Chosen By a Saddlebred

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Teddy. Photo by Deb Michling

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, an adult amateur from Region 2 shares about some of the Saddlebreds that have crossed her path through the years, and what it’s like to be “chosen” by one of these horses.  

By Valyn Dall

I bought an American Saddlebred for dressage. More specifically, I bought a newly started, roughly 16 hand, 3-year-old palomino colt to gently get back into dressage… as an adult amateur rider, who never really had much experience working with “baby” horses. However, before I get into how that’s going, I need to back up a bit and explain how it began.

It was 2006, and I was 23 years old. At this point, I was a member of my university’s hunt seat team (as part of the very beginner walk/trot/canter division); I was taking lessons regularly (I could even “jump” a crossrail); and it was almost time for me to graduate. THIS, I decided, was the perfect time for me to get my first horse! I had now had about four years of riding experience and a lifetime desire to have a horse of my very own. It didn’t take long before I found a nearby rescue with numerous horses needing a home. I made an appointment to visit  and we discussed what I was looking for in a horse. I don’t remember having a long list, since I honestly didn’t know what I wanted. I think I was just hoping for something that could be ridden and was a little older.

We toured the facility and had my best prospects pointed out to me. They were all great choices, but none of them gave me that spark I was hoping to feel when I found “the one.” Then, I saw him. He was out in one of the pastures, muddy and thin, but despite all of that, he was proud! He stood tall and had a bearing that I just fell in love with. Was he broke to ride? Not sure. How old was he? Easily over 20. Perfect! I want that one! 

Ichabod came to the rescue frighteningly thin, after being bailed out of a kill pen by a good samaritan. He still needed to put on more weight before they could evaluate him under saddle, but he knew how to lunge and had good manners. He also knew what peppermints were.

We brought him to a boarding facility where he got down to the business of fattening up and working from the ground. Gold stars all around. He knew how to work in lines, and would park out like his Saddlebred forefathers. It was suggested, based on how he was doing with the work, that he was probably trained as a saddleseat horse. That’s cool, I thought, but I know absolutely zilch about riding saddleseat.

Our first few times under saddle were rough. Ichabod, being a healthier and now more energetic horse (and still over 20) was a lot to handle for a rider who was used to saintly lesson horses. I’d try to ride like a hunter, he’d get thrown off balance. He’d spin, I stayed on. He’d rear, I stayed on. He’d toss his head higher, I learned to sit up straighter.  People at our barn who rode saddleseat helped me immensely by giving me pointers on how to ride him. Another tip was to swap out my all-purpose saddle for a dressage saddle to help with a more upright position.

Ichabod. Photo by Donna Hlista

I did just that, along with buying the Introductory Whinny Widgets on a lark, because, hey, why not?

Ichabod and I landed on somewhat of a saddleseat/dressage mashup. I kept my legs off of him the best I could, and, in exchange, he stretched down and out just a teensy-bit more, once I switched to a fat French link loose-ring snaffle. He would never flat walk, and I’m pretty sure I never quite got the hang of where he wanted my hands placed.

In April 2010, after only four short years together, I lost Ichabod to a freak pasture injury that required euthanasia. I was devastated, and two years passed before I could even think about getting another horse. However, thanks to Ichabod, I had a better sense of what would be a good fit for me. Although Ichabod and I didn’t always exhibit the best harmony, I loved his energy; how sensitive he could be; and that he would always try what was asked of him. My next horse was going to be an American Saddlebred, and we were going to, hopefully, do dressage!

In 2012, I found a 6-year-old grey and white pinto American Saddlebred gelding for sale on Dreamhorse. From what I was told, he was bought sight unseen as a 15 hand trail horse. He showed up to their barn being over 17 hands and not exactly suited to be a trail horse. During the test ride, I felt a lot of similarities to Ichabod. This horse was sensitive, light in the bridle, and I could tell he was trying his best, but where Ichabod had a boldness to him, this one seemed timid. He was previously ridden saddleseat and then western, and then it sounds like he bounced around a bit. He just seemed confused. I decided he was a keeper, and that consistency would do him good.

Gully. Photo by Donna Hlista

Gully did begin to flourish with some time and consistency. The saddleseat/dressage mashup I created with Ichabod seemed to suit Gully to get him started. He was also so game! If I wanted to try a little easy jumping, he would pop over the poles with (almost) no problem. Trail rides? Heck, yeah! We started taking lessons with a dressage instructor for a short time, and the difference was monumental! Gully became more accepting of leg pressure, and we learned exercises to help with suppleness. I also learned a great deal more about rider biomechanics and that, yes, my position can absolutely have a huge impact on Gully’s way of going. 

Unfortunately, mostly due to my schedule, we didn’t get many opportunities to show. When time and budget allowed, we would go to our local schooling shows and usually did pretty well. We started with Intro Level, and then moved to Training. Our final time out, we were in First Level and scored somewhere in the low-60s, which I thought was respectable, all things considered.

Gully. credit to Jennifer Wiles

We went on hiatus for a few years, but in 2018, I decided our goal was to get the two of us in shape, start lessons again, and if all went well, show sometime in 2019. The plan started out well, and we both enjoyed a more structured program. Gully, always up for a challenge, was a star when we threw Cavaletti into the mix. It also seemed like the basics were starting to fall back into place.

In 2019, my goals for Gully changed again when he was diagnosed with multicentric lymphoma. There was no cure, but his quality of life was still excellent with palliative care. This meant just loving him became priority number one. Our days were filled with hand grazing, light trail rides, and just hanging out. Thirteen months after his diagnosis, the day came to let Gully go.

When the time was right, I reached out to Paddy Bates, a local Saddlebred breeder, who had a gorgeous recently started 3-year-old bay gelding listed. After chatting a bit, she said she’d be happy to show me the bay, but that I should also meet her 3-year-old palomino colt named Lucky. I was polite and said okay, but I honestly had absolutely zero interest in getting a colt.

First impression of the bay out of the stall, breathtaking. The palomino? He was cute. Watching them under saddle, however, was a different story. The bay was still beautiful and probably could do dressage, but the palomino 100% made it clear he should do dressage. The test ride confirmed it. He felt forward, relaxed, and like he wanted to dance! I bought the colt named Lucky.  

Lucky, also known as Paddyngton’s Golden Glory, was renamed Theodore, or Teddy for short. I loved my Paddington Bear as a child, and I also just love the name Theodore. Regardless, I do consider myself lucky to have this horse. Yes, he’s young, but I adore his work ethic, his patience under saddle, and his humor. He encapsulates everything I think of when it comes to the American Saddlebred temperament and personality.     

Teddy. Photo by Jennifer Speth

I also consider it lucky that in 2006, a mud-caked chestnut Saddlebred raised his head in my direction daring me to pick him.    

So, here I am, an adult amateur with a now 4-year-old palomino American Saddlebred gelding getting ready to go to our first show in October. I’m not too worried, any mistakes will be on me. This breed is amazing! Are they spirited? You bet, but when it comes down to it, they take care of their riders. These horses have been my best teachers, and I’m excited for what Teddy and I are going to learn together. Wish us luck!  

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