A Champion Over Fences and Down Centerline

Captured at Lake St. Louis in August 2021. Photo by Bethany P. Photography

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, a Region 4 competitor shares her story of how her non-traditional dressage mount has allowed her to be successful in multiple disciplines, and promote the Saddlebred breed on social media and across the country.

By Jean Mutrux

I’ve been a lifelong Saddlebred owner and exhibitor, but it’s only been the past six years that I started pursuing dressage.  A friend had encouraged me to give eventing a try, and I knew in order to be competitive, one needed a strong dressage score. I had dabbled in hunter shows and am an avid foxhunter, so the jumping and cross country wasn’t an issue—it was starting from scratch with dressage. 

I got my mare, Ch Absolute Empress (Emmy), in 2013 as a long 2-year-old. She quickly made a name for herself, winning Saddlebred futurity and open classes in the hunter division. During her 4-year-old year, I changed gears to focus on the new Saddlebred Hunter Over Fences National Finals.  We took weekly jumping lessons, which actually helped a lot with her relaxation and introduced lead changes.  Emmy won those Finals that first year, and the next four times, earning her CH status, a special designation awarded after a Saddlebred has earned enough points to be approved as a Champion.

Emmy’s victory pass. Photo by Laura Stanton Photography.

In her 5 year old year, we began taking dressage lessons too.  She did quite well in our first show at Training Level, qualifying for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, and went to her first mini event where she won her division, then won her first Horse Trials in the Starter division. I felt we were well on our way to conquering the eventing world.

As the next season rolled around, it became apparent my then-dressage instructor wasn’t too keen on my young Saddlebred mare.  She was consistently spooky at certain corners of the ring, though never did anything more than hollow out and bulge a shoulder.  What many people don’t realize is that Saddlebreds aren’t preternaturally high strung but they’ve been bred to be more alert—their headset makes it easier to see and notice things a low-headed horse doesn’t. So I was lucky to find a new instructor, Joanne Bonnell, who not only is willing to work with all breeds, no matter how non-traditional they are, but had worked with Saddlebreds exclusively in the past.  She devised ways to outsmart Emmy and use the scary corners to our advantage. 

Now with Joanne’s philosophy to keep pushing for more rather than stagnating at the lower levels, Emmy and I earned our USDF Bronze Medal this past spring, and have already earned our first Fourth Level score for Silver. I truly never thought I would make it this far! We always get asked what breed she is, and judges often comment on her elegance.  Emmy even has a bit of a fan club with the local dressage crowd and Saddlebred people around the country.

Emmy at Catalpa Eagle Landing. Photo by Howard Schatzberg

Two things I’d like to mention: when my first instructor suggested I might want to consider buying a “made” Warmblood instead of continuing with Emmy, I felt really disheartened, but mostly insulted. I called a good friend who has won at the US Dressage Finals presented by Adequan® for her opinion. She agreed that would be the easy way, but there would be so much more enjoyment in the end by doing it myself with my non-traditional horse.  I think about that every time we’ve tried a new level or gotten a qualifying score, beating out some very nice Warmbloods along the way.  It will always be harder for Emmy to get her haunches underneath and sit behind because of her conformation, but she is so light in front and possesses incredible self-carriage.  Second, several years ago, I took a private lesson with former Olympian Bill Robertson.  He watched Emmy and me jump around the cross country field and gave us good instructions, but in the end, he took the time to talk about Saddlebreds as the underappreciated horse. He told me about a top dressage trainer he knew in Florida who had asked for his opinion on possible new sources for competitive horses, and Mr. Robertson told him to check out Saddlebreds for their athleticism and brains.  He thought I had quite a nice mare who could do it all.

Even though Emmy loves running cross country and always places well at the Horse Trials, her real talent lies in dressage, so I’ve decided to focus on that.  The lead changes she learned on hunter courses have made it very easy for her to transfer that idea to doing tempis.  We’re just going to give the Hunter Over Fences Finals one more shot this fall!

Also in the works is another young Saddlebred mare, Such A Flirt, who has already surpassed my expectations.  After just nine months work, she has won several large classes at Training, getting lots of 8 scores, qualified for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships, and earned the high score award with judges commenting on her stellar canter work and free walk.  We think Flirty is going to be a star!

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