Little Man’s Big Dreams

Little Man and Debbie Grant. Photo by Christina Stewart

Celebrating the American Saddlebred!!  This month on YourDressage, we are celebrating the graceful 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 3 equestrian shares about her Saddlebred Little Man, and how she has found dressage inspiration from trainers across the disciplines. 

By Debbie Grant

I remember the first time that I saw Little Man (Winter Noon) move. I don’t remember the exact date, but it was sometime in 2010. At that time, I had another horse in training with Heath Hughes, in a Saddlebred training barn. I had been showing at Saddlebred traditional shows for about 18 years at that time. However, I also had a Saddlebred dressage horse at home that I was showing at USEF-licensed/USDF-recognized dressage competitions. The horse at home was getting older, and I needed to start thinking about my next dressage horse to bring along.

Little Man was at Heath’s to get started under saddle. When I saw him trot, his knees did not touch his nose (that is called going over level in the Saddlebred world). I really liked his long strides – the reach with the front and back legs were equal. Also, his back legs reached way under his stomach. He had a lovely three-beat canter, and I liked that he was not started under saddle until he was four years old. When I invest my time, love, and attention in a potential dressage horse, I think long-term regarding soundness. So, it really appealed to me that his body was allowed to mature before he was started under saddle.  I wasn’t in a position to have four horses, so I had to wait. But, in September 2011, Heath helped me get Little Man.

I was so drawn to dressage because you get a test sheet back that lets you know exactly what you need to work on, so you go home and really work hard on the lower-scored movements, to try to get that score improved. This is so different than in the Saddlebred ring, where you have no idea why the judge did or did not like your horse.

Photo by Christina Stewart

Our first four years together, we were pretty much on our own, with me taking dressage lessons. He hadn’t had any additional professional training after leaving Heath’s barn. About seven years ago, we moved to a training barn for reining that allowed a few boarders. It was so convenient because it was only five miles from my house. I’d be riding Little Man, and I’d see trainer Heather Johnson (now Servies) working the reining horses. She would be working the young ones and had them stretching long and low over their back. I thought ‘Oh, we like that for our dressage horses as well.’ When I left the saddleseat world, I said that I would never spend all day on Saturday driving two to three hours one way, just to ride my horse in training. When I saw how Heather handled the horses, it was in the back of my mind – wouldn’t it be great if she could work with Little Man? I’d also see her doing all types of counter canter and lead changes on the Quarter Horses. They have to do fast canter circles then slow down and do slow circles, all without touching their mouth. In dressage, we need to also use our seat to make those types of changes without being in their mouth. There were so many similarities!

I was afraid to ask Heather if she would be willing to work with Little Man because he was a Saddlebred, but she said yes! She started working him early in 2015. As he was making progress, I decided to take him to two Saddlebred shows and put him in a hunt seat class just to gain some ring experience. By the fall of 2015, I took him to our first recognized dressage show but only competed in an Intro Level and an Opportunity Training Level class.

Heather continued working with him and at our first recognized show of the spring of 2016, we scored mid 60s and earned a qualifying score for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Dressage Championships. By the third recognized show, we were officially qualified for the Region 3 Championships at Training Level. Attending regionals his first year at Training Level was a thrill. The event was held in Conyers, GA, and our championship class was in the Grand Prix Arena where the 1996 Olympics had been held. I got goosebumps just thinking about the ground his feet were touching! For his first year, we were able to compete at the regional championships and won Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds awards from USDF. I was super thrilled with him!

I have shown First Level for a few years, and this year, we are qualified and entered for the Region 3 Championships. At my last show, I tried Second Level for the first time. I kept telling myself, “This is the first time that you are trying this level, don’t expect a score for your bronze.” I was thrilled when the score sheet came back and on our first try, I had earned a Second Level score towards my USDF Bronze Medal.

My actual dressage lessons are very limited. I work with Stephanie Mosley, from Florida, who comes up maybe five times a year to do a three-day clinic in my area. So, in a year, I get maybe fifteen ‘dressage’ lessons. She is a biomechanics instructor and that work has really helped Little Man to not curl, but stretch more to the bit and take the contact. I think curling is one of the most difficult things to fix for a Saddlebred.

Little Man also gets regular PEMF sessions from Kyndall Peeples. She helps the tight spots to release in his body and that is very beneficial!

Halt, salute at the end of a dressage test. Photo by Christina Stewart

With me having limited dressage lessons, I have to say that Heather has played a significant role in getting us to Second Level. I often make her a list of movements that he needs to start working on, and I either give her a diagram of the movement in the test or find a short video clip of the movement that he needs to be able to do. Last year, when I would have lessons with Stephanie, we were doing the Second Level Test 3 counter canter three loop serpentine, and the little stinker would throw in lead changes that I wasn’t asking for. Heather has totally fixed that, and he doesn’t do it anymore. Stephanie asked us not to teach his lead changes until I have both of my Second Level scores for my bronze medal. My goal is to get my bronze on Little Man. Maybe by next year we can try Third Level.

I have to say that I love every moment that I get to spend with Little Man. Back in 2018, he had a sesamoid stress fracture and was out almost the entire year. I followed the veterinarian’s instructions to the letter and he is just fine now. After going through an injury, every second with him is precious. I have never had any other horse that truly enjoys being at a show like he does. Plus, he tries so hard for me. He is fifteen years old this year, and every time that I get to ride him is a great day because I don’t know how long I will have that part of our life together.

I just want to encourage people that may not have access to a dressage trainer all the time, look at other professionals in your area that understand horses, and they can help you as well. Heather has won on her stallion at the Quarter Horse Congress in freestyle reining. One year, she incorporated four stride tempi changes in her freestyle. Well, I know she can certainly teach Little Man those lead changes when we are ready for Third Level!

Happy riding everyone!

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