By Liz Hill
My first horse, Cairo, was a draft cross (Shire x QH?) that I rescued as a weanling from the Pregnant Mares’ Urine (PMU) industry. I was 18, wildly overconfident about my foal-handing skills, and had precisely $750 to my name, which was the exact amount of his adoption fee. I didn’t know any better at the time that, anatomically speaking, he wasn’t built to be an athlete, but Cairo must have also missed the memo because despite being built like a 15.1 hh dump truck on pony legs, he proved himself a very talented jumper and lower level dressage horse. However, in 2014, Cairo broke his right hind leg in a turnout accident. While, at the time, I felt like all my horsey-girl dreams were being crushed into smithereens, Cairo came through the surgery great and ended up rehabbing under the care of a super hot cowboy… who I befriended and later, fell in love and ran away to Tennessee with.
A few years into our Tennessee adventure, said cowboy and I went to ‘tire-kick’ at an auction, for a lovely little horse farm that we had no business buying. Well, we bought the farm and immediately realized that Cario would be rather lonely on the farm, all by himself. I had such great luck with Cairo and, having seen lots of friends face the gauntlet of horse trials/a vicious sales market/nightmare purchase stories, I decided to try searching for another rescue.
I distinctly remember sitting on the couch and typing “draft horse rescue” into my Google search bar – just the same as I had when I found Cairo. Gentle Giants Draft Horse Rescue in Maryland showed up near the top, and a few minutes into browsing their site, I found a picture of Nimbus happily popping over a little jump. He was listed as a Clydesdale x Dutch Harness Horse (DHH). My first thought was, “what the hell is a Dutch Harness Horse?”, but he was 17 hh, sound, seven years old, and THAT COLOR… I was obsessed. The rescue generally keeps adoptions within a four hour radius so they can perform welfare checks, but after some pleading, begging, and sending an article from The Chronicle Of The Horse about rehabbing Cairo, the fine folks at Gentle Giants invited me to come to the facility for a three-day trial with Nimbus.
When I first saw Nimbus, he was munching on some grain in the dry lot. Compared to Cairo (who is fat on air and has a booty to make Beyonce jealous), my first thought was, “man, he’s gonna need a lot of time.” He wasn’t in poor body condition, but he was lean without a lot of muscle. However, as soon as the trainer at Gentle Giants got on him, the picture changed – he was a LOVELY mover, had comfortable gaits, and I simply wasn’t leaving the state of Maryland without him. Gentle Giants was INCREDIBLY thorough – their trainer coached me through each ride, their staff checked my references, spoke with my trainer, etc. Over the three days, we rode on site, on trail, and off site at a facility Nimbus had never visited, to see how we would gel under different situations. I can’t speak highly enough about how much Gentle Giants prioritizes the welfare and successful placement of their horses – it was a wonderful experience from start to finish.
After adopting Nimbus, I began to research more about Dutch Harness Horses, and learned that KWPN breeds for driving, dressage, and jumping. I also learned about the American Dutch Harness Horse Association (ADHHA) and that they had a DNA registry. I figured it was worth a shot to send in a sample from Nimbus’ mane and see if he had any matches. As it turns out, he did! A few weeks later, ADHHA emailed me that they had a hit on his sire, JD’s Bravado (Jonker, Renovo, Majesteit) – who was extremely well bred and double registered as KWPN and ADHHA, making Nimbus eligible for registry in both! The folks at ADHHA also knew Bravado’s previous owner, and put us in touch. He was able to contact the family who originally bred Nimbus and confirm his dam was a Clydesdale x Standardbred, solving the mystery of his breeding. I also became Facebook friends with Bravado’s current owner, and we are all one happy online family, regularly chatting about DHH and DHH x ownership and how wildly silly they tend to be as a breed.
Our first year together, we took things slow – schooling jumper and dressage shows, clinics, etc. In a past life, Nimbus was an Amish driving horse, and to my knowledge hadn’t ever been in a stall before I adopted him. He didn’t know how to lunge, and crossties were also a challenge. He now loves his stall, lunges better than Cairo, and sleeps in the crossties. In 2021, we began competing in recognized dressage shows at Training Level, and Nimbus qualified for the Great American Insurance Group/USDF Regional Championships on his first outing. However, during our regional championship ride, Nimbus was having a lovely test, until he spooked and jumped out of the ring right before the stretchy trot circle at the end of our test. It stung just a little to see that he had almost all 7.5s from one judge and 7s from the other judge down the test, and likely would have won our class (insert facepalm)… but he can often be spooky, and admittedly, my trainer and I both agreed that was about the most Nimbus-y thing Nimbus could do. After a good laugh, we finished up the weekend strong by earning our qualifying scores at First Level for the 2022 championships, and we plan to work on a musical freestyle (admittedly, to hedge our bets so if he happens to jump out of the ring when it really counts again we still have a shot at a neck sash).
Nimbus can be pretty spooky, impatient, and challenging to bring down when he gets flustered. At the same time, he’s brave to jumps and doesn’t get easily rattled in the warm up ring (even when armageddon is going off) and that certainly counts for something. While I’ve only come off him once, I ride in a safety vest EVERY ride with him, because he’s wildly athletic, 17hh is a long way down, and I swear he grows a hand taller when he’s hyped. The old adage of “it takes two years to bond” was true in our case. Right before the two year mark, his work ethic and our partnership changed. He went from getting slightly offended or frustrated when working on new things to REALLY trying his best in every lesson. He seems to enjoy the work. I’m sure a lot of that also has to do with building the muscles to make the work easier and the confidence that he CAN do the hard thing (and WILL get a cookie after doing the hard thing).
Having a large, athletic, and sometimes challenging horse motivated me to level up my fitness, so I could be better equipped to bring him along. In January, I joined a pilates studio and have taken over 180 classes in 2021. He’s so sensitive to my position, and having more core strength, mind-body connection, and better posture has ABSOLUTELY helped our cause. He’s certainly refined my riding, because he isn’t easy… but taking the slow road with him has been so rewarding and that grit, dedication, and determination to put the work in a little bit each day absolutely has benefitted his and my partnership, as well as my life outside the ring.
Nimbus is wickedly smart and learns very quickly. He’ll free jump on command if you point at a jump. Also, after a jump chute, he always comes right back to you (instead of running around and needing to be caught) because he “has earned” his cookie, of which he will politely remind you until it is rightfully given. He used to be super fidgety at the mounting block, but now will stand like a soldier and WILL NOT WALK ON until he gets his cookie. (Did I mention I always have a pocket full of cookies when working with him and solemnly swear it is the secret to our success?) He also learned to rear on cue, but I quickly realized that was a terrible idea and he had to unlearn that fun trick.
PS. Remember the hot cowboy? We are getting married in fall of 2022, and planned our wedding around the GAIG/USDF Regional Championships and US Dressage Finals schedule – because this time we are going for that neck sash! (Hot cowboy is also the world’s GREATEST show groom.) And Cairo’s broken leg? He’s back in full work, sound, and *fingers crossed* I am hoping to finish up scores for my USDF Bronze Medal with him this year. But, if he doesn’t have it in him, that’s just fine. He’s the reason why we’re all living our best life on the farm in Tennessee and doesn’t owe me a damn thing more.