Draft power!! This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating Draft Horses and Draft Crosses of all breeds. Dressage riders who choose Drafts as their mounts are eligible for many Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as there are several Draft organizations on our Participating Organization list. In this heartwarming story, a Region 7 rider shares about getting her Shire through an online auction, and the challenges of gentling the giant mare!
By Jessica Park
When I said I wanted a draft horse, Belle isn’t what I imagined. I’ve always been drawn to the idealistic image of draft horses. Draft horses are generally big, quiet, and reliable with an extraordinary work ethic and a heart of gold. I dreamed of having my own versatile gentle giant when I saw Belle in a Texas livestock auction on Facebook. She was advertised as an 11 year old English Shire; a stunning black rabicano with three white socks and a beautiful white blaze. They described her as having been ridden and driven, gentle and safe. I did not intend to actually bid on her, but spontaneously hit her bid button while sitting on my couch at home. And then, no one bid after me.
As anyone who has experience with horses knows, words like “idealistic” and “generally” used to describe any horse or horse characteristics usually finds themselves seriously mistaken. Belle arrived in the middle of July 2020 to my barn after a lengthy journey from Texas to California. She stepped off the trailer in much worse condition than expected. As a 17.1 draft horse, she weighed in at 1,270 lbs and was severely under-muscled. I immediately transferred her to my local veterinary hospital for the first two weeks of her quarantine where we battled a case of shipping fever. Thanks to excellent care by my vet, she was able to come home two weeks later to finish out the rest of her quarantine in a special pen at my barn.
From here, things only seemed to get worse. We started with basic handling and learned that picking up her feet resulted in her trying to lay down, and reaching for her head in any way put her in immediate giraffe mode. We addressed these issues first to make her safe to pick her feet and easier to halter and lead. Now that we had more boxes checked off, she got the works. Teeth, chiropractor, farrier…all checked. By this point, I had confirmed two things. The first being Belle was afraid of just about everything, and second, that our progress was going to be much slower than anticipated. As we moved forward, it was a very classic one step forward, two steps back scenario. Although we were told she had been ridden and driven, her reactions did not support this theory and so I proceeded as if she was an unstarted 11 year old, half ton animal. At only 5 feet 4 inches myself, I could not even lay across her back from a normal mounting block. I started with typical groundwork to get her to understand the cues to give to pressure, move her shoulders, move her haunches, and so on. She then moved on to lunging and ground driving, and desensitization to things like me sitting up above her, jumping on the mounting block next to her, and things flapping against her body. Once I had spent some time on the basics, at about two months in, I decided to sit on her for the first time.
The next few weeks, we moved through her first time with a rider on her back to walking around in a halter with a rider, to walk/trot with tack and a rider. While still timid, she moved through these checkpoints fairly smoothly with only minor spooks and scoots. It was only after we were getting more comfortable that we had a large setback. At this point, Belle and I had introduced the canter and were riding all three gaits, still in the round pen. As I mounted one day, she bolted with her head between her legs and went off like a bucking bronc horse. I was able to get into the saddle but was missing one stirrup. Using all her draft horse weight and muscle, she was circling the pen with me holding on with everything I had. When I realized there was nothing I could do to stop her, I started looking for an out. After a few laps around the pen, she drifted from the fence line and I had started slipping so I committed to the fall. I feel very lucky to only have ended up with a few bumps and bruises, but the result was me being too scared to get back on for weeks afterwards.
After searching to find a trainer that would get us back on track, I started using a friend and trainer at my barn, Katie, who got us to where we are now. Katie not only rapidly progressed Belle’s training, but she made sure that I got on and rode even when I felt like I couldn’t do it. With Katie’s help, we have worked through and handled Belle’s quirks. We are now working on leg yields and shoulder ins, something that, at one point, I could not have imagined we would be doing. Belle and I have now competed in several dressage shows, earning a high score of a 69%.
Every horse teaches you something. For me and Belle, it may have been more than I bargained for. What started off as what seemed like a nightmare, has turned into the most unlikely of dreams. I cannot wait to watch Belle develop and represent the draft horse breed in the sport of dressage. One thing is certain, they really can do it all.
All Jazz’Dup by Pam Kusnirik
Rubeus Hagrid, the Half Giant by Samantha Capoferri
Celebrating Draft Horses! Part 1 and Part 2
The Many Faces of Dressage: A Clydesdale’s Perspective by Alexandra Peters and Christa Stevens
Pixel Perfect by Sam Madden