Sunni Side Up

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(photo by Eric Tank)

Pony power!!  This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating ponies of all breeds.  Dressage riders who choose ponies as their mounts are eligible for many Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as there are several pony organizations on our Participating Organization list.  Here a Fjord owner from Region 2 shares about her Fjord, the “energizer bunny” of the pony world.

By Leana Tank

Fjord horses are still a relatively rare sight in the dressage ring, although more and more riders are catching on to how wonderful life can be with these “magical creatures”. Quite a few years ago, I fell in love with the Fjord horse breed when attending a hippotherapy training at a center in Seattle. I met several Fjords in their program and was struck by their gentle nature,  doe eyes, and striking dorsal stripes. I was amazed to watch a riding demo where the Fjord zipped along on the bit and freely forward, leading to my first inkling, “this could be a great breed for me!” Fjords are fairly uncommon, and I searched for several years before I finally met my match. I travelled from Michigan to Wisconsin to find her- the Nordic states or Wisconsin and Minnesota are your best bet for Fjord finding!

Sunniva and I have been together for five years now. She is an 18-year-old, 13.3 hand, Norwegian Fjord mare. Before becoming a dressage horse, Sunni was a lesson pony, therapy horse, driving horse, and mother of 3 foals! When I bought her, my daughter was eight and also taking riding lessons. As an occupational therapist, I also thought about exploring hippotherapy at some point. I also enjoyed dressage, but was getting sporadic lessons on leased horses and hadn’t ridden seriously since high school. After partial leasing for several years, I felt ready to jump back into horse ownership.

(photo by Eric Tank)

Fjords are one of the oldest, purest breeds of horse. Their bloodlines have been meticulously guarded for over 2,000 years, and they have a history of being Viking war horses! Norwegians used them as multipurpose farm animals for hundreds of years, and they are built to be tough, strong little guys who can live on air. Fjords seemed like an ideal breed to me for several reasons. They are known to be level headed and calm horses, which is why they are suited for therapy. They are also very friendly and people-oriented with big personalities. While technically a “draft” breed, they can often be quite athletic and excel in a variety of disciplines, from dressage to jumping and trails. While some Fjords are too placid and “thick” for sporthorse material, many Fjords are like energizer bunnies with a serious “go” button. Although technically a pony, most are between 13.1 to 14.3, their large barrels and build carry an adult rider quite well. To me, this seemed like a perfect, safe, breed for my 8-year-old to enjoy, while having some athleticism for me to mess around with dressage. The potential for therapy work was also a bonus.

Sunniva quickly showed us that she wanted to be a dressage star. I am fortunate enough to have fabulous trainers who immediately recognized her natural talent. Regular lessons with Whitney McIntosh and Laurie Moore quickly revealed Sunni’s natural balance, sensitivity, and willingness. She has a canter that is so balanced and smooth, you could ride it for days. I quickly caught the dressage bug and began a truly rewarding journey and progression through the levels and I definitely caught it in a big way, dedicating hours and hours to my own fitness, reading dressage books, and ordering matchy matchy sets for my pony. It truly was a matter of starting both Sunniva and myself at Training Level and working our way together up to Third Level, where we are currently finding our way through the wonderful world of flying changes. We definitely would not have made it this far without fabulous trainers and a supportive community of like-minded equestrians.

My daughter Eva riding Intro Level (photo by Eric Tank)

We are members of the USDF GMO All Dressage Association (ADA), and enjoy working towards their year end awards.  Early on, my daughter piloted Sunni through the Intro Levels and they wound up being pretty unbeatable! After that, my daughter’s  interests shifted towards ice skating, which was bittersweet. This did mean more Sunni time for me though! I also half-leased Sunni to a junior rider in Laurie and Whitney’s program, which allowed me a healthy work life balance and also allowed me to afford some luxuries for Sunni like supplements, chiro, saddle fittings, and lessons. We worked our way through Training (with an 80% from a local judge!), First ,and Second Levels, racking up year end awards from ADA each year. After a few years, we ventured beyond the local shows to our first rated show at the National Dressage Pony Cup. Pony Cup is dedicated to celebrating ponies and offers ponies and small horses the chance to compete against each other in a nationally rated show with “S” judges. There are no qualifiers, anyone can enter and compete for a “championship” title in your level and division. We were thrilled to place 6th in Training and First Level our first year at it. We came back in 2019 to win the First Level Adult Amateur Champion award, which was such a fun experience! Pony Cup ribbons are big and fancy, and it is always a blast to meet other ponies and their owners who love them. Showing a Fjord usually comes with a bit of attention, as they are still fairly rare in the dressage world. Lots of people want to meet them and sometimes even get a photo. Sunni takes her celebrity status in stride and enjoys the attention. She loves people, especially kids.

Sunni at the National Dressage Pony Cup (photo by Eric Tank)

I did try Sunni as a therapy horse very briefly when an opportunity arose. Sunni was great at her job and very safe, but I could tell that she was not very happy with the work. This normally angelic pony would continually try to nip at her handler during her sessions! I think that this was her way of letting us know that her rider was off balance (as most kiddos during therapy rides tend to be) and she did not appreciate that. It may be that her tolerance for riders off kilter had decreased after a few years of dressage focused training that emphasizes balance and straightness. I really did not want to ask her to do something she did not enjoy, so we moved on from that work quickly.

Sunni was my saving grace during the craziness of 2020. Spending time with her at the barn brought such respite and balance during  a stressful time. Showing has never been our end all, so taking a year to focus on training and just lowkey fun has been fulfilling. I was awarded a “Gifted” grant from Adult Amateurs from The Dressage Foundation this year and was able to spend an intensive week training with Laurie Moore. Our main goal was for me to get some flying changes with Sunni, and we were successful! Laurie was able to teach them to Sunni in the few months before our intensive, because I am learning them at the same time. Sunni is such a clever girl and we are figuring them out together now. I would love to earn my USDF Bronze Medal with her,  (just Third Level left to go!) but my main goal is to just enjoy my time with her. We also love hacking around the property and hopping over the occasional cross rail. Sunni gladly gives pony rides to my young nieces and nephews or helps out with kid lessons (her favorite is a young Training Level rider with good balance). Sunni is pure joy to be around and seems to truly enjoy her job. I love to share her with others and my goal is to see more and more Fjords in the dressage world. Every barn needs a Fjord!

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