A Lesson in Courage

Blue and I at Devon

Quarter Horses are our YourDressage Breed of the Month for April! This breed originated in America, and is known for its athleticism and its ability to excel in everything from horse racing, to western sports, to ranch work, to the dressage arena.

Dressage enthusiasts who ride Quarter Horses have the opportunity to earn special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as The American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA) is a Participating Organization.

We recently asked our social media followers to share stories of what makes this breed so special to them.  Here, a Region 1 rider shares about her feisty and fiery Quarter Horse, who went from a ranch horse reject to a dressage champion.  

By Molly Ryan about the amazing partnership between Katherine Abrams and her Quarter Horse, Blue.

At first glance, there was nothing about the semi-feral, five-year-old blue roan Quarter Horse with a bad reputation for unloading local cowboys that screamed, “Grand Prix horse.”

My first impression of Zan’s Blue Frost, aka Blue, was that he was awkwardly assembled at best, a little grungy, with a bag full of tricks – and yet, there was a look in his eye that I could not place. While some horses have an inherent kindness in their stare, others – and Blue is one of these – have a ferocity, a determination, that sets them apart.

Blue came to my facility as a prospect for beginner lessons in 2008. Perhaps, my family reasoned, a change of pace would be good for him. Perhaps the life of a working ranch horse was not for him. And at fifteen hundred dollars, the price was too good to be true. The intention was for me to get him going a bit, try and unpack some of his so-told quirks, and maybe practice a bit of reining on him, as I’d been pursuing it as a secondary discipline and he was green broke to stop and turn.

The first ride, I was underwhelmed – to say the least. He could not canter, and he could not lope – my choices were jog and gallop. He wasn’t fit physically, he didn’t steer particularly well. And yet – he was ridiculously fun. He was handy, and sharp, and quick off the aids in a way that was notably different from my warmbloods.

I began taking reining lessons on him, and he and I attended a few local reining shows together, as well as our State 4H Championships. While decently talented at reining, Blue was not without his opinions and unexpected antics. At that 4H championship, he jumped out of his stall over his stall guard and went on a merry run around the horse park. At home, he was well-behaved nine days out of ten, but every once in a while – he’d reveal his inner dark side and demonstrate some of his notable athleticism, mostly through enormous spooking fits.

It was those occasional big spooks that made me start to wonder if there was more in his little 14.2 hand body – and if again, he wanted a different pace in his career.

Reining and dressage can be synchronous in their benefits, and I began some cross-training in my dressage tack. My junior horse began having medical issues, and my young horse wasn’t quite ready to make a competition debut, so I figured I could start a little dressage work with my quirky Quarter Horse (who, by this point, had made it abundantly clear he had no interest in teaching lessons).

I entered him in his first dressage show in 2011, just a few Training Level tests, figuring he would do okay – get some different experience, at the least – and it would be a good experience for me to begin showing a horse I’d really started all the dressage training on myself.

He scored in the seventies, and won all four of his classes.

At the show, he was quiet, calm, even thrilled to be there. No jumping out of his stall, no spooking. And I wondered – maybe this was it.

I continued training at home, establishing his basics, working through First Level. He loved his dressage work, and I began phasing him out of reining. He was not without his fire, however, and he had enough power to unload me on several occasions.

Despite his quirks, he continued scoring competitively at First and Training Levels, and I qualified him for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships in his first year of competition.

And there, in typical Blue fashion, he placed reserve champion in not one but both of his finals.

2013 was shaping up to be the year I would move Blue up to Second Level, start the flying change, and see if the mangy firecracker who’d walked off the trailer a ranch horse reject had what it takes to be a true dressage horse. But a bad fall off my young horse, caused by an unknown to us medical issue, resulted in a catastrophic shoulder injury – and I was benched for the year. During this time, I offered the ride on him to Molly, my partner, and she went on to show him at Training and First Levels. At the end of that year, Molly won the Col Bengt Ljungquist Memorial Championships Training Level championship with a score of 74%.

When I was healed from my injury, I believed Blue and I would continue the journey smoothly. We competed a few times in Spring of 2014, but when I returned home from a vacation, I found him to be sour under saddle, to the point that he was unrideable, and uncatchable even in his field.

It took significant time for him to recover – almost two years. He had enormous competitive success at Second Level with scores up to 68%, but at Third Level – I wondered if he’d reached his peak. Built downhill with a prior reining change, the concept of true collection and self carriage, despite his ability for lateral work, was proving to be a challenge, let alone the extended gaits. We had, as many horses in training do, some exciting and explosive Third Level tests, colored with the occasional scream on his part, spooking, leaping, backing out of the arena – the list goes on.

I fought to do what was best for him all along his journey through Third and Fourth Level. It’s a difficult time for any horse, let alone one with challenges in size and body. I scratched tests when he told me he wasn’t ready in the warm up that day, and I maintained patience in waiting to compete when he was struggling at home. Our work paid off, and soon he was ascending to scores of 67% and 68% at Fourth Level.

In 2017, I was donning my tailcoat to take him in the arena at his FEI Prix St. Georges. It was completely surreal. I was so proud of our journey, and yet – I thought to myself, is this something I’m about to do?

To my surprise, he scored well – in the 60s, and went on to have a specific talent for the difficult movements – including the tempi-changes and pirouettes. Next thing I knew, we were competing at Intermediate 1, and then Intermediate 2, and then, last year, we were competing in our first Grand Prix tests together.

Blue has humbled me and evolved me as a trainer in a way that is completely unique. I have never met another horse like him – and he’s truly made me see the versatility and ability in all horses, particularly those who have that inherent desire to try, and encompass trainability (even with a wild side). In addition, Blue has shown me that the tough horses – the ones with tricky personalities, and a naughty side, and an opinion – can sometimes be the most talented, if they’re given an environment that allows them to thrive, makes them feel safe, and champions what they can do rather than what they cannot.

Blue has brought me more opportunities than any other horse I’ve owned or shown. My little fifteen hundred dollar project has taken me to symposiums, USDF clinics, multiple championships, demos at the Land Rover Kentucky Three Day Event, down the centerline at Dressage at Devon and Tryon and the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan®, and he allowed me the opportunity to meet my incredible trainer, Ali Brock. I think it’s so incredibly important to remember not to overlook the small horses, the difficult horses, the horses who do not “have it all” at first glance. Blue’s heart and soul call him to dance – and I know there are many other horses out there, including several I’ve trained since him, with a story just like his.

Blue has never lost his sometimes jester-like personality, and it’s one of the things I like the most about him. Just in 2019, he nearly dumped me walking out of the arena on a loose rein at Dressage at Devon, of all places!

Blue is a lesson in courage, a demonstration of the benefit of kindness and patience and creativity when training, and a true testament to the versatility of dressage for all horses. I owe a lot to him, but Blue owes me absolutely nothing. Every day with him is a privilege, and there’s no greater motivation than having a horse as inspiring as he is in my barn.


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