in my inflated ambitions, my trainer has suggested Linden is not ever likely to earn a score of 60 in a First Level test. So much for that bronze medal dream! Would I consider trading Linden in for a more promising horse that could take me up the levels? Absolutely not; what we can do together is too valuable. But I am endlessly intrigued by the topic of horse-rider suitability — when and why do aspiring dressage students decide to make a change? How do they find new mounts? What prompts them to give up on a current horse? I will explore some of these questions in what follows.

My trainer Marketa Matthews has helped numerous students shop for horses. I know she understands the complexity of this task, so I started my research by asking her some questions over coffee at Kaldi’s, my favorite stop on the way home from the barn. In deciding to help a student search for a horse, Marketa tries to pin down some framing facts. How would the new owner plan to use the horse? What are the person’s goals and dreams? Once this is known, Marketa puts her best effort and experience into finding a horse that matches her student’s budget. A few other relevant questions: How often will the student be able to come out and ride? Does she have show ambitions? In how rigorous a training program does she hope to place her new companion?

In addition to sounding out the student about the life she envisions with a new horse, there are facts about the future horse itself Marketa needs to know. Is the student interested in a specific breed? What size and age seem ideal for this purchase? Does she have a color preference? (I believe women often shop for cars w/ color in mind!) What budget is the student working with? And what compromises is she willing to make to stay within those parameters? As always, safety is paramount for both horse and new owner, but Marketa also looks to lay the groundwork for many years of joyful ownership.

Like many of us, Marketa enjoys looking at ads for horses. She can often be found watching videos on her phone and is generally aware of interesting candidates for sale. Once she and a student shopper have launched their search, Marketa starts looking for suitable horses. Further practical questions arise at this point, for example, how far away is it reasonable to search, given that hauling fees can add significantly to the cost of more distant horses. When a horse in a video appears to be a good match, Marketa contacts the seller with further inquiries.

If the point arrives where Marketa and her student agree to pursue a particular horse, conversations accelerate and travel plans are considered. But much remains to be done before those plans are finalized. It is very useful when a horse has recent x-rays on file. Particularly when a horse is far away and travel would be costly, a PPE (pre-purchase exam by a vet) can sometimes be arranged before a visit in person. On occasion such initial arrangements have fallen through and the horse has been sold despite the purchase of plane tickets for a planned visits. Marketa considers this a clear example of unethical business practice.

Once a visit is in progress, much is learned about the suitability of the horse. Marketa and her student like to first view a horse without tack, next watch the owner or seller ride, and then Marketa and, when appropriate, her student climb on board. Obviously, the riding portion of the visit doesn’t apply to unstarted youngsters! When first meeting the horse, Marketa and her student watch for ground watch for ground manners, facial expressions, friendliness towards people, behavior while grooming and tacking up, the horse’s reactions to his/her surroundings, and how content the horse appears to be doing his/her job under saddle. If the ride(s) are successful, Marketa has her student continue to interact with the horse afterwards – untack, hand graze, whatever will allow her assess their quality of interaction.

Assuming interest in the horse is maintained, it’s time to arrange a PPE if that wasn’t done in advance. Most of time Marketa and her client will return for this event, though occasionally they rely on a report from a local vet but run it by a trusted vet here in St. Louis. How much to invest in a PPE? A basic health check always takes place, including flexions. Various factors determine whether to request x-rays, among them the availability of recent images, if any, and what those show. Marketa lets her client decide whether full x-rays would provide peace of mind. Her advice on this issue takes into account the age of the horse, the apparent soundness as shown in the PPE, price point, and veterinary recommendation.

Once a horse is purchased and arrives safely at its new home, there is a period of adjustment as the horse gets used to its new surroundings. Relocation can be stressful. We can only do our best to welcome the new arrival and make his/her adjustment as pleasant as possible.

Moon River (Rocky at the 2019 SLADS Fall Classic Jackpot

Brianna Zwilling, our current SLADS president, is another local trainer who has helped students shop for horses. I reached out to both Brianna and her student Bev Sloop to ask about their experience finding Bev her new mount Rocky (Moon River). Deciding that her 17h mare Parissa, who could prove quite strong in the show ring, wasn’t the best partner for an aging AA owner with dreams of showing, Bev decided to downsize and search for a more sporty mount. She and Brianna along with Kathy Yamaguchi, the owner of their home stable Epique Equestrian who also had been dreaming of a pony, began searching sale web sites. They assembled a list of 6 ponies and small horses, all in the New England area, that warranted consideration. A trip ensued that combined some fine Fall Foliage viewing with serious horse shopping. One of the horses Brianna found for Bev to try was Rocky, a lovely Connemara/Hanoverian cross pony. Bev rode him once during the trip and liked his combination of small size yet comfortable long strides but was laid low by a fever and sore throat. She returned home undecided as any big decision has a lot of things to weigh out. But on reflection she decided to proceed with a PPE for Rocky. Her Mid-Rivers vet gave the results a thumbs up, and soon Rocky was on his way to MO. along with Greyson, a project pony Kathy found on the trip.

Rocky worked on building his muscle and settling into his new home through the winter and Bev and Rocky got to know one another slowly through consistent lessons and a few clinic rides. Unfortunately, their goals of showing were interrupted. On a brisk Spring day Rocky injured himself while performing some antics on the lunge line and subsequently required special treatment at Mizzou. During his ensuing stall rest and hand-walking, he kicked out at a fly and Bev’s elbow caught the end of his hoof, resulting in a fracture. Both horse and owner recovered and resumed their riding partnership, but sometime later Rocky dislodged Bev with a spook and spin resulting in another injury for Bev. At this point, Bev decided the prudent decision would be to lease Rocky to a younger, stronger rider while Rocky furthers his training. She has since returned to her 17h. mare but still looks forward to reuniting with Rocky in the future. While Bev described her current situation with Rocky as “a p[ossibly temporary legal separation,” the young rider leasing him absolutely adores him and together they won the Junior Training 2 Jackpot at the recent SLADS show with a stellar score of 66.897!

The quick take away: successful matchmaking in the horse world is always heart-warming, but not all pairings work out. To further explore this side of this story, I reached out to some additional SLADS who made the tough decision to move on and sell a recently purchased horse that wasn’t working out. Some of these tales resemble Bev’s, involving falls or injuries. For example, Shelley Brubaker looking to replace her aging partner Riley found Adonis, a talented and attractive Haflinger, in Michigan. Shelley, Marketa, and Shelley’s daughter Sarah all travelled to meet Adonis – those of us back home were treated to pictures of their adventures climbing Lake Michigan sand dunes. Adonis seemed just what Shelley was looking for. Since she is only 5’ tall, a Haflinger is a very suitable breed, and Adonis was already trained to 2nd level. He seemed fine during their test rides. The owner did say something about his behavior at the far end of the arena, but they didn’t notice anything that day. Shelley found his gaits comfortable and thought she would be able to learn from him and advance since he was well trained in dressage. Just to stay safe, she decided to keep him at Quarter Line Dressage for a few months to learn his buttons and cement their partnership.

Adonis and Shelly Brubaker

Unfortunately, as Shelley got to know Adonis better, his ability to unseat his rider became apparent. It happened only at the canter, but Shelley came off several times. Happily, she sustained no injuries. Like many dedicated older riders, she values safety as much as talent in her horses. Despite taking part in a clinic with Dennis Cappell to improve her confidence, Shelley concluded that she wouldn’t be comfortable taking Adonis home to her daughter’s farm and riding him independently. After a fourth fall, she decided Adonis just wasn’t right for her. She reports: “I decided to sell him while I was still in one piece. He was a beautiful horse and I really liked him, but he was too unpredictable for me …”

She sold Adonis to a younger and considerably larger rider who claims to love him despite having herself come off and sustained some injuries. With further help, Shelley found a more suitable replacement horse. Nitro is a 13.3h Welsh cob with gaits so remarkable that clinicians call him a miniature warmblood. The challenge with Nitro can be keeping him forward, but that is a much better problem than figuring how to stay on.

Martha Yates is another SLADS member who has moved on from an unsuitable horse. Martha grew up on a horse farm in Colorado and has long experience of horses and riding. She has owned a number of horses ranging from been-there done-that QHs who excel on the trail to talented and well-trained school-masters who have lots to teach their rider about dressage. When one delightful QH, Buddy, whom Martha thought might double as a trail and competition companion developed nagging soundness problems, Martha looked for a more suitable dressage partner. She found Fiona, a QH/Dutch cross online and was drawn to her apparent engine and fine canter. Fiona was in Oregon. Martha went to meet her, decided she was a good candidate for her next dressage partner, and brought her home.

Things went well at first. Fiona did struggle with a bout of EPM, a challenge that frequently besets horses newly moved to MO. Plus Fiona’s talent for dressage came with a considerable amount of energy and verve. Martha was unseated twice by spooks, but persevered. Because of a bad experience with a previous horse who bolted and because of Fiona’s powerful canter, Martha brought her to Catlin Farm so horse and rider could both benefit from training with Lindsey Cross Culver. Fiona did grow increasingly testy. In hindsight, Martha realizes that Fiona’s previous owner kept her in training for 6-week periods or less, and the mare became resistant when asked to work for longer stretches of time.

The final rupture came when Martha hauled Fiona to a Mary Wanless clinic in Ohio. Martha has ridden numerous times with Mary, on a variety of horses. Unfortunately on this occasion Fiona bucked her off and Martha sustained significant injuries – several broken ribs and a collapsed lung. Since we all seek safe, harmonious, and rewarding relationships with our dressage partners, Martha reluctantly concluded that Fiona was not ‘the one.’ Fiona is now owned by a young eventer who is happier channeling the mare’s abundant energy.

Not all tales of divorce result from falls and injuries. Karen Klearman was given Zhivago, a Lippizan/Trakehner cross, in utero. She was with him 3 hours after his birth and raised him from a baby. She is an experienced horsewoman who keeps her horses at home on her farm in Troy, MO. Zhivago was delightful, but he just didn’t stop growing. He was 15.1h as a yearling and eventually topped out at 17.2h. Like Shelley, Karen is a petite rider, and she found herself increasingly intimidated by the height of her horse. He never acted badly or tried to unseat her. In fact, Karen reports “He kept me on his back several times when many other horses would have purposefully dumped me.” They went to shows and clinics, and he was always a good boy. She just didn’t feel comfortable riding such a tall horse, especially since she generally rode alone in her outdoor arena while her husband was at work. She worried that should anything happen, no one would find her until the end of the day!

Karen and Zhivago before he greyed out and finished growing

Deciding that her fears were irrational, Karen tried to overcome them. She even went and had herself hypnotized, hoping to plant the suggestion that riding Zhivago was not in any way scary. But none of this took. She had a wonderful horse that sat around unworked because he simply wasn’t her ideal partner. Realizing this wasn’t fair to Zhivago, Karen cast around for some sort of solution. She became aware of a young eventer in her area who was looking for a mount. (Handing difficult dressage horses on to young eventers seems a theme of this article!) Karen initially leased Zhivago to her. They gelled, he enjoyed his new career, and eventually a purchase was negotiated. Karen is happy that her boy has landed so well. Her barn is now filled by 3 Fjord mares, one retired, the other almost retired, but the third a safe, talented, and dependable riding partner. We should wish all rehoming tales to end this happily all around.

Some horsewomen in the know prepare themselves psychologically for the sorts of challenges under discussion here. Julie Claire is a small animal vet who hails from Canada. She is in St. Louis temporarily while her partner enjoys a physics post-doc at Wash U. Julie has two horses back home in Ontario, a retired Lippizan mare and a young yearling Hanoverian named Quagmire (imo a great solution to naming Q-line horses!). Julie wishes she could keep her horses closer and may look for a way to bring her mare here in the near future. But Quagmire will stay with his breeder for now, and Julie is being very realistic as she keeps an eye on his development. She is thrilled with him – the breeder supplies her with regular reports and pictures – but she says he will be a keeper only if his personality stays on track and if he appears to like what will emerge as his life job.

I hope this article has indicated some of the challenges of creating successful horse-rider pairings. Horse searches can be protracted, with assorted heartbreaks along the way. Decisions to part with a chosen horse are equally difficult. While professionals often claim to relish hot horses and the extra edge they provide in the ring, older AA riders want above all to be safe and happy as they try to progress up the levels with their horse. Those of us paired with a suitable horse should give thanks every day!

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