Fantom, The Golden Boy

Fantom and I at Dressage at Devon, 2021 (photo by Purple Horse Designs)

By Jess Idol  

We are celebrating Splash of Color month on YourDressage!  Whether your horse is a Paint, Appaloosa, Knabstrupper, or Gypsy Horse, sports a patched or spotted coat, or wears lots of chrome, this month is for you!

Dressage enthusiasts who ride colorful horses have the opportunity to earn special awards through the Adequan®/USDF All-Breeds Awards such as the American Paint Horse AssociationAppaloosa Horse Club, Knabstrupperforeningen for Danmark (KNN), Gypsy Horse Registry Of America, Westfalen Verband of North America, and Gypsy Vanner Horse Society, which are all Participating Organizations.

We recently asked our social media followers to share photos of their loudly colored horses, and let us know what makes these horses so special. Here, a trainer shares how a tense and crooked horse, and his very special owner, changed her life forever.

I met Fantom in the spring of 2019, when he was 9 years old. I had just moved to Northern Virginia from Wellington, Florida to start working as an assistant trainer for a bigger dressage barn. I had been there working for a short couple of months, and had seen this pretty palomino Lusitano go around with his amateur owner a few times, but had yet to spend any time getting to know either of them, as they were taking lessons with the other assistant trainer at the time. The few times I saw them in the ring, I saw consistent frustration from the owner – not with the lesson, or with her trainer, but with the horse. Fantom was tense, choppy in his movement from a tight back, crooked in his neck, and sometimes with his tongue out. The owner wanted nothing more than to have a good, easy ride where they could get through walk, trot, and canter without the horse stopping and running backwards in a panic. I watched for a moment, and then went about my business, being grateful that I wasn’t the one teaching that hard lesson with the owner who just wants to have fun and the horse that just wants to go back to his stall. 

A few weeks later, I was approached by the owner. There was a show on the calendar for some of the horses a few weeks away, and she wanted someone to take Fantom- and that someone was me. No, she did not approach me because she thought I would be brilliant over her normal trainer, she simply asked because I was already taking a couple of horses and the other assistant trainer was staying home. In my mind I thought, “You know what horse I really don’t want to take to the show? Yours.” But instead, I smiled, said, “Of course I will!” and told her how grateful I was for the opportunity to ride her wonderful horse – because that’s what you do. 

The first day I worked with Fantom, we went to the round pen. I had talked to the owner, and had already seen for myself in her lessons, that he was utterly terrified of the whip. As someone whose fundamental background is natural horsemanship, my first instinct was to engage in the “Getting To Know You” period with some friendly ground work and desensitization. 

Fantom bloomed. 

Fantom, Bev and I after our first test at Third Level together in the summer 2019.

After just a few sessions, he was learning Spanish Walk, half steps, and a few steps of Spanish Trot in hand. I didn’t teach him any of this to train him for anything specific- I just wanted him to feel comfortable accepting a gentle aid from the whip, and let him be able to give an easy answer and get a massive reward with lots of praise and sugar cubes. Once he understood what the aid meant and what answer to give, he was braver and more relaxed every day! 

We were just a few weeks short of the show, so I figured I should start riding him, hoping for the same amazing transformation we had seen in the ground work. Wrong. 

Lusitanos are not generally renowned for their big, swinging gaits, or for their perfect, rhythmic walks. Fantom was no exception. His tension undersaddle caused my back (and probably his too) to become sore, and asking him to find relaxation enough in the walk to keep a 4 beat rhythm was near impossible. Not to mention the crooked neck and the tongue! 

The show date neared. We signed up for Third Level, Test 1 because riding in the double bridle felt 100% better than riding in the snaffle- and the stability of the unbroken curb bit seemed to help his connection and resolve the tongue issues. He had easy single changes, the one thing at the time he was consistent in performing well. I changed bridles and bits until I found the right combo to help (literally) keep his head on straight. I prayed for rain. 

Photo by Purple Horse Designs

The show day arrived. It was sunny and beautiful. 

We went down centerline, halt, salute, and Fantom proceeded to walk backwards. We had gotten very good at the halt and rein back we were supposed to perform halfway through the test! We scrambled forward, and made it through the test! With our new found confidence in carrying the whip, we managed to squeeze in some moderate trot extensions and clean changes, and come out with a 65-ish%. 

I. Was. Thrilled. But not nearly as thrilled as his owner, who was cheering me on with all of her might, knowing that we may not make it through the whole test- but not letting that dampen her encouragement and belief! We went on to survive day two with a similar score, and I was so happy to have my mission accomplished, go home, and hand both him and the owner back to the other assistant trainer. 

That’s not what happened

The owner, Bev, approached me after the show to tell me how proud she was of Fantom and I, and how thankful she was that I really tried to teach him something and help his confidence in the weeks leading up to the show. I told her of course, that was the goal! Not to go out and try to win, just to get the horse out and give him a good experience with minimal pressure. She followed that with, “I want you to be his trainer”. Gulp. Good thing I never back down from a challenge! 

Months of training went by. I found myself thinking, “Hey, maybe this horse has more in him than I thought!” Bev never missed a day of unwavering support. Fantom started to become braver, more confident, and more elastic in his body every week. He learned half steps undersaddle. He did baby passage. We went to another show at Third Level. We excused ourselves half way through because we couldn’t canter past F. We went home and worked harder. We went to Florida for the winter. 

At this point, Bev and I have become great friends. She was the solid absolute in the barn- for everyone. You needed to talk? Bev was there. You needed a laugh? Bev had a story. You just need someone to fill up the space while you muddle through your own thoughts? Bev was on the job. Anyone in the barn, at any point, had Bev on their support team. She was everyone’s biggest cheerleader. 

Fantom and I were preparing for our debut at Prix St Georges. There was a schooling show in January that we signed up for, and I also signed my own 6-year-old up as his first show. I was so excited for both of them! 

Four days before the schooling show, we had the vet out to check on some odd steps my youngster has been taking recently. Three days later, the day before our first show, we put him down due to the discovery of a severe medical issue that needed immediate intervention. It was devastating. 

The next day, Fantom took me down centerline. I say it that way because that’s how it went. I was in a fog, still dazed from the emotional dumpster fire that was raging in my body after unexpectedly losing my own horse 24 hours before. 

Fantom guided himself around his first Prix St. Georges with me barely in the saddle, and earned himself a 66%. Bev proudly hugged me while I pretended not to cry. I told her it was because I was so thrilled for her horse, but she knew better. When we got back to the barn, Fantom stood patiently in his stall and let me bury my face into his neck while I sobbed and told him thank you. Bev looked at me and said, “I know Fantom is mine, but he’s yours too”.  I cried into his mane some more. 

Shortly thereafter, we did a Prix St. Georges at a real show, successfully, and I earned my USDF Silver Medal. Thank you Fantom! 

It’s March 2020. COVID turns the world upside down. 

We head back home from Florida to Virginia, no one prepared for, or sure of, what life is about to turn into. The head trainer of the stable was diligent and efficient in shutting our barn down, and mandating masks, and limiting owner visitation immediately upon our return home. We spend some quiet time training at home by ourselves, because that’s all we’re allowed to do. Fantom goes on a lot of trail rides. 

During the summer, we’re itching to do something and see new faces. We have a private, socially distanced clinic with a very good trainer. Bev is quietly there every day in the weeks leading up to the clinic, meticulously grooming Fantom and hounding me about what I was going to wear so she could color coordinate Fantom’s saddle pads and boots. I texted her the day before the clinic and told her Fantom was having a light day and she could stay home if she wanted. No response, and I move on. 

The clinician gets to the farm the next day. I’m on the schedule to ride around 10AM, expecting to see Bev at any moment as she’s always there to watch as many rides as she can and support all of the barn crew and riders on clinic days. 

Photo by Purple Horse Designs

8AM. No Bev. Not too suspicious. 

8:45AM. No Bev. “She’ll get here soon.”

9AM. No Bev. “I guess I’ll pull Fantom out and start grooming..”

9:30AM. No Bev. Everyone has called and texted without a response. She had mentioned that she hadn’t been sleeping well.. maybe she overslept. 

10AM. I’m riding in my lesson, expecting to see her burst into the arena at any moment. 

11AM. My ride is finished. My phone shows no new messages. I’m concerned. 

Noon. The head trainer and I get in her car and go to Bev’s house. We know she’s 70 years old and lives alone. What if something’s happened? 

We arrive, to find her house dark, her car in the garage, and her dog sitting inside by the door. We bang on all of the doors and windows to no avail. We call 911 with our situation and ask to send someone out for a wellness check. We ask the neighbor if they have a key to Bev’s house… they do! An officer arrives as we enter the house. Radio silence. We search high and low… No Bev. We’re all very confused. Finally, behind the last door, we find her. Unconscious, in her laundry room. An ambulance shows up, and we pile back into the car and follow to the local hospital. We inform them that she’s a diabetic and begin calling the only person we know of that’s related to Bev- her cousin who lives a few hours away. “Come now.” 

Upon her arrival to the hospital, they tell us that she’s in a diabetic coma and her blood sugar level was up to 1,200. You begin to slip into a coma around 600. The doctors believe she had been unconscious for a couple of days; I start thinking back to my last message telling her to stay home that received no response.. 

Further medical investigation concluded that while she was unconscious, her blood had turned to thick sludge from the elevated blood sugar levels, and resulted in Bev suffering a bilateral stroke, along with several other complications from being down and alone so long. The prognosis was not great. For the next couple of weeks she was on life support, in and out of consciousness, with no one really knowing how much of “her” was still in there. Things look grim. 

It’s July, and Dressage At Lexington is on the show calendar during this time, so we go, because Bev wouldn’t want us to miss a show no matter her condition, and sitting at home waiting for an update from the hospital wasn’t very therapeutic, either. 

Fantom and I ride our hearts out for Bev and score our best marks to date in the Prix St. Georges for nearly 68%. 

On July 16th, 2020, Beverley Thomas passes away. 

Weeks go by, and the entire barn feels empty. We’re all there, working, riding, existing, but it’s not the same. Bev was there every. day. For many years before me, she was in that barn, smiling, supporting, loving. She was the light in a dark space. To know Bev was to be a part of her family, and she made you feel that way in every interaction. 

We all can’t help but begin to wonder what’s happening with her things- her horses, her home.. her everything – since her passing. She, of course, owned Fantom, but also co-owned a horse with the head trainer as well. Not to mention her slight saddle pad hoarding problem. 

A few more weeks go by and I get a call from a trust company. “Did you know Bev was taking care of you?” “What? No, of course not – we never talked about that.” “Well. She left you a trust set up for her horse, Fantom. It’s in your name.”

My jaw dropped. What? What does that mean? How does this work? We never talked about this! I’m just the trainer! 

But to Bev, I was family. She had no spouse, no kids- just her horses, her dog, and her music. 

And her friends. 

A few months went by of trying to organize taking over the responsibilities of inheriting a horse. I left my position as assistant trainer to start my own training business, something that had always been a transparent plan, and it just seemed like the right time while so much change was already happening. Might as well stir the entire pot while it’s cooking! 

I started a business with my boyfriend, also a dressage trainer, to form “Dynamic Dressage”. We move into a new barn together, and it starts to feel really “real” as I unload Fantom and walk him to his stall with my other training horses. The people at the new farm only know Fantom as “Jess’ horse”, but I have only ever known him as Bev’s. It’s confusing and foreign and emotional. We bury our heads into the work for a while and, with the support of my boyfriend, we go to the Colonel Bengt Ljungquist Memorial  championships in the fall for Prix St. Georges, where we ride to Reserve Champion. The announcer congratulates us and the listed owner, Bev Thomas, over the loudspeakers. There are a lot of tears. 

We spend the next winter staying home from Florida, working towards improving our FEI work, while my partner and I build our business. Fantom feels amazing. He’s learning one tempis, and the piaffe and passage start really developing. Do I dare let my dreams grow? I promised Fantom that I would never push him past his limit, knowing that everything we’ve done together was because of his willingness and our friendship – Bev just wanted him to be happy. We never imagined he’d get so far so soon.

Spring of 2021 rolls around, and we try for the Intermediate 1. We achieve a personal best score of over 70%! I cry some more, knowing how much faith it’s taken to get this horse to this level. I pinch myself as my dreams keep growing. I tell Fantom that Bev is proud of him. At this point, Fantom and I have really found our place together. The horse that once would try to hide in plain sight in his stall, uncomfortable in his own skin and nervous about the world around him, is now meeting me at the gate, whinnying to me from his stall, and pushing me over for affection. Bev is the only one who really believed that we could make it this far. I knew that I wanted to help him, and I knew that I would try, but Bev always knew we would do more than just try. 

Summer rolls by. We keep training. We ponder a CDI. My partner and I talk about it, and we start really digging into the training, to see if Fantom has the grit for an international career. Oh yeah, he does! We plan for Dressage at Devon in October. We get an FEI passport, we load up the trailer, and we go. We make a successful international debut at the Small Tour level. Some first-time rookie mistakes put us at 63% in the Prix St. Georges, but we dig in for the Intermediate 1 and push out almost 67% and just miss the prize ceremony by fractions of a point! Again, I cry. I had brought Bev’s photo along and hung it on Fantom’s stall door- reminding both Fantom and I where we started and why we’re here. 

A beautiful portrait of Bev and her favorite things – her horses and her Golden Retrievers! (Sue Stickle photo)

We are now looking forward to a Grand Prix debut in 2022! Fantom has proved to me time and time again that ceilings only exist if you let them. The horse that was once getting us rung out of Third Level for running backwards is now working in the Grand Prix with quality enough to make a competitive international career.. and it’s been barely 2 1/2 years together! I had always had the feeling that he’d learn most of the things, because he’s so clever, but to learn something and to actually do it well are not always the same, especially for a horse with a natural tendency to be stiff moving and tight in the back. But Fantom proves to me on a daily basis not to believe what anyone tells you might stop you… give it time and effort and see what happens for yourself! Good horsemanship and correct training will always improve the natural ability of the horse. Always! 

I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have had Beverley Thomas in my life, even if for only a short period of time. Saying “yes” that day to taking Fantom to that first show unknowingly changed my life. Believing in a horse when no one else wanted to, doing right by the animal and having an owner that backs you and trusts you 110%, there’s nothing more special. I never expected for the events to happen the way they did, or for the opportunities that have come my way since. I am so grateful for Bev’s trust, before and after her passing, and for the faith she had to have had in me when she wrote my name down on that paper when she was making plans for her Fantom. I try every day to make her proud, and to do her horse justice. He’s a special creature, one who’s taught me so much, not just about training, but about faith, trust, and love. Those are the three ingredients that have gotten us this far, and are what will send us down the Grand Prix centerline when we are ready! 

Being a good horse trainer is so much more than riding- anyone can teach a horse a few tricks. What’s most important is being a good horseman. Being able to communicate with the horse, to be his friend, to be sympathetic – that’s what makes someone good. Fantom had spent all of his working years being “trained”, but it wasn’t until someone tried to be his friend that he started turning into the horse he’s become. And it is this unbreakable bond that has carried us to unbelievable goals, and it is that ethical foundation that holds my entire barn together. When in doubt, just be kind! 

This is only just the beginning…

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