From FEI Young Riders to Adopting an American Saddlebred: Reflections from Year One

Carl in the Spring

Celebrating the American Saddlebred!!  This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating the graceful American Saddlebred and Saddlebred crosses of all kinds.

Dressage riders who choose Saddlebreds as their mounts are eligible for Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards as the American Saddlebred Horse and Breeders Association is a Participating Organization.

We recently asked our social media followers to share about what makes these horses so special.  Here, 2019 USDF Youth Volunteer of the Year Ruby Tevis shares about her adopted Saddlebred, Carl. 

By Ruby Tevis

A lot can happen in a year: it’s a theme we all know these days as COVID persists. For some, looking back to one year ago can feel like walking from one life into another. For me, this year has brought enlightenment. For a horse, this year has brought unconditional love.

My summer of 2020 couldn’t look any more different than how I spent my summer this year. Last year, I was proudly charging down centerline at the FEI Young Riders National Championship at the U.S. Festival of Champions, coat tails flapping in the wind, silver medal affixed to my lapel.

This year, I’ve been patiently standing in the wash rack with hose in hand, watching for this horse’s eyes to soften before I spray. This year, I’ve been grabbing a fistful of chestnut mane as we venture outside of the arena. This year, I’ve been gaining the trust of a horse who has every reason not to trust anymore.

“Why’d you do it?”

I did it because I needed to.

After feeling blessed and inspired by the generosity of the dressage community for my opportunity to compete at Festival of Champions aboard the most giving schoolmaster, Beerend W., coached by the most knowledgeable Linda Strine, supported by the most encouraging owners Paul and Vickie Short, funded by the most innovating Kentucky Dressage Association, I felt like it was my turn to make a difference.

It was time for me to take on a challenge that wasn’t tangible. It wasn’t about earning a medal or winning a ribbon— and that made me excited and a little uncomfortable, because most of my goals before had looked like that— but I was determined. There’s a sign outside of my old elementary school that reads: “If you can’t do great things, do small things great.” It became my mantra.

In August 2020, five days before my departure to the Festival of Champions, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw him. I saw Wine-N-Dine, a 5-year-old American Saddlebred, free jumping over a barrel. I sauntered to my back porch with a smirk on my face, anxiously waiting to show him to my mom. I’d played this begging game before, but every time I was met with a “no way!” This time, though, she took the words right out of my mouth. She’d seen his ad too. “Let’s go try him— like, right now!” she said.

Fast forward three hours, and I was standing in the round pen at the American Saddlebred Legacy Foundation (ASLF), a place I’d been before to tour, but never with the intent to adopt one of my own. I swung a leg over Wine-N-Dine, known as Carl, and was immediately met with the familiar sight of a Saddlebred neck. Long, a little gangly, but it immediately felt like home.

Carl passed every test. He was already yielding from my leg by the end of our short ride, he popped a clean flying change running at liberty, and when the neighbors started firing gunshots, he looked to humans for guidance: “It’s okay, Carl!” and he returned to grazing.

Two weeks later, after the thrill of Festival and a clean pre-purchase exam, Carl arrived home. Home, with me, forever.

In the last year, Carl has transformed into a different horse. Before he came to me, he found himself in a tough situation. At just 5 years old, Carl had seen more in his short life than any horse deserves to see, ever. He was given every reason to give up on people when they’d given up on him, but he didn’t.

Carl showing off his jumping skills

Carl has achieved feats that seem commonplace for any other horse, but for him require a huge celebration. Fly spray, the wash rack, the farrier, trailer loading— the list goes on, and that isn’t even in the arena. There were times I thought he’d never figure out how to bend, that his huge-strided canter would stay un-steerable forever, and that asking for poll flexion would be too stressful for him.

When is it the right time to ask him this question? I would think to myself, uncertain and a bit afraid he would become confused and back off. The right time is when it’s time. When you get to know a horse well enough, you just know. This is the magic I hadn’t experienced with any horse before. As a recurrent lessee, I’d never had the chance to truly bond with a horse. And in my experience training young horses, I’d never gotten to this point of trust before— they’d always sold before this point.

In my whole journey of dressage, from riding in my first schooling show to riding down centerline at Prix St. Georges, I’d never expected a green, dorky, total ham of an adopted American Saddlebred to teach me what dressage was all about. Dressage means “to train” and “to train” means to trust and to love and to expect nothing in return. Though, when you get it in return, in the form of low-timbre nickers as you approach the fence, soft eyes and a yawn while grooming, and a horse so eager to take their bit they grab a mouthful of noseband instead, it fills your heart like nothing in the world has before. No ribbon or medal could suffice.

Off to have more adventures together

As our one year anniversary has passed this month, Carl is happily schooling everything in Second Level, with a solid start to his flying changes. We don’t have any shows planned— because it isn’t the right time for that question— and that’s okay. In the future, I do hope I can take Carl out to show the world what he’s capable of— what American Saddlebreds are capable of.

“When an American Saddlebred gains your trust and understands what you want, he would read the Wall Street Journal for you. They’re that smart and giving,” says Carl’s breeder, Kathy Snyder, who came to visit him last month. “Carl can do that. Since he was born, he’s had an uncanny ability to relate to people. We could all learn a thing or two from Carl. If I could read a person the way he can, I could’ve saved myself a lot of trouble!”

I’ve certainly learned a thing or two from Carl. In all of this year, when I thought I would be the one to teach him, Carl has been the one who’s taught me. All along, he’s been the one to show me the true meaning of forgiveness, unbridled willingness, heartwarming trust, and ultimate joy. Life lessons learned, all thanks to an American Saddlebred.

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